Sonic Heroes - 2004 Developer Interview
Originally published in Nintendo Dream #107, this interview with Sega director Takashi Iizuka discusses the making of Sonic Heroes, successor to the Sonic Adventure series and Sega's first multi-platform, third-party 3D Sonic game. The talk largely focuses on Sonic Team USA, the US-based but primarily Japanese-staffed branch of Sonic Team that developed or supervised most of the Sonic games released from 1999 to 2008.
Takashi Iizuka - Director
—Sonic Team USA's development is based in America, but how did that come to pass?
Iizuka: The first Sonic game was made in Japan, but the characters were originally made to target the American market, which was the largest market then. That's why, even back then we had the notion that we should be making these games here, because that would help Sonic absorb more of the American atmosphere. So starting with Sonic 2 we did just that, and have been developing Sonic here in the US for awhile now.
—I remember, that was when Yuji Naka (the current President of Sonic Team) was working on the Sonic developments in America.
Iizuka: Yeah. After that he came back to Japan and worked up the plans for Sonic Adventure, and that first game was made in Japan. Since Sonic Adventure 2, though, they've been made in America, because we wanted to hear what Americans thought and get a better feel for this market.
—I imagine working in America is different from Japan?
Iizuka: Every game developer knows how the tastes of American players are very different from the Japanese, but when you actually live overseas, you come to understand that in a deeper, more direct way. I am sure that ends up being reflected in the way we make these games too.
—There's things you probably can't understand until you actually live there, in other words.
Iizuka: Another big reason for being here, is that as creators, the characters of Sonic are very precious to us. That feeling is what has brought these characters so far, but outside of Japan where we couldn't see what's happening, sometimes Sonic's image was used in ways that we didn't feel was appropriate. So one goal in setting up base here in the US was to be able to manage and control Sonic's image on a more international level, not just in Japan.
—Right, because Sonic is extremely popular in America.
Iizuka: Yeah. The truth is though, that before Sonic Adventure, some people were just doing whatever they wanted with Sonic's image. There were comics and cartoons that were completely off-brand, he was like a totally different character. It was a tangled mess, and by re-locating Sonic Team to America, we hoped to restore some consistency.
—I see. Did Yuji Naka order you to go to America then?
Iizuka: No, no. I volunteered for the job! I really wanted to go.
—So it was your idea then?
Iizuka: Yes. I wanted to work on Adventure in this environment which had nurtured Sonic to such heights before. Naka was in total agreement about setting up an American team here.
—I see! How many people are working at Sonic Team USA right now?
Iizuka: We have 19 people now. Most of them are Japanese, but three are local hires.
—Everyone must be great at English, right?
Iizuka: No, that's not the case. (laughs) Most the staff are people who I lured over from Japan to come work with me.
—Did your family come with you?
Iizuka: Yes. My child came over when he was just 1 years old… they're 5 now, and I have a newborn here too.
—Five years old, that's just the right age to start playing Sonic games, right?
Iizuka: Yeah. (laughs) There's an anime called Sonic X that just started airing here, so that's fun, seeing him in full-English mode like that.
—Learning English through Sonic, I'm jealous. (laughs) So the anime has finally come to America too, then.
Iizuka: It's aired on this children's TV programming block called FoxBox. It seems to be getting rave reviews. I hear it's the most popular of the Saturday morning cartoon block, which includes "Kirby: Right Back at Ya" and "Shaman King". When I see it, I can feel how it's creating a new generation of Sonic fans in the American market.
—What's your development environment like there in San Francisco?
Iizuka: In terms of the geography and climate, there's not a lot of temperature variation throughout the year. It doesn't rain much either, so it's a very easy place to live. That means we can focus all our energy on the development.
—You still pull all-nighters then?
Iizuka: Of course, it happens. (laughs) Everyone commutes by car here, though, so there's no worries about missing the last train home. You don't have that fear of being on a roll, but having to stop and go home before the train leaves. Because of that we can work at our own pace, which is big.
—What do you like about working overseas?
Iizuka: I'm someone who still wants to be actively making games myself. So rather than being in Japan, where I'd have to do various administrative and managerial duties, here I have some space from that and I can devote myself purely to actual game development.
—I see. On the other hand, what challenges or problems having you faced?
Iizuka: Ahh… definitely English. (laughs) I work very close to a Sega of America staff member, so I hear lots about the marketing side's perspective, but the e-mails all have to be in English. When I have time, I can slowly read everything and respond, but when I have to quickly read a bunch of English, it's like… ugh. (laughs)
—There's not much you can do about that! Outside of the development, how about your daily life stuff? Any issues with the food there?
Iizuka: Living overseas, I've found there's lots of delicious food here, including Japanese restaurants, so it's not something I worry about much anymore. On the occasions I come back to Japan though, I'm always reminded me of how good the ramen is in Japan. I always eat a bunch of ramen and gyudon (beef bowls) when I'm back. (laughs)
—Sonic Heroes is the first original Sonic game in awhile.
Iizuka: Sonic Adventure 2: Battle was our first GameCube outing, but that was mostly based on the Dreamcast version. This time, since we're working with new hardware that's one step up from the Dreamcast, we said let's make a "one-step-up" Sonic… but what should that be? That question was the start the Sonic Heroes planning.
—After that you hit on the idea of a 3-person "team action" game?
Iizuka: Yeah. We thought it would be fun if the characters worked together and acted in tandem. Up to now the action has mostly all been solo, with other characters only emerging when the story advances. This time we wanted to see if we could make a game where all the characters are together from start to finish. That was one of our first ideas.
—It feels quite lively and energetic with all three characters on-screen at once.
