Interview: Yuji Naka on Ivy the Kiwi and life after Sonic

Yuji Naka grew to fame within the game industry as one of the founders of Sega's Sonic Team, the core group of designers and programmers that created the Sonic the Hedgehog series. In his tenure at Sega, Naka produced titles like Phantasy Star Online, Chu Chu Rocket, and Samba de Amigo. He has since left Sega and formed his own company, Prope, who immediately began developing games to be published by ... Sega.

Now, with Ivy the Kiwi?, Naka has emerged from the grasp of the great blue hedgehog, with a game published in Japan by Namco Bandai and in America by XSEED. We spoke to Naka about the design of the game, side-scrollers, and the unique circumstances behind seeing your own game on display in someone else's booth.

Joystiq: What's it like attending E3 representing a different publisher?

Yuji Naka: It is really refreshing. I get to see Sega in a different perspective as another publisher. But as a game creator, E3 hasn't changed much, because I'm just walking around as a game creator being inspired by different ideas and different technologies.

Actually, it's been four years since the last time I've been at E3, but it seems that this E3 had a lot of good technical advancements and announcements. I'm really enjoying myself.

It's really strange that Sega's showing Sonic Adventure at its E3 booth, while you're at a different booth.

Actually, I went to the Sega booth, and when I saw Sonic Adventure, I was surprised. I was supposed to get the t-shirt -- you just reminded me, I have to over there and get one. I'm like a player or a user now.

You're showing Ivy the Kiwi for Wii and DS. Is the mobile version coming too?

If we are to do it, it will be sometime in the future, but there's always a possibility of bringing it over.

This game is kind of -- well, not retro. It's side-scrolling and it has a simple mechanic.

I do like side-scrolling games, but at the same time, being at E3, I think that's the trend right now for action games. For example, Nintendo has Kirby, Donkey Kong, Sonic, and they're all side-scrolling games. On top of that, there's Ivy, so I think it's a trend of action games.

This was out in Japan before Kirby or Donkey Kong were announced, so that puts you ahead of the curve.

You're right. (laughs)

How did the gameplay concept form?

In the very beginning, our young employees did experiments with various kinds of action games. I saw this, using a vine to controller a character, and I thought it was really interesting. From there, we decided to make it a company project, and it became Ivy the Kiwi?

Ivy the Kiwi? has a very unique look; and you've added color to the American release. What's the inspiration for the visuals?

Usually at the end of the game, there's a special movie or end credits that you see. In this game, I wanted to have a storybook that unfolds, so that you'd be able to read a virtual storybook. We did the total design based on that concept. Regarding the color, we were able to make a deal with XSEED to publish it, and we were talking and XSEED suggested that maybe we should add a little more color for the US audience. I know that, depending on the region, there are different tastes, different thinking behind colors. We worked on it, and I'm really happy with the outcome.

This isn't the character-based action game you've spoken about in the past, right?

It wasn't this game. There were two other big action games that we were working on for three years. Unfortunately, that became a no-go, and that won't see the light of day. Actually, we're working on another title right now, and that one is an action games that involves something to do with the sky, with a new character.

How far out is that?

It is to a point that you can play it, and some of our people are showing a glimpse of it to other people in the background.

Sort of a general question: how is working for your own company? What's it like at Prope?

Since I was in charge of a company called Sonic Team for five years, and that was a lot of fun, I wanted to have the same kind of feeling for Prope, and we are getting to that level.

Is Ivy a new franchise character?

If it sells really well, I think it will become a new franchise character, but right now I think I'm in the mode to keep creating new stuff. We'll see what happens.

You know Hayao Miyazaki? He never recreates his own work. There's not a sequel of his movies. I think that's really refreshing and it gives an edge to every title he creates. I have sort of the same mindset; I want to keep creating something new to inspire people.

Do you feel burned out on working on a single giant franchise?

Not burned out. Even when I was at Sega, I had the opportunity to create new franchises, and I really had a lot of joy doing that. That's sort of my passion, to keep creating new things.

Have you played the three new Sonic games at Sega? What do you think?

I haven't played them, but I did check them out. I saw this little girl playing Sonic 4, and she was having a lot of fun. I think that's what I as a game creator want to see, is kids really having fun playing games. It's sort of hard to watch other people playing your work, especially little kids, but that was really refreshing. It would have been great to see little kids playing Ivy at E3 too. It's something that really motivates me to create games.