Christian Whitehead interview by Glixel (September 7, 2017)
From Sonic Retro
By Steven T. Wright
September 7, 2017
With a handful of abortive reboots, enough furballs in its cast to host a planet Mobius Softball League, and a social media brand known more for effective memetics than actual marketing of products, cynics might say that Sonic the Hedgehog is better known as an easy punchline than a towering pillar of play. But while the stock of Mario’s ‘tude-iest rival may have plunged a bit since the advent of 3D, those who continue to wish for the Blue Blur’s head on a platter should perhaps sample his latest wares before they go off angrily ranting that Sonic 3 and Knuckles is “actual garbage” on some ancient forum. With the recently-released Sonic Mania, it appears the die-hards - a team led by famed fangamer Christian Whitehead, along with the studios Headcannon and PagodaWest - have finally achieved what Sega themselves could not with the ill-fated Sonic 4: They have rehabbed classic Sonic the Hedgehog for not just the lapsed enthusiasts, but a whole new generation of slavering, star-eyed children eager for a fuzzy friend. Glixel caught up with Whitehead to discuss his beginnings in the scene, what makes a decent Sonic level, and whether or not Shadow is truly “the ultimate lifeform.”
Tell me how you got started in the Sonic fan community.
Growing up, as a young kid, I was really into the original Genesis series. My first experience playing video games was in the 16-bit era, but my experience in the community didn’t come until several years later. I had almost forgotten about Sonic by that point, but, once I started going on the Internet, I found community sites that talked about all the secrets that were in the Sonic games, like some of the levels that didn’t make it into Sonic 2. At that point, I started making my own “sequels” as a hobby. I used tools like Game Factory that were designed for young kids. I had always drawn pictures of Sonic as a kid. In the Saturn era, there were no major Sonic games released, so I guess I had to make my own levels. I was already interested in game development, so the two combined and became my hobby.
When did you transition into a more professional role? The iOS port of Sonic CD seems like a clear point of demarcation.
I started making Sonic fangames when I was 16 years old, but it wasn’t until I was done with uni that I really got serious about it. I was working as a freelancer doing motion graphics, so I had a lot of experience working for clients. I noticed that Sonic 1 and 2 had released onto iPhone, and I did a bit of research, and discovered that they had contracted a programmer to do it in Texas. Traditionally, you think of Sonic games being developed by a big team, and it was unthinkable that an independent contractor could land a job like that.
I was cavalier about it. I thought, “well, I’ve made hobbyist Sonic projects, so I’ll make a demonstration of Sonic CD running on the iPhone.” I figured that nobody had done it yet, because the power of the mobile devices at the time wasn’t enough to even emulate CD. I saw it as my chance to demonstrate my engine. This was back in 2009. The catalyst for it was that Sega made a blog post asking fans what games they wanted to see on the iPhone. And since I had the prototype, I just said, “Take a look at this!” It took them by surprise, I think. It didn’t actually come out until 2011. Most of that development time was establishing a relationship. At that point, I was just a random guy in Melbourne saying “Hey, I can do Sonic for you.” I think it was really surprising to them that someone would be able to rebuild one of their games, independently, with no resources from them.
What appeals to you specifically about the Genesis/Mega Drive Sonic games? Would you describe yourself as a “Sega kid?”
Well, the first game I ever played was Super Mario Bros. 3. I really wanted to get a Nintendo, actually. But, at the time, my parents said “Don’t play video games! They’ll rot your brain!” That sort of thing. (Laughs) It was actually my sister who convinced them to get a Mega Drive. I didn’t really have input on that. The first Sonic game I played was 2, and once I played it, I was hooked. What really sticks out for me is that, even when you get hurt - with the rings flying out and everything - it was so exciting watching it happen.
There’s a lot of things that appeal to me about the original games. Obviously, the speed was impressive at the time, but I think what really sticks with me is that the characters have a really simple but iconic design, and the game mixes elements from things that I also love, like bumpers and pinball flippers, and the bonus stages. You have a lot of freedom to play it in different ways. I think the reason people keep going back to the original games is that it’s sort of like a Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater of the 16-bit era. That kind of experience where, the first time you play it, you suck. You stack a lot of tricks, and it doesn’t work out. As you continue to play, it eventually becomes a smooth experience.
