Yuji Naka is six-years removed from Sega and happy to be there.
Yuji Naka cemented his name in the history of video games by programming the original Sonic the Hedgehog. But Naka, once defined by his time at Sega, has now been outside of the company for nearly six years, after forming his own studio, Prope. And it seems he couldn't be happier.
"One of the reasons I left Sega was, if I stayed there, I would have had to just make Sonic games," he told Polygon in an interview at Prope's Tokyo headquarters. "Right now I don't have to make Sonic anymore, so I'm enjoying that freedom a lot."
Since his departure from Sega, Naka has explored that level of freedom with a pretty wide-ranging selection of titles, ranging from Let's Tap, an odd rhythm-based party game that required a cardboard box, to Ivy the Kiwi?, an adorable sidescroller whose similarities to Sonic end the moment you start playing the game.
One of the reasons I left Sega was, if I stayed there, I would have had to just make Sonic games
More recently, Naka has started delving into mobile games, creating six iOS titles in the last three years.
"Right now I can create a game without any limitations or dealing with any outside company," he explained, extolling the benefits of not needing a publisher to put a game out on mobile. But he also acknowledges the challenges with mobile games, saying that there are "people who are new to creating games also putting out their games in the exact same market."
Many of those competitors in the mobile space seem to focus on less gameplay-oriented experiences, opting for automatic progress instead of requiring skill. Naka's mobile titles, though, seem cut from the cloth that made him so well-known in the first place.
"The reason my games are actually [skill-based] is probably because I'm a creator from the old days," he said. "I understand the importance of action. Of winning and losing, and how your emotion moves when you win or lose while you're playing the game. That's why I want to create games where you gain that experience."
He admits, though, that the demand for skill-based games in the mobile space isn't always there.
"A lot of people don't want that kind of mobile game. Maybe they just want a simple, press-one-button-to-proceed game? That's a very sad fact. Right now I'm not sure what's going to happen in the game industry. Is it going to go back to how it was or go with the flow of this social gaming trend? I'm not sure what's going to happen. But I want to keep on creating my type of games, no matter what."
It's that level of choice that comes from running your own company, rather than being under the shadow of a major publisher. And Naka says there are plenty of major game developers still under that shadow.
"Like with Nintendo: Miyamoto has been making Mario games. He's under that too. He has to keep on making Mario games. [Eiji] Aonuma has to keep making Zelda games. [Hideo] Kojima has to make Metal Gear games. I wish he could take that off of everyone's shoulders so they could create other stuff, like new stuff. Because that's healthier for the industry. Movie directors create all sorts of movies, and the movie industry is healthy. I wish the game industry was like that as well."
It does seem, however, that even with the freedom of running his own company, a part of Yuji Naka remains in the past, hoping to match his most well-known creation.
"I'm not sure how many more years I'll be creating games, but my dream is to be able to create a character that can be equal to Sonic."