Geschrieben von Adis Selimi am 30.08.2022
One of the most interesting things in the gaming industry are major changes to a long established and beloved franchise. We could experience this excitement when first details about The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild were shown to the public. This year it is SEGA’s turn to revolutionize the gameplay of one of its most beloved franchises. Sonic the Hedgehog is arguably one of the most famous gaming characters of all times and the new installment in the long running series, Sonic Frontiers, promises to offer quite a drastic change in the way we control the blue hedgehog. The new Open Zone Approach offers players a lot more freedom when it comes to controlling Sonic and navigating through the world.
During gamescom 2022, we had the great opportunity and honor to talk with industry veteran Takashi Iizuka about the upcoming game. Iizuka-san is the producer of Sonic Frontiers, the head of the Sonic Team at SEGA and has worked on the Sonic Franchise for almost 30 years. In our interview, he explained what inspired the team to create an open zone Sonic game and which challenges they faced during the development. He also elaborated on the defining elements of the Sonic franchise and the fundamental changes to the core gameplay Sonic Frontiers promises to offer.
ntower: Iizuka-san, first, thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and let me say that, as a long time Sonic fan, it is a real honor to meet you.
Takashi Iizuka: Oh, thank you!
ntower: Today we are talking about your upcoming game, Sonic Frontiers. The game promises to change a lot of things in the Sonic formula as we know it. Before we start discussing these changes, I wanted to ask you: What would you say are the defining elements of a Sonic game?
Takashi Iizuka: The key elements that define a Sonic game are the high speed of the character and having the character to be fun to control. When we talk about the traditional 2D Sonic games and the shift to 3D, we kept that high speed in there, with Sonic as a fun character to control. We are taking this to the next level in Sonic Frontiers. This is, if you like, the second evolution of the character and the gameplay. Instead of being a linear action game, we take this high speed, fun to control character and put him in this open area. This high speed open area action is now the core of what the future of Sonic will be.
ntower: During a longer news element at IGN, you presented the game for the first time and you talked about the differences between an open zone game and an open world game. Could you elaborate on this? What are the differences between these two kinds of genres?
Takashi Iizuka: When we talk about an open world game, most of these games are adventure or RPG games. The focus is to go on an adventure in the world, maybe walking from one city to another city. So you walk from one point A to a point B and explore the world. What is different with the open zone: We are taking the linear Sonic high speed action and apply it to an open area. So we have this action happening over the entire map. It is not just walking from A to B, what normally takes some time and shows players the distance between towns. Instead, in Sonic Frontiers, you will be doing all your Sonic activities in this vast area that is an open zone game.
ntower: A fundamental aspect of an open world game is that the progress in the story is achieved through discovering the world like in Elden Ring or Breath of the Wild. Is there a difference in the way an open zone game tells its story? And you also said that this time the story is going to be darker and more sophisticated than in earlier games.
Takashi Iizuka: Where the story starts for Sonic Frontiers: We are on an unknown island, a place where the characters have never been to. Sonic, Amy and Tails are sucked into the Cyberspace and Sonic is the only one who finds his way out. He realizes that his friends are trapped in the Cyberspace. He doesn’t know what to do to save them and he doesn’t know where he is. So Sonic doesn’t know what to do and you as the player also don’t know what to do. And it is only by doing all the action in the open zone area that you start to open up the zone.
You finish the challenges and you learn more about the world. So the story is told through solving the action challenges in the open zone area. Instead of the story leading you to a certain place, like in an action RPG in which somebody tells you to go to a certain town, you have the opposite feel by exploring the island. By unlocking the different zones of the island, you learn more about the story. That’s the difference in storytelling.
ntower: Let us talk a bit more about the design of the world. There is a long tradition in Sonic games of taking real world elements and putting them into the Sonic universe. In Sonic Adventure 2, for example, you had an American city as a starting point of the game. What inspired the design of the world of Sonic Frontiers, which seems to be more alien to the player than in former titles?
Takashi Iizuka: In a similar way to how the storytelling works, Sonic games have often told you directly what is going an. You saw an enemy and you could say that it is obviously a robot that Eggman made. So you had to defeat the enemy and then you found out what Eggman is planning next. So it was pretty obvious where the story was going.
For this title, it is really different and the whole design, not only of the world, but also of the enemies themselves, fits into this unknown element on the island. You look at the enemies and you can see that they are not Eggman’s enemies. So you have to ask yourself who is the enemy, where is the enemy coming from and what am I doing on this island? Part of the design of the enemies was embodying the mystery of the island. But also the design of the island itself has to be mysterious, because it is not like Green Hill Zone or one of the other iconic places. This all fits into the mysterious storytelling of the game.
ntower: From what we have seen so far from the game, the sound design has also been changed quite drastically. In former Sonic titles, players experienced a rock music style with a holiday feel to it when playing the games. Now it’s more mysterious, you don’t know what is going on. Can you tell us something about how you changed the sound design for Sonic Frontiers?
Takashi Iizuka: The music of the game fits with the mysteriousness of the island. When you hear the sound, we want you to get this mysterious feeling through the sound design. Because there is a certain anxiety when engaging with something mysterious, we wanted to make sure that this is represented when the player moves through the world. However, we still have the Cyberspace worlds which are more in the linear, classic Sonic high speed action format. The music there is going to be in a more similar style to the historic, rock ’n’ roll music that you associate with the good Sonic jam.
ntower: As you mention the classical, linear formula: What is really intriguing about Sonic Frontiers is the idea that you have this high speed, but that you move freely. In the traditional Sonic games, the speed is normally achieved through the level design. There are different paths that give you the feeling of high speed when you take them. So how does the Open Zone design change the way in which you approach speed as a defining element of the game?
