As roleplaying giant BioWare entered the final stretch of development on its latest RPG epic Mass Effect, a title typical of its pedigree of sprawling fantasy/sci-fi universes, nobody could have expected its next announcement to reveal the development of a Sonic the Hedgehog title.
Straying even further from the typical BioWare formula, Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a Nintendo DS game - as far as one can get in the world of core gaming platforms from the company's traditional high-powered PC and console titles.
BioWare is no stranger to licensed material, with its biggest successes coming coming from the Dungeons & Dragons pantheon (Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights) and Star Wars universe (Knights of the Old Republic), but unlike those properties, Sonic originated elsewhere in the video game space.
Production is now far along, and the game is set for a third quarter 2008 release. During a recent Sega event, Gamasutra sat down with Sonic Chronicles project lead Mark Darrah, discussing the significant broadening of scope the game represents for BioWare, how SCRUM and the DS' smaller required team size hearkened back to the earlier days of game development, and the requirements of dealing with a transpacific license holder.
A Shift In Style
So this is the first really console-oriented game BioWare's done in some time.
Mark Darrah: First handheld game we've done. BioWare actually did MDK 2 - I don't know if you're familiar with that - so, from an actual gameplay standpoint, that's a more console-y game than Sonic Chronicles actually is.
Because really, at its heart, Sonic Chronicles is an RPG. It's using a character with its roots in the platform style of gaming, but it's not really a platform game; it's just a game that exists within a platforming IP.
It doesn't seem all that different for BioWare, even though it's a handheld game, and a bit different in tone, and not necessarily as mature.
MD: Yeah, no, that's true. I mean, we're trying to target an E rating, so that's the first time that we've even been close to that since [T for Teen-rated] Baldur's Gate. Well I guess Neverwinter Nights was Teen.
So yeah, it's a younger target audience, it's the first time we've been on the handheld. That changes a lot of things; I mean, you have to understand that a younger demographic approaches gaming in a different way than someone that's played BioWare games for the last ten years.
The motto of BioWare is "The best story-based games." Sonic has been ridiculed recently for both the way its story has been going, and overall as a series. How do you loop that back?
MD: The interesting thing is that Sonic, when you start digging into the IP, is an immensely well-developed IP. There are comics, there are cartoons, and there is all this back-history that's been laid out. So there was an amazing amount for us to draw upon, and refer to, and pay homage to as we made the story.
I mean, I think the big thing is, we're making a storytelling game, while for most of the Sonic titles - Sonic Rush, for example - the story has to be injected between the levels, so it limits how they can tell story.
And when it comes to taking a Japanese action game series and transferring it to a Western-developed RPG, these are fairly disparate game styles.
MD: Yeah. I think we have to remember what Sonic's about, but also remember the kind of game we do, so you are trying to balance these two, and make sure they're not just constantly fighting each other on the screen. But it's actually turned out amazingly well.
Did you adapt the BioWare dialogue tool? I saw it demonstrated at Austin GDC.
MD: We're actually not using the one that was used for Mass Effect, because the Mass Effect one is really designed to do cinematic conversations.
This is moving away, because it's not really practical for us to do cinematic conversations, so we're using a version of the dialogue tool that was developed for Dragon Age, where it's able to deal with more traditional style of storytelling.
Now, Dragon Age has since layered on something like what Mass Effect has, in order to tell a much more cinematic story, but we don't need that here, so we've got a traditional BioWare-style conversation system without the additional trappings of a complicated cinematic system.
When you're putting together a team to work on this game, did you look for people internally who had familiarity with the franchise, or who had wanted to work on younger-targeted games?
MD: I've been at BioWare for a long time, eleven years. So I was looking to move on to something that was smaller teams, smaller dev cycles, and things like that. I'm really interested in the handheld, it's actually my primary gaming platform.
We actually additionally brought in some people from outside, just to break up the BioWare cycle, so we didn't just do what BioWare always does. So the team actually is a mixture of people with DS experience, people with lots of BioWare experience, people with just other console experience, just to keep it [diverse], because you're right, it is a new development experience for BioWare.
Scaling Development Down For DS
I imagine compared to ramping up to development on other platforms, DS isn't as difficult.
MD: Yeah. I mean, the hardware is challenging for someone who's done for console or PC development, just because it's got 4 megs of memory, and it's very much hardware from - if you compare it to a PC, it's like hardware from 14 years ago.
So that's a problem, because the problems are problems that we haven't had to face, as an industry, for a while in most other areas - memory fragmentation, and things like that.
But yeah, the number of things you can do is more limited, so it's a little bit easier to ramp it up, and you don't have to learn how to program a shader, for example, because you don't have shaders. It's not without its challenges, but we can ramp up a lot more quickly.
About how many people are working on the team for this game?
MD: Right now we're down a bit, because we're ramping down; the art is mostly done. So I think, right now, we're around 17. But at our peak we were actually over 30 people.
That's a lot for a portable game.
MD: That is a lot for a portable game. I've heard teams as small as six, though someone on our team who's done DS development before did have a team of 50 on a different, previous title. But that was an eight month development cycle, whereas we're going to end up being closer to fourteen.
Did you have to ramp up a relationship with Nintendo, too, to get the tools and everything?
MD: There's a lot - their development system is exposed, so if you're a licensed Nintendo developer, you have access to everything by the developed hardware right off the website - in fact, I don't even know if you need to be a licensed developer to do that.
But yeah, we do have a relationship with Nintendo. You can say, "Oh, this acts differently than I expected it to," and they can tell you, "Oh, well that's how it's supposed to act. It's explained in this document here."
You said you are primarily a handheld gamer, so you were interested in working on a handheld project. What attracted you to working on handheld projects?
