Interview: Chris Southall, Hardlight Studio

Last week we interviewed Chris Southall, chief technical officer at Hardlight Studio, about the studio’s work on Sonic Dash, Sonic Jump and the future of the studio. The interview can also be heard on the audio version of the SEGA Nerdcast 16.

Note: Unfortunately, literally a couple of hours after the interview the Sonic Dash Global Challenge was achieved. We would have loved to have talked more about the achievement – but couldn’t predict it would have been completed so soon.

G: First of all can you give us an introduction to yourself and what you do at Hardlight Studio.

Hardlight_StudioChris: I’m the Chief Technical Officer at SEGA, but I’m primarily involved at Hardlight; I run the studio at the moment. I joined SEGA in 2005 and I was involved in the setup of a racing studio.

SEGA had some changes just over a year ago, one of their primary focuses in the last year has been doing more content on mobile. So Hardlight was setup May/June 2012 to do mobile titles. And we’ve been doing lots of fun stuff. Most of us are console guys, so we’ve moved over from console to mobile and you probably noticed we’ve done some Sonic-based stuff…

So that’s where we are now, doing some Sonic stuff and some other interesting things, we can’t quite talk about just yet.

G: So just to clarify. Were you working on the 2006 SEGA Rally (Revo) title with SEGA Racing Studio?

Chris: Yeah. I used to work at Codemasters and one of the things I did there was working on Colin McCrae Rally. So SEGA had the idea to renew SEGA Rally and I was one of the people brought on board to setup the Racing Studio. So I was there for the entire duration, working on SEGA Rally.

Chris helped work on the criminally under-appreciated SEGA Rally (Revo)
Chris helped work on the criminally under-appreciated SEGA Rally (Revo)

G: So was it a bit of a shock when they closed the studio down? Or was it expected at the time?

Chris: Yeah well it’s a hard thing to talk about. I’d left the studio at that point, I’d moved on to a more central role [at SEGA], so I wasn’t really involved in it. I think it was a bit of a shock, because although the game didn’t necessarily shift the massive amounts we were expecting as a company, it reviewed very well and it was a good quality game. And the studio as a start-up was successful. But I guess it’s just one of those things, it’s hard to read sometimes.

But on the plus side, we have a few of the guys from the racing studio who have come back to work at Hardlight. So that’s a good thing.

G: Well one of the main reasons we’ve bought you in, is for your more recent work on Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash. Being a SEGA-owned studio how does it work exactly when a new game comes about? Did SEGA say “Look Hardlight, you’re going to be making this Sonic game.” Or did you guys actually pitch the idea of Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash to SEGA?

Chris: It’s a terrible answer, but it’s a bit of both. As you say, Hardlight is a SEGA-owned studio and some of the guys here have been working with Sonic Team on and off over the years on various things. For example, some of us, myself included, worked on Sonic [& All-Stars] Racing, some of the team did some work on Sonic Unleashed, over in Japan as well as over here.

So when we came to work on mobile titles, we had a look at what IPs we’ve got as a company and there was one standout IP that sprang to mind quite quickly.

That’s probably a disingenuous way of saying one of the big IPs that SEGA has is Sonic. So it was really just a conversion between the publishing division and ourselves as to what kind of things we can do with Sonic on mobile.

Sonic-Jump-1G: Ok, so who actually came up with the actual idea to have the Sonic Jump style game in the first place then?

Chris: We were having a meeting internally about what to do with Sonic. Sonic Jump came from a mobile game that was done on the feature phones a while back and we were talking about what we might do on mobile and that was just a right candidate for almost a port over to a new version.

I think we got a little bit carried away with a port – we did a lot more with that game than we should have done, just porting it over. But I think it was a good learning exercise for the studio and a good entry into doing mobile.

So where did the idea come from for Sonic Jump? I think it was just an obvious choice looking around at what had been there before.

