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Ushering in the new era of Sonic the Hedgehog Exclusive
Ushering in the new era of  Sonic the Hedgehog
June 25, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

June 25, 2014 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Production, Business/Marketing, Exclusive

Sega surprised us all when it announced that the latest game in the Sonic franchise, Sonic Boom, would be developed not by its own Sonic Team studio in Japan, but Big Red Button, a studio helmed by Jak & Daxter creator Bob Rafei.

Unsurprisingly, this has lead to a new direction for the franchise -- but what maybe hasn't been as as clear is that this is in fact the result not just of Big Red Button's handling of the franchise, but is in fact Sega's goal for the IP.

It's not just about making games, but turning the IP into a transmedia empire of toys, games, and a TV show.

Welcome to the next level

"We came to the realization, if we wanted to really get to the next level of success, and we really wanted to reach out and expand the market, it really needs to be a multimedia sort of thing, and multi-encompassing across a bunch of different formats," says Stephen Frost, Sega of America's producer on the Wii U Sonic Boom, the lead game in the reboot.

"What's great about this is that now, the whole core of the Sonic initiative is based in Sega of America."

"What's great about this is that now, the whole core of the Sonic initiative is based in Sega of America," Frost says. The Sonic franchise "used to be splintered quite a bit," he says, with stakeholders in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. "It hasn't been a very connected sort of process."

"Now, for Sonic Boom, everyone is very united in the same goals and a singular vision," Frost says. A team in San Francisco manages all aspects of the franchise -- including licensing, game production, marketing, and the Sonic Boom animated show, too. "We all sit in a very close proximity to each other and we're always talking to each other," Frost says. "As a group effort, we're driving where Sonic is going for the future."

In the past, Sega was focused on the games, with other aspects of the IP ancillary to that. This is no longer the case.

"If we are going to bring in new people, there have to be some kind of changes. There has to be an easier entry point for these people," Frost says.

That explains not just the existence of a cartoon, but details like the visual revamp Sonic and his pals received for Boom. There has to be clear differentiation between Sonic and Knuckles, for example, so newcomers can tell at a glance what role these characters play in the group.

Reaching 'as many people as possible'

When speaking to me, Frost was careful to emphasize that the team pulling the franchise's strings is well aware of its die-hard fan base and doesn't want to lose touch with them. But it's also clear that this new way of managing the IP means change. "It is really important to have this unified, united, synergistic effort to really reach as many people as possible," Frost says.

"We wanted a new kind of direction or branch of Sonic," Frost says. "There are a lot of people who are familiar with Sonic, or fans of Sonic, who might be intimidated, or don't play the traditional speed-based gameplay."

In fact, there are even Sonic fans who have lost access to the franchise, says Frost: "We have this fan base who loves the character, but this is not their type of game."

In one example of how this is affecting the games, in March, Rafei told Gamasutra that Sonic Boom has an increased focus on combat -- something that is rare for the franchise, but "natural" to third-person action games.

Changing the Sonic formula too much can be a bit dangerous, though: "We had a point early in the early prototype phase where we're sitting back and we were like, 'You know, if we remove Sonic and the team from this... it could be anything,'" Frost recalls.

That's changed, he says: Now, "there's enough speed, enough core elements that make Sonic, Sonic in the game."

The 'unified design and vision' born of collaboration

The distinction that could be lost here is that it's not the cartoon influencing the game, or Sega of America's central Sonic group handing down the direction for the franchise without collaboration with creative teams. "There's not one singular sort of entity" that's controlling how things go, Frost says.

He told me this story about the creation of Boom's new character, Sticks: "Sticks' personality and core being was established by the animation team, but there was no design for her, so we took her core personality, and Sonic Team started doing sketches and ideas after that, and then based off of that, Big Red Button took that and fleshed it out into a 3D design."

That kind of interaction leads to "a unified design and vision" for the franchise, moving forward, Frost says.

"Bringing characters to life is a necessity not just for the game, but for the cartoon."

"Bringing characters to life is a necessity not just for the game but for the cartoon," says Frost. The goal is to create "an engaging cartoon with meaningful interaction and storytelling." But Frost also wants to avoid a situation where "the cartoon could be going out in a direction that doesn't reinforce the things you're seeing in the game," he says.

To that end, the team spent a great deal of time hammering out the details of the Sonic Boom setting.

"We met in many different locations and discussed just what are the core aspects of this world? How do these characters interact? What are the motivations for [antagonist] Eggman? Every little nuance you can imagine -- we've had endless, endless meetings and that gave us the information to go off and build the game, the toys, and the cartoon, and make them feel very cohesive," Frost says.

