Stephen Frost speaks on Sonic Boom (full transcript)
Sonic Boom producer Stephen Frost joined the SEGA Nerdcast this week to talk about a bevy of topics, one of which being his thoughts on Sonic Boom.
After we published the podcast, several sites have published bullet point pieces of Frost’s comments that didn’t fully offer the context of what was being said. In response to that, we wanted to offer our readers the full transcript of that portion of the show, along with an edited audio clip, which you can find below.
Frost: Sonic Boom was a weird thing because obviously there’s pros and cons of Sonic Boom. As a whole, and this is the thing, because some reason people still focus on just the game aspects of Sonic Boom, and that’s rightfully so because Sonic has always been the game sort of thing. But you also have to think about all the other things that we tried to do with Sonic and the goal of Sonic Boom as I’ve said over the last year or so is to reach a larger audience with Sonic, to make him relevant again.
There is a very loyal Sonic fanbase, it’s no doubt, but there’s also no arguing that every year it gets smaller and smaller, through whatever means. Even if you had super high budget, triple A games and everything else every year, the install base is going to go smaller. Call of Duty’s install base is going to shrink, and we see it for every triple A, major franchise, so the attempt with Sonic Boom was to appeal to an audience that is not familiar with Sonic or was fans of Sonic maybe previously but are not fans anymore for whatever reason.
I think from that standpoint, it was a big success … I can say from that standpoint. The audience for the cartoon is really well. The licensing because the toys are doing really well. I remember hearing or reading reports, especially during the early days, the Sonic Boom toys were selling out at Toys ‘R Us in 24 hours. It was doing that for awhile, and it wasn’t just the fans, it was people who were looking for something new.
I think that the classic Sonic, the Genesis-era Sonic and the Sonic Adventure Sonic redesign, people have seen it so much, and if you think about it from a manufacturer or form a licenser, they can only do so much with any character, right? Pac Man or whatever you can only do so much with the same character design or the same sort of premise or story over and over again.
So I expect, and it felt that way, that I think people were really excited that, ‘Yes, thank goodness, we have new characters, we have new vehicles, we have a new world.” We’re kind of starting fresh again, and it injects a breath of fresh air into their thinking process and their ability to go in a direction. They’ve been stuck in a certain way, like I don’t know how many chaos emeralds you can make, you don’t really see any vehicles. I saw this again, not just for Sonic but any sort of IP how sort of stagnant it becomes and how sort of limited it becomes as far as the different toys and licensing stuff. How many times are you going to see Sonic or any character on a T-shirt, like pointing to himself or going “number 1” it’s the same sort of stuff.
From that perspective, and you’d have to talk to them in general, but I have a feeling that the licensing partners were really excited and thankful for SEGA trying something new with Sonic. And I know Archie did too. In talking with Archie just as a casual fan, they were super excited about being able to do another comic for Sonic, because obviously Sonic has been around for their comics, for Archie, they’re a big supporter, they’re a huge fan of Sonic, and it’s been great to work with them but I could tell right away that when they were able to do a new comic book, a Sonic Boom comic, they were, the writers and artists, were super excited. Everyone I talked to over there were super excited, again because it was a new direction, a new potential.
Since this was a Western driven Sonic for the most part, the potential of stories and places to go were really excited. The voice actors too, I mean, you can’t change the voice acting of Sonic that much but there’s little nuances, right, and I think that they appreciate again, and I’m putting words in their mouth, but I think they appreciated being able to try something a little bit different. In having another character in the form of Sticks to add to the arsenal and kind of play against, and for those who have been doing it for years, I think it’s a breath of fresh air.
The cartoon has been doing really well. I know of so many people who have not had an interest, who don’t play the games of Sonic in the past who now, just arbitrarily, watch the cartoons and have bought the toys because of the cartoons. I’m like, that’s a huge success.
I was walking down the street, I live relatively near a school, and I was walking by one time, and I was wearing a Sonic Boom a T-shirt or something and a walking guard said, “Oh hey, my daughter loves Sonic. She watches it every weekend.” I was like, “Oh really?” I was asking if she had been a Sonic fan for a long time, and it was like “No, maybe for a little while, maybe for half a year or something.” And I’m like, “Really?” She said, “She saw the cartoon and really loves Amy in the cartoon. She just loves Sonic now, so she keeps asking me to buy Sonic stuff at the store.”
