Sonic Frontiers interview: ‘Fans don’t yet understand what this new gameplay is’

Sega’s Sonic Team has been forced into defence mode this month, after reveal videos for its next game elicited a surprisingly mixed response from some fans.

#DelaySonicFrontiers was briefly trending on Twitter earlier in June, after many Sonic fans took to the social media platform to vent their disappointment over the first videos showing the game in action. At the recent Summer Game Fest: Play Days event in Los Angeles, hands-on sessions also resulted in wildly mixed reactions from the press.

“It’s not really that surprising,” studio head Takashi Iizuka told VGC at the event, going on to argue that fans didn’t yet understand the brand of “open zone” game Sonic Team is making.

Unlike previous games in the series, Sonic Frontier deviates from its linear format in favour of something closer to an open-world structure. Iizuka explained that while Frontiers appears to allow players to go wherever they want in a sprawling environment, that’s not quite how the game works.

It’s this confusion that he believes led to the reaction from fans earlier in the month.

“If people come to Gamescom or Tokyo Game Show, [they can] get that hands-on experience to play the game and understand what the game is,” he said. “Because right now we’re just kind of watching videos of people reacting to what they believe the game to be.”

Read on for our full interview with Iizuka, which was translated by Sega’s own interpreter.

You’re one of fewer big games scheduled to release this year. Are your surprised the pandemic is seemingly still impacting game development and how long do you think it will last?

I do understand that development has been severely impacted by the pandemic. Our Tokyo studio was very good at very quickly getting everyone set up to continue work at home, and because we were able to shift over during the early times, it didn’t have so much of an impact on us. Because of that, we are able to keep our scheduled release on track.

I’m sure everyone says the same thing, but it’s really hard to predict what will happen next. But for all of our development team in Japan and even us here in the US, we’re thinking that maybe sometime this year we’ll be able to get back into the office. That doesn’t mean we’re going to be back to what it used to be, that’s probably still going to take some time, and honestly, the ‘new normal’ may be using both the office and remote working.

You’ve been showing the first Sonic Frontiers gameplay this month and the reaction from fans appears to be mixed. Why is that? Were your surprised?

It’s not really that surprising. We do realise everyone is just kind of reacting to the videos that they saw, and because they don’t understand what this new gameplay is, they’re kind of comparing it to other games that they already know. So we do see a lot of people saying, ‘oh, it’s kind of like this, it’s kind of like that, but it’s not like this, it’s not like that’.

And really, the team is going out and creating this new game format for Sonic, and we’re calling it an ‘open zone’ format. And this new game system itself is something that doesn’t really exist in any other comparable titles, so we really hope that from here until launch we can really explain what open zone gameplay is.

If people come to Gamescom or Tokyo Game Show, [they can] get that hands-on experience to play the game and understand what the game is. Because right now we’re just kind of watching videos of people reacting to what they believe the game to be.

Of course, the game is not finished, and a lot of fans were picking out technical issues from the footage you released. Do you think you’ll be able to improve those issues by release?

Regarding the technical bugs people are talking about, we’re in development right now and we are moving into the debug stage, so some of these issues which may be bugs that people are looking at are going to be dealt with. The game is polished and playable, but we are in that finalisation mode.

It’s not like the game will start looking or playing different… we’re in the ‘cleaning up’ mode right now and getting the game to where it needs to be in order to submit [it for certification]. So what we’re showing isn’t necessarily a super early development build, but we do realise some people are pointing out bugs that will be ironed out in the debug process.

Based on the released footage, many fans called for the game to be delayed on Twitter. Is a delay an option, should you deem it necessary?

Frontiers is in development now, and actually we’ve been doing a lot of playtesting with our target audience, who would be in that demographic of someone who’d play a Sonic game and enjoy it. From our playtesting results, we have been iterating, we have been listening to the comments that come back, but we’ve also been getting a lot of great feedback from people who rate the game and are like, ‘I had a lot of fun playing this game, I’d give it like an 80 or 90 point score out of 100’.

So, we do feel that we’re getting to the point where this game is done, and people will like it, and we do want to get that game into our fans’ hands as soon as possible.

The overwhelming concern from those fans appeared to be to ensure that Sonic Team has as much time as it needs to make a great game. Do you have enough time? And do you have the choice to delay?

We really feel confident in the playtest results that we’re getting. A lot of people are saying they had a lot of fun, they really enjoyed the game.

We realise a lot of people are watching the videos online and making assumptions, but we do feel confident based on the playtest results from the target demographic that are coming in and playing the game start to finish, they really like the game and we’re confident that we’re making a game that will be satisfying.

“From our playtesting results, we have been iterating, we have been listening to the comments that come back, but we’ve also been getting a lot of great feedback from people who rate the game”

If our development team all gets coronavirus, or they’re all hospitalised, or there’s something that actually prohibits us from being able to deliver the game on time, we will need more time. But we’re working right now with our team in Japan who are working really hard to make sure this holiday people can buy the game, pick it up, take it home and have a fun experience with it.

It can obviously be fantastic to have such a historic fanbase, and its passion is clear to see here, but can it also be a challenge to satisfy it?

Sonic has been around for 32 years and I believe that’s because of the fans and all of the support that they’ve given the character and the brand. My job as a game developer is to go out there and make games, but I realise that there are many other things people like about Sonic, such as movies, TV shows or comics. So we want to make sure that moving forward, we’re still delivering content outside of games that get fans excited.

