Ryan Langley, AJ Freda talk about SFG influence in Fandom
As the old adage goes, if you don’t like something, do it yourself.
Thanks to copious amounts of curious spriters, programmers, and all around aficionado developers, pared with rapid advances in tools and technology, that’s exactly what much of Sonic fandom is doing.
Sonic fan games are perhaps the core component that keeps much of the community active and interested in the blue hedgehog, especially in times of official game droughts. Indeed, that’s how SFGs have flourished–and, in fact, how they may have come to exist.
The concept had been dabbled with in the late 1990s, in between times when Sonic X-Treme had seen cancellation, Sonic 3D Blast and Sonic R saw mediocre reception, and Sonic Adventure for the Sega Dreamcast hadn’t quite made it to the spotlight yet. One-time MIDI sequencer Jeff Read had developed Sonic Doom, a mod for the original PC game Doom. The WAD added elements of Sonic into the game. To date, while a mod, it is considered part of the inspiration on which future SFG developers would turn to.
One of those developers was AJ Freda. Freda would tweak Sonic Doom further to completely give it a Sonic feel–adding Tails, Knuckles, and Eggman. Sonic Doom 2 was born. Without programming help, though, Sonic gameplay was never truly emulated in the mod.
In 1998, Freda was watching closely the work of Johnny Wallbank. With a mix of Klik N Play, Microsoft Paint, and The Games Factory to compile it all, Sonic Robo Blast was born. Though primitive in visuals, it was plentiful in levels and secrets, and became an instant community hit. Sonic Robo Blast is widely considered one of the first complete games to emulate the classic Sonic experience.
Wallbank almost immediately began work on a sequel, and Freda wanted to help spruce the visuals. The two talked about the collaboration, and though originally meant to be 2D, Sonic Robo Blast 2–and the beginning of a boom–would be born.
Today, with hundreds of SFGs coming into and going out of development, Freda still works on SRB2, and Wallbank maintains a role in the game’s progress. It’s one of the earliest 3D Sonic fan games, produced in C with the Doom engine–and it’s about to see its final release. The two, together with a team of enthusiasts, ensures that SRB2 maintains its status as one of the most celebrated SFGs in the community.
There is some irony to be had with the jump from SRB to SRB2–Freda joined in to improve the franchise’s visuals, but in its current state, SRB2 has a consistently retro feel. The Doom engine doesn’t allow for a lot of flash, and SRB2 demonstrates that. But as I learned when I interviewed AJ Freda for this story, the Sonic Robo Blast franchise has become much more than that.
SRB2 has been a process now spanning more than a decade. It’s certainly a process to go from concept to completion, especially when you’re doing it in your spare time. What keeps you striving toward completion after so long?
I think it’s the uniqueness that keeps it going. Back in 2001, it was the only platformer with a competitive network play mode. Any other game with that capability required you to splatter your opponent’s guts all over the wall. Back then, there were a lot of people saying it would never be finished, so for awhile I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Now, I’m not so sure what keeps me going. Even Johnny has mostly left the project over the past several years. Maybe it’s the fans. Maybe it’s cool being able to search your own game on YouTube and see what people have posted. Maybe I still find some aspects of development challenging. SRB2 is what taught me to code, after all.
You have over a dozen people working on the game, according to the official SRB2 Wiki. How’s the group dynamic been of late? Is it a good group to work with?
The group that we have now has exceeded my expectations in every way. When I first realized my time with SRB2 might be coming to a close, I put the current group together from what I considered to be the most talented people in our little ‘community’. What I didn’t realize however, is how talented they really were. It’s amazing the progress we’ve been able to make in the little under a year that it was assembled, and I love working with them. Things are starting to come down to the wire, and they’ve been stepping up.
What are your memories of Jeff Read and Sonic Doom, the inspiration for your old Sonic Doom 2 project that eventually led to the SRB2 project in its current incarnation?
