In April this year Yuji Naka, the celebrated designer best-known for his years at Sega and the creation of the first Sonic the Hedgehog games, posted an extraordinary condemnation of Square Enix. Among other things he said "I don't think Square Enix cares about games."
This bust-up all relates to the development of a game called Balan Wonderworld, on which Naka was once the project director before being removed by the publisher. Naka subsequently brought a lawsuit against Square Enix for his treatment. The legal stuff is all over now and, as part of the outcome, Naka is free to say what he thinks.
Just to briefly give the context of the game itself, Balan Wonderworld was marketed as a fantastical 3D platformer from the creators behind NiGHTs and Sonic. However it launched in 2021 to very bad reviews (38% on Metacritic), and Naka left Square Enix shortly after release.
After the legal case settled, Naka gave a relatively detailed account of his time on the game, and what he believed to be the problems. A few months on, he's taken to social media to explain why he's so angry at Square Enix, and some more of the circumstances of his time there.
Fair warning: this is all going to get a little bit teenage break-up. There's clearly a lot of acrimony between Naka and Square Enix, and it is incredibly unusual to see such a high-profile spat within the Japanese industry.
"How would you feel if you were suddenly removed from a game that you had worked hard on for over two years," writes Naka, "and when you went to court, you found out that they had been talking about me behind my back in court documents and that is why I was removed from the game?"
How would you feel if you were suddenly removed from a game that you had worked hard on for over two years, and when you went to court, you found out that they had been talking about me behind my back in court documents and that is why I was removed from the game?July 5, 2022
Part of Naka's legal complaint had been that he was sidelined by individuals from the publisher whom, he says, weren't interested in the final quality of the game. The reason that his removal from the project seems to have stung so much is that Naka believes Balan Wonderworld could have turned out a lot better by letting him take the project to its conclusion.
"Game creators create games with care for the people who play them," Naka writes. "Don't you think that people and companies that cannot take care of games are no good? Instead of talking behind my back, don't you think you should tell them directly before removing them?"
This is the contention that he was removed from the game by cloak-and-dagger means. This is a tiny glimpse into the upper echelons of the Japanese publishing industry and, whatever the facts of the situation may be, Naka clearly feels aggrieved by his treatment.
The reason why is included in his sign-off. It seems that for a time Yuji Naka was ill. There's no detail on what was wrong, other than that it was serious enough to cause him to miss time at work. The implication seems to be that Square Enix used this absence to separate Naka from the ongoing project.
"What would you do if you were to be ill for a long time," writes Naka, "and unable to do anything because of it? And how would you feel if you were the director of an unfinished game and it was heavily criticized?"
Well, I don't imagine I'd feel great.
This is incendiary stuff, and suffice to say I doubt we'll be seeing another Yuji Naka game from Square Enix. The publisher has maintained a silent front since the designer went public in April. I asked Square Enix about Naka's most recent claims, and it remains a no comment.
Back in April, Naka ended by apologising for the state Balan Wonderworld released in: "Personally, I'm really sorry that I released the unfinished work Balan Wonderworld to the world. My intention with the game was to put it out in a proper form as an action game. But I think Square Enix and Arzest are companies that don't care about games and players."
One final point is worth making. Naka has mis-managed projects before: Rodea the Sky Soldier was released four years after development was finished. Prope, the studio he founded with Sega's help after leaving the publisher, still exists but with just the single employee: Naka himself.
All of which is to say that Square Enix may look like the villain here, but we also don't know both sides.
Taking advantage of illness to boot a legendary designer off a project is a big allegation. At the very least, it's not a good look. Naka is clearly furious about what happened and, if there's any truth to what he's saying, has every right to be.