So that’s what I say to people, that is one sort of classic case I walk across, but there’s many numerous cases of people who have come into the Sonic world for the first time because of either the new toys or the look of the characters, love it or not, or the cartoon.
And that’s why I consider that a big success. As an initiative, I personally think Sonic Boom was really cool. Could it have been better? Yes, but there are so many different people you have to work with. You think about the licensing partners, the cartoon partners and figuring out where the cartoon is going to go in the world and who you have to negotiate with is so much work. But the fact that it’s a new design for Sonic allowed us to get people excited and hopefully the cartoon will end up all around the world. If it does, I think it’s because of the new direction, because people feel it’s a breath of fresh air for the character, it’s not the same that it was in the past and that’s why they’re showing an interest now.
I think in many ways it’s helped Sonic. Going back to the games, yeah could the games have been better? Yes. Any game I’ve worked on could be better. I have major faults with every game I’ve worked with, even ones that have rated highly and even ones that have rated lowly.
I come across people who love Shinobi, but I look at Shinobi and all I see are issues, and issues and issues and issues. But there are people who love it, and in the case of the Sonic Boom games, I see both. I see that we tried to do something different.
I think the challenge is that if you think about it like this, Sonic Team has been making Sonic games for 20 odd years, right? They understand Sonic and little things that make a Sonic game.
In a relatively short amount of time, we had to teach new teams what Sonic is all about. If I were to say, “You have to make a speed-based Sonic game. Do it.” They would have to start from ground zero, they would have to catch up to 24 years of experience in the length of a single development time, and that’s just to create a basic Sonic game.
Now imagine asking, “OK, you’ve got to reinvent Sonic. You’ve got to try something different. You still have to capture the speed, but you’ve got to be different enough that when people look at it, it’s a different sort of experience.”
It’s really tough and we had very ambitious goals. We really wanted to deliver on something that people were excited about that managed to capture the speed but also added new gameplay components because the thing we kept hearing in focus tests all the time was, “Oh, it’s all about speed all the time. I can’t play Sonic anymore because it’s too fast.” I’m like OK, let’s try to slow him down, but that of course pisses off people who like traditional Sonic games. So you try to find a middle ground – OK, let’s try to have speed but we also need this other stuff.
I think the failures of the game is it being overly ambitious initially and the fact that not only were we trying make just a really good basic Sonic game, but we were trying to add more to it. I think that our reach overextended our grasp in some ways.
Did I learn a lot from that? Yes, but some things that I think came across really positively were the co-op mode. I kept hearing back that people really liked that and the dual-screen mode and that’s something hopefully Sonic Team will consider doing in the future, that sort of co-op experience.
I think the biggest sort of mistakes were trying to cram too much into the game and because of that, you’re sort of scrambling to try to finish the game in a lot of ways. There’s a reason the Sonic games are high quality but they’re very basic in their design. There’s a simple core mechanic – you’ve got speed, running, platforming, homing attacks and all enemies are defeated the same way. Because of that and because Sonic Team have worked on it for so many years, they can fine tune that and build a world around it to use that stuff.
We’re trying to add in a bungie mechanic, combat, puzzles, vehicles and hopefully a more compelling story and a bunch of different environments and it’s just a lot. I think that’s the thing, and if there’s any lesson for me and something I’ll take forward with me is that being too ambitious can be bad.
In the past, I’ve always tried to be ambitious, I’ve always tried to push development teams to get out of their safety box because there’s two ways to do development – there’s teams that are really good about a schedule and they will always hit their release date but the product you get is solid but it’s never going to spark any criticism or positive feedback in anyway. It’s not going to elicit emotion or any sort of thing. And then there’s other groups, either by their own way or their producer pushing them to get out of their comfort zone that you end up with a product, good or bad, that causes people to think about it because there’s some aspects of it that you don’t see or not. I’ve always been the sort of producers who’s tried to push teams beyond where they’re comfortable or possible.
