Summer of Sonic 2011: Sonic Team on Stage

The Summer of Sonic may have taken place three weeks ago now but that’s not the end of my coverage of the event. Quite a lot happened on the day after the Stadium’s exclusive interview with Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka. If by some small chance you missed it click here and drink it in. if you’re already familiar with that then I suppose you should read on. A lot happened on the Summer of Sonic stage but few things could live up to Naka-sand and Iizuka-san appearing on stage for a rather lengthy chat with one Mr Joscelyne. Well if didn’t feel very long listening to it on the show floor but let me tell you it felt a hell of a long longer writing this up for you all! But enough of my moaning, here is the first stage interview transcribed in full.

Svend Joscelyne: Can you briefly describe how you both got into the games industry and what it was that really got you excited about working with video games?

Yuji Naka: I joined the games industry when I was 18 years old and the reason I joined was probably the same as everybody else; I really liked games! At the time I used to go to game centres (arcades) a lot and I really wanted to create the games I saw in them. I happened to take an interview with SEGA and they accepted my interview. I’ve now been in the industry 27 years and I’ve really enjoyed my time.

Takashi Iizuka: From a young age as a child I really enjoyed drawing and I used to draw Manga and staple the pages together and create my own little Manga book. So I really enjoyed coming up with new stories and the whole process of creating a Manga. I actually moved away from this for a time and during University I thought to myself I want to be in a job where I’m creating something and a story. That’s why I joined the games industry.

SJ: So Takashi Iizuka, how would you say it’s different to create games between modern and classic Sonic titles given that you’ve been involved in level design in Sonic 3 & Knuckles and also that you’ve been in charge of the modern games.

TI: Classic Sonic was first on Megadrive and we saw Sonic 1,2 and 3 in the Classic Sonic style. With that you just used the d-pad and a single button so it was very accessible and simple to pick up and play and get a taste of what Sonic is all about. With modern Sonic it’s all about the high speed action and the level design is created in such a way to allow the smooth and speedy sensation you are intended to get from the modern style Sonic. I think this is really Unique to Sonic, it’s the only game in the world where you can get that sort of sensation of speed in platform action. I think this is something we’ve built upon for the past 20 years.

SJ: So for Mr Yuji Naka, you worked closely with a US development team for Sonic The Hedgehog 2. Given that Sonic was designed for a western audience what was your experience working with SEGA Technical Institute as opposed to a domestic development team?

YN: In Sonic 1 we were a purely Japanese development team so all the staff were Japanese. In Sonic 2 we saw a mix of this, so we had some foreign staff and some Japanese staff working together. The difference I experienced was the overseas staff had a very different way in using colour and level design. So in Sonic 2 I think you see some very unique levels and these are really good levels. They tended to be created by the overseas staff. At the moment I’m here speaking in Japanese and I’m really sorry that I’m not speaking to you in English but as you may notice my English is not native! So we had some communication issues working with the overseas staff. In Sonic 3 we saw the arrival of Iizuka-san and the return of an all Japanese development team. This was due to the issues I mentioned earlier regarding communication. If the opportunity arises and if we have the time we would really like to work with overseas staff again on a Sonic title.

SJ: It’s a good thing you mentioned Sonic The Hedgehog 3 because I was just about to get onto that. Iizuka-san you were the level designer for Sonic The Hedgehog 3 and lot of kids remember that game for one specific thing; the Carnival Nights Zone Barrel (Queue laughter from Iizuka-san and the crowd) where the only way to proceed through the level was to press up, down, up, down many times to proceed through the stage. Were you involved in that part of the level design process and do you look back on that now and think “How many kids lives did I ruin by implementing that barrel?”.

TI: The short answer is no, that wasn’t me (The crowd laughs and applauds)! The person responsible for that level is the lead level designer for Sonic 1, 2 and 3. His name is Yasuhara.

YN: I presume people found that level quite difficult to understand and I would actually be the person responsible for programming it. I am so sorry! Thank you (The crowd laughs and applauds again)!

