Destructoid interview: Sonic Unleashed

A few weeks ago, Destructoid was lucky enough to get a Q&A session with Sonic Unleashed producer Yoshihisa Hashimoto. I got to ask him about fan reaction to the Werehog, whether or not Sonic needs an involved storyline, and just how he addresses criticism from Sonic fans and the press. 

Unfortunately, with Hashimoto being an understandably busy chap, the interview questions sent two weeks ago did not get back to me until today. As such, a few obsolete questions have been removed, while a couple of moments within the interview might still be a little out-of-date.

Also, please be aware that English is not Hashimoto’s first language. Sega of Europe did a great job fixing up the answers, but the English may be a little off in some of Hashimoto-san’s responses.

That said, it’s still a pretty good interview and I hope you enjoy. Read on for our interview with Yoshihisa Hashimoto.

Destructoid: With Sonic Unleashed, there appears to be a very clear effort to bring the franchise’s credibility back and take the game in a new direction. What influenced your decision to take the steps you’ve taken? Was it fan reaction, critical reception or did you internally recognize that Sonic had taken a hit in quality?

This is actually quite simple. I just simply created an ideal Sonic. Also, I did feel that what I wanted to aim for was also the Sonic fans had been wanting to see. There wasn’t anything that inspired me, but I do take notice of what the fans and the press think so I check blogs and bulletin boards world wide almost everyday. As a team, we have been trying our best to answer what all the fans have been waiting for, so it may not be too much to say that we were able to say that as a “Sonic fan representative” we were able to create a new Sonic.

As a team, we have constantly been watching and discussing “What Sonic should be,” “What the gameplay quality should be” and “What should our movie graphic quality be.” As we were able to receive such great chance in creating a mainstream Sonic title, we used all our effort to make everything we had been watching and discussing into an actual game.

Some of the criticism concerning more recent Sonic titles have revolved around the feeling of being “on-rails.” Is this something you sought to address, and if so, how have you set about making Unleashed‘s speed sections feel more interactive?

Hashimoto: I do agree that there might have been past titles where it gave a feeling of being “on-rails,” although, maintaining an interactive feel while presenting vigorousness and sense of speed was a challenge,

what we especially worked on and addressed were the following points:

– Eclectic actions.

– Implementation of actions such as Quick Step/Drift/Stomping/Sonic Boost.

– Additions of objects that change paths depending on the correctness of the button input.

– Elaborate course layouts that provides non-stop sense of interactiveness.

From this, I do feel that we were able to bring everything together into a piece very well.

Destructoid: We’ve all seen The Werehog, and it has been greeted with a mixed reaction from fans. How are you feeling about fan reception to the character?

Hashimoto: The current reactions were something we had expected. When we first started the Sonic Unleashed project, I created a concept document with the Art Director Sachiko Kawamura on a single piece of paper. At that point, Kawamura and I remember saying that “There will definitely be mixed reactions from Sonic fans!” However, I took it as receiving mixed reactions is not [necessarily] a bad thing, since it will bring discussions and also bring great impact as well. I personally feel that Werehog’s design has come out very well. It has some degree of cuteness inside the wildness and while we can tell that it is Sonic, there are some appearances that he is not Sonic. Also, I feel that the gameplay has become very fun.

Destructoid: How did the whole Werehog concept come to be?

Hashimoto: First, Kawamura and I decided that we wanted to “implement a stimulating element.” Based on that, “Let’s transform Sonic into something wild! I am sure everyone will be surprised!” is what we agreed on right away during our discussion.

We wanted to [give] Werehog a “special ability” and from that we came up with the idea of “Sonic uses his legs and runs fast, so it will probably be fun to have Werehog use his hands for a powerful and light action.” This is how we came up with the ability of “stretching arms.”

Gameplay images and character images came right across our heads and what we now had to do was make it into a game.

In terms of gameplay, with the basic elements of action games such as platforming, puzzle and battle, we mixed it with straight action in Sonic style.

Destructoid: Did you draw inspiration from any other titles when developing the Werehog levels? There seem to be elements inspired by Prince of Persia, God of War and even Dynasty Warriors. Were any of these games an influence?

