While Sonic Mania may be closer to launch and generating more buzz at the moment, Sonic Forces, the next mainline entry in the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise and the next title from the core development group at Sonic Team, also looks promising. After playing a couple of levels as both Modern and Classic Sonic, the gameplay feels smoother than previous games in the series.
Recently, Sonic Team announced that for the first time in a Sonic game, players can create their own custom characters and see them interact with the rest of the cast in the story. These custom characters are able to move nearly as fast as Sonic, but they also have special abilities called Wispons. Much like the Wisps from Sonic Colors, Wispons grant special abilities to the custom character based on their power they choose. I had a chance to play with two of the powers: burst and lightning. Burst can be used like a flamethrower to wipe out enemies, while lightning is used like a whip. In addition, both abilities can be used in platforming, as burst propels you through the air, and lightning pulls your character toward rings on the stage.
I sat down with series producer and head of Sonic Team Takashi Iizuka to talk about the inspiration and challenges of bringing custom characters to the series, how Sega's new approach to development has affected Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces, and balancing gameplay in the Sonic franchise.
In a lot of Sonic games, we play as side characters like Knuckles, Tails, and Amy in addition to Sonic. Sonic Forces seems more focused on Modern Sonic and Classic Sonic. Were you worried that introducing custom characters would distract from that focus?
For a lot of the other games in the whole history of Sonic the Hedgehog, when we didn't want to introduce playing as Knuckles or playing as Tails or some other character, we wanted to make it a new kind of gameplay experience to keep things fun and bring some variety so you're not just doing the same thing with a different looking character; we wanted it to feel like a different character. As we were doing that, we realized a lot of the fans enjoyed some of the gameplay variety, but they still really wanted to play as Sonic. They'd always say, "This game's great, but I just wanted to play as Sonic instead of these other characters," or for [Sonic] Unleashed, it was always, "I really love the Sonic running stages, and the Werehog's cool, but I really wanted the Sonic running stages." The team was aware that all the variety we were bringing to the fans... some people like it and some people don't like it. There's always this mix of "It's cool," and "It's not cool," and we wanted to make sure we were bringing something that people were going to enjoy. Starting with Sonic Colors, we started bringing the focus back to Sonic and putting all the gameplay focus onto Sonic the Hedgehog in the traditional, Modern Sonic kind of running gameplay.
With this new game, we realized we wanted to bring this create-your-own character, have them play in the game, and we want it to be different from how Sonic felt, but not so different that people are going to start getting upset that they're not doing what they want to be doing. So we gave the character a Wispon, which is the new variety of gameplay that's something fun that Sonic can't do, and something fun that players can become good and skilled at, but we still wanted to keep the core feeling of running as Sonic, and jumping as Sonic, and playing as Sonic with this original character. In order to do so, we focused on high-speed running and we wanted to make sure your original character still has the feeling of Sonic and all of the fun that you get when you play as Sonic, while still giving them a Wispon so they get to still be a different character and have a different kind of gameplay style. It's kind of a merging of all the fun things of Sonic with the variety of a different character without going to the extreme of not having the Sonic elements or not having the variety. We weren't concerned with the original character because we knew we were going to deliver something that people who just like playing as Sonic like to play with something new that we wanted to bring.
From a character design perspective what challenges did implementing a custom character present?
We here in Burbank are not physically designing the characters, and if you ask them, they may have different answers. For me, since I work directly with the team, a lot of the challenges with the customizable character is realizing what kind of characters we want to portray in the world because we already have a lot of animals that have been represented already, and we need to stay true to that representation in some form. The real difficulty was that we have all these animals that have existed, which of these animals are we going to show and represent as customized characters, and how are we, from a design standpoint, make these characters unique enough that they stand out as different, but not so unique that they stand too far apart from where everyone else is. We wanted more right in the middle while still having that represented animal type and feeling like a new character even though you're not going as far extreme as maybe Shadow where you get a lot of the cool stylistic features. We wanted a plainer character that will look different, feel different, feel like that represented animal type in a way that you can customize with a lot of different types and shapes, and also is going to be good enough in its plain form that it can be who that character is, representative of the animal type and the customizations you have, but still look cool with all the accessories you're able to put on this character.
That's one of the biggest challenges from a character design perspective: We have all these different types of animals... we have to make them look like they're not cooler than Sonic, or so far extreme that they don't fit in as custom characters. They have to have a unified look, but they also have to look cool when we put all these different accessories on them, while still feeling like different, unique characters. It's trying to make a ton of variety from this very standardized, uniformed set of characters. They aren't plain or boring, but in their base form, they're appealing. Then when you start adding different parts and items to them, they start becoming all these different characters. That was definitely one of the biggest challenges for the original character: making it feel good, and making it feel right was a lot of work.
Was the addition of custom characters at all inspired by the vibrant fan community?
I've been working on Sonic for a really long time, and I've been getting a lot fan-mail for a really long time - for like 20 years - and a lot of the fan-mail, even 20 years ago, people were saying, "Hey check out this drawing of Sonic I did," and "Hey, check out this character I made that's in the same style or look of Sonic the Hedgehog." I've been constantly receiving these fan drawings or custom-created ideas, so even from 20 years ago, I had this understanding that fans enjoyed creating and existing in this world. I wanted to let people to do that to some extent, but I think the spark started a long time ago when I saw all of these people creating Sonic-type stuff. I understood that Americans like creating their own stuff, so this whole understanding how American fans are interacting with the character was the seed that was planted a long time ago. It just so happens that now we have the skills, the technology, and the team is making a representative world of Sonic the Hedgehog with characters that fit into our world. Players can now go in and make what they want with the format of the series. Fans have been making stuff - we're very aware of that - and we hope they like the content that has been created. But really, the genesis was a really long time ago, seeing all of the created pictures coming into me.
