Sonic has had a tumultuous history. The fast-running hedgehog is one of the most well-known video game characters, and many people have fond memories of playing the 2D side-scrolling Sonic titles, but recent games haven't been received particularly well.
Publisher Sega is attempting to revive the Sonic brand with a handful of upcoming projects, one of which is Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice. It's a sequel to the critically panned Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal--but according to creative director Mat Kraemer, developer Sanzaru is working hard to overcome the failings of the first game. We were able to sit down with Kraemer and talk about how the studio is building upon the successes of Shattered Crystal, but also acknowledging what went wrong. We also discussed virtual reality, Sanzaru's older games like Sly Cooper, and the existence of a Sonic Bible.
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GameSpot: Could you speak a little about what you changed from the first Sonic Boom?
Matt Kraemer: One of the biggest changes is the level design. It's a lot more streamlined, it's a lot more made for speed. A lot of the stages that you see here are built for combo-ing. You can literally combo stages from the start all the way to the end. It was something that we didn't have in the first game, it was more maze-like where you had progression where you would get to a dead-end and then you would have to go back and go at a different pace.
And there's no progression blockers in the game. In the original game, you would play a stage, and then you couldn't move forward because you had to collect these badges. We removed those gates so you can freely move forward at your will.
What were some other main points of feedback you got from the last game that you really took to heart?
The backtracking people really didn't like; and just generally the sense of speed, the sense of combo-ing. The last game--I would [compare] it more to a Sonic game that has more of a maze-style layout. Like a labyrinth, you get to a dead-end and then you turn back. [in Fire and Ice], the path from A to B is a lot more straightforward.
You worked on some pretty different stuff before taking on Sonic Boom. Did any of the team members working on Sonic Boom come from those projects?
Yeah, I was the lead designer on Sly Cooper, I'm the one that pitched the original game... Most of the core Sly Cooper team was on this. Not that many because on Sly we had 80+ people and on this we're much smaller. But the core group was on this.
And Sly's a fairly different game than this.
It's different, but it's also pretty similar. In Sly we had a number of different characters, all with different abilities, all with different mechanics. Here, we have a bunch of different characters, all with different abilities. But they're in a more simple format, whereas in Sly you had very complex characters.
At the studio, we have three core groups. Those three groups are making three different games at the same time, but this group—the Sly Cooper and Sonic group—have been together now probably going on eight years.
What was it like working on a series as storied and popular as Sonic?
It's been fantastic... To get the opportunity to work on Sonic, I mean, we grew up with Sonic, and it's really an honor.
The first game kind of fell onto our lap. We're not going to pass it up, it's Sonic. I don't care what time frame or situation we have, it's Sonic, we have to do it. But I wish we had a lot more time to give that game the love that it needed. But I feel that we did that here with this [new game], and the team is really proud of it.
So this is making good on a lot of the stuff you wanted to do with the last one?
Yeah, and that's something we always do, especially me. I read every single comment--I go on all the forums, I go on NeoGAF… but you have to take things with a grain of salt, especially with Sonic. Everyone's going to hate on Sonic and have something to say, but you look at those comments constructively. I take all the information and granularly break it down, and [say], "People really didn't like that feature, or they really wanted this," and those are the things you focus on.
Most times when you finish a game, you don't have much time when the game is completely together to keep playing it and [think about what needs to be improved]. With this game, we had that extra time, and we did a lot of play tests… and we could see people literally play the game as a whole and see where people got stuck and rectify those.
You mentioned that you wanted to make this accessible to everyone. Were there instances that you ran into where you were developing something and you had to tone it back?
Oh yeah. The original races when you're racing against bots were way too hard. We toned those back a lot and did a lot of rubber-banding.
And the boss fights--some of those we had to tone back. And it's surprising when you go into those playlists because you always try to get a really wide [demographic]. And you know who's the better players? The younger kids. And the old dudes over there are saying, "Man, this is too hard for me!"
I think that a lot of the really difficult things are best left as optional. You don't have to do them, but for the players that like the challenge, that's there for them.
I think making it easier is better.
Are there some other ways you're tying this into the classic games, as well as the animated series?
A lot of the motion, a lot of the combo-ing, the designs of the enemies, the characters—some of those were directly designed by Sega Japan. We went back and forth on character sketches and what they look like. I would go through my Sonic Bible and say, "Oh this guy is like a rhino…" and then we'd go back and forth.
Do you actually have a Sonic Bible?
We do have a Sonic Bible. There is a Sonic Bible. And it's very helpful, because you want it to be close to the animated series, but you want it to be recognizable to those fans [of classic games] as well.
Have you guys been working with VR?
A little bit, yeah…
The boundary of ease of use, now with VR, that's even worse. We have to dumb it down even more. In 10 years that won't be a problem.
What do you think of it so far?
I love it. We've been doing a bunch of stuff with [Oculus head of studios] Jason Rubin, and everyone's of course like "Oh, Sly Cooper and Jak, are you guys doing that in VR?" But like, that's been really fun to work with that group on that stuff.
We got a bunch of cool stuff cooking.
Who knows, Sonic in VR one day?
What are some little things about Fire and Ice that people might not recognize immediately, but would appreciate?
Definitely the attention to the props, the textures, character motion, character animations, poses at the end of the scenes, how [Sonic] stands, how their eyelids are, where their faces are positioned, all those things are little details that we work on to make it feel like Sonic. You want him to be in the right pose, you want him to act a certain way.
And if you change anything, you'll have a lot of angry people.
Working with franchises like Sonic and Sly Cooper, it's difficult because you want to change it, but you don't want to change it too much. And then you have to pick the things you want to change. With properties like this, you really look at it, like "What makes this property so popular? Here are the things. Okay, we can't change those." And picking that right balance… and sometimes you change too much, and sometimes you don't change enough.
And it's about listening to people. When I go to E3 and someone's playing the game for the first time, I'm looking at how they're holding the controller, I'm looking at their face, I'm looking at why they got stuck there.
And that's something I think our studio does very well. We always try to make something that's for everybody. We're gamers, we're not making games to get a paycheck, we're making games to make fun games that we would want to play. Really identifying and listening to the community is something we take to heart.