Ushering in the new era of Sonic the Hedgehog

Gamasutra speaks to Sega of America producer Stephen Frost about Sonic Boom and Sega's new, centralized management of the IP -- and what it means for the beloved franchise.
Sega surprised us all when it announced that the latest game in the Sonic franchise, Sonic Boom, would be developed not by its own Sonic Team studio in Japan, but Big Red Button, a studio helmed by Jak & Daxter creator Bob Rafei. Unsurprisingly, this has lead to a new direction for the franchise -- but what maybe hasn't been as as clear is that this is in fact the result not just of Big Red Button's handling of the franchise, but is in fact Sega's goal for the IP. It's not just about making games, but turning the IP into a transmedia empire of toys, games, and a TV show.

Welcome to the next level

"We came to the realization, if we wanted to really get to the next level of success, and we really wanted to reach out and expand the market, it really needs to be a multimedia sort of thing, and multi-encompassing across a bunch of different formats," says Stephen Frost, Sega of America's producer on the Wii U Sonic Boom, the lead game in the reboot.
"What's great about this is that now, the whole core of the Sonic initiative is based in Sega of America."
"What's great about this is that now, the whole core of the Sonic initiative is based in Sega of America," Frost says. The Sonic franchise "used to be splintered quite a bit," he says, with stakeholders in Japan, Europe, and the U.S. "It hasn't been a very connected sort of process." "Now, for Sonic Boom, everyone is very united in the same goals and a singular vision," Frost says. A team in San Francisco manages all aspects of the franchise -- including licensing, game production, marketing, and the Sonic Boom animated show, too. "We all sit in a very close proximity to each other and we're always talking to each other," Frost says. "As a group effort, we're driving where Sonic is going for the future." In the past, Sega was focused on the games, with other aspects of the IP ancillary to that. This is no longer the case.
"If we are going to bring in new people, there have to be some kind of changes. There has to be an easier entry point for these people," Frost says. That explains not just the existence of a cartoon, but details like the visual revamp Sonic and his pals received for Boom. There has to be clear differentiation between Sonic and Knuckles, for example, so newcomers can tell at a glance what role these characters play in the group.

Reaching 'as many people as possible'

When speaking to me, Frost was careful to emphasize that the team pulling the franchise's strings is well aware of its die-hard fan base and doesn't want to lose touch with them. But it's also clear that this new way of managing the IP means change. "It is really important to have this unified, united, synergistic effort to really reach as many people as possible," Frost says. "We wanted a new kind of direction or branch of Sonic," Frost says. "There are a lot of people who are familiar with Sonic, or fans of Sonic, who might be intimidated, or don't play the traditional speed-based gameplay." In fact, there are even Sonic fans who have lost access to the franchise, says Frost: "We have this fan base who loves the character, but this is not their type of game." In one example of how this is affecting the games, in March, Rafei told Gamasutra that Sonic Boom has an increased focus on combat -- something that is rare for the franchise, but "natural" to third-person action games.
Changing the Sonic formula too much can be a bit dangerous, though: "We had a point early in the early prototype phase where we're sitting back and we were like, 'You know, if we remove Sonic and the team from this... it could be anything,'" Frost recalls. That's changed, he says: Now, "there's enough speed, enough core elements that make Sonic, Sonic in the game."

The 'unified design and vision' born of collaboration

The distinction that could be lost here is that it's not the cartoon influencing the game, or Sega of America's central Sonic group handing down the direction for the franchise without collaboration with creative teams. "There's not one singular sort of entity" that's controlling how things go, Frost says. He told me this story about the creation of Boom's new character, Sticks: "Sticks' personality and core being was established by the animation team, but there was no design for her, so we took her core personality, and Sonic Team started doing sketches and ideas after that, and then based off of that, Big Red Button took that and fleshed it out into a 3D design." That kind of interaction leads to "a unified design and vision" for the franchise, moving forward, Frost says.
"Bringing characters to life is a necessity not just for the game, but for the cartoon."
"Bringing characters to life is a necessity not just for the game but for the cartoon," says Frost. The goal is to create "an engaging cartoon with meaningful interaction and storytelling." But Frost also wants to avoid a situation where "the cartoon could be going out in a direction that doesn't reinforce the things you're seeing in the game," he says. To that end, the team spent a great deal of time hammering out the details of the Sonic Boom setting. "We met in many different locations and discussed just what are the core aspects of this world? How do these characters interact? What are the motivations for [antagonist] Eggman? Every little nuance you can imagine -- we've had endless, endless meetings and that gave us the information to go off and build the game, the toys, and the cartoon, and make them feel very cohesive," Frost says.

A tough balancing act

The team was faced with a difficult challenge. On one hand, says Frost, "we're not just making decisions based off of newcomers. That's a hard thing to predict." On the other, says Frost, while keeping the Sonic fan base happy is a priority, "honestly, it's a vocal minority in some standpoints."
"We're not just making decisions based off of newcomers. That's a hard thing to predict."
"That desire and that interest of getting a cartoon out there and trying to appeal to an even larger audience drove a lot of the decision process we had for a lot of these things -- but obviously, in the back of our brain, we know we don't want to alienate the fans," Frost says. Whatever the result, it's clear from this past E3 that Sonic Boom is most certainly not like the 3D Sonic games -- diverse as they can be -- that Sonic Team has been creating for the last 15 years, and it is not intended to be. The visual makeover Sonic and his cohorts received is, in fact, symbolic of the franchise's maturation into a new kind of IP for Sega. While it might be a less schizophrenic franchise -- it's unlikely to result in another game as infamous as Sonic '06 -- it also strips the franchise of some of its unique character in a push for broader appeal.

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