To understand how Sega thinks about its most famous mascot, one must appreciate how differently people responded to 2008's werewolf version of Sonic, the Werehog.
That creature, who was playable in the combat sections of last year's Sonic Unleashed, "came in for so much criticism," Sega of America's vice president of market, Sean Ratcliffe recalled for Kotaku during an interview with Sega execs in New York earlier this week. "If you read all those things, and we do—maybe not quite every single one, but the vast majority of them—and it's amazing the sort of diatribes you get. But if you sit down with a group of 8, 9, 10-year-old boys, completely different story."
You can't please them all, Sega has learned.
"If you read everything, we need to be all things to all gamers with Sonic, and that's a difficult thing to do," said Mike Hayes, the head of Sega Europe and, as of last month, the head of Sega of America as well. "Trying to put everything into one game and making everybody happy is impossible. And I think that's something clear going forward."
So as Sega proceeds to, in Hayes' words, "review our Sonic road map", fans young and old should prepare for an approach that will produce Sonic games that won't satisfy everyone at once.
Sega's core Sonic target, in fact, isn't those who grew up with Sonic. It's those who are growing up now. "It very much is in that under-12 group," Hayes said. "And what we have to do is make a Sonic that is of a quality that delights that audience, first and foremost. I'd argue that we very much achieved that with products like Sonic Heroes on PS2, and I think we did that with Mario and Sonic 1 on Wii and DS. I think we did it some ways with Sonic and the Secret Rings on Wii. I think [the Wii's Sonic and the]Black Knight was a good game."
Hayes is less satisfied with Sega's execution of those Sonic games that have been on the more powerful Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms. "I think we've had challenges with [the 2006]Sonic the Hedgehog and Unleashed," he said. "[The 2006 game]Sonic the Hedgehog sells extremely well at a budget price. So clearly it's very popular with a young audience. But first and foremost is: We've got to make a quality game for that audience. Does quality mean it's got to be a Metacritic 90 per cent? Well not necessarily. It's just got to be quality that's appropriate for them. Then we've got our core fans, and what we need to do is now and then produce a Sonic that will appeal to those fans specifically. "
It's that last group—those core Sonic fans—who seem to be the ones grumbling most on sites like this one about the fate of the franchise. Hayes suggested some ways Sega might produce a Sonic for that community: "Often it can be looking at another take on the nostalgic take on Sonic. Or re-issues. They're very popular. Fans do like that."
One suggestion I'd seen from readers was for Sega to take a page from Nintendo's return-to-the-roots release of New Super Mario Bros a few years ago and create a new Sonic game that played in a side-scrolling format similar to the original games. While not committing to whether Sega would or already is planning anything like that, Hayes used the question as a way to discuss the differences between continuing the Mario and Sonic lines and to discuss a third brand few gamers have likely ever thought of in the same sentence as Sega's Hedgehog.
"But in its day, Sonic was the Modern Warfare," Hayes said. It was, in other words, the edgier thing, the game series that was cooler, more grown up, than Mario." Hayes admired that, even when he worked for five years at Nintendo. "Mario was very much the toy brand," he recalled. "Although it was hugely successful, sometimes we looked enviously at Sega with this cutting edge. Now the world has moved on since Sonic achieved that. Sonic can't compete with Modern Warfare 2. It can't. Whereas, Mario I don't think has ever been anything other than appealing to that demographic."
The difference, Hayes explained, is that even as Sonic could no longer be the edgiest thing in console video games, Mario could always target his same cheerful crowd. A New Super Mario Bros wasn't, in Hayes' mind, as much a return to the series' roots as a continuation of a franchise style that was always relevant to Mario's original kind of audience. "They've had a consistent strategy," he said. "Whereas, with Sonic, I think you have to take it … to a different target audience. Sonic has to go through a metamorphosis as to the type of game you would design."
Hayes and the rest of Sega want to make the old-time Sonic fans happy. They just need those fans to not expect their Sonic in every Sonic game. So…the plan? Most of it is not being revealed yet, of course, but the general strategy is to make core Sonic games pretty much every other year, "character derivative" games between those and, on occasion, off-shoots that involve Sonic doing new physical activities such as playing tennis, skateboarding (as in Sonic Riders), or racing cars, as in the upcoming Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing.
The Sega brass hopes their plan will generate something Sonic for everyone. "Trying to appease all those audiences is really hard," Ratcliffe said. "But we are flattered, because we've taken nostalgic fans with us on a journey for almost 20 years and they're still passionate about Sonic."