In a sense, you can say that Sega gave you and your fellow fans the reigns with Sonic Mania. How did that come about, and how did it feel?
I think of it as an incremental step. The first game I ever worked on by myself was the Sonic CD port, and, even at that point, I wanted to make new additions, because I thought it would be cool. But, because it was the first project, (Takashi) Iizuka-san - who is the lead guy for Sonic Team, who I hadn’t even met at that point - he said “Keep it original,” and I kept to that. We did manage to get one new thing in there, which was that you could play as Tails. When he saw that we put that in, and it worked really well, he was more convinced.
When we did Sonic 1 for iOS, we put in Knuckles and Tails. Iizuka-san needed to be sure that we were able to pull it off. We explained the technology, and he gave us guidance with the process. By the time we got to Sonic 2, we decided to put in a new stage, or, rather, a stage that was supposed to be in Sonic 2, but didn’t make the cut - Hidden Palace Zone. We said, “Well, let’s finish it and put it in.” It was a fun creative challenge. For that to happen, Iizuka-san and (Yuji) Naka-san - the original programmer for Sonic - they both needed to be satisfied with what we did with that. We were trying to meet those standards. Every single time, we’ve managed to meet it. Sonic Mania was the chance to make an entirely new title.
It’s been a privilege. This is the first project where we’ve had a larger team - four artists, four level designers, three programmers - so scaling up was a challenge in itself, especially because we’re in different areas of the globe. One of the most fun things about this project has been experiencing the talents of other people. For example, the animated intro by Tyson Hesse - I could just never have imagined that we were going to have that.
What are some of the challenges you faced during the development of Mania? Did it ever feel strange to add to the world of something you like so much?
Yeah, when we found out that Mania was going to be another official entry in the series, it was a bit overwhelming. It’s easy to wonder “Is what I’m doing right?” because there are so many fans with their own expectations as to what Sonic should be. But, the core of it is just trying to make something entertaining and fun. As far as the canon, Sonic Team has been really helpful at conveying to us just exactly what their vision of Sonic is, and making sure we align with that. But, at the same time, I’ve been really surprised with what we’ve been able to do in this game, especially with the bosses and references.
In one of our initial pitch meetings, Iizuka-san asked me if I could put the Death Egg robot in Green Hill Zone. And, I said, "Well, if you want him to dance around with maracas, I can do that, too." (Laughs) Because it’s a new engine, we can do anything we want. Particularly with the classic Zones we were revisiting, the challenge was “how do we make this unique, and not just feel like a best-of, greatest-hits-type thing?” That’s not what I wanted to do. It was all about simultaneously coming out with a Sonic game that’s mechanically true to the originals - both in the gameplay style and level design, which is a challenge in itself - but also the challenge of making a novel experience for Sonic fans that have played the same games for twenty, almost thirty years. I wanted to make it enticing for them.
Speaking of that, did you ever get pushback on some of the more sophisticated Easter eggs that you wanted to put into the game? For example, the background static from the anniversary stream, or the Mean Bean Machine section.
There’s a spirit with the whole team - both Sega and ourselves - where it’s just been a lot of fun to make. The two bosses that I couldn’t imagine us getting approval on to begin with were the Mean Bean Machine Boss in Chemical Plant Zone. We didn’t just want to put it in there. I was having trouble thinking of a novel boss for the Zone. We had already made a souped-up version of the original boss, so we needed something else. I just thought, “Wouldn’t it be funny if we made the boss just Puyo Puyo?” I thought Iizuka-san would just immediately veto it. But he said, “Let’s look into it.” And it made sense creatively for the game.
It’s funny, because I’m sure there are Sonic fans out there who say “Yeah, we want Sonic to be serious, and to convey a feeling of genuine threat.” Meanwhile, we’ve got Eggman riding a cartoon train. When you have a game that has to convey its story through sprites moving on a screen, going overboard with fun things is what makes it come to life.
