"This is really important for Sonic, because his core moveset is pretty basic. It’s all about the natural interaction with the slopes. The additional elements that augment that gameplay is what makes a stage novel."
- Game developer and Sonic the Hedgehog fan Christian Whitehead, speaking to Glixel.
How do you design a great level for Sonic the Hedgehog, a game franchise predicated on pushing players to run as fast as they can?
Indie game dev and Sonic afficionado Christian Whitehead might be a good person to ask, given that he just wrapped up work shipping Sonic Mania, the most critically acclaimed Sonic game in recent memory. Luckily, Glixel recently did just that as part of a long chat with Whitehead, and he suggests a good Sonic level is all about designing for slopes.
"[Sonic's] core moveset is pretty basic. It’s all about the natural interaction with the slopes," Whitehead said. "In terms of the level design itself, similar to [how] a song should be, you have a build-up of tension, like a crescendo of tricky platforming or enemies, and then you have the release of the player running up high-speed slopes and loops."
He goes on to point out that since the game is all about speed, good Sonic level design requires thought about pacing, rhythm, and different routes that players can choose between to control their velocity. This approach to design pushes players to learn the optimal path through a level, and Whitehead acknowledges that speedrunners are (probably) already pushing Sonic Mania in unexpected ways despite the dev team's attempts to make it speedrunner-friendly.
"It’s all about pacing and rhythm," he noted. "Having multi-tiered paths is incredibly important, too. Sticking to the top path is always key, especially in the water levels, like Hydrocity. It doesn’t punish you that bad if you miss the path, but you have to go through the slow water. Eventually, you get to the point where you know the fastest path."
For a deeper exploreation of what Whitehead means and why he thinks it's so important, you can (and should!) read his full interview with Glixel.