Taylor Miller interview by The Green Hill Zone (December 22, 2007)

From Sonic Retro

This is an interview conducted by a member of the website, The Green Hill Zone, with Taylor Miller the producer of Sonic Rivals and a staff member of it's developer, Backbone Entertainment.

The Interview

The GHZ: Looking back, what do you feel was the biggest strength of the original Sonic Rivals?

Taylor Miller: One of the biggest strength of the original was the idea of bringing the traditional 2D gameplay of Sonic and combining that in vibrant 3D environments. I also believe that SR1 really captured the feeling of speed and intense rivalry. I have seen many forums with people remarking how fast this Sonic game felt and how intense the game was – nail biting moments all the way to the finish line. Multiplayer was also a huge feature that was often overlooked. SR1 was designed from the ground up to be a multiplayer game, whether you were playing against an AI opponent or a real person. The game is insanely fun playing multiplayer at break neck speeds all while shooting power ups, dropping traps and jostling towards the finish line!

The GHZ: What do you feel were some of the original game’s weaknesses and how does the sequel improve on these?

Taylor Miller: The three things that hurt us the most in reviews were these:

  • Too much of the game was based on reactive gameplay
  • Punishment for mistakes was too high
  • Replay value was lower because the game was short (the 4 story lines played all the same events)

Here is a list of issues we addressed in the sequel – Sonic Rivals 2.

Reducing Reactive Gameplay and Player Punishment
Too much of our original game was based on reactive gameplay (split second decisions with no obvious “best” choice) and coupled with high punishment for making mistakes (bottomless pits and spike hazards) it often frustrated users. In the sequel we made sure that Sonic would never run into hazards without stopping first or seeing them coming up (by doing some fancy camera work). We also made sure that boosting (something that we want the players to do) would never punish you by throwing you into a pit of spikes. We eliminated almost all bottomless pits and added alternative routes on the bottom path so if players happened to fall off the main track another path would shoot them right back into the action. As a general rule we made higher paths the favored pathways to take and littered them with more rings and power ups. Spike placement was also greatly reduced and only used sparingly.

Increasing Gameplay Variance
One of the issues we wanted to change with Rivals 2 was throw in more gameplay experiences. Instead of “just holding to the right” we wanted to shake things up and offer a more engrossing experience. These are the things that we added to accomplish this:

  • New modes:
    • Battle Mode – go head to head against another rival in area style battles using 6 new rule set game modes
      • Tag
      • Knock Out
      • King of the Hill
      • Ring Battle
      • Capture the Chao
      • Laps Race
    • Free Play (explore all the large levels on your own at your own pace)
  • New interactive Gimmick Props – In Rivals 1 each level had gimmick props scattered through out the levels (such as the Rocket Sled in Crystal Mountain

Zone or the Wrecking Ball in Death Yard Zone). Unfortunately we didn’t have time to make them interactive. This time around, we planned for almost all of them to be interactive and help take the race from running / platforming to racing by using different forms of interaction. The better you do using these props the further ahead of the rival you get. We included barrel rolling, cliff climbing, hang gliding, cannon shooting, rockets, mine carts and more moments scattered through out our levels.

  • New Props – We added a ton of new props that also help change up gameplay – such as:
    • Classic Sonic Chutes!
    • Climbing Poles
    • Puzzle Props
    • + more!

Adding More Replay Value
Many of the items listed in “gameplay variance” also contribute to increasing our game’s depth and replay value. On top of that here is a random list off the top of my head about the other things added this time around.

  • We added 62% more levels in Rivals 2!
    • In Rivals 1 we had 10 unique race levels, 2 altered race levels and 5 bosses to equal 15 unique levels. For the sequel, we added 1 more boss (total of 6 new), 2 more unique race levels (total of 12 new) and 6 new battle levels to round out our game at 24 unique levels! With the addition of Battle Mode and its levels, we offer 30 combinations of gameplay (6 levels X 5 Battle Mode gameplay types per level).
  • Unique Story Events – each character’s story has different events through out the story arc. In Tails’s story he may have an objective to collect a certain

number of rings by himself in a level, where Espio’s objective is to destroy 5 badnicks to complete that same level. This offers more gameplay experiences for each character.

  • Collectables in Free Play – we have special collectables hidden in all of our free play levels. Collecting them allows you to unlock cards and items. This

gives the player more incentive to explore the levels, find secrets and new faster routes for races.

  • New challenge system – with global challenges & character specific challenges. Very similar to another achievement system.
  • Added a 150 new cards
  • Added in small special abilities to the suits – this is a hidden feature. No one on the web seems to have caught on to this yet. Gadgets have been added to increase interactivity.

The GHZ: For the original game, you said that the Backbone team studied level maps of past games to help with the design of the stages. What forms of research have you conducted for the sequel?

Taylor Miller: For the sequel we studied our own levels – what worked for them and what didn’t. That information was collected from our team, game reviews and forum posts. In the sequel, the obvious areas we wanted to improve on were reducing both our reactive gameplay and player punishment.

Not seeing what was coming up – we focused on improving by using dynamic cameras that would show you more track in front of you plus lessened the punishment for mis-stepping. We removed almost all the spikes and bottomless pits to allow for other pathways to get back into the race. This reduced player frustration when they were too slow to react or simply fell off the main path.