Over the years, Sonic has come in many shapes, sizes, and styles, best epitomized by the “Classic Sonic” vs. “Modern Sonic” dichotomy in recent games. Did you ever feel like there were elements of the 3D games that you wanted to bring to this classic formula?
I’m a fan of Sonic Adventure, and some of the other 3D games. There was a period where, at least in Australia, no new Sonic games were coming out. From the Dreamcast onward, that’s a whole new generation of fans that were brought into the series. When you get into the later games in the series, like Rush and Colors, I view those more as a platformer mixed with a racing game, rather than a pure platformer. There’s a lot of focus on drift mechanics and traveling at a high speed. The core game in Sonic Mania basically sticks to that classic formula, but, in particular, the 3D Special Stages take inspiration from the newer games. We wanted to capture that sense of speed, because when you go from 2D to 3D, you have to move a lot faster to create that sense of speed. In a technical sense, those Special Stages really just shift the axis, where you have to worry about left and right rather than up and down. It’s definitely a source of inspiration, along with Sega’s Nineties racing games, like Daytona USA.
Were there any serious discussions about bringing in some of the newer characters from games past Sonic 3 and Knuckles, such as Shadow, the supposed “ultimate lifeform?”
Really, what it comes down to is general scope. There’s only so much you can do within a particular time frame. Even with just three characters, you can access different parts of the stage because of their unique abilities - Tails can fly, for instance. I’m not against adding in the new characters - I think they’re cool - I think there’s potentially a lot of things you could do with it…
Like if you gave Shadow a gun, and he could just waste all the robots?
(Laughs) Well, maybe. But, for Sonic Mania, to have more than three characters would make it difficult to include more meaningful routes within the scope of the game. At one point, Knuckles gets his own Act that’s distinct from Sonic and Tails’. So, if we did that for the whole cast of modern characters, it’d take a whole year or so. It was more about refinement than reinvention, particularly with Sonic’s Drop Dash. There were already so many factors - the classic Zones, the new Zones - and, for a lot of people on the team, this was their first Sonic game. Sticking to our original scope was absolutely key to our success.
What was the hardest part of developing Sonic Mania? Was it harder to make entirely new Zones, or did you have more difficulty iterating on the classic Zones?
I think it varied depending on the level. For example, Studiopolis is one of the first levels we made, and I had a very strong idea behind it from the start. Coming up with the concept and artwork for it didn’t take very long. Same with Mirage Saloon. With those two, they were definitely simpler than the classic levels. Going into it, we thought that revisiting classic zones was going to be easy, but then the ideas we came up with were so crazy that it eventually became much more challenging than we expected. It’s not just about giving the sprites a lick of paint.
With Lava Reef Zone, for example, the original tileset was basically unusable in its original form, so we had to generate a new tileset. With Stardust Speedway, we made new graphics from scratch. It might as well have been a new level. Green Hill Zone was the first classic Zone we did, and it was the easiest to work with. That level seems so familiar to so many people, so we started it off in a familiar way. With Act 2 of every classic stage, that’s when we would crank up the new mechanics.
Of those mechanics, are there any that you’re particularly proud of?
Chemical Plant Zone is one of the fastest levels in classic Sonic, so we just recreated that in Act 1. But when coming up with Act 2, we decided that, well, there’s only so many loop-de-loops you can go through before it feels a bit repetitive. So we added the bouncy gel that gives you upward speed. Generally, a Sonic level scrolls in one general direction. So we decided to make Act 2 go vertical, which isn’t really something that the classic games did, largely because of the technical limitations of the Mega Drive. In the modern era, of course, that doesn’t matter.
Are there any stages from classic Sonic that you wish had made the cut?
