Sonic Frontiers: interview with producer Takashi Iizuka

Sonic Frontiers: interview with producer Takashi Iizuka

Sonic Frontiers

For producer Takashi Iizuka, the release of Sonic Frontiers will represent a turning point for SEGA's Blue Hedgehog video games. Releasing November 8 on PC and consoles, Sonic's new adventure could finally give longtime fans a great 3D game after years of barely passable episodes, while capitalizing on the success of the two feature films in theaters.

Iizuka hopes that in the next thirty years Sonic will become so popular that it will have its own theme park, but for the moment the Japanese producer is focusing on the present. At a press event organized by SEGA, we interviewed Takashi Iizuka to ask him about Sonic Frontiers, its development and the influences that have led the Sonic Team to overturn a formula that has always remained the same.

The interview with Takashi Iizuka

Sonic Frontiers represents a turning point for the series, but what was the moment when you finally decided to change course?

In over 30 years, Sonic's video games have seen few major changes. The first major change was when we moved from Sonic the Hedgehog's 2D gameplay to Sonic Adventure's 3D worlds. At the time the reason was purely technological: the consoles had developed to the point that we could not limit ourselves to just 2D games, but we had to go into the third dimension and offer a gameplay that met the expectations of the public. With Sonic Frontiers we are facing a new big change, but this time the technology has nothing to do with it. In recent years we have realized that the public has started to prefer games with a high level of freedom, while Sonic has always had linear gameplay, where the goal was to get from one point to another as fast as possible: it was a formula incompatible with the expectations that users have today. So we sat down and discussed how we could add more freedom, and what the gameplay of the series would be for the next ten or twenty years.

When the game was unveiled at the Summer Game Fest, the welcome was pretty bad, and anyone who tried the demo spoke pretty badly about it. Then the feedback has improved over the past few months, so can you tell us what in your opinion went wrong in June?

The game at the time was still in an unripe version, an open-air construction site. The demo that we brought to the Summer Game Fest had an unfinished design and there were still many changes to be made to improve the game. At Gamescom, on the other hand, we presented ourselves with a more advanced beta, which contained many of the additions and improvements we had planned: it was at that point that the public began to notice progress.

At this point you think that the setting of Sonic Frontiers will be the one that SEGA will adopt for the Sonic in 3D from now on?

"This year we released Sonic Mania and Sonic Origins because we still have a lot of fans who love that classic 2D action platform gameplay, and we will definitely continue to offer that kind of game. Even when we talk about the 3D chapters, we know that there is a slice of the public that loves the most arcade sequences and loves to finish the levels in the shortest possible time, so we will try to please them too. But when we talk about the main chapters, we want future Sonic games to continue to develop the concept of Open Zone that we introduced with Frontiers ".

So the levels in Cyber ​​Space in Sonic Frontiers are mainly meant to please longtime fans?

"Yes, exactly".

In Frontiers, Sonic transforms into Super Sonic to face the Titans, but the impression is that it is integrated in a more coherent way than in other episodes. Can you tell us more?

"In previous games Super Sonic was used as a means to end the story, a tool to beat the final boss. It was the climax of the whole adventure. But in Sonic Frontiers there is a Titan on every island, and you can't beat him using Sonic's normal abilities. So we wanted to use Super Sonic to take the entire combat system to the extreme, testing the player with all the skills he has learned while exploring the island. " .

Speaking of abilities: You seem to have abandoned many of the conventions of the series, with Sonic now no longer having some of his historical techniques, such as the Spin Shot.

"Initially we took all of Sonic's old techniques, added a skill tree and added the dynamics of the Cyber ​​loop. The intention was to keep Sonic's basic skills intact, but during the test we realized that some techniques had become useless after adding more functional ones, and one of these was the Bolted Snap. In short, we have removed some of the actions that were not so important or necessary to complete the game precisely because there are others who now play the same role or do it better ".

Did the success of the two films in the cinema influence the development of Sonic Frontiers in any way?

