Yuji Naka, the celebrated game designer best known for his years at Sega and as head of Sonic Team, posted an extraordinary condemnation of Square Enix and its approach to making games. The remarks, posted on Naka’s social media account and reproduced here via edited machine translation, relate to the development of the troubled Balan Wonderworld and follow Naka filing a lawsuit against the publisher for her treatment.
A brief background on the game: Balan Wonderworld was announced in 2020 as a fantastic new 3D platformer from the creative minds behind NiGHTs and Sonic. Less than a year later, the game was released to disastrous reviews (it currently sits at 38% on Metacritic), and shortly thereafter was announced that Naka would leave Square Enix.
At the time, Naka seemed quite despondent and even considered giving up completely: “I can’t talk about why now,” he said then, “but I hope I can talk about it when the time comes. I’m 55, so I can retire.”
Well, the time has come.
バランワンダ バランワンダ 発売 約 約 半 前 に バランワンダ の ディレクタ ディレクタ から から れる 業務 が れ まし 、 スクウェア エニックス 所 で で 提起 た。 が 終わり を し て。 が が が が終わり 終わり 命令 提起 し し い た た。 が 業務 命令 で ‘効力 失わ て いる 言う です です ので 話 し 思い ます。。。#balanwondorld pic.twitter.com/9ke7hlqforApril 28, 2022
“About half a year before the release of Balan Wonderworld,” writes Naka, “I was removed from the role of game director, so I filed a lawsuit against Square Enix in court. I’d like to speak now that the lawsuit is over and the rules of the company are no longer in effect.
“I don’t think Square Enix cares about games and game fans. According to court documents, I was removed from the role of director of Balan Wonderworld for two reasons.”
Naka goes on to say that the producer, head of marketing, head of sound and managing director kicked him out. The first reason given was that when a piece of promotional material used a cover arrangement of one of the Youtuber’s in-game songs, Naka insisted on releasing the original song as well.
Second, Naka says he was accused in court documents of causing problems with developer partner Arzest, complaining about submitting a build where certain bugs were not fixed. Naka quotes Square Enix producers Naoto Oshima and Noriyoshi Fujimoto as saying he “ruined” their working relationship through such comments, and references an email from Oshima to Fujimoto – in which, Oshima tells the team about a delay related to a demo, and crediting Fujimoto for the delay.
“When I told them,” Oshima wrote, “the team cheered and clapped. I was impressed because it was unexpected. Recently, the team whose spirits were sinking revived. Thank you very much, all the staff will do their best.”
Strange, thinks Naka: the original schedule was too tight due to Fujimoto, and he’s taking credit for a slight delay. “Something’s wrong,” writes Naka, “isn’t it?”
Naka writes “that a game is made by striving to make it a good game to the end, and wanting players to have fun when they buy it. It wasn’t right to remove a director without consultation from the project for making such comments.”
Naka says that as a result of the subsequent lawsuit, he was unable to react to anything related to the game on social media at the time: “There were a lot of really nice comments and illustrations from Balan Wonderworld, and I’m sorry I couldn’t respond to them.”
“I’m sorry for the customers who purchased the unfinished Balan Wonderworld,” he writes. “[…] When I’m making a game I find it natural to make constant corrections to make a good one, and if that’s not possible I think it still has to be discussed, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. I don’t think Square Enix cares about games.”
“With Sonic the Hedgehog, it was changed two weeks before the master, so you won’t die if you even have a ring. To come to this decision, I was trying to improve the game until the last minute, and I think everyone in the world is still enjoying it. .”
Naka writes that improving games until the very last moment “is what it’s like to be a game designer”. He says he asked a lawyer to negotiate his ability to comment on the game’s production, but Square Enix refused, which is why he chose to file a lawsuit.
“I think this situation has a lot to do with the Balan Wonderworld that followed, and the bad reception that everyone knows. I’m really sad that a game I worked on from the beginning turned out like this.”
“Personally, I’m sorry to have released the unfinished work Balan Wonderworld to the world”, concludes Naka. “My intention with the game was to release it properly as an action game. But I think Square Enix and Arzest are companies that don’t care about games and players.”
Pretty incendiary stuff, especially from a director who has played such a prominent role in video game history. Perhaps one last bit of context is needed, which is that Naka has some form with poorly managed projects: perhaps the most infamously, Rodea the Sky Soldier (which was released four years after development ended). His Prope studio, which Sega helped finance, now consists of one employee: Yuji Naka.
Then again, nobody sets out to make a bad game, and often the bad ones feel like there was something there that the developers were trying to achieve – but couldn’t. One would think it’s because it’s such an iterative process, and what Naka says about this constant improvement is sure to resonate with his fellow designers.
I’ve reached out to Square Enix for comment and will update with any response. Whatever the full story behind Balan Wonderworld, the detail about Naka having to take the publisher to court to say her play doesn’t look any good. Game development is messy and difficult: in this case, it looks like it’s gotten nasty too.