Talking about Sonic Dash, it’s derivative. I think it’s fair to say that there are other endless runners that came before Sonic Dash. Sonic Jump, you could argue that Doodle Jump is similar to Sonic Jump, but we had some heritage there. With Sonic Dash it was really just a fit for Sonic, it was natural – you know Sonic runs fast, he’s a fast guy.

On mobile, there’s certain sections in things like Sonic Unleashed, which I was talking about earlier, that game has sections that are very similar in essence to what is happening in Sonic Dash. So that was quite an obvious choice for a mobile title as well.

G: Talking about the similarities to Sonic Unleashed there – from a personal experience playing the game, it reminds me a lot of the Wii Sonic titles, like Sonic & the Black Knight and Sonic & the Secret Rings – because Sonic is always running forward in those games and the way Sonic moves left and right on the screen.

Were those titles something that perhaps influenced Sonic Dash, or is that just a happy coincidence with the similarities in style of play?

Despite some obvious similarities in gameplay to Sonic Dash, Chris says its just a happy coincidence
Despite some obvious similarities in gameplay to Sonic Dash, Chris says its just a happy coincidence

Chris: I think it’s a happy coincidence in this case. Take a look at games like Sonic 2, the bonus levels in that are essentially Sonic Dash but in an old 16-bit form. So there’s echoes between all of the games.

What we spent some time doing was looking at the previous games in terms of level content and pulled out the content from Green Hill Zone and the temple from Seaside Hill. So we did look at some of the older games to do that.

The natural fit for us was to look at some of the newer older games, just because the fidelity is a little bit higher more recently.

G: Going back to Sonic Jump and the transition into making Sonic Dash, was there anything in particular that you learned from making Sonic Jump that helped when developing Sonic Dash?

Chris: Really it’s quite a dull development answer. A lot of the learning was on the back end, like what we were trying to hit in terms of the memory footprint on the devices.

You may, or may not, notice that Sonic Jump is quite a large download, while Sonic Dash is about 35Mb at the moment and downloads super quickly and works over 3G. So probably some of the hidden things that only us, as developers, would worry about, rather than more significant things we brought between the two games.

G: When you first came to developing Sonic Dash, did you have the idea of it being a level-based game or did you always plan it to be an endless runner?

After some issues with having both a story and an arcade mode in Sonic Jump, Hardlight decided to make Sonic Dash an endless runner only
After some issues with having both a story and an arcade mode in Sonic Jump, Hardlight decided to make Sonic Dash an endless runner only

Chris: That’s a good question. No it was always planned to be an endless runner. Going back to your last question and talking about Sonic Jump, we have a story mode in there and we stuck in the Infinite Arcade mode into Sonic Jump, just because we could – it seemed like a thing that fell out of the development process.

But we definitely found that having those two paths, story mode and arcade mode, in Sonic Jump presented us some problems from the design point of view. So when we started on Sonic Dash, we committed pretty much day one: it was going to be one infinite running environment.

Having said that, it’s obviously the Temple Zone and the Grass Zone from Seaside Hill at the moment, and, as many people have pointed out to us, (and we are conscious of ourselves), there is a lot more variety that we could be adding into the game.

We are working on that stuff right now. I can’t talk about it too much, but in the very near future you will start seeing more environments in the game and more stuff happening.

G: You’ve worked on two Sonic titles – how have you, as a development studio, felt handling one of the biggest gaming characters in the world and SEGA’s main mascot. Has there been any difficulty involved with handling such a big character?

Chris: Well first of all it’s just a massive honour for us to be permitted to work on the IP and it goes back to work we’ve done in the past at SEGA and I’m sure we’ve built up a bit of trust between us and Sonic Team – having worked with those guys in their office in the past. So there is that heritage there.

But it’s a big IP, it’s a large church as well, there a lot of things that Sonic has done in the past. So it is quite hard selecting which bits of the Sonic universe you’re going to use. And we do have a very lengthy process, where we are working with Sonic Team approving from both a graphical and a design stand point, the things that we are doing. So we are making sure that we are fitting in with those guys are doing over there and what they’ve done in the past.

