Sega Isn't Abandoning "Classic" Sonic, But It Wants to Make Boom Better

A Sonic of Ice and Fire.

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Today Sega announced a new game in the Sonic franchise, but it's probably not the one fans were hoping for. A follow-up to last year's 3DS game Sonic Boom: The Shattered Crystal, the next game is a 3DS exclusive in the Sonic Boom series: Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice.

Fire & Ice is coming from Sanzaru Games, the developer behind Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time, among other games. But after the mostly negative response to the two previous Boom games, why does Sega think things will be different this time? I talked with Sega Producer Omar Woodley and Sega PR representative Aaron Weber about making the Sonic Boom franchise better and how Sega isn't giving up on classic Sonic.

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As setup, Omar explained that Fire & Ice will have a much greater emphasis on a sense of speed and "returning favorites" from Shattered Crystal--things like "the tube races and some of the minigames." And the five main characters from the animated series are playable: Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, Amy, and Sticks the jungle badger.

GameSpot: Since the Wii U version was less successful last time, and the 3DS was already more popular, why not try to do the Wii U version again but better? Why shift completely to the 3DS?

Aaron Weber: Sanzaru [the game's developer] was already focused on the 3DS; they already had the structure built, and they already had the systems in place. So it was just a natural step for us to go with 3DS. So that was the main focus for us.

Omar Woodley: And the 3DS was definitely the stronger of the two titles last year. We saw it both in the user and the critical reviews, and so that was what really decided it. If we're really going to focus on something, we're really going to step it up and improve all of the things that need improvement, and try to make it a really solid game. The 3DS was a very natural choice.

We weren't too happy about the Wii U [version]; we totally feel the 3DS was the stronger of the two. So [Fire & Ice] is 3DS-only. We learned a lot from all the reviews, from our events with consumers, from all the fans, and we took a lot of those comments to heart. So we went back to the drawing board and worked on a new game, with [developer] Sanzaru Games--Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice.

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Basically, we took a lot of that feedback and we tried to fix what consumers and the fans felt was not truly "Sonic" in the last game or what were problematic areas: the character swapping; some of the special abilities weren't fluid enough; the size of the levels were enormous and the users felt lost in this huge labyrinth. And also, users really felt that the speed wasn't there. The speed that represented Sonic wasn't true, so we went back and kind of reestablished and reworked a lot of our methodologies on how we designed the levels.

We really wanted to focus on fluidity of gameplay. So in this version we've actually decreased the size of the levels about 40%. We've cut a linear path through the main part of the level, so you can literally sprint through the whole level and have that fast Sonic experience. We've put all the exploration aspects on the periphery of the levels. We're keeping the exploration because that is what Sonic Boom is. It's a way of us taking Sonic out of his classic legacy gameplay, his arcade vibe, and it's giving him a more real-world presentation, a more adventure-based presentation for a new generation of gamers.

We've also tied the game more closely to where the animated series is at this point. Last year we launched the game right at the beginning of the animated series. There wasn't really a great following because the train was literally just leaving the station at that time. So nobody really knew what Sonic Boom was. A lot of the core fans said, "That's not Sonic." But I think this time around Sonic Boom is one of the leading cartoons on the Cartoon Network. We have established the merchandising already in stores so the message is pretty clear what Sonic Boom is.

What do you think led to that disconnect with the original Sonic Boom?

OW: I think the core fan base was expecting the classic-looking Sonic. Classic-looking Knuckles. We revamped all the characters, and I think that was one big shock to the fan base and consumers. We didn't really explain until after we redesigned them why we were doing it. But by then we still hadn't launched any animated episodes. We hadn't shown any animations. So still there wasn't a clear message as to what we were trying to do.

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People thought it was just going to be a reboot, not a different direction to go with Sonic. And I think that was what was confusing to the user.

So this is aimed more at that younger new audience, rather than the established fanbase?

OW: Correct. This is in line with what we tried to do last year, but I think we'll be more successful this time because we have the animation out. We have the merchandising out. On Cartoon Network, the animated series targets the 6-to-11-year-old age range, and the game is also primarily targeted towards that age range. But, of course, we're going to attract the core fan base because it's Sonic.

AW: One of the key challenges with Sonic as a franchise is that you have such a legacy. That you have people who grew up with it on the Sega Genesis. People that grew up with it on the Dreamcast, and the Gamecube. And then you have another generation, the younger audience, that are kids that watch the TV show every weekend.

How do you appeal to all three of those groups? Because each of those is looking for something a little bit different. Though the primary focus is definitely toward the younger audience, there's a lot of the stuff in there that the team has tried to bring in that makes it feel very iconic to Sonic 2. It's a lot faster this time around, swapping characters is much easier. The music was done by Richard Jacques who was one of the composers for Sonic: 3D Blast, back in '96. So there's a lot of history from different angles and elements. Even the story has certain parallels to the storylines from older Sonic games. That's one of the things they're trying to do to bring in those other audiences and offer something for them.

So does the original Sonic still exist? We recently learned about Mario and Sonic at the Rio Olympics, and that looks like the Sonic that we're familiar with from previous games. Will these two Sonics co-exist?

AW: Yeah, they essentially run parallel, so obviously Nintendo just announced the new Mario and Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic games, and that is like what we call modern Sonic. He's got the green eyes; the tan arms, instead of the blue arms; and no scarf. So for the really hardcore vocal fans, they can be happy with that Sonic. But likewise, Sonic Boom as a TV show is doing extremely well on Cartoon Network right now so there's this new generation coming up watching that and really enjoying that. This game is built in that universe. They both exist simultaneously.

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The other thing people wonder about concerns Sega's recent changes. Has that affected development? Has that affected the way that the company approaches Sonic and the franchise?

AW: In some ways it does affect the way that we approach a franchise, but for us, as you've probably seen, we're focusing a lot more on Sonic these days. Sonic is one of the big things we're looking at right now. I'm going to be moving down to Los Angeles, and we'll have a whole team down there that is dedicated to Sonic--to the Sonic brand, to the games, to the licensing. At this point we're doing Sonic licensing on everything from toys to wallets with the classic Sonic design. That's something we'll continue to focus on as we go forward and Sonic remains a huge priority for us.

With the changes at Konami, I think people are even more sensitive to potentially losing these childhood icons. But it sounds like you're not going to abandon the fans who still want that core Sonic experience, just because Boom is a big popular thing.

AW: Right.

What drove the decision to go with an outside developer for this rather than an internal team at Sega?

AW: Sonic Boom was a western initiative. And so for that we wanted to use a western developer to have that perspective. It's very different to the way Japanese developers work, and especially Sonic Team, they don't necessarily grasp everything that we're trying to establish with the adventure aspect. And so we kind of have to give them that presentation as far as what we want to do with the game and the animation. We want to have more of a Indiana Jones or Tomb Raider kind of spin on things; they are more focused on the classic style of gameplay for Sonic.

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OW: For the story, we tried to tie it more to what's concurrently going on in the animated series. Eggman is a big character in the animated series. He's basically the co-star with Sonic. A lot of the episodes revolve around Eggman's shenanigans and his devious plots, and then Sonic is confronted with that, or he helps Eggman out of some trouble because Eggman's gotten in over his head. We didn't introduce any new mysterious ancient alien race or anything like we did in the previous games. We thought that that was just not the way to go this time.

Is there any StreetPass functionality that will be put into the game? Or Amiibo?

AW: We have StreetPass planned, but we're not detailing out what that is yet. And we have the local play for the bot racing. Those are the only two additional features that we have in there.

Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice is coming out this holiday.

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