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Sega's Iizuka On 'Better Defining The Direction Of The  Sonic  Series'
Sega's Iizuka On 'Better Defining The Direction Of The Sonic Series' Exclusive
November 3, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

The Sonic series has gone through some tumultuous times over the last 20 years. Originally launched in 1991 for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, the series made the then-console manufacturer a player, and enabled it to briefly challenge Nintendo for dominance in the West. The series' first steps into 3D, on the Dreamcast, were generally well-liked -- with Sonic Adventure and its sequel praised.

Years on, though, the series had gathered a lot of cruft, and fans had complained. The Sonic Cycle, in which players anticipate a new Sonic game only to be inevitably disappointed, became part of the the gaming lexicon.

However, that cycle may finally be broken, as one man has taken the helm of the franchise in an attempt to steer it back on track. Takashi Iizuka is now the producer of the entire series.

Director of 1998's Sonic Adventure, he's worked with Sonic since 1994's 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog 3 -- and he's the most experienced person left at Sega when it comes to the series. Gamasutra spoke to him about this week's release of Sonic Generation, a game that contains the "peaks of the past 20 years," in Iizuka's words.

How do you feel about the current state of the Sonic series? Is it where you want it to be right now?

I think so, for the most part. Before I assumed this current position, the direction of each Sonic title was largely left in the hands of the individual directors behind each project. You had all these different ideas about what Sonic should be, and where it should go, and so it tended to fluctuate from project to project. Since I came back, though, I've made an effort to really better define the direction of the series and its characters. I think Sonic 4 and Colors were ways of defining that, and I'm satisfied with how both of those went.

The Sonic series has a lot of really passionate fans. When you're charting a course for the series, how much do you have to listen to that fanbase? How much of the decision is based on where you think it should go?

Well, the fact that Sonic has kept going for the past 20 years is because it's received all that support from fans over the years. I try to preserve the image of Sonic that these fans are looking for, and I try my best to participate in the assorted fan events that take place.

So I treat those voices seriously, but on the other hand, I think it's also necessary to surprise them, to turn against their expectations -- in a good way. I want to introduce new aspects that don't shake what the fans want, but also provide something new to the package.

How far out are you planning the Sonic series nowadays? Are you thinking about the medium- and long-term at the same time as you're working on individual games?

Well, I can't really talk about how many years ahead I'm thinking, but I do have a constant roadmap going ahead for us in the mid-to-long term, something that outlines where we want to go on a yearly basis, as we concentrate on what's before us.

Is that a response to what you said before, about there not being any direction, or just because you've decided that this is the way we're going to do Sonic from here on out?

I don't know if it's a response to that so much as I think that's what my role is here. Since I'm the overall producer for this series, I try to think in these mid-to-long term periods.

What do you think is special or unique about the Sonic series?

Back when Sonic was on the Mega Drive, there were tons of side-scrolling action games out there. The fact that Sonic took these platform games -- which were very slow, reserved affairs -- and made them into these quick, exhilarating things was an incredibly unique, futuristic thing for the time.

As time went on, the action genre further evolved, and now we're to the point that this sort of high-speed platform action is pretty much defined by Sonic. It's the only one in the industry, and that's something I want to retain going into the future.

One thing I think happened to Sonic -- and this happens with a lot of popular franchises -- you have to do a lot of sequels, so you add something every time. Then you wind up with a whole bunch of stuff that you don't need anymore, but if you get rid of it, you feel trapped. Did you experience that with Sonic?

There have been a lot of Sonic titles in the past, and I think, at this point, there's a pretty good idea of what a Sonic game should be like -- a fun, frenetic action game. As I said, I feel the need to surprise the fans in new and innovative ways, but I don't want to do anything to depart from that style. The color powers in Colors are a good example of that.

It seems that as far as current-gen Sonic goes, there have been false starts. The PlayStation 3 Sonic, the first one, was supposed to be a new beginning, and then there was Unleashed, which had good and bad about it. It seems like Generations is yet again starting over; are we at a point where you feel comfortable with the mark you're making and can move forward?

I wouldn't say that I think Generations is a new start. Instead, it's more of the peaks of the past 20 years, is the way we're approaching this. Generations is about taking the past 20 years of history and rolling it into one really fun product. I think, as a result, I would like to make a new standard Sonic, a modern Sonic if you will, in 2012 and beyond.

