Veteran Sonic game designer Takashi Iizuka is overseeing the production of Sonic Boom, but main development is entirely in Western hands due to Sega's desire for Sonic to be more appealing to Western audiences.
Speaking with Polygon, Iizuka said the decision to give developer Big Red Button creative control over Sonic Boom and have Sanzaru Games work on the 3DS title was part of Sega's overarching plan to make a completely Westernized branch of the Sonic franchise.
"As part of completely thinking about the West, we wanted to make sure we had Western game developers and make it a part of Western television," Iizuka said. "We wanted to make sure it was developed best for Western audiences primarily; this was very important.
"The whole thing started with the television series," he added. "Our previous series, Sonic X, was made in Japan and influenced by Japanese anime; the main audience it was made for was in Japan, although it came to the West as well. So Sonic Boom is something made specifically for the Western audience. For the TV series to be successful, we pretty much had to make it for that audience, and the games tie into that strategy."
Sega of America producer Stephen Frost told Polygon that keeping Sonic Boom in Western studios was important for the projects' "synergy." Frost said Sega picked Big Red Button because its team — led by Uncharted and Jak and Daxter veteran Bob Rafei — had experience with character-driven adventure games.
"One of the things is, if you think about it at a high level, all the key aspects of this new initiative for Sonic, whether it's the cartoon, the game or the toys, is centered on the Western side, and we wanted to be unified in that," he said. "It's very challenging to create an initiative like this where everything works in a nice synergy if you have a lot of people scattered around the world. Granted, we're doing our [animation] stuff in France, but really, the leads of each group are at Sega of America. And it was really important — I think this is where many other initiatives might fail — is that we really we see each other every day, we're talking to each other every day, and that was really important.
"This game is not just about speed."
"Sonic Team is great and they make really great speed-oriented games, but this game is not just about speed," he added of the title's emphasis on combat. "Speed is an important aspect of it, but exploration, combat and the strong narrative of the storyline are very big aspects of the game, more so than I would say in the past. So again, we wanted a strong storyline and art design that Western audiences can resonate a little bit better with the synergistic relation for all of us at Sega of America is why we drove toward a Western developer across the board."
According to Rafei, Sonic Boom will have a narrative focus and will follow a "wide linear" gameplay approach; it's not a true open-world game, but a series of classic sandbox levels branching out into more levels in a spoke-like system.
"There's moments where you're funneled back to the main gameplay and we have to do that also for the necessity of cooperative play, where we didn't want to have the two characters venture off in two different directions," Rafei told Polygon. "It's a classic structured game, so we have the critical path, and part of our project pillars, among many, was to make sure that it's accessible to new fans. So we want you to be able to finish the game but for fans who want more, you will have to find the additional, the secondary paths and all the hidden secrets."
When asked if action-adventure sequences like those in Uncharted inspired Sonic Boom's gameplay, Rafei did not shy away from the comparison. Big Red Button is utilizing familiar adventure game conventions and ideas, he explained, but the emphasis was on making sure the gameplay didn't eclipse the game's defining Sonic elements.
As for the blue hedgehog's new scarf — it's not incorrect to say it was pulled straight from the closet of Nathan Drake.
"I was part of the team that created Uncharted, so it's hard to take the DNA out of that."
"We were exploring different outfits and we went through a lot of iterations and the scarf was something I've used in the past and it works for me and it works for the character," he said. "Really, the history of that comes from the old western days, with John Wayne, and as a kid watching a lot of those westerns, that really stuck with me. And you see the use of the afghan in a lot of action movies because of the soldiers and what's happened with more association with the Middle East. So that DNA made its way into what makes a character action hero nowadays."
"I was part of the team that created Uncharted, so it's hard to take the DNA out of that," he said. "We're making the games we want and want to play and it's hard not to tap into, what feels right to you. And given our past with a lot of team members worked on Jak and Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, so you want to make sure we're not just doing the same thing. We took the best of what we know from those games and applied it to what works for Sonic canon. That was really important to us, not to make another Ratchet and Clank game or another Jak and Daxter game. It was important to make sure that it feels like a Sonic game."
Frost added that a more combat-oriented Sonic game would allow the personalities of Sonic's companions to be expressed more fully. Each character will have specialty abilities that speak to who they are and how they interact with the world. For example, Amy can clear out swathes of enemies with her hammer and Knuckles can knock out opponents with brute strength. The action focus also ties into the exploration component of the games, Frost said, which will in turn feed into character and story progression.
When asked specifically about the redesign and inclusion of Amy, who's been consistently regulated to a less-than-influential side character in many Sonic games, Rafei said that it was the team's goal to not make her, as well as the other companions, feel like a subordinate character. Amy will be more "capable, agile and graceful" for Sonic Boom, with her own powerful attacks and positive personality. Although it wasn't a bullet point Big Red Button had to pursue, Rafei said having Amy standing out of Sonic's shadow was a positive outcome of wanting all characters to stand out.
"I want to bring more girls into gaming and have them play characters that they can associate with and not feel like they're created by just a bunch of men," Rafei said. "I want her, if it's just me purely, and I'm sure the Sega team agrees with me, I want her to be see as a very capable character adventure character in herself. If she was to break out and have a game of her own you'd probably get an idea of what that would look like based on this game."
"Sonic is about joyous movement."
Sonic Boom will also emphasize cooperation among the characters, offering two to four-player co-op against a new enemy that is "darker and more foreboding than Eggman is." But franchise veterans will still feel comfortable in this new Sonic, Frost said, because the game still follows Sonic's principles of fast-paced movement. But this time around it's not just about Sonic, with Tails, Knuckles and Amy each getting their chance in the spotlight.
"Not specifically towards that but for me, Sonic is about joyous movement," he said. "Everything he does is that too maybe. But it's a key thing. The reason we repeat this stuff is because, from a foundation sense, it's what so important about these properties. And we wanted each character to navigate and do everything in their own unique way that really sells their personality. For example, Amy is very graceful, she's like a ballerina. Everything she does which would normally be difficult for someone, she does with so much fluidity and grace. And yet, it balances out because she's so awesome."
Iizuka confirmed that there are currently no plans to bring the Sonic Boom games or cartoon to Japan; the show will launch in North America and France later this year, while the game is "coming soon." He also noted that the Japanese Sonic Team will continue to make Sonic games parallel to Big Red Button and Sanzaru's games, although he could not comment on their publication to PlayStation 4 or Xbox One.
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