SJ: This next question really goes to the both of you. What was the feeling within the Sonic Team that made you decide to dramatically change Sonic’s appearance back in 1998. Was there a feeling that Sonic was becoming unpopular? What was the feeling there?

YN: This change came about when the game moved on from 2D to 3D. At this time the intention was for Sonic to be a loved character for many years like Micky Mouse. Micky Mouse has been loved over the many years he’s been in existence and he’s been completely redesigned around five times. So when we regarded it like that we wanted to change Sonic to continue his appeal. I think being here after 20 years of Sonic being around makes me extremely happy that people have continued to love and support Sonic.

TI: Those are the reasons that Naka-san mentioned earlier but from a technical point of view classic Sonic’s design was created so that he’d be seen from the side in 2D. So when we created the game in 3D we had to have the camera angle from behind Sonic. If we carried along with the old design his arms and legs would have been very difficult to see because the old design was only created to be seen from the side in 2D. So that is a technical reason why we decided to change the design.

SJ: and for Naka-san, when Sonic The Hedgehog 1 was released for the SEGA Megadrive, SEGA Japan and SEGA America and even SEGA Europe had their own different back-story for the reason for Sonic The Hedgehogs existence. Do you know much about the western storyline that SEGA created and what do you think about it?

YN: To be honest I’m quite surprised to hear this. I didn’t know there was such a big gap in the storyline between the Japanese Sonic The Hedgehog and the Western Sonic The Hedgehog. Were they that different?

SJ: There was a whole storyline that SEGA created on the American side that involved how Sonic went from a brown hedgehog to a blue hedgehog and involved a scientist called Dr Ovi Kintobor transforming into what we know as Dr Robotnik using the power of the chaos emeralds to turn him into a negative character. I believe it was slightly different to the Japanese back-story.

YN: I’m very surprised to hear this story, where is this written?

(The crowd laughs)

SJ: SEGA of America and SEGA Europe wrote it back in 1991! It’s not in game, it’s within comics, marketing, press and PR materials.

(Svend addresses the crowd)

SJ: You guys have heard the back story, right?

(The crowd replies with a unified “Yeah!”)

SJ: It exists, I didn’t make it up.

YN: Aaaaah! Back in the early days we didn’t have the internet or e-mail so communicating globally was extremely difficult. we were having to communicate over the telephone and with faxes so it was really hard to control what was going on globally and to keep a unified direction. Looking back now hearing this after 20 years I can laugh about it and think it’s great that this has happened. I think if I’d heard about it at the time I would have been very angry!

(The crowd laughs and applauds)

SJ: I’m glad I brought it up now and not back then! So Iizuka-san, it’s the 20th anniversary of Sonic The Hedgehog but it’s also the 10th anniversary of Shadow The Hedgehog (Queue cheering from the crowd!). We have some fans here! Clearly when you directed Sonic Adventure 2 he was only intended for that one game but were you surprised as to how popular he’d become?

TI: The Shadow character idea was something that we all had in our minds in the dev team when we were creating the first Sonic Adventure. When creating that game we had the intention of creating a rival character for Sonic Adventure 2 and we didn’t really talk about it that much but we were all thinking about it. When we were working on Sonic Adventure 2 we all did a bit of brainstorming and we brought this to the table and prepared the storyline for the Dark side and the Hero side. As you know in the story Shadow was only meant to appear in that single title. But because of the reaction of the fans we decided to bring him back in Sonic Heroes and eventually you saw him in his own title.

(The crowd responds with a mix of cheers and boos)

SJ: Don’t boo Shadow, he deserves some love too! That’s why he’s so angry. In some ways, well actually in many ways, Sonic has inspired a generation of, shall we say copycat animal mascots; Bubsy the Bobcat, Crash Bandicoot, Aero the Acrobat. Have you guys ever played any of those games and what do you think of them?

(As the translator repeats the question in Japanese Yuji Naka looks confused and asks for the names of the characters a second time. The crowd is amused).

