Sega's Iizuka On 'Better Defining The Direction Of The Sonic Series'

Gamasutra speaks to Sonic series producer Takashi Iizuka to find out whether the 20-year-old franchise can get back on track under his stewardship -- and what lies in store beyond Generations.
The Sonic series has gone through some tumultuous times over the last 20 years. Originally launched in 1991 for the Sega Mega Drive/Genesis, the series made the then-console manufacturer a player, and enabled it to briefly challenge Nintendo for dominance in the West. The series' first steps into 3D, on the Dreamcast, were generally well-liked -- with Sonic Adventure and its sequel praised. Years on, though, the series had gathered a lot of cruft, and fans had complained. The Sonic Cycle, in which players anticipate a new Sonic game only to be inevitably disappointed, became part of the the gaming lexicon. However, that cycle may finally be broken, as one man has taken the helm of the franchise in an attempt to steer it back on track. Takashi Iizuka is now the producer of the entire series. Director of 1998's Sonic Adventure, he's worked with Sonic since 1994's 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog 3 -- and he's the most experienced person left at Sega when it comes to the series. Gamasutra spoke to him about this week's release of Sonic Generation, a game that contains the "peaks of the past 20 years," in Iizuka's words. How do you feel about the current state of the Sonic series? Is it where you want it to be right now? I think so, for the most part. Before I assumed this current position, the direction of each Sonic title was largely left in the hands of the individual directors behind each project. You had all these different ideas about what Sonic should be, and where it should go, and so it tended to fluctuate from project to project. Since I came back, though, I've made an effort to really better define the direction of the series and its characters. I think Sonic 4 and Colors were ways of defining that, and I'm satisfied with how both of those went. The Sonic series has a lot of really passionate fans. When you're charting a course for the series, how much do you have to listen to that fanbase? How much of the decision is based on where you think it should go? Well, the fact that Sonic has kept going for the past 20 years is because it's received all that support from fans over the years. I try to preserve the image of Sonic that these fans are looking for, and I try my best to participate in the assorted fan events that take place. So I treat those voices seriously, but on the other hand, I think it's also necessary to surprise them, to turn against their expectations -- in a good way. I want to introduce new aspects that don't shake what the fans want, but also provide something new to the package. How far out are you planning the Sonic series nowadays? Are you thinking about the medium- and long-term at the same time as you're working on individual games? Well, I can't really talk about how many years ahead I'm thinking, but I do have a constant roadmap going ahead for us in the mid-to-long term, something that outlines where we want to go on a yearly basis, as we concentrate on what's before us. Is that a response to what you said before, about there not being any direction, or just because you've decided that this is the way we're going to do Sonic from here on out? I don't know if it's a response to that so much as I think that's what my role is here. Since I'm the overall producer for this series, I try to think in these mid-to-long term periods. What do you think is special or unique about the Sonic series? Back when Sonic was on the Mega Drive, there were tons of side-scrolling action games out there. The fact that Sonic took these platform games -- which were very slow, reserved affairs -- and made them into these quick, exhilarating things was an incredibly unique, futuristic thing for the time. As time went on, the action genre further evolved, and now we're to the point that this sort of high-speed platform action is pretty much defined by Sonic. It's the only one in the industry, and that's something I want to retain going into the future. One thing I think happened to Sonic -- and this happens with a lot of popular franchises -- you have to do a lot of sequels, so you add something every time. Then you wind up with a whole bunch of stuff that you don't need anymore, but if you get rid of it, you feel trapped. Did you experience that with Sonic? There have been a lot of Sonic titles in the past, and I think, at this point, there's a pretty good idea of what a Sonic game should be like -- a fun, frenetic action game. As I said, I feel the need to surprise the fans in new and innovative ways, but I don't want to do anything to depart from that style. The color powers in Colors are a good example of that. It seems that as far as current-gen Sonic goes, there have been false starts. The PlayStation 3 Sonic, the first one, was supposed to be a new beginning, and then there was Unleashed, which had good and bad about it. It seems like Generations is yet again starting over; are we at a point where you feel comfortable with the mark you're making and can move forward? I wouldn't say that I think Generations is a new start. Instead, it's more of the peaks of the past 20 years, is the way we're approaching this. Generations is about taking the past 20 years of history and rolling it into one really fun product. I think, as a result, I would like to make a new standard Sonic, a modern Sonic if you will, in 2012 and beyond. The 20th anniversary of the franchise is a big deal, and I'd like to get your thoughts on how the franchise has lasted this long. The fact we made it this far is really due to the fans we've had from the past, I think. In recent years we've had comics, animated works, games... people are knowing about Sonic from all kinds of places, and they're giving us support. Still, as the name Sonic Generations tells you, I think we're at the point where there are two separate generations -- parent and child, in other words -- enjoying these games. I think if we can get to the point where we're 30, 40 years from the series' start, and there are three generations of Sonic fans -- that's when I think he'll have really established himself as a character. I want to use the past 20 years of experience to keep us going well into the future.

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