Sonic Team had to scrap its first pass at Sonic Frontiers
Iizuka on Sonic going open world, fan reaction and the 'third generation' of Sega's series.
It's been a bumpy couple of weeks for Sonic Frontiers. First teased over a year ago with the briefest of trailers that offered a glimpse of an all-new 'open zone' style for the series, the gameplay reveal that followed-up belatedly earlier this month met with a reception that was - let's be polite here - mixed. Some quarters seem nonplussed about the new direction, while others took it a mite further with #DelaySonicFrontiers briefly taking hold amidst more vocal fans. And through all that even the most generous of onlookers will admit it's looking a little rough around the edges.
It's a backlash that Sonic Team was at least prepared for. "We knew people were going to start watching videos of Sonic Frontiers and not be able to play it," creative officer Takashi Iizuka tells us of the fan response. "We're showing them this new open zone format when they still don't really even understand what open zone is. We were curious what kind of the feedback there would be and we do understand the comments that are coming in, because they don't know what open zone and what this new open zone gameplay is supposed to be.
"They're taking a look at the video and comparing it to other games that are already out there. We understand that people are going to do that and we look to the future and being able to explain more as we get closer. From here until the launch of the product we have many opportunities to teach people what open zone is, what this game really is and not having them think about comparing it to what exists out there already but being able to look at the game for what it is and enjoy it for what it is."
What is open zone exactly? For Iizuka, it's the foundation of the future of the Sonic series and the biggest step forward it's made since 1998's Sonic Adventure. "Historically we've had the original Sonic the Hedgehog, which was a 2D side scrolling platformer game and with the Sonic Adventure series that then translated into the 3D linear format. That's taken us to where we are now, 30 years in the future," he says. "But the development team and I started thinking we have to do something from here on out to continue innovating and bringing something new to our fans - we need to take that next step.
Open zone can be read as open world easily enough - and Sonic Frontiers does bear a lot of the hallmarks of the modern open world game, with skill trees and unlock paths plus plenty of varied collectibles tucked away. Part of that's where the friction comes from - it does feel mighty odd playing a Sonic game where enemies have health meters to be whittled down - but that's part of Sonic Frontiers' own flavour. It feels odd, but ultimately once you've spent time tinkering around with the new moveset it does feel like Sonic. It turns out it took Sonic Team some trial and error and a few aborted attempts to find that formula that clicked.
"In 2017 Sonic forces was released," says Iizuka. "After the game was done the team said, alright, what's the next title we're going to make, and because we had the idea we needed to make something new, we needed a different format… You know, it's been five years since 2017. But we really wanted to spend a lot of time to iterate and create this new format.''
The initial attempts at an open world Sonic didn't work out, and the team had to return to the drawing board. "We played it in testing and we thought this isn't working, something's not going right," says Iizuka. "So we had to scrap it all, throw it all away, start again and keep iterating and iterating and iterating. It took so much longer, you know - usually when we're making a Sonic game, we're going to make something based off of the previous format so we can just roll right into production, we know what we're going to make it. But it's this iteration that we needed to get us to this open zone, style and format that took a couple of years, which is why it took a whole lot longer to get us to like a brand new title than it usually does."
The end result of Sonic Frontiers' Open Zones is certainly a lot more fun to play than the initial reveals might have suggested. The basic free-roaming is fine - there's a fiddly camera, but on the flipside Sonic's new moveset makes the simple process of sprinting from one point to another more engaging than in other 3D entries in the series - while the platforming sections act like bolted-on pieces of furniture, with classic Sonic grind rails and loops transposed over the landscape. It feels incongruous at first but slowly makes sense, and there's the prospect that as you progress that furniture gradually builds up, potentially moving away from the stark backdrops that have housed the early reveals.
"As we're thinking about making an open zone game, in the very beginning it was like what exactly is that going to mean," says Iizuka. "We had to figure it out. Okay, we're gonna make an island. We're gonna put Sonic on there. He's gonna run, it's gonna be great. But it doesn't feel Sonic enough. It doesn't feel true to a Sonic game. And so we needed to put platforming elements into the game. All right, if we just make this a hot mess of platforming all over the place, you're gonna walk in there and it'll be like I don't even know what's going on. We had to do a lot of balance and figuring out how we get the platforming in there but not have it be overwhelming.
"The answer that came to was, as you're playing the game, the world opens up as you complete things, and new rails come in so you get to experience the island kind of transforming into this bigger and bigger playground which does feel really Sonic-y and it's our way of showing people this open zone format."
30 minutes in Sonic Frontier's company was enough to convince that despite clear technical shortcomings it's got some potential, and after the not-so-great Sonic Forces - a depressing return to form for the series after the highs of Sonic Mania - it's certainly a more inspired approach. There's no getting away from those rough edges, both in the visuals and the world itself, though - does Iizuka perhaps think they showed it off too early?
"We are getting towards the end of development for the product," he says. "We're in debug right now making sure everything is getting to where it needs to get ready for submissions. And we have been doing a lot of play tests with our target audience. We're having them come in and play the game and the feedback that we're getting is actually really positive, which makes us believe we need to get this game into the hands of more people so they can play it and feel it and experience what this new format is."
And how much polishing exactly is there left to do? "The team really is working on finishing everything up and finalising all of the work that needs to get done. They're working long nights in Tokyo right now trying to get us to that point so we're getting pretty close to the end right now."
Given the clear technical shortcomings of the demo it's a small surprise to learn that Sonic Frontiers is so far along in development already - although it's already been pushed back once internally and it's clearly not been plain sailing behind the scenes. Perhaps the rough cut being presented at the show floor at Summer Games Fest was pulled from early on in development, and the finished product will benefit from the polish that comes during the last months of a big game like this.
Whatever happens, Iizuka's at least optimistic it'll get the high review scores Sega's openly hoped for with this all-new, dramatically different Sonic game. "This is a completely new style of Sonic game," he says. "I know a lot of our fans may not quite understand what this is. But this is the third generation and the open zone format is going to be the new style for Sonic games. We really hope our fans play it and enjoy it and understand what we're doing, and hopefully give us the reviews that we're looking for."