YN: Of the those games I’ve only actually played Crash Bandicoot. When I was creating Sonic 2, my boss was called Mark Cerny and this person moved on from the team half way into development. He’s actually the guy responsible for creating Crash Bandicoot. As he worked really closely with us he could see the flow of how we created Sonic and what Sonic was all about so you may draw some similarities between these games. For example as he saw us placing rings and really putting a lot of effort and creativity in placing them in their locations I heard from him that he was putting a lot of effort into placing apples all over his levels as well.

And with that both Naka-san and Iizuka-san would exit the stage to a round of applause. Come back later though for the second stage interview where they would both field questions submitted by the fans, with the added bonus of Jun Senoue joining them.

Interview: Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka

Meeting your heroes is a surreal thing indeed. It’s even more surreal if it’s at an event celebrating their main character’s 20th anniversary. And to think a few weeks ago I didn’t know any of this would happen at all…

Mid May I received an e-mail out of the blue from the head honcho of the ‘Stadium himself , Svend “Dreadknux” Joscelyne. He asked if I’d be free to come down and write about the biggest birthday party of the summer. Some regular readers may remember my fleeting stint posting news and other things on the front page of the site and while I couldn’t hold a candle to the tireless efforts of Shadzter it seems I was somehow remembered by the boss.

The plan was simple but purposely vague at the time; come down to London and write about the event as the regular staff would have their hands full running the thing. My reward was classified but Svend said it’d defiantly be worth my time. Not that I needed much persuading; I’d attended the first Summer of Sonic back in 2009 and wrote about it for a rather different Sonic based news website. I was eager to experience this latest event and the least I could do was help out however I could. If Svend wanted me to write then I’d jolly well write. I gladly accepted and waited for further orders.

Almost a month later and Svend dropped the bombshell on me. My reward would be to help him interview Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka. Giddy? Excited? I was all those things. I counted the days down until the 25th of June like an excited child waiting for Christmas. When the time finally came I drove the 175 miles from Leeds to London at Super Sonic speed (That’s a lie, I’m a good boy and I mostly stuck to the 70mph speed limit). All this at 4am to make it to the venue in time for our 8.40am interview.

Still in a delirious blur I stumbled passed the bouncers into the lobby towards an extremely busy looking Svend, the Camden Centre already a hive of activity. SEGA reps and Sonic Stadium members alike were hurrying to put together the finishing touches before the masses outside would be let in. Within minutes we were ushered upstairs to a small room featuring several fancy white chairs a 360 demo pod and a Sonic 20th Anniversery banner.  Oh and two of the men responsible for crafting games featuring the character I adore like no other.

Svend and I sat opposite Naka-san and Iizuka-san while their translator sat to the side. I was still rubbing the sleep out of my eyes questioning the reality of the scenario I’d found myself in. This was real alright and within no time at all the questions began. As the interview progressed it was striking to note the differences between the two. Naka-san had come dressed in an expensive suit and jacket, his voice booming and authoritative. Yet in-between questions he’d casually pull out his iPhone (with Ferrari themed case, presumably to match his actual Ferrari back home) and text, some of the contents of which you can see here.

Iizuka-san meanwhile had come dressed in a cool looking leather jacket and had a much more laid back demeanour. He’d occasionally chuckle at the questions before they were translated showing at least some understanding of what was being said. Both oozed confidence and charisma and both were obviously enthralled to be here.

The interview was the quickest half hour of my life and the best bit is both Naka-san and Iizuka-san had some very interesting things to say…

Svend Joscelyne: Thank you very much for your time. First of all, 20 years of Sonic! How does it feel to be part of a franchise that has endured for so long and to be sharing it with the fans today?

Yuji Naka: I’m just really happy to be here today. I’m honoured that the fans wanted me to be here and I’m really happy to be here to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Sonic and to see him still going after 20 years. I’m really grateful for the fans who have been supporting Sonic and have been watching us every time we release a new game. I was downstairs earlier watching people lining up for the event and I could see some old fans who have been supporting the franchise and the character for a long, long time. I’m just simply grateful for all the fans and their great support. He’s 20 years old right now but he’s still going and he’ll be still running at Sonic speed in the future.