I remember Jeff Read most for the first guy to sequence MIDIs of music from Sonic games. I also remember going to his website and having it intentionally block Internet Explorer. =) He also had a small Sonic fan game made in Linux that I’m not sure if anyone got to try, since Linux wasn’t quite as popular back in 1997. If he hadn’t made that small graphics/sound modification for Doom, I wonder if SRB2 would even exist as it is today. SRB2 is a lot like what I wanted Sonic Doom 2 to be, but didn’t know how to do it at the time.
How did you and Johnny Wallbank converge and collaborate on SRB and eventually SRB2? Can you take us back to that late ’90s era?
Johnny and I met through a mutual friend, Suneet Shah, back in early 1998. The Sonic Zone started a fan games section and SRB1 was recently completed and posted up there. The game was hideous, and I wanted to help out in the graphics department. Johnny had already started on a sequel, so he asked if I could just help him out with the graphics on that, instead. It turned out that The Games Factory wasn’t sufficient for what he wanted to do, so we switched to what is now known as Stealth’s Project Mettrix engine. Stealth was busy with a lot of real life things at the time and couldn’t devote any time to the project, so we looked for other options. Well, here we are and it looks like I’m doing more than just graphics. =)
What are your thoughts on the state of Sonic fan gaming right now? Do you think the community has plenty of room to flourish, or do you find too much a sense of professional atmosphere with some projects, and not enough of a realization of the enthusiast/hobby aspect?
To be honest, I’ve been fairly detached from the Sonic community for some time now. Which makes sense, because I haven’t been much of a Sonic fan for the past few years. But the same problems I noticed a few years ago continue to exist, which extends from the next question you’re going to ask – people shoot too high for their projects. Over the past 11 years, there’s been countless people that have come and gone saying they’re going to make some amazing 3D game that’s leaps and bounds better than SRB2. They make some quick flashy ‘engine test’ and don’t get much further than that. It’s one thing to create a world that a player can move around in, it’s another thing to develop an actual game around it. This is what makes my fairly primitive side-project preview of “The Wizard Needs Food, Badly!” so complete – it has objectives, a process of meeting those objectives, and an ending. That’s what truly makes a game, and why something like Pac-Man, that is 20 years older than Chu Chu Rocket, is just as entertaining as the latter.
You’ve kept the relatively simple visual nature of SRB2 consistent throughout its development. Projects like Ashura: Dark Reign, which is produced within Unreal Tournament 2004, look absolutely gorgeous in comparison. Would you ever consider a similar mod in the SRB franchise with similar 3D capabilities?
No, because I don’t think it fits the SRB ‘brand’. After all, it is known for its horrible pixelly graphics – OK, I’m kidding. Keiji Inafune could have made Megaman 9 using graphical capabilities of the new consoles. But he didn’t for a reason – all of that imagery doesn’t really add anything to the game, and often it can detract and distract from the gameplay experience. You also have to make a choice at what type of art direction you are going to have, and keep it consistent. We’re going for 16-bit era pixel-drawn graphics, so that’s where we’re staying. Believe it or not, making ‘newer’ textures is actually easier since you can just take photographs.
I haven’t played or even heard of Ashura: Dark Reign until now. It certainly looks impressive from watching the videos on the Internet. But while it looks like it gets some things right, it also seems the game suffers from the same problems that most official 3D Sonic games suffer from. Shigeru Miyamoto once said in an old Nintendo Power interview in the mid-90s, that to make a good game, the character is created around the gameplay, not vice versa. With 2D Sonic, speed fit the game format like a glove, and you could create a lot of interesting play situations using ramps, loops, etc. Yuji Naka wanted a hero that could roll into a ball – so they chose a hedgehog. They didn’t create a hedgehog and then try to build a game around him.
I would also be scared of running over Sega’s toes by making something that directly competes with product they have out on the market. Ashura:DR is probably helped by the fact that you need to have Unreal Tournament before you can play it, which will keep it from ever becoming widely adopted.
I’ve been working on a true 3D engine of my own from scratch, but it’s not going to be used for a Sonic game. I’d like to try for something original and create a character that will suit the type of gameplay I want to use.
After SRB2, are you done with the franchise? Will it be passed along to others?
