Over the past few years the Sonic series has hit a bit of a renaissance, with Colours and Generations achieving relative success critically as well as commercially. Typically, just as this turnaround is achieved, the newest game shows signs of radical change to the 3D Sonic formula that had finally gained acceptance. Sonic Lost World’s new design is the kind of decision that means it’s always interesting to chat to Takashi Iizuka, the man at the top of Sonic Team today and the public face of the team. He’s always cheery and approachable, but you can never quite predict the answers you’ll get from him. We caught him right at the beginning of Summer of Sonic, as the organisers were on stage welcoming attendees!
[Sonic Retro sits down at one end of the large room, with Iizuka and Sega’s interpreter. At the other end, Jun Senoue is faintly strumming away on his guitar, playing the Station Square music. When asked which site we’re from, the reply elicits the customary “Ah, Sonic Retro” from Iizuka.]
Retro: We’re seeing Sonic Lost World at the convention today, and one of the things that is very noticeable is that it goes back to an older, more classic visual feel for the game, with recognisable elements of the original Sonic the Hedgehog design. What motivated you to make this change?
Iizuka: With the previous game (Sonic Generations), it was for the 20th anniversary so we decided to celebrate Sonic’s history. With that one, we tried to compress 20 years of history into one title and aimed for a high quality, HD re-imagining of what Sonic could be. With Sonic Lost World, what we wanted to do was imagine how best Sonic should be going forwards. So we looked back at what we had done before and tried to think about what would the best, playability-wise for Sonic going forwards, and what’s the best look for Sonic.
With Generations, it was HD and really detailed, almost so much that it was hard to see the rings when you were running through the levels. So this time, we stripped everything back and tried to renew Sonic, and we simplified the graphics to match the playability, the style of what Sonic should be.
[Read on for Iizuka’s views on the limitations of Sonic’s previous 3D outings, inspirations for Sonic Lost World and differences between working in the USA and Japan!]
Retro: Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations did well with the press and the fans, and it’s fair to say that people were happy with how Sonic worked in 3D. With Sonic Lost World, the design is very different with the new cylindrical stages and the new moves that Sonic has. What motivated you to move from the successful Colours/Generations formula?
Iizuka: In Colours and Generations, both games blended the forward-view gameplay with the side-view gameplay, often in the same stage. It was solidified as a play style and really worked quite well. But if we carried on like this for the next 20 years we wouldn’t be providing a new experience to the users, and we wanted to carry on innovating and providing new experiences for players, so we wanted to really challenge ourselves to do something new and be innovative.
With the forward-view in Generations, the only thing that we could really do was go forwards at a really fast pace and sidestep obstacles, and that was pretty much what that entailed. So we wanted to do something new with forward-view, to make sure we were innovating with that and to try to make it a much more interesting platform action game. That was our big challenge this time, so one of the solutions we came up with was the new kind of level design you’ve seen, which allows Sonic not just to sidestep but to do a lot more. There’s lots of different routes to take, and players can be quite creative with how they approach the levels.
So that was our motivation, to try to challenge ourselves with the forward-view gameplay.
Retro: Were there any particular games that you looked to for inspiration with Sonic Lost World?
Iizuka: The real starting point for the team was to provide a new gameplay style, so that’s where we started off. Our idea was, maybe the solution would be to have that forward-view play with the ability to go 360 degrees. There’s nothing really out there at the moment that we took inspiration from as far as other games are concerned. But when we were thinking of what kind of level designs Sonic could have that combined forward-view and 360 degree movement, the image that I had was of Jack and the Beanstalk, the stalk that goes high up into the sky. [Iizuka mimes a cylinder with his hands.] So that might not be the inspiration, but that was the image I had when we started to apply the concept to a Sonic platform game.
Retro: You spent some time working in the USA, notably from Sonic Adventure 2 onwards. You have since returned to Japan and spent a number of years back there now. Are there any major differences between developing games in the US and Japan?
Iizuka: There are a lot of differences! In the USA, because we were based there and living in the culture, we got a good feel of the atmosphere – what’s being well received, what’s selling well, what has a buzz – what is exciting people. That inspired us to make games that were perhaps more focused, more appropriate for that market. We weren’t necessarily intending to do that, but where we were living in that culture, it obviously influences you.
On a negative point, we had a very limited number of people in our team. We had to maximise what we had with really limited resources, and work within that constraint, so that was one of the challenges we had when developing in the US.
Since returning to Japan, we have a much larger team available to us, so we were able to develop Sonic 4 and Sonic Colours at the same time, which wouldn’t have been possible had we still been in the USA. At the moment, we’re developing Sonic Lost World for the Wii U and 3DS, which again is possible because we have a bigger team.
[At this point, Sega’s PR person informs us that our 15 minutes are up]
Retro: Thank you very much!
Iizuka: [In English] Wow, that was short.
Check back tomorrow for our second interview, with veteran character designer Kazuyuki Hoshino!