Iizuka: Yeah, it does! I felt that during the development too. In the beginning there were some people who were concerned that switching characters would destroy the tempo of the action, and would become annoying, but once they actually played it those worries vanished because it was really fun.
—Was it more fun than you imagined it would be?
Iizuka: Yeah. Now when I go back to Sonic Adventure, it feels kind of lonesome. (laughs) I feel like we managed to create a pure, fun action game with Sonic Heroes.
—It makes me happy to hear all the characters talking throughout the game too.
Iizuka: The talking was actually a by-product of other things. The previous games have had a voice guide for hints, but since we have three characters on-screen for Heroes, it was only natural for them to speak. And when we implemented it… it was a lot more fun than I'd imagined!
—Nice. When you hear them talk, it somehow makes the game feel easier to play.
Iizuka: They're your companions in-game, so it doesn't feel staged, or break the atmosphere, to have them speak. It feels totally natural.
—The new team action system feels very smoothly implemented too.
Iizuka: In Sonic Adventure, each character has their "thing" for you to enjoy: speed for Sonic, shooting for Tails, treasure-hunting for Knuckles. That variety of gameplay was one of its strengths. This time, our concept was to try synthesizing all that together with the team action system, so you could have full-access to those playstyles from start to finish.
—The different teams have nice distinct personalities too.
Iizuka: Team Sonic is great if you want pleasing, familiar action, while Team Dark is good when you want the thrill of defeating enemies. All 4 teams are different, so we made their dialogue and playstyles totally separate. Team Dark has two silent characters, though, so it was tough figuring out how to make them give hints. (laughs)
—What challenges did you face during this development?
Iizuka: It took a long time to fully realize the team action system in a form that was satisfying. We had to thoroughly verify whether it wasn't wrecking the tempo. Then there were the maps. In Sonic Adventure 2, we designed each map individually to match up with that respective character's gameplay. This time there were so many things to juggle simultaneously: trying to evoke a sense of speed, provide places to use your powers, using the flying characters… it was much more confusing to design than the earlier Sonic games. We'd finish a map, only to realize "you know, this isn't quite right", and then we'd have to revise it.
—Are you referring to the places where you have to change formation?
Iizuka: We decided early on, when we thought of the three different formations for Sonic Heroes, that we didn't want to make formation switching become this puzzle thing. That wasn't the direction we wanted to go in. With puzzles, once you understand the solution, executing that solution—the action—feels like a chore. We wanted this to be first and foremost an action game where the formation switching was part of the fun.
—That explains the design of the maps, which offer the player a good deal of latitude in how he progresses through them.
Iizuka: Yeah, it's like… if you have the speed formation selected you can go through like this, but if you go with a flying character, this way is more natural. We leave that choice up to the player. The monitor tells you the recommended formation to ensure that the player doesn't get stuck and pacing ruined, but it's not necessarily the only correct answer. We strived to create levels that left multiple possibilities open to the player.
—This is the first Sonic game to be released simultaneously on three platforms as well. How did you handle the joint development?
Iizuka: First we settled on the basic team action system, then we created maps with some variation, then finally we divided the teams in Japan into the three console groups. It took a really long time to solidify the team action, so the second half of the development was very tight.
—I asked Naka this before, but it sounds like you worked hard to make sure there was no difference between each hardware version.
Iizuka: When we decided it would be released for three platforms, some of the marketing people at Sega wanted us to put some difference into each one. But after Naka and I thought it over, we decided that we didn't want to make people who liked Sonic Heroes feel regret over which console version they had.
—So they're completely the same then?
Iizuka: Yeah. And this way, players with different systems can communicate with their friends without any weirdness. We determined that would be the best approach for a multi-format Sonic game.
—I see. It surely must have been a challenge to develop all three at the same time. Does the hardware vary much?
Iizuka: It can. The first one we worked on at Sonic Team was the PS2, but several things didn't go as well as we'd estimated. In truth, if we fiddled with the maps and customized them for each console it would be easier to develop, but then people with different consoles wouldn't be able to talk to each other about their experiences. So we made sure the content was always exactly the same.
—You dubbed 2003 "Sonic Year", which seemed like a demarcation between old and new Sonic. Where does Sonic go from here?
Iizuka: Hmm… that's a difficult question. My mind is still a blank there. (laughs)
—Well, let me ask it another way. With Sonic Heroes, did you exhaust every idea you had?
Iizuka: Yeah, for real. Everytime we release a Sonic game the feeling is one of exhaustion—I'm all tapped out! (laughs)
—What's the most important thing to you, Iizuka, when you make a Sonic game?
Iizuka: First of all, there's several aspects of Sonic's character that we want to protect and conserve, and make sure we don't damage. Gameplay-wise, it would be making sure the action has a good tempo. We remove annoying things that would just waste hours. If the tempo is good, players will want to play the same stage multiple times. Then with each replay, it becomes more and more fun. That "good feeling" is what I endeavor to create in players with a Sonic game.
—So that's what the "Sonic-ness" of Sonic to you, then.
Iizuka: As far as future goals, we want to keep surprising players with things that go a step beyond their expectations. Sonic and the universe that surrounds him contains infinite possibilities; our task is to choose among those what will really wow players. A Sonic that doesn't impress or surprise you in some way isn't Sonic in my opinion.
—Finally, please give a message to players who bought Sonic Heroes.
Iizuka: As a kid, the next day after you play a game, you look forward to talking about it with your friends at school, right? That's how it was for me. Those conversations have so far only been possible between fellow GameCube owners, but with Sonic Heroes, any console owner can get in on the fun. I think that's the biggest boon to a multi-console release, so I hope everyone can enjoy Sonic Heroes together.
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