Team X-Box interview with Shun Nakamura and Masahiro Kumono

Interview Data:

  • Interview Date: 24 May 2006
  • Interview Topics: Sonic next-gen, Silver, Shadow, Sonic's roots
  • Interview Source: Team XBox external.png

By: Andy Eddy - "Vidgames"

TeamXbox recently had a chance to sit down with two members of the famed Sonic Team to talk about the developers’ planning and progress on the forthcoming Sonic the Hedgehog game. The title is expected to come out for Xbox 360 (as well as PlayStation 3) this fall.

We posed our questions to Shun Nakamura and Masahiro Kumono, who are both producers on the title. They provided their answers through a translator, who at times refers to Sonic Team in “we” terms and at other points mentions them in the third-person “they,” so don’t be confused.

So, fifteen years…what was your thinking going into creating a game that I assume you wanted to make special for the anniversary?
Sonic Team: Initially, when they first started on the game, there was no real intention to bring it to next gen; they started thinking about it for current gen. But then they realized that, “oh, wait…this is going to be the fifteenth anniversary,” so there was a feeling [to] try to return to Sonic’s roots, and really try to think about what it is that makes Sonic so popular. Why is he still around and going so strong after 15 years? That was the starting point for it.

How do you keep your game fresh after 15 years of Sonic games? How do you bring something new to the franchise…how do you freshen it up, so that it doesn’t feel to the players like just another Sonic game?
Sonic Team: The past few games have been like Sonic Heroes or Shadow the Hedgehog, which have gone off in fairly different directions when you compare them to the rest of the Sonic franchise. The core concept in this case was returning to his roots—what makes him so popular, what makes him special?—and a large part of that answer is speed. He’s fast. And so, in this particular case, rather than trying to do something entirely different that’s a complete departure from the Sonic franchise, it’s more about [returning to] his roots…and let’s try to let the player experience that speed—Sonic speed—in new ways.

What do the next-generation systems give you in hardware power, to enable you to enhance the game—enhance the character—to bring it back to the speed of the original game?
Sonic Team: For something like Nintendo’s Wii, there’s something very unique there, obviously—how do we use the controller, would be the question. But for PlayStation 3 and the [Xbox 360], the main difference is that everything is more powerful in a general sort of way. It’s nothing immediate you can latch onto, but in more general terms, the backgrounds can be a lot more realistic now, much more detailed, the world becomes that much more alive in that respect, and the additional power lets them differentiate. In previous Sonic games, there was a path—maybe one path or be it multiple paths—but it was more of, “Here’s the way to go…run that way.” In this case, they can make more of natural-looking terrain, [and say], “Here’s your field…go!”…and the player can choose where they want to go and how they want to go.

What about the challenge of new hardware—you’re bringing a very long-running franchise to a new system, and maybe having to learn its nuances…learn what you can do with it? What are the challenges for doing a game like this on such a new platform?
Sonic Team: In Japan, PC gaming isn’t as strong as it is here in the U.S. With the next-generation systems, obviously, it’s new hardware and they can do all sorts of different things, but the ability to do these things means that in order to compete and really make players here enjoy the experience, they have to do a whole lot of different things. Their experience so far has been primarily with the current generation of consoles—PS2, GameCube—and with not so much experience with really cutting-edge PC technology. So they have to start with studying that technology, trying to figure out…what is it that the top developers in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world are doing with hardware this powerful? They have to figure that out, then internalize that and try to think about how do we make it special…how do we make this work for Sonic? That’s the challenge, at this point.

Sonic kind of has a different look right now: He’s taller—and I don’t know if that means older or if, now that [the designers] have more polygons to work with, they can make him a little more fuller featured. What was the strategy behind evolving Sonic and some of the other characters in the game, from previous games?
Sonic Team: (after the Sonic Team laughs upon hearing the translation of the question) One of the reasons is that, with the next generation of hardware, the players will be slightly older, so they wanted to make sure that Sonic could appeal to older gamers, as well as younger gamers. The other reason is that, in this particular game, they’ll be interacting with more humans—with the human world, the more realistic world—and there’ll be a lot more humans than in previous games. In order to talk to them, they figure that he should be a little taller, so he’s not doing this (strains his neck to look up) all the time.

You have a new character, Silver—what’s the motivation behind creating the character and how do you flesh out a personality…how do you decide what kind of character to make him?
Sonic Team: Before he [Shun Nakamura] started working on the Sonic game, there was another game he was working on, which involved a character with telekinetic powers that he really liked…

Not a Sonic game?
Sonic Team: No, not a Sonic game. (Translator turns to ask Nakamura a question in Japanese and gets a reply, then continues with the answer.) It wasn’t an actual game. He was just coming up with different ideas and concepts. When the team decided to make the next Sonic game…one of the fun things about Sonic, with a bunch of games, is you have new characters showing up with new abilities, and when it came time to think about new characters, they basically said, “Well, here…how about this one? This could fit really well with Sonic.” So, that’s how that came together.

