Dtoid Q&A: Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood

Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood is a game that not many could have predicted emering. A BioWare-developed Sonic the Hedgehog RPG on the DS just isn’t one of those things you expect, but nevertheless it’s a reality and now we have to deal with it.

We’re certainly interested in how well BioWare manages to make a Sonic RPG work, so it was marvellous to be able to have Sega arrange a Destructoid Q&A with BioWare concerning the upcoming title. We spoke with lead programmer Brook Bakay about the genesis (no pun intended) of this game, fan reactions and old school Sonic music. How did this unique idea come about? Are Sonic’s jaded fans ready to have their faith restored?

All this and a limited number of many other questions are all answered after the jump!

Destructoid: How did the concept for a Sonic RPG emerge? Is it something that was cooked up in BioWare first, or did Sega approach you with the idea?

Brook Bakay:  This is actually quite mysterious. No one seems to know where the idea came from. Ray is a huge Sonic fan (he still plays his Genesis,) and Ray and Greg are good friends with Simon Jeffries, the head of Sega of America. But they don’t remember whose idea it was first. I like to think the idea was hatched over brandies and monocles in a private jet somewhere over the South Pacific.

Destructoid: The Sonic IP is one that many gamers have lost faith in over the years. Are you hoping that with Sonic Chronicles, a lot of the people who grew up with Sonic will “come back to the fold,” so to speak? Do you think it will help to win back respect from jaded Sonic fans?

BB: That was definitely a goal from the start, and we’ve had some success with that in the past. Sonic is a surprisingly deep and interesting IP when you dig into it, and we are hoping to remind people of that. 

At the same time we have been very aware of the responsibility to deliver something for the long-time fans. I was personally quite surprised at the level of scrutiny we’ve been under. Fans pour over every scrap of information that comes out about our game. Sonic fans are the most rabid… er, that’s not it: Sonic fans are the greatest fans on earth! It’s been fantastic. They’ve kept us on our toes. It means something when people care that much about what you are doing. We really want to give them something they can be passionate about.

Destructoid: Dark Brotherhood uses a lot of characters from the Sonic universe, but arguably many that aren’t very fleshed out. Will this game provide extra depth to some of the later characters that not many gamers really recognize? Did you have a lot of freedom to work with the characters, or was there a lot of input from Sega as to how certain characters should act and speak?

BB: Sega has been great about letting us be creative with story and characters. We’ve been able to tie our story into events from a lot of previous Sega canon. Most of the feedback from Sega concerned the look of the characters, and there was a lot of back and forth in that area. The IP is such that the personalities are pretty well defined, but I think we’ve been able to round them out a bit. And the interactions between the characters are pretty cool — some of them have a lot of history together.

Destructoid: Many recent Sonic games have been accused of taking themselves too seriously. Will the plot for Dark Brotherhood be in line with the more serious themes that other Sonic games have attempted, and if so, what steps have been taken to make it a believable depth that won’t come off as silly? In other words, can you make a dark and gritty game involving a big-eyed blue hedgehog work?

BB: Absolutely, and it is my pleasure to announce our next game, here on Destructoid: Grand Theft Sonic: Central City! There is definitely a tone you have to achieve, and getting there is really an art. Fortunately our writer is really good. And while the tone is darker, it is still all about having fun. The characters have some hilarious things to say about the events going on all around them. Sonic and Rouge especially.

Story-wise this is right in BioWare’s wheelhouse. People can expect a pretty entertaining ride.

Destructoid: Who is doing the music for Dark Brotherhood, and what style is the soundtrack going for? Will we have old school style melodies (arguably one of the greatest elements of original Sonic games) or will the more modern “Seven Rings In Hand” style tunes be on display?

BB: Well, we managed to get none other than Richard Jacques, who goes back all the way to the beginning of Sonic. He did a bunch of new tunes for us. We’ve also done some remixes of old favorites and some new tunes ourselves.

Destructoid: Was it a challenge to transport the world of Sonic into an RPG? What were the toughest obstacles in turning a fast-paced platformer into a roleplaying game?

BB: The biggest thing is to recognize what you are good at and what you aren’t good at. We set out to make as good an RPG as we could make — that is what BioWare does. It is challenging to put Sonic into that genre. If you ask people to name one characteristic of Sonic games, they’ll tell you that Sonic has to be fast. People often think of RPGs as slow paced games. We’ve done a lot to speed up the game.  Combat, for example, is very fast paced. Rather than the traditional “Choose your move, watch it happen” approach, we let you plan out how a round will go – with multiple attacks per character. You are then rewarded with a very fluid combat vignette as you watch your plans in action. At the same time you are frantically trying to keep up with the real-time elements.

Additionally, when a player solves a puzzle in a game they are rewarded with a “Sonic-y moment” which usually consists of Sonic tearing up some elaborate Rube Goldberg track.

All game development is just a series of choices, and like the manager for a football team you sometimes make decisions based on the people you have. We have two of the best 2D artists in the game industry working on Sonic. We decided to feature their artwork as much as possible and this led to the gorgeous hand painted backgrounds that Sonic and friends are running around. This was a great decision, but it led to other challenges. Those paintings are too large to hold in memory, so they need to be broken into smaller pieces and streamed in as necessary.  This is not one of the strengths of the DS. Thus there is a hard limit to how fast we can draw the world in front of Sonic as he runs around. I am really proud of the technical achievements the team made in that area. It seems simple: “Make Sonic run around fast,” but a lot of hard work went into making that happen.

Sorry to ramble on about technical details, but you guys drew the short straw for the interview — Lead Programmer.

James Stephanie Sterling