But, yeah, it’s just a privilege. In your question you asked what problems it might give. Well it does give us some problems in that we are quite restrained. Certain mobile games you can buy new items, like hats or shoes for your characters, but we obviously can’t do that with our characters in the Sonic universe. But at the same time, it gives us such a rich seam of content that we can mine. So we are just privileged really.

I think it’s fair to say that the next game we’re working on, which is not a Sonic game, is more something that’s a blend of our own originality, rather than just trying to chase stuff that’s on the App Store.

G: Were there real restrictions for you guys – because it is a Sonic Team-owned character. Did you have much freedom in developing the games, or did you have your hands tied quite a lot?

Chris: Well the way it works is that we come up with ideas and designs that we want to use and then we bounce those ideas off Sonic Team and they are really great. We have complete freedom in that sort of stage and then we have discussions where if something doesn’t work for the Sonic universe and they want to lock something down, we’ll explain what we want to do with the game design and they will often say “Ok well this doesn’t work for you, but how about you do something like this…” and they’ll suggest an alternative.

So it’s very much a back and forth conversation on the design. It’s a very good process really.

screen480x480G: I think it’s safe to say there are a lot of games on Apple’s App store, so it’s very easy for games and apps to be forgotten in the store – yet Sonic Dash has been consistently popular since its launch. Do you think there’s a secret to creating a game with lasting appeal?

Chris: Well if you look at both Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash, they are very polished and engaging games, [sic] they maybe show their heritage in terms of having console developers working on the games previously, you’ll find that perhaps they might have gone overboard in certain areas, in terms of detail. So I think that gives you a very good start out of the gates

We’ve obviously got Sonic, which is a massive brand, so there’s a lot of fondness for Sonic and a lot of recognition. He’s a very recognisable brand, so that gives you a very good foothold in the App Store.

And then really we aimed to keep up dating the titles as much as possible. Actively for Dash we are trying to do stuff every month, and there’s a quite a big update coming in a few weeks’ time and there’s going to be some exciting content in there. Plus there’s going to be stuff hot on the heels of that update.

So if people keep going on the game, we’ll keep pushing more content and try to make the game better for people.

Well we’re definitely looking at all platforms. We’re not confined to just iOS or Android, we are looking at all the other platforms and playing about with some stuff internally.

G: You yourself pointed out that Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash weren’t the first within their genres on the App Store, but they are arguably among the best quality out there. So when Hardlight sets out to develop a game, do you guys look at the current trends in the marketplace at the time and try to base your game off that? Or do you try to predict what might become popular in the future and aim to do that?

Chris: As a studio, we’ve been going for just over a year now, as I said before, our experience was from consoles so you have to look at our output and its fairly obvious, it’s got to be said, in terms of the types of games all the treatments you have on mobile, we have learnt a lot in the last year.

I think it’s fair to say that the next game we’re working on, which is not a Sonic game, is more something that’s a blend of our own originality, rather than just trying to chase stuff that’s on the App Store.

In terms of looking at what’s on the App Store and what’s ahead, obviously we are thinking about it and looking at what other people are doing. We  look at what’s successful and what isn’t successful, but we’re definitely at a stage in our development studio where we’ve broken out and are looking at what our own content should be – without necessarily going towards what’s there right now.

That’s a bit of a woolly answer maybe. But there’s a lot more to come from us, hopefully it will be quite interesting and surprising for people.

screen480x4802G: Sonic Dash was originally released at the beginning of March this year and it there was talk about an Android version, but it’s been nearly 6 months on and it hasn’t been released on any platform, other than iOS. Do you guys still have plans on porting the game to any other platforms?

Chris: Yeah, I probably should start with an apology to all the Android guys out there. It’s not a deliberate snub or anything like that.

We’ve just been super busy and we’re a very small studio (approx. 21 people – according to Wikipedia – Ed) and really we’ve been taken aback by how popular Sonic Dash has been. It’s been a bit like a bow wave hitting us and we’ve really been struggling to maintain the support for the title since then.