Hashimoto: I did not get influences from any specific games, but I played games from all sorts of genres and gained the seeds of inspiration from them. Regarding action games, I do believe I have played games that are known and I have even also played games that seem to have no relations such as FPS, RPG, RTS, sports, racing, puzzle and music and I have earned a lot of hints from them as well. Furthermore, I have even gained many influences from [watching games] in terms of “how to think about game designs.”

Destructoid: Tell me about the Hedgehog Engine. What prompted you to create a brand new engine for Sonic Unleashed, and what challenges did you face in crafting something specialized for Sonic games?

Hashimoto: Around the year 2005, I had been watching various high-end game movies and felt that something was missing. Of course they were all very well created, but I felt that they had all come from a move presentation that were within the bounds of common sense and I wasn’t surprised. That was right when I decided to start the development for Sonic Unleashed and I felt that with the already existing engines and libraries I will not be able to create the movie presentation we are looking for, so that is why we had decided to create from full-scratch.

If Sonic Unleashed is the answer to “What should Sonic be?”, the answer for “What game movies should be?” will be the Hedgehog Engine. The Hedgehog Engine has all the necessary libraries and tools and the lighting calculating systems as well as systems that can stream various data. The Hedgehog Engine is a comprehensive development environment.

The challenges that I faced were:

– Challenges with data reading speed as Sonic’s running speed is very fast.

– The amount of renderer calculations for the global illumination lighting, so a system development was made using 100 PCs for the distributed calculation process.

– Since the data size became too big for the global illumination lighting, fitting all the data into the Xbox 360 DVD was a challenge.

With Sonic Unleashed, there is a somewhat involved story. Do you feel story is important in a Sonic game?

Hashimoto: Sonic Unleashed’s story is very simple and easy to understand. This is a policy we had decided as the theme of the story.

One thing I wanted to avoid was to impose a complex plot which only serves developer’s self satisfaction and users get lost of the purpose. I simplified the plot so users can simply devote themselves into the world and enjoy the action game.

My principle was to make the story simple and easy, but I never meant to get rid of story entirely. Story is important in Sonic games. Of course you can make a game with no story, where you can just navigate with stage select menus and a bunch of action stages. But I don’t think it [would] make a GREAT game. A simple and yet sophisticated story can add new layer to the game without getting in the way of game progression.

Destructoid: The opening cinematic for Sonic Unleashed is absolutely stunning, and the creation of a whole new engine is ambitious indeed. What kind of budget have you been running for this? How expensive has it been in comparison to other Sega titles?

Hashimoto: That opening prerender movie was made internally in SEGA. We have brilliant talents from all over the industry. I think I can say that CG quality of SEGA is now at the top of CG industry as you can see from the opening cinematic. And thanks to the Hedgehog Engine, which we used in real-time graphics, we were able to work in a highly cutting-edge environment. I’m very happy about the quality of real-time cut scenes as well. So please look forward for that.

I can’t tell you the development cost of Sonic Unleashed. But I can tell you that it is one of the high-budget titles in SEGA. However, compared to average HD game development, I don’t think it’s that high. Our Hedgehog Engine enabled us to create high-quality contents efficiently.

Destructoid: Finally, who are hoping to catch the attention of with Sonic Unleashed? Are you firmly focused on the family market these days, or do you hope to ever reclaim the fanbase that grew up with Sonic in the 16bit era?

Hashimoto: We are pretty greedy about this matter. So I would say our target is “everyone.” I know family users will definitely enjoy this, and at the same time I would like old-school Sonic fans to enjoy this game too. Speaking of “Sonic fans,” I think there are a couple of different types of Sonic fans.

1st is [the] Sonic fan from 3D Sonic, mainly those who started to like Sonic since Sonic Adventure series. In fact, this title started as Sonic Adventure 3, and as you might know, the Japanese title is Sonic World Adventure. So the backdrop of Sonic Unleashed is a Sonic Adventure series. We are confident that Sonic Adventure fans will like Sonic Unleashed for sure.

And 2nd breed is the fans from classic Sonic from Genesis/Mega Drive times. They tend to want side-scroll speed and platforming game plays. We took the strength of classic Sonic and made it even better. So I think they will find both fond memories of good-old times and pleasant surprises in this game.

Most of all I want those people who have never played Sonic games before to play this one. I’m confident that first-comer players will like the unique, never-seen-before action plays.

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James Stephanie Sterling
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