As you know, there is a whole bunch of different characters in Sonic. Everyone’s got his own personality, everyone’s got his own color—Knuckles is red, Tails is yellow/orange—and so the first thing they did was try to determine what color is [Silver]? What colors do we have left? (laughing) So he turned out with a silver color.

As far as his personality goes, they were playing with a bunch of different personalities. One of the initial ideas was to make him somewhat similar to Shadow, but the problem with that is, you’d be somewhat similar to Shadow. (chuckles) At this point, they’re still fleshing out the story, but he’s from the future and he’s a little bit young—he’s got this strong sense of justice, but they’re just still fleshing it out.

When it was demo’ed for me, the demonstrator said, “Silver isn’t evil, but he’s definitely trying to stop Sonic,” which seems to be a conflict in terms. Is it possible to talk about that?
Sonic Team: (Translator said they have this part fleshed out, but they aren’t willing to talk about everything just yet.) There’s what Sonic is fighting for and what he thinks is right, and there’s what Silver is fighting for and what he thinks is right—and obviously they’re not exactly the same in this case. Initially, when you start playing the game, the player will see things from Sonic’s point of view, and [the player will think] “Okay, well, Sonic thinks it’s right” and the player’s going to deal with it. And Silver is trying to stop him…“Okay, Silver must be wrong” will be the initial impression. But as the player goes through the story and begins to realize what Silver is fighting for and what his mission is, then they’ll start to see things from his point of view as well.

One of the things we are going for here is a deeper storyline.

And Shadow does enter into it as well?
Sonic Team: Shadow, of course, also has his own motivation to what he’s fighting for, and basically the storylines and motivations of all three characters will be intertwined as the story progresses. (Translator added, “at this point, they’re not really ready to talk in too much detail about Shadow, but, of course, information will be forthcoming.”)

And other characters maybe?
Sonic Team: Yeah, other characters will be involved as well.

When I played the game demo, in some cases it almost seemed too fast, especially when your perspective changes. The original Sonic was 2-D and flat, and the speed was all just left to right kind of stuff, but when you’re in a 3-D space and you’re darting in different directions, and the perspective is changing—the camera is changing—a couple of times it seemed disorienting. While it’s early and there’s still time for tuning, is there a problem with too much speed?
Sonic Team: One of the things that the team hears about from many of the previous Sonic games has been issues with the camera, and falling off things and dying. Those are things they definitely do want to address—they want to aggressively address, not just try to minimize as much as possible. However, if they just slow him down, then that’s not really Sonic anymore. So they want to find ways to make sure that players get the experience of speed, but not be frustrated by the controls or the camera.

The achievements in Xbox Live have brought a lot to the gameplay experience—different than we’ve seen before. The Gamerscore almost becomes an overall score for your abilities as a gamer and amount of time playing. Does that enter into how you design the game?
Sonic Team: They want to do as much as possible for the online aspect of the game, but they’re not ready to talk about that in too much detail at this time.

To put you on the spot a bit, the price of Wii hasn’t been announced, but it’s rumored to be under $300, let’s say; the Xbox 360 has a specific price that’s maybe a little high, but it’s also just beginning; and then PS3 is announced with a…a very high price. What is your attitude about Sony’s pricing, in relation to Nintendo (assuming its price will be that much lower, as it did with GameCube) and Microsoft’s price (and that it has a one-year headstart)?
Sonic Team: (nervous laughter, which becomes frequent outright laughing while they answer in Japanese) Certainly, the hardware isn’t cheap for PS3, but with that in mind, they’re very focused on making a game that, if someone is most likely going to be an older customer (who can buy these systems initially)—for these people who are going to go out and spend hundreds of dollars on the hardware and the games, they want to make sure that they’re not disappointed. They want to make sure the game will appeal to a more sophisticated, older audience, as well as the younger audience, and make sure that they have the level of freedom that they’re looking for and the gameplay quality that they’re looking for. That’s really where their focus is right now.

Is there anything else they wanted to say?
Sonic Team: The core concept that they’ve been talking about is a return to [Sonic’s] roots, but another one of the things that they’re really working for at this point is, it’s his fifteenth anniversary—there have been 15 years of Sonic games—and they really want to make this the definitive Sonic. There are things like the town stages, which are far more involved than stages of earlier games, and the vast majority of the characters of the past will make appearances here. It’s basically something that they’re trying to put together—the best moments from 15 years of Sonic gaming, and really try to give back to the people who’ve supported the series.


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