But I think we’re getting in to a position right now, where we can be sure that we can do a decent job of Android versions and look at other versions as well.

So that’s not exactly an announcement right now, but it’s not really “If”, it’s “When”. Hopefully I’ll be able to talk about the exact times sometime in the near future.

G: Just out of curiosity, you say you’re looking at all platforms. Does that include things like the Windows Phone or even the Windows 8 Store?

Chris: Yeah. Well we’re definitely looking at all platforms. We’re not confined to just iOS or Android, we are looking at all the other platforms and playing about with some stuff internally.

Whether certain platforms get through to release is just a function of whether, as a small studio, we can service those platforms and whether there’s opportune business. Certainly we are keen to spread across as many platforms as we can.

G: Looking at the Sonic Dash leader boards, some of the scores are astronomically high and appear to be fake. Have you found that some people have been cheating on the game? Or are these genuinely high scores?

Chris: Yes, unfortunately the scores at the top of the Game Center leader boards are hacked. Quite often you do find that most games the top scores are hacked.

What we’ve been trying to do within the game is keep the leader boards between Game Center and Facebook friends, so you know that your friends are hopefully posting up scores they haven’t hacked.

But really the Game Center leader boards… well it’s a fact of life that there are hacks and workarounds  where people post stupid scores. Having said that, looking at some of the scores on my friends’ list, there’s people who have got two million-plus and they’ve done that with completely viable non-dodgy means.

So it is pretty possible to get high scores without cheating.

[Tip from Chris Southall: Doing the missions will earn you multipliers, which will boost your scores significantly.]

G: Talking about different characters in the game. One of the criticisms with the game is that even though you can choose different characters, like Sonic and Amy Rose – they essentially play exactly the same way. Was there ever a discussion to change their abilities to match more with their traditional character styles?

Chris: The short answer is that if we had the time and had the ability to push that extra content into each individual characters then we would have done.

We’ve got the characters in, but we really haven’t done as much as we could or should have done, it has to be said. But we are actively looking at what can be done with the characters, to definitely make them that little bit more special going forward and not make them exactly the same in terms of gameplay.

[What we have right now] isn’t what we wanted to do originally, but because of development time issues, we haven’t actually got there yet. So definitely watch this space.

G: Speaking about updates, is there another potential future updates for Sonic Dash in the pipeline that you can mention?

Chris: Well we’re definitely updating the game all the time. We’ve just released 1.41 version and we have 1.5 version coming very soon.

We’ve got some really cool new content in there, things to help you get higher scores and the other thing coming in the next update that I should talk about now is we have been working quite hard to optimise the game so you will get a better performance on the lower-end platforms. The water effects are improved on the higher-end platforms and in general, as well as adding extra content and things to do, the whole game should play more smoothly.

I talked a little bit about coming from the SEGA Rally/SEGA Racing Studio heritage. During that period we were getting good links with some of the guys in Japan, so what we’ve been doing is working with the original game director of a famous old IP that’s not a Sonic IP and reinventing that.

G: Stepping away a bit from Sonic Dash and Sonic Jump, when Hardlight Studio was announced originally, there were reports that there was a PS Vita exclusive action/adventure title being developed and then a bit later reports came out that Hardlight would be focusing more on mobile phone platforms, like iOS, Android and Windows Phone.

Are there any plans to go back to working on the Vita or even the 3DS, or are you guys very much sticking to mobile phones now?

Chris: That’s an interesting question. Earlier I referred to Hardlight starting up, really as a mobile developer in May/June 2012, but you’re absolutely right that the name came and the team started getting formed in 2011 and at that time we were looking  at content on Vita.

Really what happened between making the action/adventure game on the PS Vita and looking to mobile, SEGA did some restructuring internally and they decided that we would be better tasked towards mobile development, for the time being.

Going forwards, in terms of platforms, as I mentioned earlier we are not limited to just mobile platforms, we are definitely more mobile developers these days than console ones, but we do have that console heritage and the more console-esque handheld platforms such as the 3Ds and Vita are certainly things that we think about.

