A Blessing, or a Curse?
At this time last year, unbeknown to many, the community and much of the gaming world was watching the first direct sequel since Sonic 3 & Knuckles play before our eyes, whether Sega wanted them to or not.
The slow, complete, days long video leak of a early Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I from PartnerNET left many on edge, many more firmly disenfranchised, and likely left Sega wondering if it could ever truly trust a community it tried to forge inroads with. Among other things, it prompted Sega to issue advisories to hundreds of media outlets not to pick up the news, it left those who did (like this one) wallowing in legal threats, and it may even forced Microsoft’s hand as they shut down the developer-only service temporarily after Episode I’s final area was revealed to the world.
But it wasn’t like there was advance warning. In February, a detailed account of the game was disclosed by Endri Lauson, detailed enough that Sega’s Aaron Webber issued a stern warning when Lauson claimed he would release the PartnerNET build publicly. This, as still images, including the game’s first boss, unreleased by Sega at the time, creeped their way into public view, mostly through Sonic Retro.
Lauson never followed through on his remarks. But someone else did. To date we still only know him as infinity. During the last week of March in 2010, infinity started releasing videos of the game’s four main stages, in order, followed by the final boss, a special stage, and the game’s spoiler ending. All of it happened within a week, with moderators on Sonic Retro barely able to keep up. The last released pieces to the puzzle was enough to send Retro’s top administrators into a rage, as they temporarily shut down all Sonic 4 discussion and privately deliberated how to move forward. All the while, much of the community was puzzled as to why Retro administrators waited so long to curb the leaks.
Sega vowed to track down infinity and claimed his actions were illegal; to date there is no indication Sega followed through on that promise.
For Sega, it was the latest in a long line of miscues and errors revealing major Sonic fare to the world. The Sonic 4 leaks marked the fourth time in two years Sega could not keep a project under wraps. The first bits of Sonic Unleashed were found in 2008 when Sega left contents meant for a magazine easily accessible on its public FTP; that site was deactivated shortly after the Sonic 4 leaks. In 2009, Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Winter Games was leaked in Europe a couple weeks before the proper launch, prompting several YouTube videos exploring the game. And not three months prior to the Sonic 4 leaks, we found, through the combination of an anonymous news tip and unfettered access, the full roster to Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing more than a month before the game’s launch. To their credit, Sega’s kept the lid airtight ever since the Sonic 4 leaks, although the jury’s still out on the accuracy of remarks made by a Sega Spain employee in October concerning the planned 20th anniversary game.
For fans, the Sonic 4 leaks may have been a blessing in disguise. Without them, many believe, the game would have moved forward with its planned June launch timetable as-is, instead of given extra time. Our reporting late in the year suggested internal focus groups agreed with many fans’ negative assessment. But with only two revised stages, little if any physics changes, and a world map interface to show for the extension, many of the more hardened among us remained unphased upon release.
That leads to now. Sonic’s 20th anniversary is less than 3 months away. All within Sega have been dead silent on what’s to come. It is all but certain Episode II is coming; whether it will be without warning is anyone’s guess. That’s why Sonic Colors, despite it being a distant memory, deserves mention. Colors was announced sight unseen, then handled quite traditionally, compared to the months of build up Project Needlemouse provided to Sonic 4. With Colors, there were comparatively smaller expectations, all kept in check, and nowhere to go but up given Sonic Unleashed‘s poor media reviews. While both Colors and Episode I fared well with the press, only the former won the hearts and minds of fans almost universally.
In those same footsteps, Sega’s newly discovered shroud of secrecy is so far all they’ve learned from their questionable handling of Episode I. For many fans it will not be enough. Many will not settle for anything less than a revamped physics engine in Episode II, and in the absence of it, some have, as has occurred before, threatened to walk away from the franchise forever. But when Episode I was leaked, for a tiny moment, Sega could have walked away from all of us. Some will argue they have, ignoring loud, prevalent concerns about the title’s future. All things considered, that ignorance could have been far worse and far reaching.
Our poll, active until the end of next week, asks for your opinion on whether the Sonic 4 leaks were good for the community. You can talk about that, and whether it was ultimately good for Sega, below in the comments.