Takashi Iizuka: Naka-san has said pretty much everything so there isn’t a lot for me to say. We were really grateful and we really wanted to show our appreciation to all the fans across the world at the time of Sonic’s 20th anniversary. I’ve been conscious of Summer of Sonic in the UK for a couple of years and it’s a really unique event. In the past we haven’t really done anything like this in the States or Japan so we tried to learn from the example of fans in the UK in celebrating all things Sonic. We recently did a big celebration event in the States and Japan this year to make it a big 20th anniversary celebration for Sonic. So we’re making this a global celebration to show our appreciation to the fans for their support.

Paul Street:  This question is for Naka-san. Back when the SEGA Saturn was released you went on to create NiGHTS and there ended up being no big Sonic game for that system. Were you worn out from making Sonic games and wanted to do something new or were there any technical limitations on the hardware preventing a Sonic game as he moves through the levels so quickly?

YN: So at the time I’d been working on Sonic titles for some three to four years and in a way I wanted to take a little break and do something different. It was also around the time when I came back from the States so it felt like it was the right time for a change. We had the same guys who had been working on Sonic titles like Oshima who was the designer and Iizuka-san who was in the same team but we all wanted to do something new and that’s how NiGHTS came about. I still think it was a really good game and overall it was actually a really good thing for Sonic and us to do something different because when we came back to Sonic titles we were fresher and full of motivation. I was looking at the back catalogue of Sonic games yesterday and I realised there has been one Sonic title almost every year and that’s just incredible.

SJ: During your time as the leaders of Sonic Team were there any points during the development of Sonic games where you had to cut something out? For example, stages from Sonic 2 or other things from Sonic Heroes or Sonic Adventure that you really wanted to keep in?

YN: I’ve been pretty satisfied with the quality of the content of all the games I’ve created and I’ve done pretty much everything  in them I wanted to when I started a project. But there is one thing, we were planning to implement in Sonic 2 called the Hidden Palace. We announced the name when we created the title but after we announced we had to give up on that content because of the lack of time to the release date. But because it was called Hidden Palace many users were convinced that it was somewhere. 10 years after the game came out there were still people saying “I’m still looking for it, where is it?”. I feel really sorry about that. Besides that exceptional case I’m pretty much happy with everything we’ve created.

PS: This time for Iizuka-san. Some of the more recent Sonic games have been criticized for being rushed such as Sonic The Hedgehog for 360 and PS3 and more recently Sonic Unleashed. I was wondering what the internal pressure was like from within SEGA to release the games quickly?

TI: As you can imagine Sonic titles are really important for both SEGA and their dev teams and because Sonic is loved by very different demographics from small kids to adults it can be difficult to make a game to please both. We have quite a lot of pressure to finish the product on time so we can hit the release date which is usually in time for Christmas. Particularly since our main platforms have moved to Xbox 360 and PS3 it takes quite a lot of time to polish games on these Next Gen consoles. But like with Sonic Unleashed and now Sonic Generations there is a lot of pressure to release on time.  It’s usually around this time of year that we try to finalise the games and cram in time for the final checks so that the quality of the game is of a level that we can be happy with.

SJ: This one is also for Iizuka-san. I remember at E3 you mentioned that in the future you wanted to try and bring the gameplay style of Classic Sonic and Modern Sonic together; not like in Generations where they are in the game separately but instead as a single game play style. Do you think that there is still work to be done to achieve that? A lot of fans thought that Sonic Colours was a step in the right direction.

TI: In terms of the Modern Sonic 3D game mechanics Sonic Colours was a benchmark for us and we were really satisfied with how that game came out. It was pretty much at the level of what we imagined the new Modern Sonic action to be. So I think we will continue to make new 3D games in that direction. At the same time we understand we need to appeal to the classic 2D scrolling type of game so we will continue to experiment along that rout in Sonic 4 which we are still working on.

