Looking back at Sonic Runners

Looking back at Sonic Runners

by May 30, 2016

Where did things go wrong?

It always felt a little weird to like Sonic Runners as much as I did. Only one or two people in my close circle of friends really seemed to play it, and I knew a lot of people who tried to put me off from playing it – though that was more of a dig at free-to-play games in general and not specifically a dig at Sonic Runners itself.

But I really did genuinely love it. I only just got my first “smart” device of any kind a little over a year ago (An ASUS Memopad 7 in March 2015), so I figured my love for Runners could be chalked up to inexperience with the endless runner genre. Instead, I found myself put off by the likes of other runners like Temple Run. While Jetpack Joyride proved to be tons of fun, it failed to keep me coming back. And Sega’s own Sonic Dash? Forget about it. Dash proved to be about as bland as you can get, and I’m still not sure how it became such a reliable tent pole in Sega’s mobile strategy.

Sonic Runners was Sonic Team’s first mobile game, which probably explains a lot about its successes and failures. Like any good speed running game, Sonic Runners rewards practice and skill in repeated play. Your first few runs might make you think the game is random nonsense, but play it enough and you’ll start to see routes to be taken and patterns to be exploited. I still remember the days where reaching “Top Speed” was a guaranteed death sentence. Now, in the game’s twilight, most of my time is spent there, dodging enemies and spike balls on minutes-long death-defying runs. Add in classic Genesis-Sonic-style slope physics (with their associated speed-boosting tricks) and weekly, eSports-style leaderboards and you have a very fun game.

So where did it go wrong? Well, if I had to guess, unlike Sonic Dash, Runners was developed more as a game first and then had monetization schemes crammed into it later. Free-to-play games make their money in advertisements and paid resource packs, and for Sonic Runners, neither really felt like they had a place to fit in.

Let’s start by talking about resource packs. In Sonic Runners, your resource is the red star ring (hereby referred to as RSR). Everything in Runners is fueled by RSR, and by everything I really only mean three things: RSR can be used to buy gold ring packs used for items and upgrades, you spend RSR to spin the premium roulette (more on that later), and for low, low price of 5 RSR you get to continue once after dying. You gain RSR through the course of playing Sonic Runners, usually from drops during boss encounters, but also as rewards for finishing chapters in story mode and completing daily challenges. And, if you wanted, a pack of around 20-25 RSR could be purchased for a real, actual human dollar.

Here’s the problem: you never, ever needed to spend money for RSR. On one of my early roulette spins, I won an equippable item that doubled the drop rate of RSR. There were no limitations on that, no catches, I just straight up received the game’s coin doubler within the first week of play and it never expired. Better yet: I could level up the coin doubler, so that eventually, it could give me at least quadruple the normal RSR drop rate. Even with double the rate, I was typically swimming in RSR; the premium roulette (the game’s centerpiece) cost 50 RSR to spin, and if I was really dedicated, I could collect enough to spin it 3 or 4 times per day. Why would I give Sega money for resource packs when my cup runneth over just from casual play?

Advertisements should have helped offset things a little bit, but in truth, advertisements were the first major thing to ruin Sonic Runners. In a game like Sonic Dash, ads are used as a currency: once you die, you have the option to watch an ad to get revived for free (“free” being relative, of course). This system carried over to Runners, as did banner ads before getting to the main menu, and even more banner ads after finishing a run. That means that, in a single session of Runners, the player would ideally see three advertisements, one of which was a video ad. To say that it was annoying was an understatement, but as I eventually discovered, such is the nature of free-to-play games.

I would have tolerated the ads more, except for the fact that they ruined the game in another way. By the time I got my tablet, the Sonic Runners limited beta had begun in Japan, Europe and Canada. Being from the United States, playing Runners was difficult… but not impossible. I held out for a few weeks before eventually sideloading the APK onto my tablet, and enjoyed a brief stint while Sonic Runners prepared for its North American launch at the end of June. The game was basically finished in this state, with one exception: there were no ads.

This made for a curious comparison. When the North American version of Sonic Runners launched, the ads ended up bringing a lot of unwanted baggage with them. As it turns out, even when they weren’t being displayed, the ads had to be kept in memory, stealing valuable system resources used to run the game. The side effect of this was Sonic Runners going from running smoothly on my device to a stuttering, unresponsive, crash-prone train wreck literally overnight. Patches were issued to help improve performance, but it was never like it used to be. The game was now almost unplayable.