A tough balancing act

The team was faced with a difficult challenge. On one hand, says Frost, "we're not just making decisions based off of newcomers. That's a hard thing to predict." On the other, says Frost, while keeping the Sonic fan base happy is a priority, "honestly, it's a vocal minority in some standpoints."

"We're not just making decisions based off of newcomers. That's a hard thing to predict."

"That desire and that interest of getting a cartoon out there and trying to appeal to an even larger audience drove a lot of the decision process we had for a lot of these things -- but obviously, in the back of our brain, we know we don't want to alienate the fans," Frost says.

Whatever the result, it's clear from this past E3 that Sonic Boom is most certainly not like the 3D Sonic games -- diverse as they can be -- that Sonic Team has been creating for the last 15 years, and it is not intended to be. The visual makeover Sonic and his cohorts received is, in fact, symbolic of the franchise's maturation into a new kind of IP for Sega.

While it might be a less schizophrenic franchise -- it's unlikely to result in another game as infamous as Sonic '06 -- it also strips the franchise of some of its unique character in a push for broader appeal.

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Aaron Dave
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While it might do a good job of getting Sonic out there to a younger audience, I haven't heard good things coming out of E3 about this game. There were complains on both technical and gameplay sides, and I'm not talking about "Sonic looks like he's wrapped in toilet paper" stuff.

Michael Joseph
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@18m33s starts "The Hedgehog" (based on the early 19th century Brother's Grimm tale "Hans My Hedgehog") from the PBS series "Long Ago and Far Away."

Jim Henson also made a version of the story in 1988 in the series "The Storyteller"

"The Hare and the Hedgehog" another Grimm's tale.

It's interesting of course how the slow, earthy, hedgehog regarded in folktales as an enchanted creature, a wise and cunning survivor of the forest, often misjudged based on it's outward appearance, a pagan knowledgeable in arcane mysticism, and a symbol of hope and good outcomes, would be chosen by Sega to represent a wild, rash, headstrong, act first and think later, snarky, teenaged action hero.

I'm sure people at Sega working on this character have looked at all the ways hedgehogs have been used in various cultures over the years, but maybe this time they'll give more serious consideration to making Sonic less of a cartoon character and more of the wise folk hero... like Yoda. After all, you can't build a transmedia empire on a purple Shia LaBeouf can you? Meh, probably can... media companies don't like hippies/conservationists/environmentalists anymore.

I remember playing the first Sonic on the Sega Genesis and looking back, the game strikes me as having pulled off the great illusion of making players feel like they were playing their bottoms off by making a game that practically played itself as the images on the screen whizzed by at the mesmerizing speed of sound.

Alan Barton
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I don't think Sega were thinking that deeply when they designed Sonic. Hedgehogs are slow, so it was a case of, hey lets make a fast hedgehog! ... That has always been the core design theme of Sonic.

The other problem is they can't change Sonic without alienating their existing fan base and alienating them is very bad for franchises, as you'll suddenly have a lot of bitter fans denigrating the new product due to any changes.

Kaze Kai
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too late, they already do since they've basically ruined it in 2005 and haven't fixed it since

Andrew Dovichi
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Did you read "Console Wars" by Blake J. Harris? It goes into pretty good detail on the creation of Sonic from accounts of people that were there, I agree with Alan in that I doubt they were thinking that deeply.

Christian Nutt
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You're trolling us, right?

Alan Barton
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@Christian Nutt

I don't think Michael Joseph is trolling us as such, (although I could be wrong?). I think his post is more about him than it is about Sonic. I think he is trying to show us he is a well read deep thinking games designer. (I think its just a young/insecure/self-promoting kind of behaviour). (I assume he is a games designer, because looking at his profile page, most of his comments show an interest in commenting on games design).

Its kind of funny how deeply he went on Sonic, when even just the name Sonic tells us what we want to know about the hedgehog. :)

@Andrew Dovichi

Its the first I've heard of "Console Wars" by Blake J. Harris. It sounds very interesting and I've just added it to my Amazon wish list, so thanks for the info. :) ... (I was on the front line during part of that war, so to speak. I was the little guy, caught between Sega & Codemasters, so it'll be very interest to see if they include Codemasters dealings with Sega in the book).

(It looks like Amazon are being slow over here, releasing that book in a few months time, but then I don't have the money currently to buy it ... hopefully my new game, when I finally release it, will sell ok. :)

Michael Joseph
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@Alan Barton

you're obviously free to take away from it anything you like... but try to be nice. I mean you no harm.