SJ: Unfortunately we’ve only time for one more question and it’s for Naka-san. You were involved so heavily with Iizuka-san on Sonic Adventure which was Sonic’s first true leap to 3D, barring Sonic Jam of course. How difficult has it been to translate Sonic from a 2D space into a 3D space, keeping in mind the speed and the exploration. What challenges did Iizuka-san and you face with that?

YN: Obviously the biggest challenge with Sonic was the change in dimension from 2D to 3D. In 3D we noticed it was really hard to get the grasp of the perspective and distance even if you used the same game play devices in 3D as the 2D game, for example spin jumping or spin dash. It was really hard to get the distance right so it was really challenging to create a smooth experience. But at the same time it was really fun and a good challenge for us.

At the time the only kind of 3D game that was around was Mario 64, where you have a free roaming world in 3D and you can go anywhere you want to.  The problem with that kind of game was it was really hard for the user to understand where they were supposed to go and what they were supposed to do in the big open world. It was really simple in the 2D scrolling games, you just keep pressing the direction pad right and you just eventually get somewhere. So we really wanted to include that sort of simplicity and sense of direction in the Sonic game. The result of the struggle was the 3D mechanics of the automatic camera switching that we had in Sonic Adventure as well as the modern Sonic games.

With that our time was up and without missing a beat Svend had thanked them both for their time and positioned himself perfectly for a picture. With slightly less grace I ambled up to fill the slot and Svend snapped two shots; one of me looking bemused and the second looking ecstatic. There was a brief lull in the room an just as I thought things couldn’t get any better Naka-san started to question my t-shirt. He even took a picture and added it to his twitter feed. He questioned “Nom, nom, nom?” with his translator who made a “Chew, chew, chew” noise back which was met with understanding. The moment ended all too quickly as we were ushered back downstairs onto the show floor. (Note, at the time of writing I’ve been viewed 2500 times in Yuji Naka’s Twitter stream! Well, not me, more the t-shirt methinks.)

I never got chance to thank Svend on the day as he and the rest of the team were a whirling-dervish of activity. The interview started late which had a knock on effect with everything else so I could only imagine the stress he was going through. I only hope that this story and the others to come in the next few days make up for giving me the opportunity to meet my idols.

This isn’t the end though as I’ve so much more to write about. So stay tuned for the next part of the Summer of Sonic story coming soon to a computer near you. We have the transcript of the two part stage interview with the heads of Sonic Team and composer Jun Senoue, the Summer of Sonic experience as a fan,  a Sonic Generations preview and anything else I can think to write about. Read, comment below and most of all enjoy being a Sonic fan because we’ve got it better now than ever.

At SOS 2011 Get Ready To Rock… With JULIEN-K!

Consider me T-Bird in disguise for this one…

Summer of Sonic is delighted to announce alternative electronic rock act Julien-K will be appearing as part of the amazing line up at this year’s Summer of Sonic convention! Julien-K defined the sound of Team Dark with their fan-favourite track “This Machine” for Sonic Heroes, and returned a few years later to perform the song “Waking Up” which was featured on the soundtrack to 2005’s Shadow the Hedgehog title. The band have since worked on a whole host of projects including the soundtrack to the Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen video game, released their first album Death to Analogue and have collaborated with Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington on his solo project Dead by Sunrise.

Ryan Shuck, Amir Derakh, Elias Andra and and Anthony “Fu” Valcic will be joining us during their current European tour to perform a music set as part of the afternoon’s entertainment on the main stage. The band will also be appearing later in the afternoon for a meet and greet session to give all you boys and girls the opportunity to meet the band in person as well as grab a few autographs if you wish.

The band will also be playing the London Borderline on the 22nd of June to promote their upcoming album We’re Here With You, so if you’re in the neighborhood go and check them out!

Get ready to rock at this month – Summer of Sonic is going to be a scorcher!

Nigel Kitching to Return to Summer of Sonic

The Summer of Sonic convention has always been an awesome place to chill out with the legendary writers and artists behind the Sonic the Comic series, and this year is no exception. Nigel Kitching will be attending SoS this year to help celebrate the blue blur’s 20th Anniversary in style.

