Interview: Simon Jeffery

Interview: Simon Jeffery

0710jefferySimon Jeffery has had a bit of a history in the video game business. Before settling into the top position as President of SEGA America, he was the President for LucasArts between 2000-2003 and a studio director before then. He’s been credited for attempting to build better relationships between external developers for creating new games on existing IPs – something he’s keen to continue at SEGA with an announced Sonic RPG from BioWare in the works.

He caught a bit of flak from the online community a month or two back with a comment that largely insinuated that Sonic was for kids under 12 years old. While this may be true, it’s evident that the ‘mature’ turn the games have taken have appeared to drag this stigmata further down. Uproar was had, then Jeffery retracted his statement somewhat. The Sonic Stadium was given an opportunity to ask the man a few questions, to understand better the mind behind the driving force of future Sonic games.

TSS: Simon Jeffery, thank you for taking some time to speak with us. First, could we get an idea of your role in SEGA, and what kind of involvement you have in the games that are released, including in particular the Sonic series?

SJ: I run SEGA of America. We, like SEGA of Europe, are a subsidiary of SEGA of Japan. I have involvement with games that are built in the West, but not with games built in Japan. Therefore, sorry to say, I am unable to answer questions about Sonic Team – as they reside in Japan and do not come under my jurisdiction at all! Likewise, I know this will make you all mad; SEGA of America has no say in the voice casting. Absolutely none, so all of the online petitions and personal emails and letters that we get at SOA cannot be acted on, sorry to say.

TSS: You must get that question an awful lot, huh? You say you’re a Sonic fan yourself. What’s your fondest memory as a fan, and do you have a favourite Sonic game?

SJ: My fondest memory of Sonic was seeing it, playing it, and hearing it for the first time at a CES show, all those years ago. I was working for EA at the time, and was blown away by Sonic’s first showing on the Genesis. The great music pervaded the entire show – wherever you went, you heard the Sonic tunes! Sonic 1 is my favourite Sonic game for that same reason – gives me goosebumps when I see it.

TSS: You caught a bit of unexpected controversy over your implication that Sonic the Hedgehog becomes un-cool to kids once they hit 12 years old. But it can be argued that this is because the story, atmosphere and approach of recent Sonic games have made it unapproachable by adults. Would you agree with this statement?

SJ: Absolutely. The reason that Sonic is still around after 16 years, is that the character design was so endearing, had such longevity, that he has outlived all those other woodland critters like Bubsy the Bobcat and Awesome Possom! But there is more than that – Sonic has an attitude that can be related to by people of all ages, and can do things that no other videogame character can compete with. However, some of the Sonic games over the last few years have not lived up to expectation, and it is these games, not Sonic himself, which do not appeal to older gamers. Sonic is timeless!

TSS: Sonic could well be re-invented again, and you say you are facilitating that. Could we see a more ‘classic’ Sonic the Hedgehog, with an emphasis on level design instead of multiple characters? What would you personally like to see in a redesign or re-invention of Sonic?
SJ: That’s a difficult one for me to answer, as Sonic Team is the keeper of all things Sonic! The recent Sonic games on DS have taken a more classical approach, and they have proven extremely popular. The Sonic RPG that BioWare is building, also has a great opportunity to be a game that gamers of all ages will want to play, and enjoy Sonic’s characteristics again.

TSS: There is always the assumption that Sonic Team are working under strict deadlines that have an adverse impact on the project, such as Sonic The Hedgehog on XBOX 360. Do you think if they were given more development time they could bring out a game that lives up to the name of Sonic? Sonic Adventure took several years to develop and it turned out to be one of the series’ defining games.

SJ: In reality, most games will benefit from more time in development. Sonic Team, like most other teams, however, have many ideas that they want to build in the future to keep Sonic evolving. That means that there has to be a point at which they have to stop working on one game, and move onto their next ideas.

TSS: Sonic the Hedgehog has always been more popular in the West than in Japan, and a lot of products, such as the Archie comics and early television shows in the 1990s showed this. Is this the reason a lot more Western talent is getting involved in Sonic projects, such as BioWare and Backbone Entertainment?

SJ: Very much so. Many game developers in the West grew up with Sonic, and he is one of their cultural icons. It is an honor to be able to work on a Sonic game, and to have the endorsement of Sonic Team to do so. We at SEGA also want to make future Sonic games live up to a higher quality threshold, and Sonic Team are partnering with us in that regard.

TSS: Would you say that recent Sonic games have become too complicated for fans, and thus one of the reasons the series is held in disregard? Ever since Sonic Adventure the series has slowly deviated from the original premise of simple badnik-destroying, platform hopping action. To be fair, nobody wants to be throwing boxes as Tails when they could be running around expansive worlds as Sonic.

SJ: I wouldn’t say that they have become too complicated, no. Some might have been too finicky to play in parts because of camera etc, but many fans are looking for rewarding and challenging gameplay. One thing that you have to remember is that everyone is different. There are millions of Sonic fans around the world, and they all want different things from their favorite hedgehog. You can’t please all the people, all the time unfortunately, which is why we need to focus on making great-playing games that will satisfy as many fans as we possibly can.

TSS: Both yourself and SEGA Australia recently said that Sonic needs a change for the better; I think we can all agree the hedgehog isn’t well. But you also say you don’t have any say over what happens at Sonic Team or in SEGA Japan. If Sonic Team or SEGA Japan are still stuck in their belief that any old product will do, how will you hope to ensure that the series gets back on track?

SJ: We have a very close relationship with SEGA of Japan, and the executive team there is very interested in our opinions. They certainly don’t think that ‘any old product will do’ and are keen to make Sonic games more appealing to wider audiences outside of Japan. All this takes time though!

TSS: Finally, with next-generation consoles now allowing for more advanced games, consumers appear to be looking for more intricate stories and game play. The Sonic series has tried to adapt to this with apocalyptic storylines and multiple characters and failed miserably. Do you feel there is room for classic mascots of yesteryear such as Sonic in this day and age?

SJ: There will always be room for Sonic, no matter what the technology. Sonic is a character, not a game. It is up to us at SEGA to make games that bring the best out of the character, whatever platform it is on.

TSS: Thank you for your time, Simon.

SJ: Thank you! And remember folks – I can’t do ANYTHING about the voice acting – it is completely outside of SOA’s jurisdiction!

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Founder of The Sonic Stadium and creator/co-organiser of the Summer of Sonic convention. Loves talking about Sonic the Hedgehog in his spare time. Likes Sonic Colours a little too much for his own good, apparently.