Seeing Sonic become a Hollywood star with a movie that many people have seen and enjoyed was a dream come true. And the success in the cinema is very important for Sonic's future, as he has brought so many new fans who are now looking forward to new productions. However, when we started development on Sonic Frontiers, the movie wasn't out yet, and we didn't know if it was going to be successful or not. However, we wanted to be sure to incorporate options designed for an audience that has never played a Sonic game, so that they can enjoy themselves even without years of experience with the series. One example is the "Action Style" mode, designed to make the game more familiar and less hectic for newbies. There are also many other options to change the speed of the camera, the maximum speed reached by Sonic or the steering sensitivity, so as to adapt the experience to your needs. This way hardcore fans with years of experience playing Sonic games can enjoy just as much fun as those approaching the series for the first time.

These accessibility options could also bring a handicapped audience closer to the series. Is this something you take into consideration given the ever-growing interest in the subject?

Just for clarity: the aforementioned options are primarily aimed at action game fans who don't have much experience with the speed of Sonic games, but who are used to playing action games nonetheless. The goal with those settings is to get that slice of gamers to approach the series for the first time with Sonic Frontiers and still have fun. However, we have not made an in-depth analysis on the type of accessibility addressed to people with different needs and requirements. It's not easy with Sonic. I was once in France and met a completely blind fan who told me he was a huge fan of Sonic games. I asked him curiously how he managed to play them and he replied that, especially in the more classic 2D chapters, as long as you keep moving to the right sooner or later you get to the end of the level. But above all he used the sound effect of the rings: as long as he continued to hear the sound of the rings he knew he was going in the right direction. And so, even though he couldn't see what was happening on the screen, he still managed to play the game and have fun. This is a possibility that the development team had never thought of: a lucky game design accident. Some types of games are certainly more suitable than others, and it is very difficult to ensure that everyone can play our games, regardless of people's limitations and disabilities. But the team's mindset has always been to make every game accessible and enjoyable for as many people as possible, and that's a philosophy we will continue to pursue.

Playing Sonic Frontiers it's hard not to get the feeling that Breath of the Wild was an inspiration for the open map. Is it an impression?

Although we have looked at what other games have done, we have tried to do something very different from RPGs and action with open world maps. Our goal was to take the fast, straightforward platforming experience of the old Sonics and put it into completely free gameplay. That freedom led to the "open zone" concept we proposed in Sonic Frontiers. So for us Breath of the Wild is a completely different game: yes, there may be similarities and comparisons can be made, but our starting point is completely different.

In a game where you can explore freely the map and independently decide the pace of the progression, how difficult was it to make a story that didn't seem too fragmented and at the same time didn't hinder the freedom of exploration?

This was a fundamental question. Previous Sonic games had a very present narrative, with the events being told in a linear fashion as you played through the various levels. Now, however, we have an open and freely explorable world, where you can go around and do whatever you want: that's why we had to rethink the way to tell the story, and make the story as simple as possible. The important thing for us was to make the plot understandable to everyone, regardless of the time spent exploring. So you can focus on the main story, get to the end and get an idea of ​​what happened on the island. But you can also tackle all these side missions that reveal new details about what happened to Sonic, his friends and the inhabitants of the island. So if you really want to know every single detail you have to roll up your sleeves and play not only the main story, but also all the extra hidden activities around.

Compared to chapters like Sonic Forces, can you tell us how many people have composed the Sonic Frontiers development team?

I can't go into detail but compared to the development team that made Sonic Forces, we're definitely talking about a bigger group. Not that big though, and we're certainly way behind other giant AAA game development teams. Sonic Frontiers is still a big game, so even though the team is smaller than others it made up for it by working more time creating so much content.

Now that Sonic Frontiers development is finally complete and you have an overview of the project, what is it that makes you most proud?

For sure the thing that makes me happiest is to finally be able to say that I have brought the next generation of gameplay to life in Sonic 3D games. Everyone on the team has worked hard and I am convinced they have done a great job. Being able to present the result of this work to people is already a huge satisfaction, but above all having received positive feedback from those who have tried the game at Gamescom and TGS is what made us most happy.

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