This is also Sonic Team we’re talking about. Later patches gradually made other features crash the game that originally didn’t used to, like viewing the game’s leaderboard. Eventually, going in to the menu to upgrade your character’s abilities or equip new gear would also guarantee a crash if you took too much time. And if you weren’t already full up on RSR, you’d frequently boot the game up to a free pack as an apology from Sonic Team for accidentally assigning the wrong attributes to certain pieces of gear. Fun as it was, the game seemed to be poorly managed.

Then it also stopped being fun.

Sega likely put the pinch on Sonic Team to bring in more revenue. If I had to guess, the bloated advertising was driving away casual users, and the hardcore addicts weren’t spending nearly enough money on RSR. This was turning into a big problem.

You see, in a game like Sonic Dash, spending real money helps alleviate the grind. The point of the game is to unlock everything, but it would take so insufferably long to do so that it makes more sense to spend money and take the shortcut. This, obviously, makes Sega revenue, and this is the trick free-to-play games lean on the most. Sonic Runners had no need for shortcuts, because grinding was just so easy. On top of that, the “premium roulette” had a twist to it.

Most free-to-play games work on a capsule toy business model, where you spin a wheel, or turn a dial, or pull a handle and receive a random result. Sonic Runners was a little bit different: after spinning the wheel, you could repeatedly tap the “spin” button to deliberately influence where the spinner would stop. With enough practice, you could make the spinner stop on the best items with upwards of 75-80% accuracy. When Sonic Runners would run a weeks-long event to acquire newly added characters, it was very, very easy to have everything by the end of the first day.

So, Sonic Team was most likely tasked with finding a way to stop all of this from happening and force players to spend more money.

The end result was Sonic Runners version 2.0, launched in November of 2015. Sonic Runners 2.0 made two very significant changes to the metagame: it introduced a new “Timed” mode, and it summarily nerfed every single piece of equipment across the entire game. That item I had to double the drop rate of RSR? Its boost had been cut in more than half. On a fully leveled-up character, temporary power-ups like magnetism and invincibility would run for almost a full minute. Now, in 2.0, they lasted less than ten seconds.

Sonic Runners had already been kind of a difficult game, but version 2.0 made it nearly impossible. Actually, for a while, it really was impossible: directly after launching version 2.0, it was discovered the game now had impassable walls of spikes at the highest speed levels, deliberately placed to end runs prematurely. Complaints quickly had them removed, but the message they sent was all too clear. An experienced player in Sonic Runners could play a single session of the game for more than 20 minutes if they were really good. Long play sessions were time spent collecting more resources and not looking at advertisements. Long play sessions were costing Sega money.

This was obvious with the new “Timed” mode. You’d play for a specific length of time and try to score as many points as possible before the clock ran out. Items could be collected during play to put more time back on the clock, but things were weighted to make sure the average play session was as short as humanly possible. The shorter the session, the more likely a user would watch advertisements, and the more likely the user was going to spend their resources to try again for a higher score. This was even more obvious when you considered that Timed Mode was competitive: after a given run, your score would then be pitted against another user’s score, and whoever had the highest score at the end of the day would get bonus items. If you found yourself on the losing end of the scales, you had the option to spend RSR to dump your current opponent and find somebody else, with a special option to spend even more RSR to specifically find a “beatable opponent” in order to guarantee victory by that day’s end.

It was shrewd, to put it plainly. Sega wasn’t just asking its users to stop hoarding game resources, it was demanding. And on top of all of this, the game was still full of ads, still chugged along with poor performance, and still crashed at the worst possible times. The fat lady was singing.

Some friends of mine have tried to convince me that this arc is normal among free-to-play games. Maybe they’re cynical or maybe I’m just naive, but I choose not to believe that; such a claim strips free-to-play products from their ability to be “games” and instead suggests they are more just elaborate mechanisms to remove money from their users bank accounts, like rigged carnival games. While that may definitely be true of some, I do not think it was true of Sonic Runners. The “arc” taken by Runners suggests a developer that instead seemed to hope good old fashioned gameplay would win out in the end. It didn’t, and every effort made to get the game to work in a free-to-play context just made things worse. I kept wishing there was a way to just buy an ad-free version of Sonic Runners, because I would have gladly paid for it. Instead, Sega buried the game under a bunch of garbage that nobody wanted or needed. It’s interesting to view this in the context of other, actual Sonic games, and the dead weights they have been shackled with over the years.

Once again, I can’t help but think that Sega is and always will be their own worst enemy.

It would be easy for me to mourn the loss of Sonic Runners, except I already did most of my mourning when version 2.0 was released. At this point, what’s happening to the game is merely putting it out of its misery.

Rest in peace.