The 20th anniversary of the franchise is a big deal, and I'd like to get your thoughts on how the franchise has lasted this long.

The fact we made it this far is really due to the fans we've had from the past, I think. In recent years we've had comics, animated works, games... people are knowing about Sonic from all kinds of places, and they're giving us support.

Still, as the name Sonic Generations tells you, I think we're at the point where there are two separate generations -- parent and child, in other words -- enjoying these games. I think if we can get to the point where we're 30, 40 years from the series' start, and there are three generations of Sonic fans -- that's when I think he'll have really established himself as a character. I want to use the past 20 years of experience to keep us going well into the future.

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Dana Fortier
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It warms my heart to see that SEGA is strongly committed to delivering their annual 'We're getting Sonic back on track/back to basics.' statements!

Robert Meier
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It irritates my brain to see that some people are strongly committed to putting "Sonic is going back to the roots" nonsense into SEGA's collective mouth even though SEGA never really said it. Where does Iizuka say as much in this interview?

None of the recent Sonic games has ever claimed to be a return to the roots, let alone a "back to basics" experience. With the possible exception of Sonic 4, maybe.

Jay Bedeau
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As a passionate Sonic fan I feel Iizuka isn't really understanding the message at all here. The very reason why Sonic Generations is gathering so much interest is BECAUSE it's focusing on core elements that the fans respected rather than his intention to 'surprise the fans'. In short, Sonic Generations reminds us of past critical acclaim.

In essence, Iizuka isn't really taking the series forward, as much as back or side-ways. Mechanics-wise, the gameplay of modern-Sonic and classic Sonic are mostly where Yuji Naka left them back in 1998. What has happened since has been many failed experiments at reinventing what fans were asking for.

Looking at Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, Mario Galaxy - the black sheep there is Mario Sunshine's water-based gameplay which was smartly discarded; producing the exceptional Mario Galaxy. Straying too far from fans expectations creates disappointment.

Totally respect Sonic Generations and the idea of coming up with something fresh but it has to be said - the fans pretty much demanded Sonic Generations and the praise is squarely to be given to them.

Amir Sharar
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I'm a huge Sonic fan, and so it shouldn't be a surprise that I'm one of those jaded fans who feel that the new games have missed the point entirely.

Contrary to what Iizuka is saying, Sonic as a games series was at its fundamentals never about his speed. It was certainly one of the interesting aspects of the game, but it went much deeper than that.

At its core the Sonic series stood out among an ocean of platformers at that time because it adopted a fairly complex yet easily understandable sets of physics. It was about maintaining Sonic's momentum. Mario could run faster up an incline in Super Mario World than Sonic could walk up a hill in any Sonic game (from a standing start). Yet when a player had enough momentum Sonic could easily race up a hill. Carry that momentum further and he could propel himself even higher, reaching another branch of the level (which were complex mazes compared to most platformers out there). There was a lot of skill and mastery involved in maintaining his speed, and when rolling into a ball you had to navigate this wild pinball through the levels. I'm only explaining this because I feel a lot of gamers who did not play the series understand these concepts.

The new games have abandoned these qualities in favour of rollercoaster segments where you see Sonic speed around but giving you have minimal control. Many sections contain booster pads that do all the work for you. So rather than using your abilities and skills as a player to progress through the level, you rely on gadgets that do the work for you. Don't get me wrong, the gadgets from the older titles are also what made Sonic unique, but you had to figure them out and work to use them. In today's games, all you need to do is walk into them.

Often times for many players, the classic Sonic levels turned into a sandbox where players would try to reach "impossible" areas of the level, only to find that they were indeed legitimate paths. This sense of exploration is completely gone in the newer games as the levels are virtually completely linear (in a relative sense). The 3D series has gone the way of the early Crash Bandicoot titles.

Something tells me that people at Sonic Team didn't understand how Sonic should work in 3D. The Adventure series may have been influenced by Mario 64, when in reality they should have looked at titles like Tony Hawk instead. These issues that Sonic Team are facing were observable, measurable, and ultimately avoidable, in my opinion.

