On The Development Process, Lessons Learned, and the Handheld Editions
In the lead-up to the release of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, Sumo Digital executive producer Steve Lycett has made the rounds within the community and major media outlets this month. We are grateful to be among one of his many stops.
TSSZ submitted questions to Lycett earlier this month. While we have just received responses due to his busy schedule (with some 20/20 hindsight as a result in some areas,) you are sure to learn much more about the process behind ASRT’s development, the choices and sacrifices made during, how Wii U factored into some of the game’s system-specific features, and a bit about the handheld releases, which were delayed to December.
The Q&A was reviewed by Sega representatives prior to publication. We thank Lycett and those at Sega for the opportunity.
What are some of the lessons the development team learned from creating the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing and then applied to Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed?
Straight into the technical questions then!
So I should explain that when we wrapped on All-Stars Racing, we spent time looking at reviews, many, many forum comments and also canvassed the team to look at which areas of the game we felt we needed improvements on. With every game there are always lessons you’ve learned and areas you wanted to do more in after all.
Broadly, this fell down into quite a few areas.
One key area was variety. With All-Stars Racing we’d created 24 tracks, but these were based on 8 IP’s. So you’d have three Seaside Hill tracks, three Jet Set Radio tracks etc. The fans felt – and we agreed – that we could have represented more games. So right from the off we planned to include a lot more variety in tracks.
Next we saw many criticisms that the multiplayer side of the game was a little lightweight. You couldn’t play various modes in split-screen, nor could you play any of the battle arena modes online. All-Stars moves also couldn’t really be networked either as each of them was so unique it would have meant a significant amount of work. So this time we set off with a goal of having everything playable in split-screen, including the World Tour campaign mode, and making sure Battle Arenas and All-Star moves worked online.
Plus that’s before we get into the whole Transformation aspect of the game. When we first started on All-Star Racing we had actually tried characters on foot vs characters in cars and bike vs characters in planes. We pulled it all back to vehicles of course (mostly as it wasn’t very fun!) but that plane itch had remained throughout. We didn’t really want to do a straight sequel so the land, air and sea aspect has been there from the start.
We also wanted to add more depth to the handling, once you learned how to drift on the first game, it was really easy from then on. So this time we switched to real physics as a basis for all handling models and I think this has made the game at a lot deeper with more nuances to discover as you play.
So as you can see we really wanted to improve on the original game in all areas – and I like to think we’ve managed to pull this off!
When you and Sumo learned that ASR Transformed was to be Sega’s flagship Holiday title this year, how, if at all, did that change the game’s development? Did you add resources, personnel? Did it add pressure to make sure the game was of top quality?
We discovered this pretty much at the start of development so we knew we had to deliver the quality that represented. Of course, we also wanted to outdo our previous games – so we were already putting ourselves under our own pressure!
If anything it’s meant this time we’ve worked much more closely with the various SEGA departments. We’ve been more involved with the marketing teams to make sure the characters and tracks were ones that best represented the ages of SEGA, it’s meant we’ve spent more time than ever working with the IP holders in Japan.
On previous games we’ve typically visit Japan at the start of development and then send updates and builds and discuss things by email, this time we’ve visited all the IP holders at least bi-monthly. We’ve had tremendous support there, not only with personal time from the game directors and designers, but also in terms of access to the SEGA archives. It’s really allowed us to divine what those teams would have done with today’s technology and really re-bottle the lightning which created such amazing games in the first place.
Internally, we also recognised that we wanted to really hone the gameplay. That lead us to invite students and volunteers to come and give us direct feedback on the game as we shaped it. It’s been invaluable to have that feedback as I think it’s resulted in a much more balanced experience.
Of course, we face the most pressure from the fans themselves! We’re pretty active in the forums and we try and incorporate as much as we can from the feedback we receive. I should say a special thank you here to the fans – they’ve been super supportive of all the games we’ve done for SEGA so far and hopefully they’ll recognise many special touches that have come from forum suggestions.
