Jun 14, 2022 - Technology

New Sonic the Hedgehog game has had a rough debut

Video game screenshot of a Sonic the Hedgehog riding a looping grind rail over a forest

Sonic Frontiers. Screenshot: Sega

The next Sonic the Hedgehog game is getting unusually negative early buzz, demonstrating the hazards of even the most carefully coordinated marketing campaign.

Driving the news: Sega's Sonic Frontiers showed so poorly when it was unveiled in late May on IGN that some fans called for a delay past its holiday 2022 release window. Subsequent hands-on sessions with a build of the game in Los Angeles last week have produced mixed reactions.

What they’re saying: “I think a lot of people don't quite yet understand the new, open-zone gameplay that we’re creating,” Frontiers’ lead producer Takashi Iizuka told Axios through an interpreter in L.A., shortly after we played a build of the game for 30 minutes.

  • Iizuka was referring to Frontiers’ very visible detour from decades of traditional Sonic design that usually features the famous blue hedgehog running at blurring speeds through linear obstacle-filled levels. Frontiers has a more open format.
  • He says it’s not quite open world, as it initially appears in footage. It’s not a go-anywhere, do-anything in one huge world kind of game, which he believes has thrown observers. Rather, Frontier’s 60-person team is creating a series of 3D playgrounds on differently themed islands, where Sonic can run, jump and battle. (The game will have linear stages too.)
  • Iizuka believes some fan confusion stems from the simplicity of what’s been initially shown. “This is just the first island,” he said of the demo running in L.A. “Maybe it's going to feel easy. But later on, you will need [more] technical skills to get to certain places.”

Negative reaction to Frontiers hasn’t just involved the design or the simplicity of Sonic’s actions but the look of the game: an odd mix of cartoonish characters and realistic landscapes that looked blurry in the demo build we played.

  • The actual gameplay, though, was fun, supporting Iizuka’s assertion that actually playing the game helps. (Other takes: Ars Technica dug it; Games Radar went with “staggeringly awful.”)
  • But even small bursts of fun can’t prove whether the full game will hold up, an issue for any 30-minute preview in a medium where even the shortest games tend to run at least 10 hours.

A development challenge: Frontiers is, like any big game these days, a project wracked by the pandemic.

  • Development started in Tokyo in late 2017, as Iizuka and his team sought fresh ideas for the Sonic franchise after “kind of hitting a wall” with the old format.
  • The pandemic struck midway through development and sent the team into remote work mode. “We had a lot of problems in the beginning,” he said. “We’ve never done this before.”
  • Developers benefited from working safely, Iizuka said, and the ease of digital communication even “accelerated” a lot of their work. The main thing lost was the ability for all workers, not just bosses, to get a sense of the big picture. “If you’re just on the team, you’re kind of doing your own work. And you don’t get to look over your shoulder at the other group doing the other work, so not everyone on the team shares the whole vision of what the game is.”
  • The team has remained remote, though Iizuka seems pleased with how the project has come together.

What’s next: Iizuka’s team has much more to show and is planning further announcements about the game throughout the summer, when he hopes more hands-on time will improve people’s impressions.

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