Alan Barton
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@Michael Joseph

I mean you no harm. I was defending you against the idea you were trolling.

But its interesting you take offence at the idea of insecurity more than you take offence at the idea you were trolling. I guess I got too near the truth and hit a nerve.

You are clearly very well read and gave some interesting ideas and I'm sure you will be good in your job, but you don't need to be defensive. My point was, you're trying too hard.

Robert Carter
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Im not entirely sure why he needed a redesign to accomplish their goals. I have been collecting the Archie comics since elementary school (would often skip lunch once or twice a month so I could grab the newest comic on the walk home), and over the decades they have not only fleshed out his character and all of the characters from his universe, they have added great characters, both heroes and villains.

I enjoy fighting Dr. Robotnik as much as the next guy, but Mammoth Mogul would be an awesome fight too. Dr. Finetivus, Ixis Naugus, the Iron Queen, the list goes on. As for supporting cast you have Sally Acorn, Bunny Rabot, Nicole, Rotor, and about a thousand others outside the original Freedom Fighter cast. Sonic himself has shown more character in these pages as well. In fact, I find the only one-note character to be Amy, who is still likable at least.

I cant be the only fan of these comics, as we are nearing the 300th issue. Thats a lot of history to just ignore. Why not give it to the new games and show? I mean, the comics are based on the SatAM universe which is universally hailed as the best sonic show! (Not that it had much competition, I guess...)

Kaze Kai
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the comics and SATAM have my favorite canon since unlike whatever the hell they've been doing for the entirity of the games' lifespan, they actually have a good story with deep mythology and a well fleshed-out world with plenty of character development.

Plus my favorite personality for tails was in satam, and he's my favorite character for that reason. (plus being a fox which is my favorite animal and being able to fly which is my greatest dream.) Nobody makes him like that anymore and thus I have no interest in the games even if he's playable as opposed to the other characters with less cool powers.

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I don't understand how a character, who survived through bad game thanks to the excellence of its design alone, need a redesign ... Mario didn't need a redesign

Ron Dippold
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Have you considered actually making games again where the focus is speed and not stopping Sonic as often as possible to do other tedious things like turn into a Werehog?

The character's not bad - the continued popularity of the comics and the amount of fanart demonstrates that. But they haven't had a developer capable of handling the speed in 3D - I do realize that's a hard problem, but perhaps one they should have focused on instead of trying to just bury under the rug by making Sonic go slow with each new incarnation.

On the plus side, they're letting new devs handle it. The best Sonic game in memory was All Stars Racing Transformed (by the hugely talented Sumo Digital), and maybe Sanzaru or Big Red Button can remember what made playing Sonic 1-3 so fun.

Christian Nutt
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For me I suspect there's also been a pervasive problem in that Sonic Team has been making a Sonic a year for the past several years, and at a pretty low budget (I'd guess) and with significant gameplay changes for each iteration. The ground kept shifting. I'm not saying it's defensible that Sega was making bad Sonic games, but it's understandable the series went down weird paths and lacked polish when it was moving at this breakneck pace.

Something had to give, but this isn't what I anticipated until it happened.

Ron Dippold
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Good points, Christian. I'm really interested (with trepidation, having been burned too many times, but hopeful) to see where this goes. In a way it's sad to still care so much about it, but childhood nostalgia is an incredible force!

George Menhal III
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The problem here is that due to years of poor quality control, Sonic has become an industry joke. Nobody cares about the character anymore and with so many broken, unplayable games under his belt, he should probably just die gracefully. Instead, Sega trots him out every couple of years for another failed experiment.

Even if this game comes out and the review scores are through the roof, Sega is now fighting public perception. They don't have what it takes to stick with a series for the long haul and build the brand loyalty over time. Maybe back in the 90's, but not now. You had your time in the sun once, but now that's over. Let it go.

And while you're at it, Sega, stop destroying the future potential of great titles such as Shenmue. You can't and won't do anything with the IP, so just sell it to Yu Suzuki already.

Kaze Kai
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great, now answer why the cartoon is shoddy slapstick comedy garbage and the game is the same or why you've basically ruined tails completely when you're supposed to be a western company and should damn well know how he's supposed to act like a small kid like in the western canons.

y'all are pathetic, I can at least take solace in the knowledge that where cartoons and video games fail me, books pick up the slack. Plenty of books that star animal characters and have a tight story and continuity and aren't just there for the lowest common denominator to laugh at means I can shit all over this franchise and never have to worry about putting up with the disappointment that plagued my obsession with it for 10 years.