Takashi Iizuka interview by SPOnG (August 2, 2010)

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This is an interview conducted by SPOnG with Takashi Iizuka. It covers Sonic Colours.

The Interview

Sonic Team boss Takashi Iizuka must feel like he's finally turning a corner. Hardly anyone has complained about the direction of Sonic Colours, whereas if we rewind the clock to just two years ago, the world and his dog would have spat venom at practically anything that had Sega's blue hedgehog mascot on the box.

It didn't help that for the last decade, a legion of Sonic the Hedgehog fans have felt like they weren't being catered to with the multiple directions in the game series. It's hard to disagree. Multiple numbers of friends. Green Hills replaced with post-apocalyptic worlds and wonky Havok physics. Shadow the Hedgehog (with a gun, to boot).

But now, as we fast approach Sonic's 20th anniversary, things are looking up. The rather inoffensive Mario & Sonic series has sold a mint for Sega. A sequel in the vein of the Mega Drive classics is heading to online platforms. And Sonic Colours is looking like a real return to the imagination and atmosphere many fans feared had been lost.

A lot of work has been done to reverse the damage of the last five years, but in chatting with the studio leader – who is returning to a hands-on role in Sonic Colours as its producer – it's clear that he is aware that there is still plenty to be done, and many different kinds of Sonic fan to appeal to as well.

Here, we talk about the inspiration for Colours, the experience that Sonic Unleashed gave the team, and the difference between designing a Mega Drive Sonic title and running the fate of the entire franchise. Read on...

SPOnG: Sonic Colours, in terms of design, is a very big departure from Sonic games of recent years. What inspired the introduction of the Wisps, the game's atmosphere and the different environments?

Takashi Iizuka: When this project started, the very first and most important objective was to focus on what makes a Sonic game - pure speed and 3D action. We decided to take out all the other elements from past games that weren't really in line with that philosophy.

Of course, just focusing on the speed will in fact make it very similar to past Sonic titles, so we wanted to add a different game mechanic other than the speed focus. Now usually, these mechanics would have been given to other characters, such as Knuckles and Tails, but in Sonic Colours we decided to give this new ability to Sonic as a kind of power-up instead.

SPOnG: Do you think that every Sonic game is all about the speed element, or does it depend on the kind of Sonic game you're making – that the speed element is good for games like Colours while Mega Drive-style platforming is best kept to titles like Sonic 4?

Takashi Iizuka: Although speed is an important element as I said, this alone doesn't define a Sonic game. It's also about the technical side, in the platforming areas. A good Sonic game offers a tempo of speed and technical gameplay, allowing the player to experience a change in pact. And that's true for all the Sonic games in the series.

SPOnG: We saw a demo of some Wisps being used in a level, and I'm quite interested to learn more about the level design in Sonic Colours. What would be the benefits of using different kinds of Wisps to explore different routes?

Takashi Iizuka: This is more specific to the Wii version of the game, but the trick is that Wisp powers can only be used for a limited time, in a certain amount of time. So there's a limited window of opportunity. This is because it's a Sonic game, so we wanted to emphasise the action.

Wisp powers are optional, ultimately - you can clear this game without using any of these powers at all. The benefits of using them, however, is to allow players to experiment with certain ways of clearing a level. For example, you can save a Wisp power or use it immediately, and this 'where and when' strategy gives a different variety to the gameplay. We approached level design with these things in mind.

SPOnG: Were there any past Sonic games that influenced the design of Sonic Colours? I noticed that the Eggman Intergalactic Amusement Park could be considered a throwback to the 32X game Chaotix, and the map screen contains planets attached by chains which is reminiscent of Sonic CD's Little Planet. Did you intentionally reference these games at all?

Takashi Iizuka: Actually, we didn't really think of either Chaotix or Sonic CD when we started the project. Now that you mention it, you can see that there are similarities (laughs)!

In terms of direct influences, of course the closest reference is Sonic Unleashed's daytime stages. You can see this in the 3D gameplay. Because that part of Sonic Unleashed was relatively well-received by fans and critics, we decided to build upon it. It's kind of like the 'better version' of Sonic Unleashed in a way.

SPOnG: The Wii game does look like you've taken the best parts of Sonic Unleashed's daytime stages and slowed it right down while adding platform elements, which I think is what a lot of fans were asking for.

Looking back, was that one of the things you realised when assessing that game? Did you look at Sonic Unleashed and say 'this is what we got right, this is what we need to do to improve it for Sonic Colours,' or did you go a different direction?

Takashi Iizuka: When we looked at Sonic Unleashed, we were aware that the daytime stages were really focused on nothing but the speed side, whereas the nighttime levels involved more of a technical side, in the platforming and battling. But as a product, these two types of gameplay were really quite separate from each other.

So in this project, what we did was blend those speed and platforming sides together into one gameplay stage. That's how we looked back at Sonic Unleashed and built upon it.

SPOnG: You've been involved with the Sonic the Hedgehog series since Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles on the Sega Mega Drive. Over the years you've taken more of a director role, which may be seen as a step back from development – what was it like making that transition and how has your hands-on involvement changed as a result?

Takashi Iizuka: In the past, when I had a more hands-on involvement with the series as game designer, I concentrated a lot on making the one specific game I was involved in at the time to be as good as possible.

This concentration was shared amongst many developers who worked at Sega's American studios at the time, and because a lot of people were concentrating on many different Sonic games, the focus for the franchise kind of scattered into multiple directions.

Now that I am more in a leadership role for the entire Sonic franchise, I'm concentrating a lot on how to regroup everything and give Sonic a unified direction. All Sonic games should contain a similar design focus. In that respect, I'm also looking after the old Sonic titles too, and making sure they are also considered.

SPOnG: The Sonic fanbase is one of the most prominent, and there are even fan conventions such as Summer of Sonic, but what do you think about the fanbase yourself? How difficult is it to please them all? As you said before, the series went in different directions, and the fanbase is quite fragmented as a result.

Takashi Iizuka: As you said, there have been so many Sonic games in the past, with different directions and flavours – not just within the games, but also in animations like Sonic X. There are so many fans, each with their own unique first experience of the Sonic franchise, so I do understand that there are different Sonic fans in the world.

It's very hard – near-impossible, actually – to please everybody, but I believe that there are some constants in the franchise that we should always try to maintain. Any Sonic game, or even the animation series, has that same Sonic attitude and focus on speed throughout – it's in every product throughout the franchise.

As long as that is maintained, and that focus is still there, the team can think of ways to evolve Sonic, while keeping the fundamentals of attitude and speed. That's one way I believe we can go some way to pleasing as many Sonic fans as possible.

SPOnG: Cool. And you can't say anything about the Metal Sonic-looking planet sitting in the menu screen there?

Takashi Iizuka: (Laughs) No, although that was actually one of the most frequently asked questions at E3. One thing I can tell you is that is not Metal Sonic (laughs).

SPOnG: Thank you very much for your time.

Takashi Iizuka: Thank you very much.

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