No, after SRB2, it’s done. We all grow up eventually. I’d like to dedicate more time to my wife, and focus on getting a syndicated comic strip. I used to want to professionally develop games, but it’s become a big business, and requiring movie studio-level resources. We’ve all heard the EA sweatshop stories. It’s not the small shop environment that it once was.
From SRB2 to Sonic: The Fated Hour, to Sonic Epoch, Time Attacked, Sonic Nexus and even engines like Project Mettrix and ProSonic, they all don’t mean a thing if there isn’t a means to distribute them. In the early days, it wasn’t the Sonic Fan Games HQ but Danny’s Sonic Fan Created Games that served as a hub. But when it disappeared, Ryan Langley, better known the community as Rlan, stepped up to create SFGHQ. He ultimately created the groundwork on which SFGs could flourish.
The SFGHQ is still going today with an active forum on which budding developers can create and exchange sprites and engines, and a rating system for the materials that do see completion. Though Langley isn’t a part of it anymore, he took time last weekend to field questions from me about the website he created, and what he’s been up to in the years since passing the torch to Smidge and company.
What initially drove your interest in Sonic fan gaming?
Sonic Fan Games HQ was essentially created due to a hole in the fanbase. The previous webpage “Danny’s Sonic Fan Created Games” had suddenly disappeared, so I decided to create a XOOM account and create SFGHQ.
A lot of the buzz behind the Sonic Fan Games for me was just the people around during the Moogle Cavern, Andre Dirk’s Secrets of Sonic The Hedgehog and Sonic Pandemonium days.
So the gap was there, you attempted to fill it, and did so quite well. Did you ever expect SFGHQ to have such success in its early days?
Not at first, but once I was able to get my site onto the Sonic Stuff Research Group (SSRG) where SoStH, Area 51 and various Sonic hacking groups were it basically ballooned out.
And were you ever worried that one day, Sega would order you to take the effort offline? If so, do you think it was worth the risk?
No, I never saw anything from Sega. The only time we ever saw something where Sega took action was far later down the line, and from opposing ends of the spectrum – Sonic Team got Sonicteam.com back by sending the owner a giant box of Sonic goodies, and Sega got SegaSonic.net by threatening AJ Freda for it’s use of “Sega” and “Sonic”. We never heard anything from Sega at all.
Indeed, I remember both situations. Now, in your tenure, the overwhelming majority of SFGs were produced in 2D, simply because that’s what the technology allowed. Many SFGs still are 2D today. In playing recent games, some veteran fans have argued Sonic needs to return to those 2D roots to find success in these times. To what extent do you think today and yesterday’s crop of fan games fills that void?
Unfortunately I’ve tethered off from Sonic Fan Games in general, mostly just a time thing. I’ve barely got the time to play the games I want now! There was quite a while where there wasn’t any sidescrolling Sonic, and it probably helped people get back from the dark ages of few Sonic games on the Saturn to the return on the Dreamcast.
In retrospect, most of the fangames weren’t that great, but it kept people interested in Sonic. Personally I think a game like Jaimey Bailey’s Sonic Time Attacked probably had a better idea on how to make a Sonic game than Sonic Advance 2 and 3 did.
But if a widely praised, well produced, and complete SFG were released in the community, would you still check it out?
Absolutely, but I’ve had very little time now to even look at SFGHQ or the forums.
The next question may then be tough to answer in light of what you just said but I’ll ask it anyway: What are your thoughts of the current state of SFGHQ? Do you feel you left it in good hands?
Oh absolutely. SFGHQ back in the day was pretty messy, all done in FrontPage and used some horribly ugly swirl backgrounds I found on a disk somewhere. Going by how long it’s been Smidge has probably been in charge for longer than I was. It’s been 10 years since SFGHQ started, and for a fan site to continue on and still be somewhat alive is amazing. Compared to a Sonic HQ or The Sonic Foundation It’s still updated somewhat regularly.
So many fans are dedicating now years and, in some cases, more than a decade to create their vision of the ideal SFG. How do you think that speaks to the loyalty of Sonic fandom overall? Do you think that ideal title can ever be achieved?
It’s really a time issue. It’s like all game development – you get a little sick of playing the same game over and over for a couple of years. That’s why so many games complete themselves at the demo level in Fan Games.
