Sonic Boom Producer Describes Terrible Design Process

Sure, the Game was a Turkey, But It's Okay if you Have a Good Reason

sonic boom
Focus groups wanted a slower Sonic. They got one. SEGA

Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric, is one of the all-time most derided games to come out for the Wii U. The game's producer, Stephen Frost, attempted to defend the game in , gave an interview to in which he insisted it wasn't really that bad. Instead of justifying the game, the interview is a sort of formula for how not to design a game, making the disaster seem not only understandable but inevitable. The picture painted is of a focus-driven process full of wrong decisions by people unfamiliar with the franchise. 

The Basics: A TV Tie-In Slows Down a Classic Game Series

Rise of Lyric, which came out alongside the 3DS game Shattered Crystal and was tied to an animated TV series, was a departure for the franchise, mostly tossing out the speed-based gameplay of the series in favor of a standard action-adventure formula. While I was willing to keep on open mind regarding the game after a rather unimpressive preview demo, SEGA never bothered to send me a review copy (generally a sign that the publisher is not confident in the game) so I never played it.  

I believe the many, many people who say the game is awful. But here are the reasons Frost seems to feel okay about the results. 

The Non-Game Part's a Hit 

Frost began by saying the TV series and Sonic merchandise are doing quite well, achieving popularity among children who aren't even fans of the original games. 

This was Frost's goal, so he's happy about it. He describes Sonic's fan base as loyal but shrinking, a phenomenon he says is typical of game franchises (such as, he says, Call of Duty).  He said the goal was to make a Sonic that would appeal to people beyond the fan base.  

The loss of that fan base was apparently not a big deal. 

There Was a Lot to Learn 

While admitting that the games could have been better, he downplayed that by saying all games could be better before explaining that the developers didn't really understand Sonic: 

"Sonic Team has been making Sonic games for 20 odd years, right? They understand Sonic and little things that make a Sonic game.  In a relatively short amount of time, we had to teach new teams what Sonic is all about." 

It's hard to understand where he could even find game developers who didn't know what Sonic was all about; it's something pretty much everyone has played. 

The Game Was Too Ambitious 

Frost wasn't aiming to make a typical Sonic game, but "something different. You still have to capture the speed, but you’ve got to be different enough that when people look at it, it’s a different sort of experience.”  

Frost says the game's undoing was that it was too ambitious: 

"We’re trying to add in a bungee mechanic, combat, puzzles, vehicles and hopefully a more compelling story and a bunch of different environments and it’s just a lot. I think that’s the thing, and if there’s any lesson for me and something I’ll take forward with me is that being too ambitious can be bad." 

While Rise of Lyric might have looked to most people like a generic and uninspired action-adventure game, that's apparently only because it wanted to be the Citizen Kane of games. 

Focus Groups Wanted Sonic Slowed Down 

He said that the developers did try to capture the speed while adding new elements, but "the thing we kept hearing in focus tests all the time was, 'Oh, it’s all about speed all the time. I can’t play Sonic anymore because it’s too fast.' I’m like OK, let’s try to slow him down, but that of course pisses off people who like traditional Sonic games. So you try to find a middle ground." 

Is there anything more chilling than when producers start talking about focus groups? Also, was the problem that Sonic was too fast, or that the speed elements were simply done badly? After all, he admits the team didn't have a strong grasp of Sonic gameplay. 

They Started Working on Speed Elements After Everything Else 

When asked what would have made the game better, Frost said: 

"I would have reduced features probably, and I would have had the team focus on speed from the very get-go. We were concerned that speed was something that was the last thing that people sort of wanted because we kept hearing they were tired of speed and they wanted something else." 

Yes, in hindsight Frost would have made a Sonic game that focused on doing the thing Sonic is known for well instead of half-assing that in favor of adding a lot of new features.  

There Were a Lot of Moving Parts 

Part of the issues with the games may be that there was not an exclusive focus on game making: 

"This was a very ambitious project. It was the cartoon, a new toy line and many other things tied with it – we had to aim large, we had to aim big." 

To me, that sounds like Frost was not just thinking about making a good video game. Instead, he was dividing his attention even though he acknowledged that making a Sonic game involved a high learning curve. 

Frost portrays a development process in which people who didn't know much about Sonic focus-tested their way to the sort of bland, generic game in which an attempt to satisfy everyone satisfies no one. By the end of the interview, one feels that the Rise of Lyric was doomed from the start.