Saturday, October 20, 2012
When it comes to racing games, Gareth Wilson knows his stuff. With Blur and Project Gotham Racing 3 and 4, the former Bizarre Creations designer has had a hand in some of this generation’s most enjoyable track-bound titles.
In his role as Lead Designer on Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed, however, Wilson has created something very different. No longer confined to just the road, Transformed’s races soar into the air and skip along the sea too, as a whole bunch of classic SEGA characters battle it out for supremacy.
So what’s it like working with some of gaming’s most fondly-remembered stars? Is it difficult making the jump to kids games? In fact, is Sonic & All-Stars Racing a kids game at all? We spoke to Wilson to find out.
So Sonic & All Stars Racing Transformed. I didn’t play much of the original.
That’s ok, I didn’t design the original!
Heheh, we’re cool then. So for those that aren’t that familiar with the series, sell the game to me, what’s it all about?
Well, this one’s all about transformation. It’s about being able to play a racing game which puts you into situations that no other racing game does, really, with the boating and the planes and some of the game modes we’ve got. We’re trying to treat it less like a traditional racing game and almost more like an action adventure game that you do in vehicles.
So we’re constantly trying to mix up the experience and pace it so you have a section of driving, then something happens on track, and then you have a section on water and something happens there. It’s all about being a bit more experiential because a lot of racing games don’t appeal to people, because you’re really talking about two or three skills - you’re talking about acceleration skills, you’re talking about breaking skills, you’re talking about overtaking and that’s pretty much it. Now if you’re not any good at those skills then you probably won’t like racing games.
So in our game you’ve got acceleration, you’ve got all that stuff as well, but you’ve also got the weapons, you’ve got different boosts, charging up the drift, doing stunts and all that kind of stuff. You’ve got the boating, the flying and the driving. So it’s just a lot more broad in its mechanics and it experience.
Beyond transforming vehicles, the game’s other selling point is that it draws on classic SEGA franchises...
It’s been a real pleasure to work on, actually. It’s been a privilege. I get to re-imagine Golden Axe. In what other game could you do that? Remaking Golden Axe. I can dip into Outrun and dip into Afterburner and dip into Panzer Dragoon. I can just pick all my favourite SEGA games and chuck ‘em in one game, it’s amazing.
How do you make the choice of what characters and games make the cut?
What’s been brilliant about this is suddenly we’ve got land, sea and air. So some that weren’t appropriate for the previous game are now appropriate. So Panzer Dragoon and Skies of Arcadia probably wouldn’t have made a good racing game track, or tennis court when we were doing tennis games, so we basically just go through every IP that SEGA has ever made, we have this massive list and then we go - ‘what would make a good track out of these?’
They way we design the tracks is, we have 16 tracks and we work out what we want that track to be first. So we do the George Lucas style of scene-setting. We need an ice setting, we need a desert, we need somewhere in space. We need a forest, we need a city. So you just pick lots and lots of diverse environments so that once you’ve got a city you go well, Jet Set Radio would be an obvious choice for a city setting. For space we could do Starlight Carnival from Sonic Colors, or whatever.
We try and pick as many different environments, so the forest level was Shinobi, doing that first is the key. We don’t go in and say, ‘What cool IPs would we like to do?’ We try and work out what we want to achieve visually and then make a shortlist of IPs that would work with it.
So for example we wanted a volcano level. That was Golden Axe in the end, but it could easily have been one of the lava-based levels in Sonic. They were on the list too. At one point we were going to do an industrial zone. That became the city zone, but there’s also city zones in Sonic games, Shenmue’s got city stuff in it...
So we narrow it down and narrow it down and then we do some concept art and we have to get it all signed off by SEGA Japan. Which is interesting.
So presumably the approval process is about ensuring how faithful you are to the qualities of those series, right? So how hard is it to push something like Golden Axe through? Because that’s a series that has no obvious ties to racing.
It depends really. Mostly the difficulty of pushing an idea through depends on how active that IP is. Something like Sonic, which is obviously still active, is harder work. Whereas ancient IPs like Golden Axe or Shinobi, which haven’t been touched in a while, because they’re not really current in SEGA, as long as you stick to what those games used to be like, it’s fine.
Another thing is that really, really old games... it’s quite hard to re-imagine a tiny little blocky sprite. Like Alex Kidd, for example, I don’t know what Alex Kidd would look like in 3D. I get what Golden Axe looks like in 3D because it was Megadrive era. But Master System era... we thought about doing Space Harrier, but what would we do? It’s just a checkerboard with sprites. How would you make that into a level?
So with some IPs there’s not enough in the original game to actually do anything with it. So that’s another thing.
It really depends on the person. Because each IP in SEGA has a particular person who has approval rights on it. It’s usually either the person that created a game or worked on the game in some form. So I can’t remember all their names but there’s a Golden Axe guy...