The Wii U looks to have been a later add to your cycle, in terms of tailoring ASR Transformed to the system. Most previews thus far talk about a map on the GamePad or taking advantage of the pad during certain multiplayer modes, but nothing stands out as particularly innovative. Do you think Sumo was fully able to take advantage of the new hardware and interface for this game? Is there something more you wish you could have done for Wii U?
We actually knew about the Wii U version early on though we didn’t receive kits till early this year. We did an initial visit with Nintendo as they wanted to show us some prototypes they’d been working on to help us get into the ‘How do we deal with this whole extra screen’ mentality!
I can tell you, on the car journey back, we had plenty of ideas! The key though is to ensure you use the GamePad in a complimentary way. As a racing game, you really don’t want to take your eye off the road for too long or quite simply, you will crash. If you’re crashing, you’re not winning!
So for single player it’s all about features that you can use, but don’t rely on. So being able to glance down at the map to give an impression of where you are in relation to other racers is useful. Lifting the GamePad up quickly gives you an instant rear view camera, but the simple act of raising the pad means you can glance from screen to screen without losing your eye on the course. Again the weapon camera calls out when you hit someone – so you can glance to see who you got.
Plus… And whilst you may not think this is innovative per se, you can swipe your finger to pull the whole game down to the GamePad. That frees up the TV. I think I’ve lost count in my house of the arguments that ‘I just need to get to the save point…’ when the TV is required for something important as the next episode of Mrs S0L’s favourite soap. You just don’t have that here.
Then… And the power of the hardware allows this, we can do 5 player split-screen – or indeed any combination of split-screen numbers spread over the TV and GamePad. You can also play the game without a GamePad if you want too. So it’s incredibly flexible control wise, especially as we support pretty much any Wii or Wii U controller under the sun.
That’s before the asymmetric modes too. So really, and bear in mind this is a launch title too, I think we’ve really not only made a real effort here, but when you add it to the split-screen every ethos of the game, broke some new ground to boot.
I actually don’t think we could have done much more than we have, without changing the game extensively, but that wasn’t the goal here. If we were to do a Wii U only game, you can probably really run with new ways of using the GamePad, I’m excited to see what will come in the future on Wii U as knowing the GamePad is available to every game, we’ll see some really creative uses of it.
In general terms, what’s one feature–a track, a character, a mode, etc.–you wish you could have in ASR Transformed but ran out of time to implement?
Looking at the list we started with, the only feature we’ve not been able to work in this time was the concept of the whole game not only being played in Split-screen, but also with online players making up part of that party. This was the intention originally, but sadly we had to let this one go.
Like the planes from the original All-Stars Racing prototype, this will continue to itch till it’s scratched, but even without this, pretty much we achieved what we set out to do.
How far along in the development process was the idea of tying in Danica Patrick introduced? Did that change the process at all? I’m curious if you think her addition will be effective, especially as Danica is only well known in the United States–and certainly not terribly well known to Sonic fans.
Again, we knew about this as we locked down the core character roster, ditto for Ralph too. The goal of these characters was to expand the interest to outside of the SEGA hardcore. In Danica’s case she has a huge following – plus you know – having a racing driver in a racing game actually makes sense! It was justified as when the press release went out, we saw over 70 million hits on the news via Yahoo Finance.
Ralph too was a natural fit. Here is a video game characters that’s had enough of being the bad guy and visits different games to find a new job. With Sonic and Eggman in the movie, why not return the favour and get Ralph in the game. Plus again, it gets movie audiences interested in the game.
A lot of fans have expressed concern that these characters have stolen a slot which a SEGA character might have taken. That’s absolutely not been the case, if SEGA hadn’t have asked for these characters inclusions and got the deals in place, it would simply have meant two less characters in the game. After all… You could argue that Danica is more famous than some of the other characters we have – didn’t stop us from including those!
The Sega Miles system in the original ASR was a good way for players who may have only been good at certain areas to still unlock all of the game’s features. You have said that system is out for the sequel; why replace it and what will it be replaced with?