I truly believe that we should not be surprised by the past 10 years, and that we shouldn't be surprised at further failure if things remain the same. The fact of the matter is that the aforementioned aspects that made the Sonic series an established and respected one, are aspects that Sonic Team have ignored over the last decade. There is this false idea that it is hard to make a proper 3D Sonic title, when in fact it is very easy when you understand what gamers (not only Sonic fans) want. Sonic Team no longer knows this and hence you see Sonic with a sword, Shadow with a gun and motorbike, and Sonic turning into a werewolf. We may see another dozen gimmicks in the next dozen titles, but unless we see a fundamental change in gameplay, we are not going to see Sonic as one of the premiere platforming titles (which in my opinion, should be Sonic Team's goal).

Robert Meier
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I'm a huge Sonic fan and have had no issues with Sonic Team's latest offerings, namely Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations. I feel jaded fans like you have missed the point entirely.

"Sonic as a games series was at its fundamentals never about his speed" - "It was about maintaining Sonic's momentum"

You're kind of contradicting yourself here. Momentum is just a fancy substitute word for speed, used by some people as a diffuse term when trying to explain what Sonic gameplay should be like. Sonic has momentum in all games. What he lacks in some such as Sonic 4 is inertia. Also, since Sonic 2 introduced the Spin Dash move, it's been less about "maintaining momentum", as Sonic now had a way to instantly gain lots of speed from a dead stop. The modern boost move can be considered an evolution of that mechanic.

I'd say Sonic is also less about exploration than you believe. Many of the classic levels in the 2D Sonic games have been very linear. And to say that exploration is completely gone in newer Sonic games is nothing but wrong. Both Sonic Adventures had it, and Sonic Colors had it more than ever. The wisp powers in that game gave Sonic an unprecedented vertical mobility. The new Sonic Generation also offers a surprising amount of alternate paths in its 3D levels. You can spend hours exploring, trying to find the best routes.

Saying that newer Sonic games do all the work for you and give you minimal control is also wrong. These complaints, often polemicly phrased as "the game plays itself" or "boost to win", are just as ridiculous as claiming that classic 2D Sonic was "hold right to win". With the daytime gameplay in Sonic Unleashed, further tweaked in Sonic Colors and now brought closer to perfection in Sonic Generations, Sonic Team has found a formula for 3D Sonic gameplay that is thrilling and works really well. We can only hope that they keep at it instead of abandoning it for an attempt at "Tony Hawk" or other nonsensical ideas.

About the dash/booster pads in Sonic games: I'd like to see them gone or at least reduced, too, considering that Sonic's boost ability makes them pretty useless (well, Sonic's boost can run out of juice...). What you fail to realize, though, is that those "gadgets that do the work for you" are actually obstacles rather than benefits for more skilled Sonic players. In their speedruns, they tend to treat those dash pads and boosters as hazards to be avoided, as they more often than not slow you down instead of speed you up (when you already are at a high speed).

Between all of Sonic's modern abilities (boosting, homing attack, sliding, stomping, wall jump, ...), playing well requires more skill than the classic games ever did.

"There is this false idea that it is hard to make a proper 3D Sonic title, when in fact it is very easy when you understand what gamers (not only Sonic fans) want."

Haha, really? You say they should listen more to the fans? Bad idea. There is no real concensus among all those people who claim to be Sonic fans. Just take you and me as an example.

You complain about "Shadow with a gun and motorbike"... did you know that Sega made that game after a poll they had conducted revealed that Shadow was the Sonic character that most people wanted to see in his own game? Here's listening to the fans for you!

Besides, complaining about those spin-off games to make a point about the real, mainline Sonic games is as stupid as as citing "Luigi's Mansion", "Mario Super Sluggers" etc. that Mario games go downhill, as they do not feature the traditional jump & run gameplay anymore. Out of all the mainline Sonic games, only "Sonic the Hedgehog (2006)" has been a complete disaster. Its successor, Sonic Unleashed (2008) was downright brilliant by comparision. Yes, the game was dragged down by the inclusion of the "werehog", but it wasn't really bad, I thought. The team felt that padding the game with slower gameplay was necessary, otherwise it would have been too short. Fans protested and said they'd rather have a short game than one with unwanted alternate gameplay styles. They got their wish with Sonic Colors and now Generations.