So I think the summary answer is that we won’t say “never” on any of those platforms.

Will Hardlight Studio ever return to its mysterious PS Vita-exclusive action/adventure? We certainly hope so!

G: I don’t suppose you happen to know anything about that PS Vita action/adventure title that was mentioned. Was that completely scrapped and did it actually get off the ground at all?

Chris: It definitely got off the ground. There was pre-production work on it, it was looking really good and all I can say on the status of that is: it’s parked at the moment.

There was content created on that and we may or may not come back to it as a studio in the future. Certainly what we had early on was really interesting and promising. I know that if you were to speak to some of the guys here, they’d be keen to un-park it. But we’ll just have to see how busy we are as a studio.

G: You briefly touch upon this earlier in the interview. You mentioned that the next Hardlight game isn’t going to be a Sonic title. Is there anything further you can divulge on that?

Chris: Sure, there’s not a lot more I can divulge, but I can say it’s not a Sonic game. I can also say it’s not an original IP, it’s a reinvention of an existing IP.

At the top end of the interview I talked a little bit about coming from the SEGA Rally/SEGA Racing Studio heritage. During that period we were getting good links with some of the guys in Japan, so what we’ve been doing is working with the original game director of a famous old IP that’s not a Sonic IP and reinventing that.

So we’ve just gone past pre-production and are entering production on that title. So we will announce it at some point within the next 6 months. It’s an old IP, that’s being revisited.

Can I just say, just to get it out of the way… it’s not Shemue – sorry. ;0)

…We will announce it at some point within the next 6 months. It’s an old IP, that’s being revisited. Can I just say, just to get it out of the way… it’s not Shemue – sorry. ;0)

G: Where do you see Hardlight Studios in the next 5-10 years? Would you be happy sticking to mobile platforms, or would like SEGA to say “Hey would you guys like to work on an Xbox One or PS4 title?”

Chris: I think that’s a hard question. I think for myself, and possibly all the people here, it’s good to be doing stuff that’s cool and fun to work on and being fun for people to play. And that’s the main thing.

It’s got to be said that coming from a console background, where you’re spending 18months or more on development, it’s been quite refreshing coming to mobile and spending 6 months getting a game out. That said we are still spending time on those games after release and looking to do so for a year, or 18 or 24 months – so the cycles are different.

Going forwards, I hope to be working anywhere that’s an interesting platform. So it could be mobile, it could be Xbox One, who knows.

G: Ok and last question, this one’s for fun. If our Editor, Chris Powell, decided to break into your house right now, what games would he find in your consoles?

Chris: [Laughs] The Last of Us is sitting in my PS3 at the moment. The Xbox only boots up to play Minecraft these days for my kids.

And then I’ve been playing Minion Rush, purely for research – not because we’ve really got in to it… [jokes]

I think the last thing I actually played on my iPhone was Tetris Blitz and Kingdom Rush Frontiers – so there’s two games at opposite ends of the spectrum on iOS.

G: Well thank you Chris, is there anything further you’d like to say to the fans out there?

Chris: I think I’d like to say to those people who downloaded Sonic Jump and Sonic Dash: I hope you’ve enjoyed them and we’ll keep working on the games and we hope you keep enjoying them in the future. Thanks a lot.

G: That’s great, thanks Chris. And I think we’ll look forward to those updates coming out for Sonic Dash and your new IP that’s coming out. Cheers.

Chris: Thanks for having me.

Graham Cookson

I'm the European Editor of SEGA Nerds and co-founder of the original SEGA Nerds website with Chris back in 2004 or 2005 (genuinely can't remember which year it was now!). I've been a SEGA fan pretty much all my gaming life - though I am also SEGA Nerds' resident Microsoft fanboy (well, every site needs one) and since SEGA went third party, I guess it's now ok to admit that I like Nintendo and Sony too :0) I'm also the Content Manager of the big data company, Digital Contact Ltd, in the UK:

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