Whilst the SEGA miles and shop system were liked, there was a concern that the game didn’t really have enough structure. As you could unlock anything by playing any mode, there was no real ‘meat’ to the game where you could spend time together trying to reach a given super unlock. That’s why we’ve gone to a more traditional structure. It has allowed us to give a much better sense of progression, you feel like you are working through the game, especially if you play World Tour in co-op split-screen.
I remember talk about Sumo coding in some characters for early builds in the original ASR, only to drop them as development progressed. If I recall, Gillius was one character planned and even programmed, only to get the cut and return now. Did you have a similar process for ASR Transformed, or was the core character roster basically mandated from the beginning?
When we do prototypes, we always try a few characters out that might not be in the final game, just to set the rules. It makes for a better finished game. For example in All-Stars Racing we did try Gilius riding on the ‘Chicken Leg’ bizzarian lizard. It didn’t work as you can’t really make a running lizard drift.
For this game we actually did prototype a Chicken Leg racing game on Wii U, where you could waggle the Wii Remote to make the Chicken Legs run and as the GamePad controller you controlled Gilius trying to rodeo them in.
The catch was, even after a number of weeks, it wasn’t really coming together. Rather than include something that wasn’t going anywhere, we removed the mode. I think the same is true for any game, you prototype many things and keep what works and discard what doesn’t.
It’s different for the playable character roster, once we lock that, it stays locked. When you consider that each character in this game has to have not only three vehicles built, but also needs a whole set of animations, an All-Star move and has to be appropriately lodded for many different platforms, you really don’t want to waste that work.
Will ASR Transformed have more DLC support versus the original? Will it depend on sales?
I guess you should ask SEGA that question!
The portable versions of ASR Transformed have been delayed to December. In many interviews, you’ve stated the desire to keep the same game experience, appearance, and features as similar as possible across the board, including on handheld and mobile devices. To this point, how successful has Sumo been in delivering on that idea in the handheld world, and did the delay of the 3DS and Playstation Vita versions have to do with such delivery?
Yeah, I do get us into all sorts of trouble in interviews! Seriously though, we always want to make sure every version of the game has the same features, levels, characters and supports it’s platform as best as we can.
If anything this has been why the versions have been postponed. It’s a big, complicated game with many elements, not least the Transformation of characters and tracks, but the fact we wanted to ensure we support element such as online play, Street Pass and more.
We also don’t want to mislead players with shots of a game that might need to change as we optimise it. There is nothing worse than seeing a screenshot, buying the game and finding it’s completely different.
I think when people get hands on with the handheld versions, they’ll appreciate the extra care and attention.
ASR Transformed will be released in the middle of a very busy Holiday season and will have to compete with the likes of Halo 4, New Super Mario Bros U, Call of Duty Black Ops II, and on a more level playing field LittleBigPlanet Karting which is already out. Sonic is still a strong brand, but not nearly as much as before. If this game finds success in the market during the Holidays, what do you think will be the biggest contributing factor to that? On the other side, do you see a way the game could flop?
I’ll be honest, if I could answer that question I’d be busily buying and selling on the stock markets!
From our perspective, we’ve spent a lot of time making the very best videogame we can. It’s the third game in the franchise that we’ve created with SEGA and the previous two games have both been received both critically and commercially. I’d like to think we’d top them both, as I think from a game perspective, we’ve massively improved on what’s gone before.
From the early reviews we are seeing people recognise that improvement. It’s too early to tell from sales yet, but we think this is one of those evergreen titles that sells consistently. If you look at either of the previous games, they sat in the charts constantly – in fact you still see them there today.
We do have some competition this time, but only on certain platforms. We’re there on all of them. We’re also the only racing game available right now on Wii U plus we beat that plumbers game out there too.
I believe the game will be a success and I hope a significant one, since that means we’ll be able to convince SEGA let us go bigger and better. We’ve had tremendous fun making this game and we’ve plenty of ideas of where we go next…