There's been a lot happening for Sonic over the past year. This time last year, Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces weren't even announced. How have the fans reacted from your perspective to your announcements over the past year?
About one year ago, the only official game we had spoken about was Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, which was a great game and we're glad people enjoyed it. But at the same time, that's a Sonic Boom game, and a lot of our hardcore fans wanted a Modern game or a Classic game, and what they were getting was a Boom game, which was still a great game, but they wanted something different. It was a little bit difficult because we had Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces approved and moving forward with development as something we really wanted to tell the fans like, "Hey, don't worry! I know you guys want a Modern game or a Classic game," but we just couldn't talk about it. This past year, it's been really good for me to announce these new titles, knowing that the fans have been wanting a Modern game or a Classic game, and this year we get to give them both. Seeing the reaction of the fans and all of the positivity fans have created and supported our products with, we're really pleased with that. We hope they look forward to more fun stuff that we'll be releasing and talking more about and showing in the very near future.
How big of a relief is it when you can finally talk about a game your fans have been requesting, as opposed to hearing these requests and not being able to say anything?
It is really tough, because Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces are titles that I really brought to fruition in speaking with the internal teams and with speaking with the external teams, these are titles I really wanted to kick off and bring to market and talk about. It was really rough when he heard all these people clamoring for a Classic game or a Modern game and I really wanted to say, "Don't worry, we're going to have something for you," but all of our games need to have a good time period where we get to talk about and get people excited about it. It was tough, but being patient lets you get the reward of being excited now that we do get to talk about it.
These two games seem like they would be the first Sonic titles to be developed under Sega and Sonic Team's new approach talked about a couple of years ago with being less deadline driven and more quality focused. How has this new approach benefited Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces?
Back when Sonic Boom was created, everybody was focusing on different things. The U.S. was really focused on Boom with a TV show and games to support it, and the Sonic Team back in Japan was working on Modern Sonic doing their own thing. Before this restructuring and organizational change, it wasn't that things were fragmented or broken, but people were focused on different things that they wanted to do with Sonic the Hedgehog and the franchise in general. Since that has been reorganized and I'm here in Burbank communicating worldwide with all of the groups, we're noticing that this is the best way of doing things and how it should be a real positive going forward. We're now able to communicate with everyone worldwide from one perspective of what we want to do, what products we want to make, and how we're going to be moving forward with the brand and the franchise. That's probably the difference you're seeing with the content that's coming out. It's really all of us being on the same page and supporting one product all together, instead of us focusing on what we want to do and what we want to do with our version of Sonic the Hedgehog for our territory. I think we're much more globally minded now in moving everyone forward together instead of separate.
When I look at Modern Sonic games, some of the biggest consistent problems with gameplay have been how slippery it can feel when you're moving, and then the way the action goes into autopilot at times, where lots of cool things are happening on screen, but you're not responsible for much of it. With what I've played of Sonic Forces, both of those issues seem to have been improved. How has the team learned from these gameplay pitfalls of the past?
The controls have been a progression ever since Unleashed. We took the controls from Unleashed and brought it into Colors, kind of tweaking and changing and tuning it a bit, then taking it to Generations. What you're seeing with Forces is this iterative process of making it tighter, better, and nicer feeling. It's the continuous process, and since we have the same great team working on the same great content, they get to take their learnings forward with them on the next titles they're working on. A lot of the playtesting we're doing, a lot of the feedback given back to the developers is being built upon and built upon and built upon. Forces is the result of that iterative process from Unleashed all the way to the current day. That goes for not just the maps, but also the character running on those maps.
So, on one end of the spectrum, we have the autopilot problem I mentioned earlier, but on the other end, Sonic is going so fast that you almost need to have superhuman reflexes to avoid the obstacles and keep your momentum up. How do you balance those two elements so that it's fun, but still a challenge?
What you're touching upon is this contradictory kind of gameplay design. Am I out of control because it's on autopilot and I'm doing the cool stuff I want to do? Or am I in control and now there's no way I can play this game because it's too crazy? This really started with Sonic Adventure and bringing the title into the 3D world. Thinking, "How can we balance this and make it so you don't feel completely out of control or completely in control?" One of the problems we had with Sonic Adventure was if you're completely in control, nobody can run the loop-de-loop... they just fly right out! So how can we make it so that you do this really cool thing? The only way we found was to limit the player's action to make sure they get all the way through the loop, otherwise no one is going to make it through. What you're pointing at is what we've been going through for decades! Where's that fine line in controlling how far people can move without putting them in flat rails, because once they're in autopilot mode, it's no longer fun because they no longer feel in control. Once you take all the restraints off, you're going to fly off and you're not going to have a fun time. That's what I've been working on: trying to find that perfect sweet spot. Forces is going to be the latest version and latest iteration of people those restraints in where they need to be put in, but still makes you feel like you're in control and you're making all the movements.
Is there any chance of a multiplayer component in Sonic Forces?
It's a single-player game, and we're going to focus on you creating a character and enjoying the story as a single-player experience. If you're connected online, there will be some features that will work when you are connected to the internet through the first-party services.