Sonic Boom crashed onto the scene Thursday with greater impact than many of the hyperfast hedgehog's recent appearances. The new project is not a single title but a transmedia Sonic "universe" set to reimagine the series through two games, an animated series, and an extensive toy line.
Though the lankier forms of Sonic and friends will appear in new screens and figurines, Sega hasn't forgotten the hedgehog's home on consoles. It contracted California-based Big Red Button Entertainment - a studio founded by ex-Naughty Dog veterans Bob Rafei and Dan Arey in February 2008 - to do the honors.
We spoke to Bob Rafei, CEO and visual director at Big Red Button, and Sega of America producer Stephen Frost about Sonic's new look and new moves on Wii U.
Rafei and Frost spoke about the challenges of balancing the redesigned characters and gameplay with the decades-old conventions that series fans have come to expect. They briefly teased how Sonic Boom will capitalize on each redesigned character's familiar capabilities in combat, exploration, and in its unannounced multiplayer modes.
CVG: You're the first Western studio to take on a mainstream Sonic title. How did that come about?
Bob Rafei: Sega came to us in 2011 and they had this big, bold plan that they showed us, and we were really blown away by what they were trying to do, and it fit right in with what we are trying to do as a studio as well.
So given the team's background - there's a lot of guys from Naughty Dog, from High Impact Games, from Heavy Iron Studios - we're all focusing on third-person character action. And given our history with stylized character platformers, it was a great fit. And given that they really wanted to do something different, it was an opportunity that we couldn't turn down.
We had been working with the CryEngine up to that point, and we just decided we can still make it work. Sega wasn't quite sure, but I think that at the end of the day they saw what we can do with it, and everybody seems to be very pleased.
Stephen Frost: Yeah, definitely. I'm sure we'll talk more about CryEngine later on in the year. But you associate CryEngine with lush, tropical, beachy sort of things, which is something that Sonic is associated with in many ways, too, so they kind of work together there.
BR: There's a lot of things that we bring to the CryEngine, specifically the split screen; we have dual splitscreen that's displayed on [Wii U GamePad] and single display.
That's something that CryEngine didn't have. We had to really rejig it from the ground up to make it work with that. We worked in close contact with the [CryEngine creator Crytek] team in Germany, and they're pretty excited about that as well. In the end it was just the right choice for the project.
You mentioned split-screen, can you talk about the multiplayer?
SF: Right now we're saying that the game as a whole and its modes will support up to four players. We'll probably talk more about modes later on down the road, maybe at E3.
Four players, four characters. Can we expect some of the collaboration you guys emphasized here?
BR: That's right. Basically the goal is to make a great shared co-op experience where friends and family are getting together in the living room and are playing together.
...The game is two players most of the time, but there are hubs and other certain areas where it can be four players all the time. So we mix and match to better fit the game structure, and it also helps out with narrative, as well.
How will you take advantage of Wii U's features?
SF: I think we'll talk about that a bit later. A lot of the specific details you're going to get at E3.
"We really focused on their personalities and wanted to ingrain that into every feature of the game"
Will you switch between characters if you're playing alone?
SF: You will be switching between characters. There will never be just one character on the screen. Depending on situations the game will have up to four characters, and sometimes less. You'll definitely get to be able to play all of them.
Will certain situations that call for one character or another? For instance, we saw some footage of Knuckles climbing walls.
BR: That's exactly right. Each character has their own special abilities and navigation which also carries over into combat.
We really focused on their personalities and wanted to ingrain that into every feature of the game, from how they navigate to how they go about in the world, and also in combat.
Sega came to you in around 2011, which was before the three-game deal with Nintendo. Was Sonic Boom ever planned for other platforms?
SF: We always evaluate platforms, and Nintendo has always been an important partner for us. There was never really any doubt that we're going to support them - we have a really good relationship.
As with every Sonic title, we evaluate early on which platforms it should be on, but it just made sense eventually for this product to be on Wii U and 3DS.
Projects that are tied into broader media initiatives have a poor reputation. What are you doing to upend that?
BR: That's a very good point, and we came into it with that same sober attitude. I was happy to see that Evan [Bailey], who is the showrunner for the show, is a gamer himself.
I was a little concerned in our first meeting, but after we got together I realized that they understand our media are two different things. They're doing things for the TV show that better suits their medium, which is situation comedy with action thrown in. Storytelling, jokes, and action is really their primary interest.
The things that are important for us are gameplay, gameplay, gameplay. It was great to have them in terms of having a consistent approach to the universe.
That was key because the art direction was really strong, so they felt really comfortable playing in that universe. We went through a big process making sure we were within canon of what Sonic team expected, and also what the TV show's doing.
So it's been a big collaborative process. There's moments we come together and work really strongly together, and then we go off and we're building projects, and then we come back and make some decisions, and then go off again.
SF: I think this collaboration allows us to be stronger across all the media that we have. We started relatively early on with the animation, and before much had gone on with anything we really tried to establish the base rules. What is this world, what are these characters going to be like? Things like that.
" It's a much different experience than a typical Sonic game. We want to capture that and draw in new users and also try something new for the Sonic franchise."
I think between Big Red Button, Sega, and [Sonic Boom animation studio] OuiDO we were able to come together and share ideas, and think of what characters and locations would make sense across all things.
Like an idea that Big Red Button would have, OuiDO would say, "Oh yeah, that's great, we can actually add that into the cartoon." And vice versa. It's great, because they can go off and explore parts of this world that we don't, and then we have sections of this world that we're building out that they may get to later.
I think we're building a much bigger Sonic world than we would usually. People who watch the cartoons and play the game will say, "Oh yeah!" They can kind of piece together this world in a much grander way than they could in the past.
Do you foresee making more games in this world?
SF: I'd like to, for sure. That's always my dream. It's a very cool world, it's a very interesting mix of characters that have been developed across all of the media. I'd love to explore the world in even bigger and greater ways in the future, if possible.
What did you mean when you said this isn't replacing modern Sonic?
SF: Modern Sonic is still a key component. He sits side by side with this product and delivers a much different sort of experience. As you can see in the game, it's a much different experience than a typical Sonic game. We want to capture that and draw in new users and also try something new for the Sonic franchise.
But obviously modern Sonic is very important to us, he's such an iconic character, as is the gameplay associated with him from Sonic team. So we want to make sure that that's maintained as well. I'm sure you're going to see stuff from both sides going forward.
BR: The way I see it, it's just a branch of the franchise. You see franchises that have been around for a long time go through this process where they look to explore other opportunities, that's what this is. It's a really great, bold move on Sega's part. It's a very brave move.
Were there any other character design iterations along the way?
BR: We have reams of drawings that we explored. It was quite a journey. That's one of the things that, as a character designer, I live and breathe.
We went in many different directions to discover the boundary of what Sega was comfortable with, what we wanted to do for our projects. There were some really wild designs, and ultimately in the end we decided they're not well suited for the franchise, because they were just too out there.
I'm glad that's something that Sega reined us in on, because ultimately the character would have felt a little different.
SF: The biggest thing that we want to get across with these characters is that no decision and no change to them was done willy-nilly. We spent a lot of time agonizing over and thinking about every single detail. We didn't want change for the sake of change.
Literally every single detail we spent so much time discussing and figuring out what the best way to approach it is. So nothing was done just like, "Oh, let's just do that!" "Oh, that sounds good!" There was a lot of thought, a lot of discussion, a lot of collaboration on every single aspect.