By the end of the Rivals 1, we already knew what we wanted to do for the sequel. Aside from improving our level design, we wanted to add most of the features discussed previously:

  • Free Play Mode
  • A new charging Signature move system
  • Mini games that ended up spawning into Battle Mode
  • More characters
  • Redesigned jostling
  • New tracks
  • Interactive Props

The GHZ: In our previous interview, you stated that Backbone had originally designed a traditional platformer before Takashi Iizuka introduced the idea of competitive racing. Could you explain a bit more about this original platformer design? Is it related to the free mode in the sequel?

Taylor Miller: The original title was called Sonic Lightning and was an adventure platformer game. We had some really great ideas that we included in Rivals 1 such as the level themes. Some of good ones that didn’t make it into Rivals were – skydiving bonus levels and a double staged epic boss battle that took place on the planet and then on a space station falling back into the atmosphere.

Free mode borrows from all the Sonic adventure game types by allowing the player to do what ever they want in the level with absolutely no time limit! They can explore the level at their leisure, find hidden paths / areas, achieve fastest times without a rival and also collect hidden items scattered throughout the level to unlock special items.

The GHZ: Have your experiences with developing the first game altered your perception of the Sonic series in any way?

Taylor Miller: We definitely learned a lot about Sonic and his universe over the development of Rivals 1 and wanted to put that to good use in the sequel. Anyone who has also played the first game can simply see we have made some major improvements the second time around. There is a whole lot more game for players to enjoy.

The GHZ: What do you feel are the most important insights you have gained from working on the two Rivals titles (either with regards to Sonic or game design in general)?

Taylor Miller:
Sonic Fan Insights
Sonic fans are definitely divided – some absolutely love Sonic type games – such as Heroes, Riders and Rivals and others only want the classic adventure type games. It is definitely hard to please both camps all the time when you build a hybrid game that encompasses both racing and platforming (associated with adventure) types of play.

One of the great things we have come to realize is that Sonic fans are some of the most hardcore game fans out there. It is always inspiring to make games for fans that absolutely love the franchise and dedicate so much effort to learning all the intricacies of all Sonic’s games. I try and read every comment and forum thread I can find when the game is released. We take a lot of those responses into account when working on future products.

Sonic Design
A syndrome of Sonic is that he moves so fast! – this makes it more difficult to design levels where players have enough time to decide how and if they want to interact with that prop. The problem is this: Sonic needs to move fast. The closer the camera is to the player, the faster the character appears to move. Sonic generally needs to stay in the middle of the screen to feel like Sonic – therefore you have limited area to see what is coming up in front of you. The faster the player is and the closer the camera is the less time a player has to react to the environment. This is definitely a delicate balance to consider.

The Sonic Rivals games are racing games, with more of an emphasis on competition in Rivals 2 with the addition of Battle Mode. The level maps for a single player adventure game like Rush or the Advanced titles doesn’t work for Rivals. The pacing on a racing game is completely different and makes building levels that much more complex – we had to make Sonicy levels, but still function as proper races with lots of alternative paths. There are a lot of platform type game mechanics that get thrown to the way side when you are trying to get to the finish line first!

The GHZ: Are there any ideas that the team developed for either of the Rivals titles which had to be cut out? Could you tell us more about these rejected ideas?

Taylor Miller: Because the development cycle was shorter than the original game, for this sequel there were a number of big features we did not have time to implement – such as:

  • Online play
  • 4 player races

Some of the features we had to cut during the course of the project were:

  • SR1 to SR2 card system (transfer all the cards from SR1 into SR2)
  • 2 other power ups

The GHZ: Unlike Knuckles, Silver, Shadow and Metal Sonic, Tails has never been one of Sonic’s rivals. What made you include him as a playable character in the sequel?

Taylor Miller: Tails was never added in the game to be a direct rival with Sonic – hence why he is on Sonic’s team in Rivals 2. They work together. There are members of the Rivals 2 line up that Tails does not get along with and this allows for great rivalry setups. That being said, even if you decide to challenge your buddy to a fight with Sonic and Tails, it isn’t too far fetched, as they have gotten in a fight before – IE: the Archie Sonic comic.

The GHZ: In Sonic Rush, Eggman-Nega came from another dimension. However, in Sonic Rivals 1, he is said to come from the future. Is the Eggman-Nega from Rivals 1 the same character that appeared in Sonic Rush? If he is the same character, then why do Rivals and Rush portray him as coming from two different places? As you said in our previous interview, you let Sega handle the story for the game, but we thought Sega might have given you some information about this apparent contradiction between Sonic Rivals and Sonic Rush.

Taylor Miller: I have included SEGA’s response: “Although there may have been some differences in the story setting for both Sonic Rivals 1 and Sonic Rush, Eggman-Nega is same character. He comes from another dimension, and the reference of time was to place the mystery of the cards in context with the story. We really hadn’t effectively changed where Eggman-Nega comes from, just added another dimension if you like to the overall storyline.”

The GHZ: Are there any other anecdotes you could tell us about the development of either of the Rivals titles?

Taylor Miller: This time around SEGA supplied us with:

  • The Story/Voice over (same in the case for Sonic Rivals 1)
  • Level design support (Iizuka-san aided BBV designers in creating level designs according to traditional Sonic design specifications – same as SR1)
  • 3 songs (the “Race to win” Title / Zone 1 Act 1 song + the Zone 1 Act 3 song) Thanks for taking part. Best wishes for the new game and future projects.

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