SAGE 2019 had a ton of exciting entries, some of which continued to crack the tough egg that is controlling Sonic in a 3D space! One of those is Sonic Islands, and it’s one of the best ones since the Sonic Utopia demo in 2016! It’s changed a bit since last year’s entry, in fact it looks like they started from the ground up! To get to the bottom of this, we went to the developer himself to see what Sonic Islands is all about.
Sonic Stadium: Please introduce yourself! What got you interested in game design, and Sonic specifically?
Steve: My name’s Steve and I’m a self taught and, to be honest, still fairly novice, coder and game designer. I’ve been learning how to code and build games in Unity since around 2016 and I’ve learned so much since then. I’ve been a fan of both gaming and Sonic since I was less than a year old, and Sonic 1 was the first game I ever played. Making games for a living has always been a dream of mine, drawing up GDD style booklets in class and all that, but I never really got into the meat of what it takes to make one until more commercial engines like Unity became widely available. The thing about the Sonic series that always kept me coming back to it was the sense of exploration you get with stages that are built around a character as fast as Sonic. Navigating and exploring these stages through a clever balance of building, maintaining and redirecting your speed is, to me, what Sonic is about. When done correctly, it can feel incredibly satisfying.
TSS: What’s the motivation behind making your own 3D Sonic fangame?
Steve: The largest motivation would have to be seeing how accessible it is to get into game development now. With so many high quality Sonic fan games being made, and it being one of the larger fan game communities (not to mention how cool SEGA is about it all), it felt like a natural choice to dive in to learning how to recreate the playstyle of one of my favourite games of all time. That, along with how the series has been moving further and further away from what I feel like Sonic does best (except for Mania of course), and that’s having a sense of freedom and control, along with an emphasis on exploration; a trait that a lot of people seem to overlook when thinking about things the earlier games did well.
TSS: How long has Sonic Islands been in development?
Steve: That’s a tricky question to answer, but the earliest version of Islands was around the beginning of 2017. After the release of GHP Act 2 and Sonic Utopia, I got inspired to use the Sonic Physics Guide to try and recreate the classic gameplay in 3D. I took what I learned trying to make this framework and built it again, with this next version becoming the demo that was released at SAGE 2017, and eventually, after a year of additions, tweaks, and just learning in general, it became the build released at SAGE 2018, the one I think most people are familiar with. Only then did I realize just how much work needs to go in to not only making a game play well, but making it run well, too. This prompted yet another rebuild, with this current framework being the one seen at SAGE 2019. So…long story short, close to 3 years, but for the current version, just over a year.
TSS: What features do you hope to add that haven’t been in a 3D Sonic game before?
Steve: The main gameplay loop is planned to be a throwback to 3D Blast’s Flicky mechanic, while mixing it with something more akin to a traditional collectathon, like Mario 64 or Banjo-Kazooie. This idea was briefly explored in the 2018 demo, and I’ve had new ideas since then on how to expand the gameplay into a more even blend of sandbox exploration, and A to B, act-based gameplay.
In terms of original mechanics, there are plans for stuff like a ring banking system (to be used with things like ring barriers or a shop system), but for the most part, every mechanic planned for the game has been attempted in some form by the mainline games, I’m just taking the elements that I think worked the best and trying to work them together in a cohesive way that lends itself not only to speedy gameplay, but for more acrobatic and free flowing exploration gameplay. Things like the instashield being used in 3D to help aid manual platforming, with the reward being perfect momentum conservation, both horizontally and vertically. Or even a parkour-like system, but one that works with Sonic’s physics and is directly tied to momentum. Essentially, while most mechanics planned have been seen in some form, my aim is to work them all seamlessly into Sonic’s movement, providing a function and, in some cases, a risk/reward system, for all of them, with the goal of keeping Sonic feeling as free flowing as possible.
(Sonic Island’s demo from 2018 is a bit different from this years!)
TSS: Last year’s demo had a full level with extra moves, but this year we played a test level, and it seems like Sonic’s moveset has been stripped down. What prompted the change?
Steve: I’ve touched on it a little bit, but the current build of Islands has been completely rebuilt from the ground up since SAGE 2018. The previous demo played well, but the framework behind it was very unoptimised and severely limiting, both to work with and to add features to, as the performance wasn’t something that was in mind while coding it. That’s all changed this time, with modularity and efficiency being a priority with this new framework (which I’ve named the Palmtree Framework), in the hopes that I can recreate the gameplay from 2018 (and tidy up the imperfections and gripes I had with it), but in a framework that should run much better, and allow an easier workflow to add or modify things. The moveset from 2018 is planed to return (minus the drift ability, but honestly it seemed a bit redundant anyway), with small tweaks being made to everything based on the feedback from last year, such as the button names/functions, or the bounce ability being an instant trigger, as opposed to a ‘hold and release’ system.
TSS: What does the future hold for Sonic Islands?
Steve: The dream would be to complete a fleshed out game with 3 fully explorable Islands, each containing 2 to 3 zones. However, since I know this is going to be a much more difficult task than you would think, I’d settle for just one polished zone, showing the mechanics and gameplay loop working and refined. Think of something akin to a kingdom in Mario Odyssey, but with BotW shrines scattered throughout, to appeal to the player that just wants to get to the goal in as fast and as stylish of a way as possible (and get rewarded in a way that will let them bypass a lot of the exploration, if they choose to). It’ll take a while, but I feel like it’s something that could be done, especially when the base mechanics are in place and finalized, which isn’t too far off.
TSS: What other sorts of projects would you like to work on?
Steve: I’ve definitely got a bit of tunnel vision right now, wanting to see Islands to a state of some sort of ‘completion’, but I’ve always wanted to work on projects that can take elements from tried and true genres of the past, and mix them with more modern mechanics and sensibilities. Things like the new Yooka-Laylee game, being a stage based platformer that incentivizes progress based on upgrades to your health (along with the option to tackle the final level at any time, not unlike Hyrule Castle in BotW), or perhaps something that takes a souls-like or rogue-like formula, and mixes it with a platformer/metroidvania. The idea of building upon classic, solid gameplay, and merging it with the addictive, replayable mechanics that have risen to the forefront of recent game trends, feels like the sort of project I’d love to be a part of. Having said that, with how much time I’ve put into learning how to build Sonic-style gameplay, I’m always looking for an excuse to use that in any other context. Whether it be fangame, or simply Sonic-inspired.
TSS: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!
Steve: Thanks for the opportunity to show my work and what I have planned!