Sega is well aware that their Sonic brand has been tarnished somewhat by throwing the character into too many "experimental" spin-off games of questionable quality or wildly varying styles. It sounds to me as if Iizuka now wants to make sure that things stay a bit more focused.

Amir Sharar
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Thanks for the reply. Though I'm curious:L if you've thought I missed the point, what is your perspective on what the point of Sonic gameplay is? Also keep in mind for brevity I didn't focus on other major flaws of the new Sonic titles. Homing attacks, passive enemies, and more, there are many aspects that make the new Sonic titles a passive experience.

Thanks for the correction on the use of the term "momentum". Inertia is the correct term. I do agree that the Spin Dash did "break" this aspect of the game, but one can see that it wasn't a "free"move, it came at a cost of your movement as you had to stay still to use it. In sections where you had to outrun something, using it carried risks. From that perspective one can see that it was an addition that was balanced.

I think the actual level maps speak for themselves when it comes to the sort of exploration you see in Sonic games. Keep in mind that "exploration" not only encapsulates optional paths, but also how they are presented. The exploration you see in modern Sonic titles are fairly apparent (I'll agree that Generations has some that are not apparent, but again the gameplay is like Crash Bandicoot). But I don't think you are seeing my point (which I thought my allusion to Tony Hawk would have made clear), I think it's important for 3D Sonic titles to feature levels that are not path based and have complete 360 directional movement. You did see this in the hub worlds of multiple recent Sonic titles, but not in the levels.

"With the daytime gameplay in Sonic Unleashed, further tweaked in Sonic Colors and now brought closer to perfection in Sonic Generations, Sonic Team has found a formula for 3D Sonic gameplay that is thrilling and works really well."

It is a very similar style to Crash Bandicoot, which in comparison to games like Mario 64, or NiGHTs, has very limited replay value. You are accepting an average playing game if you think that the formula they've been using in recent titles actually works. Again, it requires little skill, little engagement, and the games play themselves for you. It's a very passive experience. You may think the Tony Hawk suggestion is "nonsensical", but at the very least you'll have to admit that the experience allows for creativity, is always engaging, rewards skill, and has near infinite re-playability. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that an open world excels in all of these areas in comparison to an on rails game.

Having done speed runs myself, even in titles like Sonic 06, I understand that there is always some level of skill involved. There is skill involved in speed runs for below average playing titles too. Bubsy 3D anyone? But most of the skill involved here has much to do with timing of button presses. Between homing attacks, grinding, stomping, and sliding it turns into a bemani or QTE game. For example, keeping inertia would have little effect on the quality of a run. Note that with all these abilities "rolling" doesn't play a large part in modern Sonic titles. Again, this is because they are forgetting that this game is about Sonic, Sonic Team really could have substituted (and perhaps should have) all of these new titles with a different character. I digress, but because it turns into a bemani game, there is less skill required as compared to a classic 2D Sonic title. For example, in a classic title you had to carry enough speed to hit an incline with enough inertia to climb it at a good speed. Any little bit slower, and you are short 3/4 seconds. It's similar to real life hill climb racing where if you start at the bottom of a hill 5km slower it will affect your time drastically.

"Sega made that game after a poll they had conducted revealed that Shadow was the Sonic character that most people wanted to see in his own game? Here's listening to the fans for you!"

There is nothing wrong with fans asking for more of a particular character. What is wrong is Sonic Team getting ideas that fans want Swords, Guns, Motorbikes, etc. in Sonic titles.

The brand issue is and forever will be about the quality of gameplay, and Sonic Team doesn't have the know how to do this right. I think they are too busy catering to people like yourself who obviously don't mind the status quo. In my eyes, 3D Sonic titles should be considered up there with the 3D Mario titles. I would hope that you would admit that Sonic Generations doesn't even compare to Mario Galaxy 2. I would even argue that Donkey Kong Returns far outclasses the 2D sections of Sonic Generations. They never understood the right 3D formula for Sonic, took a good 10 years to experiment, finally came up with something inspired by Crash Bandicoot, and it looks like they are calling it a day. It's is extremely disappointing, as a Sonic fan, to see this sort of attitude.