From the Summer of Sonic website:

Licensed by SEGA and published by Egmont Fleetway, Sonic the Comic was the perfect (and cheap!) way for British fans of the blue blur to get their dose of hedgehog antics. While initial issues back in 1993 played it safe with the license and offered one-issue strips, Kitching was responsible for spicing up the comic’s plot and giving the book its own unique flavour.

The result was a two-part story (Dr. Robotnik sending Sonic the Hedgehog into the near-future and taking over Mobius in his absence) that would set the foundations for an incredible alternate Sonic universe – one that wasn’t shy to veer from the convention set by the official games, but was also intimately respectful of its source material.

Nigel will be present at The Summer of Sonic 2011 to meet with fans and feature in a panel discussing his comic career and his time on Sonic the Comic.

The fun part is, so far The Summer of Sonic has exclusively announced comic stars as special guests. Could there be yet more guests in other areas that we don’t know about yet, or is this going to be an all-out Comic fest? I certainly wouldn’t place bets on the latter, if I were you…

Summer of Sonic Guest Announcement: Archie Writer Ian Flynn!

Wow! Summer of Sonic sure is shaping up to have a huge Archie comics presence this year! Quick in the wake of the announcement of Archie Sonic Comic artist Tracy Yardley on Monday, Summer of Sonic is extremely proud to announce our second Archie comics guest this year, Ian Flynn!

Flynn has been head writer for the American based comic since way back in 2005 (issue 160 to be precise!) and has rapidly gained fan popularity with his finger firmly on the pulse of the Sonic the Hedgehog community.

We look forward to seeing both Ian and Tracy at this year’s convention – in fact we can hardly maintain our excitement!

More guest news will be available very soon, so do keep checking the Summer of Sonic website!

Sonic Fans Organise Unofficial Pre-SoS Party

Looking forward to the Summer of Sonic 2011? We sure are, especially as we’re setting it all up (and we know what’s coming)! But Summer of Sonic only happens for one day – what if you want something to do before the official proceedings kick off? Well, that’s where a group of plucky fans have stepped in, as they have kick-started an unofficial pre-SoS gathering of their own.

Fellow Brits Ben and Rebecca have booked the Jetlag Sports Bar and Restaurant in London’s Marylebone district on Friday 24th June at 6pm, and anyone who might be travelling from afar to see the delights of the Summer of Sonic convention is more than welcome to attend.

At this juncture it’s worth pointing out that this event is not associated with the Summer of Sonic 2011 Convention, taking place on Saturday 25th June at Camden Centre. This event is fan-run and organised by a third party – The Sonic Stadium is simply spreading the word to all who might wish to attend.

Got that? Good. If you’re interested, check out the Facebook page here and register your interest. There’s an entry fee of £7 to get in and a minimum spend of £12.50 per guest, so have some wonga ready and enjoy a relaxed night out with some Sonic friends before the big party kicks off on Saturday.

I’m afraid you won’t see the likes of myself, T-Bird or AAUK there – we’ll be having pre-SoS parties of our own (well, I will, everyone else may be sleeping) – so we’ll see you all on the Saturday instead! Have fun!

Summer of Sonic 2011 Guest Announcement: Tracy Yardley!

With Summer of Sonic 2011’s date rapidly approaching (Less than two-and-a-half months to go now!), expect to see a whole host of announcements over on the Summer of Sonic website with regards to guests and events at this year’s convention.

To start us off, we at the Summer of Sonic can proudly announce that Archie Comic artist Tracy Yardley! will be attending this year’s convention! As many of you know Tracy has been involved with the franchise since 2005 and has become one of the most recognised artists in the comic series. We hope you are all looking forward to meeting Tracy at this year’s convention!

If you are considering coming to Summer of Sonic and this is your first convention (particularly if you are travelling from overseas), don’t forget to check out the travel guide on the SoS site for handy hints and tips on getting to the Camden Centre venue and on places to stay.

Don’t forget to keep track of guest and event anonuncements on the SoS website!