Last month, Sega revealead that the next Sonic the Hedgehog game -- Sonic Boom -- is being developed by an American team under the leadership of creative director Bob Rafei's studio Big Red Button.
The unveil trailer (which you can watch above) showcased a cast of characters familiar but changed, and interviews alongside the reveal suggested that the new team, based in Southern California and headed up by Naughty Dog veterans responsible for the Jak & Daxter games, would be taking the franchise in unfamiliar directions.
Gamasutra got a chance to speak to Rafei about his plans for the franchise, his collaboration with Sonic Team and its head Takashi Iizuka in Japan, the tension the series is creating with long-term fans -- and also why he thinks the franchise needs to evolve to capture the kids of today like it did in the early 1990s.
Can you tell me about the original pitch? Did Sega come to you, or did you come to Sega?
Bob Rafei: Sega approached us with their bold plan for a local co-op Sonic title with emphasis on action and strong narrative. Given the possibility to try something different with one of the most iconic gaming characters and BRB team's prior experience with third-person character action we saw a great match and jumped at the opportunity.
When working with a franchise with a passionate core fan base and a long history, how do you approach it?
BR: With respect and reverence. It would be irresponsible of us to be self-indulgent with our creative choices without conscious reflection on canon and what loyal fans expect. Sega is the brand holder and will have to live with this branch long after BRB, so we see ourselves more stewards and don't look lightly on being given this opportunity to try a different creative path.
How much freedom were you given to re-imagine the Sonic franchise (including setting, characters, gameplay)?
BR: Fortunately, we were given a lot more freedom than I anticipated. Right from the start we worked closely with Sega, Iizuka-san, and Sonic Team to review initial BRB proposals to determine what worked, and more importantly, what was off-limits. They were very open to a lot of world, mechanic, enemy, villain and NPC proposals -- with notes, of course, but ultimately pretty accepting to the possibilities.
Where I think we pushed outside of their comfort zones was proposed changes to the main canon characters. They were very openminded about a lot of things, like Knuckles' new beefier size, and reined us in with other aspects. One such example was clothing for the characters. Looking back on it I'm glad for the pushback since our final outcome is in more accurate spirit of Sonic
Sonic has had a lot of ups and downs as a franchise, which puts a huge spotlight on what you do. How does that affect your approach?
BR: It really hasn't. It can't. You start second guessing everything if it does. We can only approach it the only way we know how: to make games guided by our experience and intuition, a hefty dose of trial and error, and guidance from Sega.
One of the hardest things about game development is holding onto the original concept of your game idea which got you and your partners excited at the start. Development is a long-distance marathon, so to remain true to the original game vision, yet evolve it and allow it to take shape, you have to limit too much influence from external forces. For us, this meant being aware of this spotlight, but not letting it influence our decision making process.
Iizuka mentioned a desire to make the series more Western-friendly. Do you think of it that way? Why is there a necessity to do so?
BR: I can only speak to it from my personal perspective. Kids' pop culture today requires a healthy blend of story and humor -- just take a look at TV shows like Phineas and Ferb, Adventure Time or Amazing World of Gumball, to name a few examples.
Story and humor are also necessary for a successful family/kids game today to be competitive. As a parent of kids ages 9 and 11, I can barely keep up with the sharp humor of these shows myself, so imagine the challenge a non-Western developer would have to try to capture this in their games.
From someone who is the product of a Western market perspective, I've also watched how my kids and their friends play games, from casual mobile “snacking” games to sit-down console experiences. What they want in a premium console experience is different than what our generation of gamers is used to. I think Sega recognizes this and would like to explore how to broaden Sonic
's fan base.
I personally think Sega deserves a lot credit to have this foresight and confidence to take this brave approach. I think this is the appropriate thinking when a franchise has been around as long as Sonic has. Look at experiments that take place with comic franchises. I personally think we'll see more of this thinking with other legacy gaming brands.
How much contact is there with Iizuka / Sonic Team in Japan, and what's that relationship like? What do you discuss and how does it affect your direction?
BR: Lots. SOA, SOJ, Sonic Team and Iizuka-san have been instrumental in helping us define the guardrails of how far we should roam away from canon. He and Sonic Team know this franchise better than one out there so their feedback has been incredibly valuable.
Yes, there are challenges (that come with any game development, mind you) and the occasional cultural divide where the feedback can get lost in translation, but I believe the relationship is very strong.
A lot of the questions we have are very subjective, so I empathize with Iizuka-san for tolerating our more wacky ideas. To his and Sonic Team's credit, they have remained very accepting and found a lot of solutions we both can live with. But again, we also know that we're guest in their house, so we're making sure not to leave a big mess when done!
Character action games like this used to be a much bigger part of the console landscape, and now they've shrunk in relevance. That's a big part of your background, though. Can you talk about why they remain vital?
