Behind The Scenes: Phantasy Star Online
Yuji Naka is the king of his own world and he knows it. He carries himself with the relaxed, confident attitude of a man who feels that failure is impossible. He is informal and passionate. His formal, considered conversational style betrays the fast-and-loose speech of his Kansai heritage. Whether it’s his fame or sheer natural ability, the 45-year old game designer knows how to secure the full attention of everyone in the room. It’s that kind of leadership he brought to his teams when he created the most popular games ever to come out of Sega, the two most important of which are, without a doubt, Sonic The Hedgehog and Phantasy Star. Both games were so successful that, even in Naka’s absence (he left the company in 2006), Sega is still trying to replicate their secret formula.
We meet Naka on the first floor of the main building on Sega’s campus, located in a nondescript and fairly quiet Tokyo business district. Young employees who never had the chance to work with Naka gawk and stare, while trying to pretend they didn’t notice. Even though he doesn’t work there any more, Naka carries himself like he owns the place. The only moment where his calm seems to fade is when he’s asked to put on a visitor’s badge. “Does that feel strange?” we ask him. “Yeah. A little,” he replies with a laugh.
We’re at Sega to talk about Phantasy Star Online with Naka and art director Satoshi Sakai. The game turns ten years old this month, and, even though we didn’t know it at the time of our interview, Sega was preparing to shut down the last servers for the original Phantasy Star Online – or PSO: Blue Burst as the PC version is now called – after years of expansion packs.
Sakai and Naka’s involvement with the game’s original incarnation ended years ago, and Sega is now a very different company than it was during its time as a hardware manufacturer. At that time, even before production work had begun on PSO, Naka’s team was split into three after the completion of Sonic Adventure. One group focused solely on pushing the graphical capabilities of the Dreamcast to their limits, another looked into the possibility of an online game, and the third worked on various projects that would eventually lead to the creation of Chu Chu Rocket. “Everyone was spread out doing their own thing in the studio,” says Naka. But, eventually, these three teams came together for Phantasy Star Online.
Not that they had much choice. “Word came from the top that we had to make an online game,” said Naka. At the time, Sega was headed by Isao Okawa, who declared that 2000 would be the year of the network game. Unfortunately, the teams were spread pretty thin at that point. “The Sakura Wars team had to keep making Sakura Wars, the Jet Set Radio team had to do Jet Set Radio.
Everybody was hoping somebody else would do it.” Despite the fact that Sonic Team wasn’t the best fit for the project, Okawa gave the responsibility to Naka’s team. Not everyone was thrilled, but as Naka put it, “Okawa had a clear vision of the future.” There was just one issue: nobody knew what online gaming meant in 2000. While PC online gaming had been around for decades, and truly exploded in the mid-Nineties, the PC-free game culture of Japan had never shown much interest. Not only did the team have to create a new genre, it had to sell online gaming to a country of console gamers. It wasn’t going to be an easy sell, given that the internet service providers in Japan charged a per-minute fee for dial-up, and broadband was almost unheard of at the time. According to Sakai, Okawa showed the courage of his convictions by bundling a year’s worth of internet access free with each Dreamcast. In the end, it cost Sega nothing, because Okawa paid for it from his own pocket. Naka suggests that the chairman felt that strongly about it, it really was going to be the next big thing.