Jon Burton interview by Sega Saturn Magazine (October, 1997)

From Sonic Retro

This is an interview with Jon Burton, the programmer of Sonic R, in an issue of Sega Saturn Magazine. The scan of the interview can be found here.

The Interview

Sega Saturn Magazine: Firstly, can you tell us your position in relation to Sonic R?

Jon Burton: I designed and programmed the 3D engine, special effects and game logic.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Can you tell us a little of the history of Travellers Tales?

Jon Burton: Travellers Tales was set up about seven years ago and we have always tried to produce technically good games. Our first game, Leander, was published by Psygnosis on the Amiga.

Sega Saturn Magazine: More specifically, what projects have you been involved with?

Jon Burton: I designed and programmed Puggsy, Mickey Mania, Toy Story, and Sonic 3D, all on the Sega Mega Drive, as well as Leander on the Amiga.

Sega Saturn Magazine: How many people are currently working on Sonic R?

Jon Burton: There are three programmers and three artists working on Sonic R. (That's the Travellers Tales staff, there also Sega staff involved).

Sega Saturn Magazine: The version of the game shown at E3 was very early indeed. When did the team begin the project and what specifically was missing from the first track demo?

Jon Burton: We started in February '97. The first track demo had no AI for the opponents and limited animation and special effects.

Sega Saturn Magazine: How much input are Travellers Tales recieving from the Sonic Team?

Jon Burton: Sonic Team send us course layouts and game design/flow documents.

Sega Saturn Magazine: What is it like working with this legendary team?

Jon Burton: The game design documents are very good with some great design features. They know what makes a playable game, making out job very much easier.

Sega Saturn Magazine: At what stage was it decided that Sonic R would be a racing game?

Jon Burton: We had just started programming a racing engine on the Saturn at the time we were approached by Sega to produce the next Sonic game. It made sense to use the engine we were writing. (Coincidentally, Sonic Team did specifically ask for a racing game).

Sega Saturn Magazine: Were the team influenced at all by the success of Mario Kart 64?

Jon Burton: I was disappointed by Mario Kart

64. There are probably loads of hidden features and

tracks, but I couldn't find any. Considering the power of

the N64, I felt the game was graphically weak.

Sega Saturn Magazine: At what point was it decided to allow players more freedom than is offered by other racing games?

Jon Burton: The Sonic Team wanted to expand the race game into a cross between a race game and a platform adventure game. We developed the 3D engine to allow the players to roam freely and ended up with a engine that would happily support a platform game such as Mario 64, if needed.

Sega Saturn Magazine: There's a lot of freedom in the courses compared to other racing games - why is this important to Sonic R? Is there actually any chance of the player getting lost?

Jon Burton: Sonic is traditionally a platform adventure so we needed to include exploration and secret areas to keep the Sonic tradition, even though it's a racing game. There will be an onscreen map to help players find their way around.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Are the planned five circuits modelled on levels from previous Sonic games, or are the courses entirely original?

Jon Burton: The courses are entirely original, although the art direction is losely based on the Green Hill, Casino Night, Chemical Factory, etcetera zones.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Aside from Sonic himself, what other characters are slated to make an appearance in Sonic R? What are the differences between them aside from appearance?

Jon Burton: Tails, Knuckles, Amy and Robotnik appear as well as many hidden characters. Knuckles can glide, Tails can fly, Amy drives a car etcetera.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Secret routes and stages are a main feature of previous Sonic games. Are the team planning to incorporate such features into Sonic R?

Jon Burton: Yes. Each course has a large number of different ways to complete a lap. There are many short cuts, hidden routes and characters and, of course, chaos emeralds to find.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Are the team confident of being able to sustain the 30 frames per second frame rate?

Jon Burton: Yep.

Sega Saturn Magazine: What sort of gameplay variations are the team planning to incorporate into the finished Sonic R, specifically multi-player options?

Jon Burton: There will be a two-player mode (including Race and Battle modes hopefully) as well as Time Trial, Tag and possibly Relay modes.

Sega Saturn Magazine: What style of music are the team planning to add to the racing action?

Jon Burton: Sonic team want the usual Sonic style music and I think they also want singing on all the in-game music.

Sega Saturn Magazine: The character of Sonic the Hedgehog is a worldwide phenomenon. Does this put any undue pressure on the team?

Jon Burton: Not really. We've done a Sonic game before and Sega approaches us to do the Sonic projects so they must feel we can deliver the games.

Sega Saturn Magazine: The game engine is clearly excellent. Are the team planning to put this to any further use? Another Saturn game perhaps?

Jon Burton: We write each game from scratch and will usually only use the best ideas and techniques from our previous games rather than use the same code or engine.

Sega Saturn Magazine: What special effects and techniques are you most proud of in the Sonic R engine and why?

Jon Burton: The cross fading "misting" effect, the reflective water, and the compression technique used to calculate visible polygons.

Sega Saturn Magazine: You appear to have an almost Nintendo 64 style of "misting in" scenery as opposed to the usual popup. How was this achieved?

Jon Burton: Pixie Dust.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Okay... Is this engine 100% Travellers Tales' work or did you receive technical assistance from Sega or the Sonic Team?

Jon Burton: Everything we program is 100% original code. We are hopelessly arrogant and always think we can do it better than everyone else.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Travellers Tales are working on both PlayStation and Saturn - what are the key advantages and disadvantages between the two systems?

Jon Burton: The PlayStation is easy to get started on but you quickly reach the limits of the polygon performance and there are few tricks you can do to improve the graphical look of the game. The Saturn is more complicated to get to grips with but it has Playfield hardware, Slave and DSP processors and nice transparency effects which all improve the speed and look of a game when all used together correctly.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Could Sonic R be replicated perfectly on the Sony PlayStation?

Jon Burton: The "misting" technique would drop the frame rate to about 10 frames a second or less on the PlayStation, the reflective water would be virtually impossible to achieve, and the Saturn has better gouraud shading giving much smoother lighting.

Sega Saturn Magazine: Do you think the Saturn has been pushed to its limits with Sonic R - after all, there's not really much in 3D that can touch Sonic R...

Jon Burton: We like to think so but it would be silly to claim that the limit has been reached already. Sega Rally pushed the Saturn on a level and we hope that Sonic R will do the same.