I’ve had a personal interest in the concept of “fan gaming” before fan games even existed.
During the mid-nineties I would access the information super-highway from my school’s brand spanking new Windows 95 computers and look up Sonic “hoaxes”. These doctored screenshots from 16-bit Sonic titles usually featured character recolours in “zany” scenarios e.g. Knuckles in Tails’ biplane, Super Amy in Sonic 1, a red Sonic piloting Robotnik’s boss robots. More often than not these so-called “hoaxes” didn’t even try to hide the fact that they were fake – they were made by fans for fans, just for fun.
And so I would bring up page after page of these fake images, not so much as sources of entertainment, but as windows into a world of possibilities. What if Sonic had multi-coloured brothers? What if Tails drove a car? And what if Dr. Robotnik was a playable character? But at the time, Sega were the gatekeepers, and they were the only ones with the technology to make fun, creative Sonic games. But that didn’t stop me from wondering, what if – what if Sonic fans were able to craft their very own Sonic games..?
The rest, as can be seen by TSSZ’s coverage of SAGE 2014, is history.
Nowadays, the software, hardware and programming skills required to make a Sonic fan game is so widely available that every man and his dog can cobble together their very own Sonic adventure. So good are some of these games that they even eclipse Sega’s efforts to recapture the essence of classic 2D Sonic games with the wholly unsatisfying Sonic the Hedgehog 4 – something I never thought I’d be saying back in 1995.
But it makes me wonder: How can it be that fan game developers are seemingly more competent at making 2D Sonic games than Sega are?
“I think this is because fans bring new ideas to the table with their fangames,” Kevin “Highwire” Ethridge, developer of Sonic Lost Adventure, told me during our chat about SAGE 2014, “Sega seems to rely almost entirely on cashing in on nostalgia.
“You end up with a weaker product when you make a franchise rely too heavily on its past successes. Sonic 4 is an excellent example of this because Sonic Team didn’t even try to hide it. That whole game is a nostalgia trip and doesn’t try anything new.
“Fan games can bring something totally new to the table since their risk of upsetting their audience is considerably lower than that of Sega’s.”
The fact that fan game developers incorporate fresh, new ideas into their Sonic games is evident in the likes of Sonic Chrono Adventure, Sonic Time Twisted and Ethridge’s own Sonic Lost Adventure. But Ethridge makes the all important point that fan game developers do so not because they’re more creative than Sega’s in-house developers, but because they’re not restrained from being creative.
But even so, is the “threat” posed by the easily upsettable Sonic fanbase really so great as to significantly influence the creative direction of the Sonic series? Sonic Boom thinks not.
“Sega has stated in the past that they did Sonic 4 in a very modern way, because they felt younger gamers wouldn’t want a game with 16-bit graphics and gameplay,” Bryce “Overbound” Stock, developer of Sonic Time Twisted and SAGE organiser, explains, “Plus I am not convinced that Sega understands how important the physics are to classic Sonic fans. There are some very specific behaviors from the classic physics that some classic fans can’t live without.
“You can’t blame them [Sega]. Even if Sega’s community managers understand that, the process of going up the chain through PR people and translators – those details are likely lost.
“That’s why it’s so promising having Taxman and Stealth working with Sega. Fans have been doing it [making classic Sonic games] longer.
“We owe our thanks mostly to people like Damizean, Taxman, AeroGP, Mercury, Stealth, and Kain. They are the ones who studied the classic games, built engines, and outlined the physics – and they’ve been working on it for over a decade.”
The peculiar physics of Sonic 4: Episode I was a legitimate target of criticism, not only from Sonic fans, but from gamers and game critics across the board. But the state of Sonic 4‘s physics isn’t the point Stock is trying to make. Instead, he highlights what he believes to be communication issues between fans and Sega’s community managers, and then between those managers and Sega proper i.e. the guys and gals actually programming Sonic games are mostly unaware of how these games are perceived by gamers and critics alike.
So does that mean that Sega and Sonic Team have still have the potential to make creative new 2D Sonic games? And if so, why did we get Sonic 4?
“This is mainly because a lot of the developers that worked on the classic games are no longer working at Sonic Team,” Techokami, maintainer of Sonic Worlds Delta, tells me, “They’ve moved onto other things.
“There is also the element that game development today is a lot different than game development in the early 90s. Instead of cutting you teeth on raw assembly at the processor level, you deal with Visual Studio and other high-level languages that can’t always provide the same levels of performance. On top of that, instead of games being made mainly by smaller groups of people, you have massive teams that are harder to coordinate.
“Dimps is [was] used by Sonic Team to farm out development of smaller side projects, like Sonic 4, but they don’t work as closely with them as they should. Dimps also [developed] Street Fighter IV, but Capcom worked very closely with them to ensure the game would be of high quality.”
It’s certainly true that Dimps has co-developed a lot of Sonic’s more mediocre videogames including Sonic 4, Sonic Rush, and the handheld versions of Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations. However, its credits also include the aforementioned Street Fighter IV and other well received titles such as the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai series, the Digimon: Battle Spirits games, all three Sonic Advance games, and the arguably superior Wii version of Sonic Unleashed. With this in mind, it’s hard not to agree with Techokami’s thoughts that the problem isn’t with Dimps, nor the decrepit Sonic Team itself, but with Sega’s ever growing, increasingly convoluted corporate structure.
Personally, I think the quality of SAGE’s best and brightest can be attributed to the freedoms fan game developers have compared to Sega’s own programmers and designers.
Fan game developers need not worry about marketability and profitability, about manufacturing and distribution, about maintaining brand integrity. Fan game developers feel no pressure from team leaders, producers, CEOs and share holders, breathing down their necks, demanding reports, pie charts and – most importantly – results.
Free from these heavy, corporate shackles, fan game developers are able to build, test and experiment to their hearts’ content and can go through as many failed projects and buggy betas as necessary to fulfil their vision. And when their games do see a release, the robust, close-knit fan game community will be there to support them.
Or maybe Sonic Team just suck – Sega isn’t even trusting them with Sonic Boom. Perhaps it’s time to let the fan game developers have a go.
After all, “Sonic 5” already exists – it’s a fan game.
Michael Westgarth is a freelance writer who runs every Sonic fan’s favourite column, Vertical Slice. Read Michael’s previous columns via his TSSZ author page and find out more about his writing via his blog, MegaWestgarth. Also, Sonic Adventure 2 sucks.