Team Sonic Racing is officially out tomorrow, and everyone is super-excited to get behind the wheel with the blue blur once again. But perhaps the person most excited about the game’s release is Sonic Team head Takashi Iizuka, who will now get to fully enjoy playing multiplayer kart racing games with his son.
Even though Team Sonic Racing is the latest in a trio of racers that have been fully developed by UK studio Sumo Digital, it’s something of an open secret that the unique conceit for this particular game came directly from Iizuka himself. Noticing a correlation between the skills of a younger/older player and their enjoyment of a game when playing with friends and family, he wanted to design a racer that encouraged teamwork and co-operative play.
“About the idea and where it came from… there’s a skill gap that exists – not only in racing games but in almost any competitive genre,” Iizuka told The Sonic Stadium. “Fighting games is another example of a situation where if you pit a skilled player against someone not-so-skilled, one player is going to be easily defeated unless the better player changes how they play to make things even. When you start playing like that, soon enough the whole game itself is destroyed. It disappears.
“It’s this kind of skill gap that, when applied to a racing game, means that the only way to really mitigate that sort of thing – to allow everyone to play at their full potential while having a fun experience – is to implement a co-operative element.”
Iizuka explains that the various methods of team collaboration – Slingshot (driving in a team player’s slipstream), Skim Boost (driving next to a stunned team mate so they can quickly recover), Item Sharing and Team Ultimate (a charged invincibility mode) – were finely balanced so as to make lesser-skilled players feel like they had a chance playing Team Sonic Racing, without feeling patronised by always needing pick-me-ups.
Such details probably wouldn’t have been as finely tuned if it weren’t for the talents at Sumo Digital. The Sheffield-based developer has been closely working on SEGA projects for the last fifteen years (since the incredible Xbox release of OutRun2 in 2004), and has been responsible for unnecessarily putting Sonic in a car since Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing in 2010. Their pedigree in producing quality arcade driving games is beyond doubt, and they are clearly trusted by both SEGA and Sonic Team with their key franchises.
This level of trust has been taken to a deeper level with Team Sonic Racing, with Iizuka revealing that his involvement in overseeing development has become a lot more hands-on. “In the past, SEGA Europe would be the team working with Sumo every day, on the All-Stars Racing series, and I would really only fill in as an advisor,” he explained.
“But now I and the Sonic Pillar team work directly with Sumo; I talk to the team about concepts, team mechanics and check the implementation, and really just working more closely with them. There has been a lot of history between Sumo and SEGA, and now I have that experience working with them to make something together.”
One of the biggest surprises to come from the closer collaboration was the creation of a brand new character, Dodon Pa. In Team Sonic Racing, this mysterious and cunning tanuki invites Sonic and friends to an inter-galactic, inter-dimensional racing tournament with all the trimmings – including free fancy sports cars to drive. In previous All-Star Racing games, Career and Story modes were simply driven by random whimsy without much plot or direction.
It’s quite unprecedented to see a brand new character, designed by legendary Sonic Team artist Yuji Uekawa, introduced into a spinoff title like this. When The Sonic Stadium asked about this, Iizuka said that much of Dodon Pa’s creation was built around future-proofing and maintaining a persistent universe – even within a spinoff title such as Team Sonic Racing!
“Of course, Team Sonic Racing is a game that we want to bring to market, but we’re also interested in the future,” he said. “And maybe in future, bringing more racing games to market. And the question that would pop up then – it actually popped up for Team Sonic Racing and it will continue to pop up – is, who’s going to be putting on all these racing events?
“We didn’t have an answer to that question in the beginning [of Team Sonic Racing’s development], so we needed to create a character that would facilitate all these races happening, and allow the races to be a part of the world and storytelling. That was the whole starting point for the development of Dodon Pa as a character.
“That’s also why I asked Uekawa-san to design Dodon Pa – a character that could deliver that to the product and we could keep in the universe as [someone who would be there] any time we needed there to be a racing event. He’s going to be the character we can use as the Master of Ceremonies.”
This doesn’t exactly mark a change in process for Sonic Team however; don’t expect to see the floodgates open with a hundred new characters for every spinoff title. Uekawa-san’s time is precious, after all. And Iizuka confirmed that, while he’s taking a more involved approach with regards to all Sonic projects, he intends to consider the use cases for new characters before adding them to the roster.
“For maybe characters that don’t play such an important role to [a] game, we’d be fine with [the partner developer] coming to us with their ideas of who they want to put in the game. But when it comes to key characters – and for us Dodon Pa would be one of those – we really want to make sure that those characters are created in a way that they can exist in the franchise and the universe properly.” Sticks the Badger from Sonic Boom was also specifically cited by Iizuka as one of those key characters developed to have a long-term presence and impact in the Sonic universe.
The added weight of Sonic Team’s full resources will definitely add prominence to Team Sonic Racing’s place in the franchise, but we get the feeling that the real prize that Iizuka is looking for is in finding out whether fans will take to the new team mechanics. He’s certain that if other people also find that the skill gap can disappear when playing Team Sonic Racing, he’ll have succeeded.
But let’s not assume too much about where the skill gap in Iizuka-san’s household lies. When we asked him whether TSR’s concept was a means to get his kids to play more Sonic, the studio head laughed and said, “Oh, no, no! My son played Sonic Forces all the way, beginning to end, and enjoyed it. But, my son is actually really good at Mario Kart now and I always lose when I play with him, so I won’t play Mario Kart anymore!
“In fact, because my son is very good at video games, I’m looking forward to playing Team Sonic Racing together, because that will hopefully be a fun experience for both me and him.”
Before we left, we just had to ask even though we knew we probably wouldn’t get anything out of him – could he tell us anything about the next Sonic game that he revealed was in development at SXSW earlier this year?
Shaking his head, Iizuka said, “Unfortunately we can’t say anything about it yet. We’d like to ask for a little more time, but we’ll be happy to reveal more when the time is right.”
Well, it was worth a shot.
We’d like to thank Takashi Iizuka for his time in talking to us.