Q&A: Yuji Naka

When long-time Sonic producer Yuji Naka left Sega in 2006 to found Prope, many wondered quite what he'd be working on. Develop caught up with him at an event to promote the company's first title, Let's Tap! - billed as the first game to be playable without touching a controller...
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Where did the idea of a ‘game without a controller’ come from?

We were developing an action game, and we were testing the Wii Remote’s motion sensor. Accidentially, I bumped into the remote when talking with a developer, and it showed up quite a significant reading on the screen. So we tested it by, say, tapping on an adjacent desk or even stamping on the floor, and we realised that the Wiimote has such accurate sensors that it can read that level of vibration. From that experience came the idea of not using a controller to play a game. So if it weren’t for that action game, which didn’t get developed in the end, Let’s Tap! would never have existed.

Do you think Japanese developers are better at coming up with new and original ideas? Are there any Western games that have impressed you?

Well, I think Western game developers are great, so we’re all trying hard to make sure we don’t lose! I’m not sure if Japanese developers are better at coming up with original ideas, but there are a lot of Western games that I’ve taken influence from – in particular, I like Lemmings.

What is it about Lemmings that you like?

It might just a personal thing, but having hundreds of different characters moving around, all doing different things, really fascinated me back then. I think Lemmings is a big reference point in terms of character development too – the way the Lemmings work is kind of based on the real animal, like the idea of the mass suicide – although that’s just a myth – but it defines the character.

I thought that hedgehogs can’t swim, so I made it so that water was dangerous to Sonic. But then I saw a photograph of a hedgehog swimming, and that really surprised me. It turns out that they can swim, but they can’t crawl out of the water.

The mission of Prope is to make games that everyone can enjoy, and from that perspective working on the Wii fits that perfectly. Are there any other platforms that you’re interested in making something for?

Well, I’m interested in Android and the iPhone. I really want an Android phone, but there’s only one at the moment and you can’t use it in Japan. But both Android and the iPhone are global platforms – they are (or will be) on sale everywhere. Previously, I’d worked on some mobile games, but they were only released in Japan – we wanted to release them overseas but we couldn’t. That’s the chief benefit, I think.

As the Wii becomes more popular, some hardcore gamers are starting to worry that there are less games that appeal to them. What would you say to those people?

I think it’s great that games are now accessible to a wider audience, and it means that more people can have fun. But Let’s Tap! has been designed with hardcore gamers in mind – while initially the games may look like friendly ones that anyone can play, the level of the complexity gives them depth, and that was a deliberate intention.

Do you ever look at what Sega is doing with Sonic now – such as putting Sonic in a Camelot setting in Sonic and the Black Knight – and think ‘I wish I was still working on Sonic games’?

Not really. I think that my leaving was a really good thing for Sonic – it’s allowed the team to break out of the mould, it’s let them put the game into these settings. So, in that respect, it’s a good thing that I’m not involved any more, because now Sonic can go in new directions.



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