BR: Well, I would reframe it; other genres have risen in an ever growing market. Games are and will be the primary entertainment medium today and tomorrow. It's still an incredibly young medium. As the medium was developing, traditional platformers were the norm given tech, visual fidelity and game design reasons. Gamer demographics continue to age so in response mainstream games have gotten more sophisticated and mature in their content.
Additionally, younger gamers are aspirational, so they also fuel this rise. However, older gamers are now having kids, and like me, outside of playing shooters or other genres, they want to have a shared gaming experience with their kids and families. Ask Disney about how irrelevant this market is. I think Sega recognizes this and why this game is part of bigger cross media play with a 3DS game, TV series, and toy line.
What does the genre have to do to move forward successfully and capture (or recapture) players' interest?
BR: Without great gameplay everything else is irrelevant, so this remains paramount. Outside of this, to stand out in a very competitive market it has to match proper production values in story, visuals, animation, and spectacle moments. Also, games are no longer insular experiences so when aspiring to gather larger audience we need to consider other features like co-op, or multiplayer, or cross media tie-in such as TV, toys or mobile. I personally think game accessibility is also very important. It's a tough balance, but gamers today don't have time or patience to constantly try and die.
Has what people want to do in games shifted so dramatically that the kind of actions that were appealing in the past (running/jumping/avoiding obstacles) been supplanted by combat? There's supposedly a bigger combat focus in Sonic Boom.
BR: Great question. I approach it differently. Character action games are essentially a character's ability to "touch" or interact with their world. These verbs are the building blocks for a game's mechanic. As games have gotten more sophisticated, we're creating more specific and less modular actions, or verbs, that were the norm in preceding generations.
Running, jumping and avoidance remain essential parts of the third-person character action genre, no matter styles and targeted demographics. Look at Assassin's Creed, Uncharted
. Combat therefore is a natural expansion on basic third-PCA verbs of interaction with other characters, enemies, or NPCs. For Boom
, this made sense to us as a place to build further on how we interact and engage enemies. What is the evolution of bonk or spin attack? Combat.
Who is the audience for this game, and how does that affect the direction you take it?
BR: Kids 6-11 and shared local play experiences with friends or families. We set out to make Boom
simply fun by finding the right balance of accessibility for new fans, yet have enough challenge, depth and player expression for established fans or more seasoned gamers. Boom
's gameplay encourages working together to defeat enemies.
Our goal was to build on the characters' personalities by building on each character's play mechanics, as well as fun characteristics through banter and story. We developed common pickup and play controls for seamless play experience no matter which character is selected. Our goal was to allow player expression via character selection and abilities in navigation and combat.
When working with an existing IP, you have to balance change vs. newness. How do you know you're getting it right?
BR: From the beginning of the project we aimed to make this branch feel “familiar but new”. As said previously, we collaborated with Sega Iizuka-san and Sonic Team to evoke a familiar Sonic
feel but with a different BRB spin on it. We built on the team's prior proven experience in this genre plus plenty of gut checks, both internally and Sega, through extensive play testing and tuning. We had a lot of failed paths, which is a good thing for development in allowing enough iteration time to find the right blend that works and feels right to us.
As a developer, what is the most important thing to concentrate on when creating a platformer?
BR: Focus on fun through mechanics, charming characters and NPCs, rich consistent world, and a classic action adventure story. The mechanics have to have responsive controls, predictable movements and fluid animations that make the characters feel alive. Then polish, polish, polish.
Did you spend a lot of time prototyping Sonic's movement and actions before entering production? How valuable was the time you did spend, and what would you tell people who are making character action games regarding this kind of prototyping?
BR: My experience has been failing fast is the best path towards success. This doesn't mean rushing to keyboard either, a well-thought-out light GDD (5-10 pages max) needs to outline game objectives, pillars, and end goal of what you want final game to be; then work out what constitutes successful completion of pre-production period -- a playable five-minute level with essential character navigation, and one full combat combo move, as an oversimplified example.
The pre-production period is the most important part of development where we did many rapid prototypes for Boom
. We worked on defining Sonic's movements from day one. We started with what essentially looked like an "i" proxy character model representative of Sonic's height, animated with a little run cycle gate, jump, etc. to work out initial timing for his movement rates, jump parabolas, double jump timing, ledge grab, etc. We wanted to focus on basic movements first without opening up what we anticipated would be a long discussion of his and team's final character models. Clearly whoever would see this "i-man" did not assume it was intended to be a final Sonic model so distractions were minimized allowing us to hone in on basic locomotion.
Then, after a few weeks when we outgrew i-man we started animating an articulated simple mannequin/proxy vaguely resembling Sonic, which allowed further development of character's feel but still deferring the discussion of final character model. Finalizing his model took far longer than I anticipated given subtle adjustments needed based on feedback not only from Sonic Team, but also the TV series, as the unifying goal became to have one common design to be used for both game and show.
This process was rinsed and repeated thousands of times over and continues through today. All was not smooth sailing, either, as early project assumptions proved a need for revisions mid-production -- which ultimately, I'm happy to report, was the right call for our march toward quality.