Takashi Iizuka: That’s the most challenging point! (laughs) One of the key elements is the high speed action, and up until now all the level design, 2D or 3D, was building paths so that you can have this high speed action. And up until not a while ago, the team thought that having this high speed in an open area is impossible. We always said that we need a path that we can design to have a high speed feel to it. But we started to think about the next ten years and that we have to evolve Sonic to be something new and have a fresh gameplay experience for the years ahead. So we started to think about the challenge we thought to be impossible: having an open area with all the high speed action elements in it. So the traditional 2D and 3D design is applied to a whole area and that was really challenging.
When you start playing the game, you will most likely think that there are no specific paths to take. But by mastering the different challenges and opening the zones, you will find out that the paths open up and you will realize that all the traditional high speed Sonic action is applied to the area you explore.
ntower: Besides the high speed action, one aspect of the Sonic games has always been Sonic’s ability to take different forms or teaming up with his friends and thereby getting new abilities. As far as I can say, we have not yet seen that in Sonic Frontiers. Is that something we can hope to see in the game?
Takashi Iizuka: When we talk about new abilities in the open zone format, we have given Sonic a completely new action. It’s the Cyloop Action: When walking around in the area, you can create a trail behind Sonic and when you complete a circle, everything within the circle will take damage. And because Sonic can move more freely now, we have this new ability to accommodate that.
In addition to the high speed action we have a lot of battle action. In earlier entries, Sonic was on a path and he had his goal that he tried to reach as fast as possible. So when an enemy was in front of you, it basically meant performing a homing attack and then move forward. But as you can move around now, you can also choose to engage enemies in combat. We have a lot of battle action skills that you can unlock in a skill tree and have Sonic engage enemies in different ways.
The battle system has been changed and is now more complex than in earlier titles of the series.
ntower: That is a really interesting point and something I wanted to ask you. When you play a platforming game, enemies are normally just an obstacle you want to overcome. In the earlier Sonic games, for example, you could just jump around them. Because of the new design of the game, enemies have a quite new role. How much fighting will there be in Sonic Frontiers? And you also said on an earlier occasion that puzzle elements will also be part of the game.
Takashi Iizuka: When we talk about the open zone format, we talk about a 3D action game and for that to work, you need a lot of things to do. We needed to make sure that there are lots of interesting things so that they go to different spots and do what we arranged for them at a certain point. This can be a puzzle, some platforming or an enemy. And as you said, in the linear Sonic games enemies were an obstacle in your way. Now, in the open zone, you don’t have to engage them, you can run around or move in a totally different direction. They are no longer an obstacle blocking your path. But we created the enemies in a way that players want to fight them. We want to make them attractive to engage because they are interesting to fight. So we put a lot of time in creating interesting enemies, platforming areas and puzzles all across the map.
ntower: One really interesting aspect about Sonic Frontiers is the technology underlying the game. There is much discourse in the industry right now about the impact of next gen hardware on game development. You have decided not only to release Sonic Frontiers as a cross gen title, but also to put it on the Nintendo Switch. How difficult was that to achieve or is there a vision you could not achieve because of the range of hardware you want to cover?
Takashi Iizuka: That’s a great question, because we have this high end desktop PCs and then we have the very light and portable Nintendo Switch, and the team is making a game that can be played on all of these different machines. As game creators, we want to make sure that the people who play our game have the same experience, no matter what platform they are on. We don’t want people to feel they are getting a different game because of the platform they choose. The Sonic Team has its own internal Hedgehog Engine, that we used for earlier titles and that we have customized to offer the same gameplay experience across all the different platforms. What we are giving to people is going to be very very similar.
Despite the open zone approach, linear high speed action is also an integral part of the game.
ntower: One last question. There is not only quite a range of hardware, but also quite a range of Sonic fans. Many new fans know Sonic mainly as a movie characters, while others have played the games for thirty years, starting in the 2D era. Do you think that Sonic Frontiers will appeal to this broad audience of gamers of all different ages?
Takashi Iizuka: As you said correctly, because we had the movies released, we now have a very wide band of fans of Sonic the Hedgehog. And we have a lot of people who have never played a Sonic game before, but they saw the movies and they loved the character and they are now part of the Sonic fandom alongside people who have played the games for 30 years. Is it possible for Sonic Frontiers to be enjoyed by everyone? Because we have such a huge band of Sonic fans, it is probably impossible. There are going to be people who want this kind of game and those who want a different approach. Sonic Frontiers is really a game for the core fans, people who are gamers and who will enjoy interacting with his adventure style game.
But, as I said, we do realize that some of our fans have never played a Sonic game before or maybe they don’t like 3D games. That’s why we released Sonic Origins this June. We wanted to provide people who want a more friendly, easy 2D game format with an option. That’s the game for them. They can come in, they can play, they can enjoy. For people who have already played these games and are experienced gamers, Sonic Frontiers is the right option. But as we move forward, we want to make sure that we make different games that will be enjoyed by the entire band of Sonic fans out there and not just focus on one specific audience.
ntower: Iizuka-san, thank you very much for your time!