How closely do you work with them?
So we do a lot of emailing stuff, but we go over to Japan once every three or four months to discuss ideas and progress.
Do you ever get starstruck, or are you passed all that now? These are the people that made the games we grew up playing!
Ha, a little bit yeah. If you meet Izuka-san (Lead Designer of Sonic Adventure and Nights into Dreams, amongst others) or some of those guys yeah it’s pretty impressive. Sonic team were a bit... Walking into the Sonic Team studio when you’re taking their IP that they’ve been working on for 20 years, that’s a little bit scary. Not really, they’re all really nice to be honest.
As soon as you meet them face to face and they understand what you’re trying to do with the game- they’re all games designers, anyway, or involved in videogames - then it’s ok. You’re always better having that one-to-one contact instead of sending something that goes to someone that goes to someone else and so on.
Because if I can just send an email to a designer and go, look I wanna use these rotating blocks in this particular way as a hazard, then they’re like ‘oh right, I see.’ So yeah, the approval process for this has been good, SUMO are getting good at it.
Has the full line-up or characters and tracks been announced, or do you have more up your sleeve?
I don’t know, to be honest.
I’ve read that there will be around 30, but you said ‘over 20’ earlier today.
Erm, 30 is basically, if you added up every platform exclusive on every single platform it would be 30 characters. But really, depending on your platform, it varies from around 20 to 25. So on Xbox, for example, there’s one more because we’ve included the ability to use your avatar.
So you can race as your avatar? My avatar is a Stormtrooper, can I race as him?
I think... from memory, we don’t pass the clothing because it’s really hard because we don’t have the data for it. Something like that.
Presumably it wipes out a load of potential licensing problems too, right?
It does. It removes a lot of problems. We take the basic head and shape and that’s it. If you’ve got avatar DLC on your machine, we can’t take that data and deliver it to everyone else’s machine that they’re playing on. So.. I can’t remember. We either strip DLC off the avatars, or you can see it and nobody else can.
One of the complaints leveled at the first game was that the weapons were very similar to Mario Kart? have you addressed this in Transformed, or do you consider that kind of familiarity as a positive?
Well, the reason that Mario Kart’s weapons are as they are is because they’re all designed for certain race situations. So the red shell is for shooting people who are a long way away, the green shell is for shooting people who are closer, the star is to stop you getting hit, so you have to cater for all of those eventualities.
So yes we’ve got a homing weapon, yes we’ve got a shield, yes we’ve got a boost, because you kind of have to have them to make the game work. But what we’ve tried to do with them is put a bit of a twist on that. So the glove, when it comes around the car, that’s your shield and if someones fires a weapon at you it catches it and then that item goes into your power-up bay and you can use it. So we’ve tried to put our own twist on each one where we can, basically.
Ultimately, though, there’s only so many things that you can do. And if you deliberately don’t put them in you immediately shoot yourself in the foot. Y’know manual aim weapons are cool, mines are cool. What we have tried to do is ensure that every weapon in the game fires backwards and forwards and every single weapon can block each other.
The game is presented in this bright, kid-friendly way, but much of the content - the characters and the tracks - will appeal mostly to those of us who remember the originals. Who is the game for?
It’s a really fine market to go for. So when I was making PGR, the market was easy to identify, it’s a hardcore sim. I know my audience, it’s men, young men up until mid-30s, who like cars. It’s car porn. It’s being cool in a car.
This is different because we’re trying to do this dual audience because we want to capture the kids, but we also want to capture these hardcore SEGA fans who probably the geekiest of geeks. So you get this weird dichotomy of design, which is fine, it’s ok. What we’ve really worked hard on is, this is a game that we’ve built for ourselves, we’ve not made it for children. You can play it as a child because you can pop it on Easy, but All-Star difficulty is f**king hard. I’ve tuned it like a Platinum medal in PGR. Even I can’t do it very well, it takes me about seven or eight goes to get it right.
So there’s a broad range of difficulties for different types of gamers. the C Class is for casual gamers who don’t play very much, B Class is for most people, A Class is pushing on to become a little bit harder and All-Star Class is f**king hard. Really, really, really hard.
I'm always disappointed when people write off kids games. Super Mario World was a kids game, y’know? But that wasn’t easy and it wasn't crap.
It wasn’t, and what I’ve learned from making this, which is the first proper kids game that I’ve made, is that accessible doesn’t mean easy. It doesn’t mean that. It was something that I tripped up on myself. I came to this project from a hardcore sim and I thought I would have to dumb the handling down and stuff...
But half-way through I realised that I was wrong. So you can drift in this game, it’s not like PGR you don’t spin out or anything like that - but if you drift well you get a boost and if you chain the stunts together you do the barrel rolls. This is a good time attack game. And the moment I knew it was a good time attack game, I knew we were onto something.
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed launches on November 16th in Europe and November 20th in North America.
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