Our initial plan for the sequence of Zones - pretty much none of those made it in. I wasn’t all that disappointed, though, because there’s so many things we could have done. What we ended up with made sense. Both our side and Sega’s side pitched levels, and initially, we thought we were going to put the Zones in chronological order, but Iizuka-san was fine with us mixing it up. There are certain levels that are fan-favorites, but in one instance, we put in a Zone that fans generally dislike, but we did something completely different with it, and it seems like people are liking it. Picking a level that we weren’t so enamored with from the original games gave us more room to do our own thing with it. Overall, we had to balance the stage tropes - there couldn’t be too many water levels, or city levels. We ended up making the first Act of Stardust Speedway feel like a ruin, because we didn’t end up taking a complete ruin Act.
If you had to boil it down to its constituent parts, what do you think makes a good Sonic level?
It’s a lot of things that work in concert. On a superficial level, you have the setting, the stage itself, what it looks like. In the classic Sonic game, even though you have natural-looking levels, everything has a geometric, early ‘90s CGI-type feel to it. I think that was Sonic Team playing to the strengths of the original hardware, but it makes a distinct look. The location itself informs the stage gimmicks that the player interacts with. This is really important for Sonic, because his core moveset is pretty basic. It’s all about the natural interaction with the slopes. The additional elements that augment that gameplay is what makes a stage novel. For example, in Studiopolis - a Hollywood-style, at-the-movies zone - instead of just having a generic spring, you have a clapper board. And same with the popcorn machine. In terms of the movement, it’s pretty simple, but all the elements play together to give it a sense of excitement.
In terms of the level design itself, similar to have a song should be, you have a build-up of tension, like a crescendo of tricky platforming or enemies, and then you have the release of the player running up high-speed slopes and loops. It’s all about pacing and rhythm. Having multi-tiered paths is incredibly important, too. Sticking to the top path is always key, especially in the water levels, like Hydrocity. It doesn’t punish you that bad if you miss the path, but you have to go through the slow water. Eventually, you get to the point where you know the fastest path. I cannot even imagine some of the techniques that speedrunners are already using in Sonic Mania. We designed the game with that in mind, but it’s still pretty incredible.
Do you think your extensive experience in fan projects prepared you for the realities of game development as a career?
From a technical perspective, yes, because I’m entirely self-taught as a programmer. Doing all that stuff has taught me how to make an engine and tools, and how to iterate on those tools, which I do every single project. When I was making fangames, it worked, but it was definitely amateurish. At the point where I pitched Sonic CD, I felt like my tools were indie-grade. With each game, it’s only gotten more sophisticated. For me, as a programmer, this project has given me a lot of ideas on how to make tools that are effective for a whole team, not just me. Managing workflows is really key. When we started, we were pretty inefficient. But, by the end, we got a lot better.
I think a lot of people probably think that I went directly from doing fangames to doing “official” ones. From a game perspective, that’s true. But from a professional perspective, I think my experience with video production was important. Just establishing the proper way to interact with clients and the like. Pitching something to Sega - there’s a bit of a gray area with using licensed IP, but I wanted to make sure that it was respectful to the company. Having experience working with clients is definitely important. Every person working on this game is passionate about what they do, and they’re passionate about Sonic. That definitely helps. We really wanted to capture that era of Sonic.
Can you tell me a bit about your plans for the future?
Well, I think my immediate plans are to take a bit of a holiday. (Laughs) I’m always thinking ahead in terms of what I want to do tech-wise and creatively. I’ve got my own ideas for what I would do with Sonic, but there’s really no point in telling any of that, because it would have to be a collaborative process with Sega. I think our team has definitely enjoyed working on Sonic a lot, and I’d love to do more. Before I did Sonic Mania, I set up the engine for Freedom Planet 2, and I prototyped a few original games, which I definitely have an interest in pursuing. As far as Sonic Mania 2, initially, I was planning on moving onto an original game, but I couldn’t have imagined working on something this big.
Well, personally, I’m hoping it’s Ristar Mania.
(Laughs) It’s funny you say that, because we’ve joked about it in the past. Ristar, Burning Rangers, games like that. Sega has a rich and diverse set of IP, and I think there are many development teams both in and outside Sega that could do amazing things with them. That’s just my personal thought. I couldn’t really imagine this scenario when I was younger. It’s easier now for talented people from across the globe to come together. And that’s exactly what happened with Sonic Mania.