It’s a loyal fan base, but we also have to realise that it’s been 10 years since we started, and that every day we’re getting new Sonic fans in who also want to make games. Personally now though it’s very difficult to like Sonic anymore. I personally hated Sonic Unleashed on the 360 and took it back to the store, but I loved Sonic Rush and Sonic Rush Adventure, so it’s very pick and choose.
With that in mind, some in the community don’t like to touch this topic, but it’s worth asking: Do you think we’re at a point where a fan can make a Sonic game better than Sega can?
Well the problem is “What is a Sonic game?” It’s changed so drastically now that it’s almost impossible to say one way or that other. The last Sonic games had him as a werewolf and had him with a Sword.
Fan games are there for attempting to emulate the processes of Sonic of old, but few ever try to go beyond that. Many try to replicate the 3D Sonic games in a 2D perspective which probably isn’t the best option either. Anything’s possible, I guess.
Finally, at present you’re a part of GamerBytes.com, a web site that covers casual gaming and downladed fare on WiiWare, XBOX Live, PSN, iPhone and the like. Can you share your experiences with that and whether your SFGHQ experience has helped in covering such games?
GamerBytes has been great, but it’s a largely different medium. SFGHQ wasn’t much of a news site outside of the updates. I do try and give a personal touch to each post like I used to, so it’s not just some robotic response.
My writing on digital downloads was very similar to that of SFGHQ – I was filling a hole. I started really getting into the Xbox Live Arcade at the end of 2007, but I wasn’t happy with the amount of updates websites like xblarcade.com were getting, and I was posting a lot of news in the Xbox Live Arcade topic in the NeoGAF forums.
I decided to create Xblah.net, a website for just XBLA games. It was created for two reasons – to help me improve my writing skills with something I’m interested in, and to create a rival in that area.
SFGHQ got popular mostly due to the rivalry me and Danny had for the space, and out communities grew out of that sense of being a part of something. The addition of sprites, backgrounds and such to each site made us both try and better the other with a new idea. Then Simon Carless of Gamasutra noticed what I was doing and wanted to give me reign on an XBLA / PSN / WiiWare site, and the rest is history.
SFGHQ also helped me notice more on what are the good and bad bits of each game. Outside of GamerBytes my day job is a QA Tester for Krome Studios here in Australia, and trying to get into the designing side of things. A lot of QA is about vocalising the good and bad bits on games, and there were certainly a lot of good and bad Sonic Fan Games.
Well, I must say I’m a bit jealous regarding the GamaSutra “in” but absolutely happy for you! Thanks for spending some time to speak to me!
Haha, no problem.
Where many joke that the Internet is “serious business,” Sonic fan games could pave the way to such a thing for many aspiring developers. Artists and programmers can apply the knowledge they’ve gained from developing SFGs toward original fare. It’s already happening within the community with such fare as Everlasting Song and Nothing. These skills can prove incredibly helpful, with all big three console developers beginning to embrace independent, casual titles. With dozens of SFGs current in development, both in 2D and 3D, and hundreds more from the past available in some form, looking at Sonic fan gaming as a whole may be tantamount to understanding much of the evolution the community has seen in the past decade. Today’s SFGers may be tomorrow’s causal game developers, and ultimately, those who profit the next day from their original work.
There are plenty of tools available for those interested to get started, from Clickteam fare to YoYo’s Game Maker. Those wanting a challenge may find coding in C or other programming languages more up their alley, and more flexible. No matter how it’s done or who does it, the community is inching closer to emulating an experience they only dreamed possible when Sonic sped through their television. Given the deep division between classic fare and recent offerings, that may not be a bad thing. Veteran Sonic fans may take comfort in the largely 2D fare that’s available and in the pipeline, and new generation fans can look at what’s being produced and take interest in the roots behind them. Make no mistake–the production of Sonic fan games are a huge community backbone, and can be a critical tool in uniting all in Sonic fandom toward the goal of an ideal gameplay experience.
The Ten is a multi-part series examining the 10 events of the past decade that have shaped Sonic fandom and community affairs today. It is part of a series meant to complement the 10th anniversary of TSSZ News.