I’ll give you some examples, so one of my first early games on the PSP, and it wasn’t the greatest game, but it was Crazy Taxi: Fare Wares. Some people hate that game, it’s Crazy Taxi 1 and 2 on PSP. What we wanted to do and what I tried to push the team to do which was extremely difficult was to have online modes. A game that was not designed by any means to have online modes, but I pushed the team, and we created some interesting online modes where people could play against each other in Crazy Taxi. Imagine taking that old source code and trying to do something with that.
In Universe at War, it was an RTS I did with Petroglyph, they’re great RTS guys, and I’m like, “OK, you’re a PC guy, we’re doing this for 360, let’s allow PC gamers to play against 360.” The only company able to do that before was Microsoft, and they did it on a server side where both games talked to a server. We had to do it peer to peer, so a PC had to connect to a 360 and just interact with each other, which no one has ever done. No one has still ever done it, but we felt we could do it, so I tried to push the team to do that, and were able to do it.
So I’m always trying to push the team out of their comfort zone to do something that’s bigger, that will wow people or interest people. Sometimes, it works out and sometimes it doesn’t.
I think really what happened with Sonic Boom is that we tried to take a character that has evolved over 20 odd years into a very tight experience, and we didn’t ask them to just make a version of that, we asked them to make a version of that plus all this other stuff. I think that, in hindsight, was just a lot to ask of any development team. So I guess in learning, that is something I’ll keep in mind in the future, but I’ll continue to push teams because that’s where greatness comes out of.
The story that I come up with, that I remember was in God of War. The first God of War, which people hail as an amazing game, but most people don’t know that for a lot of people on the team, that was their very first job in the video game industry, and that was their last job in the video games industry. That game tore through a lot of people, and there were a lot of bodies by the wayside by the end of it. But you know what, it was an amazing game. It sparked a new IP, and there’s no one that argues that from a quality perspective that God of War isn’t an amazing series, it’s amazing. But it took a lot of casualties along the way, but that’s because Jaffe pushed people to the end to try to deliver on something high end.
Fortunately, he had the resources of Sony and all this other stuff, but it’s a lot of people get close but don’t get over that hump of what is an amazing experience. I was trying to deliver on an experience that was, I love the Sonic fanbase, I wanted to deliver on an experience that makes people proud and happy, but I was also tasked with creating an experience that appeals to a larger audience that doesn’t necessarily play Sonic. In a lot of ways, those go against each other. I had err on the side to appeal to a newer audience and so it was tough.
SEGA Nerds: What would have helped you realize that vision? Would more time have helped?
Frost: Time, I don’t think would have helped because you’re on this path and you already got this game. It would have been more tighter or more polished and stuff but it’s still the experience. I think what would have benefited this game, and this is across many games, that if you could have gone back in time and during the early, conceptual stages and pre-production, focused on different things.
I would have reduced features probably, and I would have had the team focus on speed from the very get-go. We were concerned that speed was something that was the last thing that people sort of wanted because we kept hearing they were tired of speed and they wanted something else.
So I think, at least from my perspective, we put speed on the shelf for a little too long and we focused on other stuff like co-op and things like that. In hindsight, I would have made the team focus on speed at the beginning and nail the feeling of that and then let that permeate into all the other gameplay features that we’re building versus the other way around.
I think most people play the game and feel that speed feels kind of tacked on in some ways. I feel that too, and I think that’s because we weren’t focused on that as a key thing. Speed is always a Sonic thing. Sonic does speed well, and I’m like “We need to make sure that all these other things are done well.”
If I could go back in time, I would have gone back and changed the things we focused on and the number of things that we focused on back in the day. It would have been hard. This was a very ambitious project. It was the cartoon, a new toy line and many other things tied with it – we had to aim large, we had to aim big. I would have kept things a little tighter, I would have simplified a few things and gone from there.
There’s definitely a lot of lessons and learnings from it. But regardless, even if I could go back in time and changed what I was, at the end of the day, it might have been a better game, but I don’t think that people who are traditional Sonic fans still would have loved it. They wouldn’t be as enamored with it like they were with Generations or other games in recent history because it wouldn’t have been that game. It wasn’t the goal of that game, the goal of that game was to reach other people. I think in many ways it did. Could it have done better if everything was at a higher level of polish? Yes, but for what it is as a branch of Sonic and a new initiative by SEGA, I think it was wholeheartedly a success in many ways.
