About three weeks ago in a hotel in Los Angeles, I got to play four levels of the upcoming Sonic Boom. It felt like good family fun: fairly easy combat, some trickier platforming, and a little bit of that iconic Sonic speedrunning through rings.
You can watch Game Front's footage of what I played on Wii U here:
But when I sat down with developer Big Red Button's CEO and creative director, Bob Rafei, I was more interested to discuss the main attraction: the blue hedgehog many of us have probably been raised with.
There were strong reactions that came out of Sonic Boom's first public showing. Sonic was called a hipster for his long, skinny new legs and seemingly random handkerchief. So what was the reasoning behind this new look? And what did the team behind it think about all of that excitement around the announcement?
"We wanted the characters to feel a little bit older," Rafei told me in an interview. "From a character design perspective, that kind of subtle detail is really important to make the character just feel somewhat different. So, their costume approach...that was something that was collaborated with Sonic team in terms of trying a lot of different routes and the one that you see now is the one that everybody gravitated towards. The wraps are there because it shows that the characters are not vain. They're not so much concerned about their gear, like, for example, Dr. Eggman, who is more of the vain, militaristic-looking guy who wants to have all the pomp and pageantry of that outfit. But they're heroes who, like you see with fighters, with martial artists, or football players who wrap their cleats out of necessity...that was where that came from. That kind of sensibility of these heroes who don't care about their attire, they're just trying to do the thing that they need to do to get through to the action and then their goal.
Rafei: "The wraps are there because it shows that the characters are not vain. They're not so much concerned about their gear."
"The bandana reflects the sense of character adventure. It reflects back on the lone gunman, the cowboy, the rugged individualist. As we were trying to find things that could work for the character, that was one of the things that stuck and we liked it. The rest of Sega felt the same way. So because it reflects that sense of adventure and heroism, we felt it was a good fit." The idea of the Sonic crew's gear reflecting their sense of adventure and action is something the development team has talked about before.
But it wasn't the only design they played around with. It's something they deliberated on and settled on mutually.
"We did a lot of experiments," Rafei said. "The Sonic team really gave us the guardrails to experiment within. We eventually found out some of the things that were excessive and ultimately would not have been true to the spirit of what Sonic is. And I'm glad that they actually reigned us in. From an independent developer's perspective and looking at it through the eyes of my kids who, if they were looking at a Sonic title for the first time, what would they want to see? That was something that really just drove the decision-making process from a production/design perspective."
And what about the reaction? We very quickly saw a surge of fan art and Twitter jokes surface out of the chatter about Sonic's new look.
"It was, the majority, overwhelmingly positive," Rafei said. "So I think it validates what we're trying to do. From my perspective, if there wasn't such controversy, or potentially conversation about it, I should say, then we would not have been doing our job. As an independent developer who has been brought into the family to try something different, if it was seen as, 'Oh, it looks like another Sonic title,' then I think I would have failed Sega, personally. So it was really important for us to try something different, to take a different approach, and we'll see where it takes us."
Rafei: "If it was seen as, 'Oh, it looks like another Sonic title,' then I think I would have failed Sega, personally."
But there's no denying that there was a lot of conversation — both negative and positive — over the new look. Was it overwhelming? Surprising? I asked Rafei.
"I take it as a highest form of compliment," Rafei said. "I wasn't surprised so much as really starting to understand the gravity of such an iconic character and how he has a huge following. When a character's been along for such a long time, people — fans — get that sense of ownership. We had to be true to that, we couldn't just brush it off as developers trying to create their vision. It was a long, methodical process of working with Sonic team and Sega to end up where we are. Very happy with the look and hopefully fans will gravitate towards it."
Rafei spoke a lot about staying true to Sonic while still carving out an identity for him that communicated that this was a new title, with a new direction. So I wondered, what is Sonic to the development team?
"Speed," he replied. "His silhouette is very strong, he's very recognisable. He's got a very clean graphic silhouette with his quills. We didn't want to break that too much. We made some slight secondary quill modifications, but that's only because he's going so fast so it's kind of perking up a bit more. But really that's where that comes from. We didn't want to make the character feel so different that he was no longer true to the DNA of it."