Yuji Naka was responsible for the cancellation of one of the Sega Dreamcast’s most promising exclusives, it has been revealed.
The claim comes from Mark Subotnick, who worked as a producer at Sega of America during this period and has been speaking about his career with The Retro Hour Podcast.
The game in question is Geist Force, a Star Fox-style on-rails shooter which was first shown at E3 1998, prior to the Dreamcast’s release in Japan. The game was intended to be a launch title for North America, and prior to Subotnick’s recent revelation, was believed to have been cancelled due to a lack of confidence in the game, missed deadlines and disagreements within the development team. According to Subotnick, this isn’t the whole picture.
Subotnick started his career at Sega as a tester in the early ’90s before moving into a more PR-led role during the Saturn era. By the time the Dreamcast came along, he was offered the opportunity to lead a team that would be working on a key exclusive:
Before the architecture was solidified, we were already up and running on it… we got the green light to make a game called Geist Force… it was actually the E3 shooter, the thing that Bernie (Stolar, SoA president) showed for Dreamcast at E3… we were to be the launch title. It was a Star Fox clone… I’m not going to say we had any amazing ideas [but] we had a cool narrative that was very different and we actually had a very diverse cast; looking back, we were actually ahead of our time.
Subotnick then opens up on why the game – which, according to lead programmer Nimai Malle, was between 65-70% complete – never saw the light of day:
So this is a sad story, and I’m going to tell the truth, and if it comes back to bite me, so be it, because there’s no love lost in how this actually went down. [The] team was doing decently well, we had started to really discover fun… we were hitting some bumps in the road on but otherwise, we were doing alright; we had shown [it] at TGS  and people were relatively excited about the progress of the game. It was looking amazing.
Naka came to visit with his team to tour our studio [and] look at our tools and engine; we had a lot of proprietary [and] really phenomenal tech – I would say still to this day, [we had] some stuff that I haven’t seen replicated quite at the level we had. [Naka] didn’t realize that the people on my team, a lot of them spoke fluent Japanese, including my lead engineer. [Naka] started speaking in Japanese assuming that no one would understand; [he] started talking about what parts of our tech they were going take for Sonic and then basically said as soon as they ship, fire everyone but one of the engineers who knows their system and roll him onto our team for Sonic – and my team heard all that, so you can imagine how they felt. Naka was pretty powerful at Sega at that time.
So I had a group of five engineers that now knew what was potentially happening to their baby. They were, outside of [NFL2K and NBA2K studio] Visual Concepts, the only people in North America working on a 128-bit gaming console, [so it was] pretty easy to go get another job – so they did. I had to go to Bernie [and tell him] I just lost my five lead engineers and I’ve got a proprietary engine; even if I hire, I’ve got healthy burn rate… we were expensive title for that time… it was a lot of money [and] it was impossible to justify. It would have taken me two months to hire, another two months to ramp up… so [I’ve got] four months of burn rate where pretty much nothing’s happening.
Subotnick’s only option at this stage, he says, was to approach Visual Concepts to see if it had any capacity to help out, as it was the only other North American studio with experience of the system. Visual Concepts was understandably busy preparing its own games for launch, and couldn’t help – the final nail in the coffin of what was shaping up to be one of the Dreamcast’s most promising first-party titles. Taking these facts into account, the project was canned – despite the fact that, according to Subotnick, there were big plans afoot, including a range of toys.
Playable builds of Geist Force do exist, but, according to Subotnick, they could barely be considered ‘beta’ versions and are very incomplete. He also explains that his disappointing experience with Geist Force was the catalyst for him leaving Sega; he would later join Microsoft and worked on the launch of both the original Xbox console and the Xbox 360. He’s currently employed as Director of Desktop Gaming and Creator Segment and Products at Intel Corporation.
Naka, on the other hand, is back in the headlines after releasing his first ‘self-made’ game in 37 years.