SEGA Nerds: Say you had the full reigns of the Sonic franchise, where do you think Sonic needs to go in the future? How do you see the franchise playing out?
Frost: The problem with Sonic is you have to build a lot of content. When speed is your number one thing, you have to build so much content and you have to spend so much time building content that a lot of things you don’t have the time and resources for.
Imagine any game, Mario or anything, if you were running as fast as Sonic. Mario has just a simple mechanic as Sonic but he moves so much slower, you have less level size and real estate to build and they can make sure that what they build is so tight. In Sonic’s case, you have to build, from a square one situation, you have to build so much content and then you have to worry that every inch of that is super high quality. It’s impossible do; I think it’s an insurmountable task to do that.
If I would have the option to create a new game, I would probably make a Sonic Adventure 3 type of game. I would choose a few characters with very key gameplay abilities and have levels dedicated to them so you can build Sonic levels and have them be perfect sort of Sonic levels, and I would try to come up with compelling experiences for the other three characters and have those levels specifically built for them. So that you could have your favorites for sure, but you wouldn’t have to build an environment that suits multiple characters.
I do think the multiple characters resonated well with people. I think people loved playing with multiple characters and having a solo Sonic game, I just don’t know how long that would last by himself. I don’t think there’s enough variety there to sustain it, so I think what you need to do is flesh out some of the other characters, really think about their abilities and make their abilities compelling and then build environments for them to go around and have fun in as well and make sort of an epic adventure that way.
I think the future of Sonic needs to be in co-cop. I think that resonated well with people in Sonic Boom, so I think you need that. I think you need to have some of that community or online play that’s meaningful because I think that’s what sustains a lot of these games these days. It’s the interactions with friends to keep it going.
So the one thing I have always wanted to build which I don’t know if SEGA is ever going to build is, even for mobile, a level builder for Sonic. Everyone asks for that, and it’s really just a art heavy sort of thing. You’d have to build lots and lots of assets but imagine just for a 3DS game if you had that and Street Pass. Say you went to ComicCon and you could get this rare piece you could use to build part of your track that is only available at ComicCon or things like that and people could trade pieces. You could have leaderboards where whatever course you built, I could try to challenge your leaderboard time. I think that would be a great idea.
What people feel is the perfect Sonic game is different for all Sonic fans, so here’s your chance to build the level and environment and have fun that way. That’s another thing SEGA could do in the future that would resonate well with fans for sure. But for the franchise in general, I think you need to really do multiplayer and add in online and community aspects so friends can play with each other and the community can come together over a game and interact together. I think that would hopefully sustain and keep the interest in the franchise alive.
SEGA Nerds: When Sonic Boom was released, it was pushed forward a week. What was the reason it was pushed forward? Was that to tie it with the show being launched? My theory has always been it was pushed forward to get it out of the way of Smash Bros.
I would say that a little of both. You remember this was a deal with Nintendo, and SEGA had titles that were coming out and Nintendo had titles that were coming out and then also the cartoon ended up launching in the beginning of that month. So it made sense from a practical standpoint to get. Ideally the game was supposed to come out sort of earlier and try to match up with the cartoon or try to get people to play the game and then watch the cartoon or vice versa.
I don’t think there’s one specific answer to that. I think it’s multiple things. If you said OK, the cartoon ended up coming out at the beginning of the month, you’ve got titles from Nintendo, but you know it was never a sweet spot because the same week Assassin’s Creed came out. Yes, it’s a different market but people are so focused on one game a week sort of thing. So I think Assassin’s Creed was the big game that week, so when you’re in November, when you’re in the holiday timeframe, there’s never a sweet week or time period.
I think when we made that decision that we even knew when Smash Bros. was coming out. I don’t think Nintendo had said, but I can’t be for sure. It’s not like because we were partners Nintendo shares with us their release dates.
Honestly, I don’t think I was even aware Smash Bros. was coming out that week when we decided to move it. I think we decided to move it before we even knew what was coming out that week, and it was more about other factors like the cartoon, other titles coming out from different publishers, and we were trying to adjust it accordingly.
We also had that weird situation where we had that the weeks split between the handheld version and the console version and we were trying to resolve that too.