Since your last major game, the two Sonic movies have released and been hugely successful. Do you think that has, in turn, raised expectations for the games?

Because of the success of the movies, we’re finding that we’re reaching into this wider audience of people who maybe never played the game before, or don’t play them that much. It’s this wider group of fans who we need to start now making content for.

Honestly, it makes us all very happy, because we have more people now that we can bring content to. It is a challenge though, because we have maybe new gamers or people who haven’t played previous Sonic games, so we don’t think we can go out there with on single game that will make the entire audience excited.

We do realise – and this is our strategy – that Sonic Origins, which is a 2D side-scrolling game, is going to be really liked by some people, so we’re delivering that to the audience, and fans that want that content are going to get it. There will be other fans who are expecting a 3D action game that’s more serious, and that’s what Sonic Frontiers is coming out to be.

Sonic Frontiers interview: ‘Fans don’t yet understand what this new gameplay is’

It’s about getting these different groups in our wide base of fans excited about what we’re delivering. The challenge is, now that we have these different groups of people who all want different things, how are we going to keep bringing more content to this wider audience?

Given the movies’ big success, have you considered bringing some of their elements over to the games, such as character designs etc?

Because the movie Sonic came from where the game started, trying to take the movie qualities and stick it back into the games doesn’t really work well. What I want to do is stay faithful to our game Sonic and really expand on the game Sonic to incorporate new ideas that are going to get people excited about new games.

In our mobile games, we do have ‘Movie Sonic’ appearing as a guest character, and that kind of collaboration feels really good because there are people who saw the movie and only understand the character through that. But the game Sonic is really the core essence of the character, so instead of trying to take the movie and put it inside of the game, I really wanted to expand on the game to make it appealing to everyone.

I think having Movie Sonic as a guest character is viable and certainly something that we’re going to do, but keeping the essence and core of Sonic in the games and then expanding out is probably what I’d prefer to do, rather than try to shoehorn in [the movie].

How challenging is it to make a game that appeals to both old and new fans, especially since the most engaged audience seems to have a very specific idea of what they expect from a Sonic game?

From my perspective, it’s not so much about old and new fans, it’s really more about the game genre and the types of games that people like. I see a core fanbase of people who really like the 2D side-scrolling format, and people who really like the 3D action format. Trying to put those both together to make everyone happy doesn’t really work.

“I think having Movie Sonic as a guest character is viable… but keeping the essence and core of Sonic in the games and then expanding out is probably what I’d prefer to do, rather than try to shoehorn in [the movie].”

Young kids are going to be more into the 2D side-scrolling format, and they’re not going to want the 3D action games. So I see things not really about old and new, but more about the different game genres people are attached to. For me, the only way to make those fans happy is to deliver the game formats that people want.

2017 was one of those examples, where we delivered Sonic Mania and Sonic Forces to the two different fan types in the same year, and everyone was happy. So moving forwards, we want to make sure we’re making the genres that are hitting these audiences.

You mentioned in an IGN interview that you’d like to one day work on Sonic Adventure 3. What would that game look like compared to Frontiers?

IGN asked very directly about making Sonic Adventure 3, so I was just answering the question! I’m not saying, ‘we’re definitely making Sonic Adventure 3’, although people may want to believe that. I just want to reiterate that the entire team is focused on Sonic Frontiers and they really want to make it the best game that it can be.

In the future, yes, Sonic Adventure 3 is there as an idea that at some point it would be cool to maybe explore, but that’s not part of the plan and that’s not what I’m doing. It’s all about Frontiers [right now] and we have no plans for Sonic Adventure 3 at this point. I just want to be clear with everyone!

But yeah, as somebody who made Sonic Adventure 1 and 2, it is on my mind as some idea that I could potentially think about in the future.

But from your comments, doing another Sonic Adventure sounds like something you’ve thought about?

I’ve always focused on the game that I’m creating now. I think that’s maybe where people start spinning off into the ‘what if’ scenarios. The team is always focused on whatever it is that they’re making [at the time] because they have to make it and it has to be great.

Sonic Frontiers interview: ‘Fans don’t yet understand what this new gameplay is’

All these things in the future… yeah, when we’re done with one title and think about what we’re doing next, that then comes up. But whenever we’re in development, everyone is hyper-focused on the game that we’re making right now and we’re not even thinking about future titles.

So just to clear, is Sonic Adventure 3 something you’d seriously consider? Or was that just a frivolous comment?

I want to be very direct and very clear: we have no plans to make Sonic Adventure 3.

I think this is what everyone gets stuck in the trap of: whenever I say, ‘there’s no plan, it’s not happening’ and I then follow that up by stating that, as somebody who was close to the Adventure series, in the future in this ‘what if’ scenario yeah, I think it could be cool to one day make a game in that Adventure format for the future, that would be cool as an idea… I think people respond to that by assuming that I’m making it.

But we have no plans to do that. If you ask me if it would be cool to do in the future, yeah, it would be cool. But maybe people are reading a bit too much into what I say!

Would you consider remastering the Adventure games? Other platformer series have enjoyed success recently with re-releases, such as Crash Bandicoot and Spyro…

As somebody who made the Adventure series, when I go back and think of what I would like to do to make the old games more of an experience for the modern audience, there are lots of things I have in my mind that I want to do.

But if we just talk about remastering these titles, to me that’s just about making the graphics nicer and polishing up a couple of things… it’s the same game but looking prettier and that’s not what I want to do. There’s lots more work that I would want to put into creating a new Sonic Adventure game. That’s why there’s no remaster.