MD: For me, I think one of the things was scope, because I've been in the industry a long time, and I remember when teams were 35 people, and this has let us come back to that. A lot of the angst in the industry is about how we run project management: should we be doing agile, should we be doing waterfall. Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.
A lot of that goes away on a smaller team, because you're getting down to the scope where one person can understand almost everything in the game, which makes for a lot more control. That's the thing that attracted me in the first place.
The other thing that I realized once we got into it is that it's actually a lot more - you're able to be a lot more experimental. Because of the bounds, because the box is much more well-defined, you're not just spending all your time trying to get the game even running.
On an Xbox 360, a lot of it is just like, "Here's our big giant list of features," and just getting that list done is going to take most of the time. On the DS, you have a little bit more time, because you've already done that, because your list is smaller.
And then that lets you just poke around and figure things out, and be more experimental, be more iterative. And that's actually not what attracted me in the first place, but it's been a really rewarding experience on the handheld since then.
It's got a 3D battle engine, and I the characters on the map are 3D but the map is 2D. Have you had trouble getting good performance out of the DS for the 3D on this game?
MD: It is a challenge, because the DS is not really primarily a 3D platform, but we limit ourselves to 3D only on single-screen, which helps a lot because there's only a single 3D engine on the DS. So performance has been a constant battle; not just for the 3D stuff, but for everything. But no, we've done OK.
What's Old Is New Again With SCRUM
When you talk about project management, did you have and did you follow a specific project management style?
MD: We're sort of using [agile development method] SCRUM now. We didn't start out with that, and I don't think we adopted it completely cleanly, because it was not something that we wanted to smoosh into the project mid-way through. Especially to people who aren't really familiar with it.
But I still think for my style of development, I think it's still the best thing that's out there. So I think we're going to try to go a little bit deeper on the next project, and see how that works.
Why did you choose to move into SCRUM, and what have you adopted as you've moved into it?
MD: In terms of what we've adopted, we do have SCRUM teams, but we haven't really adopted "planning poker" and things like that. I think that's where we've actually stumbled a little bit, the planning side. On the management side, we do daily stand-ups, and - I mean, we've got a lot of the trappings of SCRUM, but we're missing the core project management part.
The thing that really attracted me to it, that really pushed it forward for me, was just that SCRUM, in a lot of ways, was the way that development was done fifteen years ago, but it just didn't have a name. It was just, you did what you needed to do, and you got it done quickly. There was always something running. So it was that style, when the team got smaller, it just made sense to go back to something that felt like that again.
So did you do a lengthy pre-production cycle before you started the game?
MD: We sort of did. I've been on the project since July of 2006, and then until about November, it was just, I'm a lead programmer -- I was lead programmer of the project. I mean, I am lead director now, but I was lead programmer in the beginning.
So for about five months, it was just me and the original project director. There was a lot of pre-production happening then, where we were experimenting, poking around, figuring out the technology, but we've also been building tools as we went. We didn't have a completely clean tools pipeline when we went into full production -- which is pretty typical for BioWare, we're often building tools throughout production.
Again, we're talking about ramping up with DS, and building a tools pipeline for DS probably wasn't as challenging.
MD: Yeah, the interesting thing is that a lot of the RPG elements that we have are just as complicated as you'd have on a next-gen platform game. So our designer pipeline is just as complicated, or maybe 80% as complicated, where, yeah, the art pipeline is a lot simpler.
Again, yeah, you've got textures and models and animations, but you don't have shaders and vertex programs, and like 47 other different things. Bump maps. You don't have those things. So the art pipeline is a lot cleaner, a lot easier, but the design pipeline, because it's a BioWare game, is just about as complicated.
You said you're trying to be iterative, so is that more in terms of refining the dialogue, or is that the game design as well?
MD: It's everything. Yeah, it's the dialogue, the combat systems, the interfaces. Just try to get it in, get it running, and then make it better.
Dealing With An External License
Did someone at Sega approach BioWare, or was it the other way around?
MD: It's really unclear as to how that happened. Simon Jeffery, president of Sega of America, and [BioWare studio heads] Ray [Muzyka] and Greg [Zeschuk], from BioWare, know each other from Knights of the Old Republic [when Jeffery served as president of LucasArts]. No one seems to remember how it happened.
Ray's a huge Sonic fan; he has his Genesis hooked up to his giant 1080p projection screen at home. So I think it just sort of happened almost organically, from when they were just having a conversation.
Do you have to go through approvals with Sega, and does anything have to go through Japan, or is it pretty much that you're left to your own devices and milestones?
MD: No, it's Sega's IP, so they do have control over it, and we do have to get approvals from Sonic Team, which is the team that develops Sonic. So there are approvals on art, there are approvals on dialogue.
Is that a constant process over the course of the development?
MD: Yeah. We submit, and then they provide feedback; we make changes, and then they approve it, or don't approve it, as the case may be.
Did your artists at BioWare do all the 2D art, or is, to keep it consistent with other games, did you supply some of that from Sega?
MD: We were provided with a 'style guide' from Sonic Team, but all the art in the game was made by the BioWare team.
A lot of it's really convincingly Sonic-esque. You can usually tell when games have been developed in Japan or in North America. It convincingly has a Sonic feel to it, which I think is an achievement for you guys.
MD: Yeah, we've gone for a much more painterly look, so I think that helps with that. It looks like something different, but it looks "Sonicy," so I think it lets you not just look at how it's different, because it's different enough that you can look at how it's the same.
I know you can't speculate too much, but do you foresee that BioWare's going to round out the platforms you're working with, and the kind of styles you're working with, as things move forward?
MD: Yeah, we're looking into Wii and PSP as a company, as well, but nothing's been decided, and nothing's been announced. And we are, from styles of games, we are trying to broaden our portfolio. But we still have Dragon Age, which is a more traditional style of BioWare game.