GHZ Interviews (#1): Taylor Miller, Sonic Rivals producer

Recent happenings of pertinence to Sonic fans.

GHZ Interviews (#1): Taylor Miller, Sonic Rivals producer

Postby big_smile » Fri Dec 01, 2006 1:14 pm

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Taylor Miller, producer for Sonic Rivals, recently took time out of his busy schedule to provide an in-depth commentary about the design decisions behind Sonic’s PSP debut. As he reveals, his team went to great pains to learn from and avoid the mistakes made by previous Sonic titles.

Could you tell us a bit about yourself, such as how you got into the games industry and what some of your inspirations and motivations are?

Ever since I had a Vic 20 I knew my place was in games. I grew up trying to level edit and mod every game I could get my hands on. Eventually that lead me to QA, Design and then into Production where I worked my way up to Producer. Having a bachelors of Science degree in Interactive Arts helped too. I am a game purist as heart, so making a game as good as it can be is always relentless pursuit of mine.

In terms of inspiration, I often am inspirited by amazing moments in life. I like to take those, enhance them and allow a player to replay those over and over – these can make for great gaming moments. Games, Movies, TV, books, music and sports also play a large part in my inspirations.

Most people, including the press and ordinary consumers, agree that while recent Sonic games have been fun, they have suffered from some dubious design choices, which prevent them from equalling the quality of the original Mega Drives games. What do you feel are the biggest problems with recent Sonic games, and how does Sonic Rivals rectify them?

It has been difficult for games that have been built on the 2D side scrolling roots to make the successful jump to 3D. 3D games add a whole other level of complexities and can often complicate the original design objectives of a 2D game. Now all of the sudden players need to navigate in X, Y and Z and then still perform the same sort of tasks as before. Inherit to 3D games, much is often lost in the translation.

The main focus of Sonic Rivals was to revisit the classic gaming that the original Sonic’s pioneered and proved to be so successful. We have taken all the ingredients that have made the original Sonic’s as great as they were and concentrated on what we thought were the best features. We then added the competitive racing element to the game to help distinguish it apart from other platformers and offer something new and refreshing to the player. In short, we kept it simple and tried to focus the fun. We felt the competition element really fit well with this title and the Sonic universe. We literally sat down and discussed what sorts of things the Sonic characters would do in their world. Naturally competition was the main idea we focused on. These characters are always trying to out do each other and prove who is the best – we have now built a game that feeds into that rivalry.

The level in the E3 demo were particularly pleasing as it had no bottomless pits and featured a healthy selection of alternate routes, which is something that hasn’t really been seen since the Mega Drive Sonic games. Did you research the level design of previous Sonic games? If so, what type of research have you done and how has it influenced the design of Rivals?

We researched almost every Sonic game and focused heavily on all the original side scroller ones; all the way up to Rush. Sonic games are really about the levels, so we reused many of the classic level design features of past sonic games plus incorporated new ones that worked well with our game. SEGA provided us with all the 2D map layouts of all the original Sonic games to study and base our levels off of.

One of the main differences between our levels and the traditional Sonic levels was how we built our alternative paths. All of our paths had to be much closer together to allow for as many rivalry interactions as possible. The paths also had to be balanced more carefully. Short cuts are traditionally more difficult to get to but will reward the player with a faster route, more rings or a specific power-up.

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<center> A significant amount of the team’s research focused on refining the level design </center>

The graphical style of Rivals is reminiscent of the original Mega Drive games, but also has a somewhat unique tranquil quality to it. How did you decide on this style?

It took quite a while to come up with the Sonic Rivals art direction. We worked closely with SEGA to maintain the look and feel of the Sonic licence while still stylizing Rivals to stand out as a unique title. Our 3D engine really allowed our amazing art team to build beautiful over the top organic environments and still incorporate the classic checker pattern that is a staple to sonic games.

Recent Sonic games have been criticised for trying to offer too many experiences, so it is pleasing to see that Rivals focuses on a specific type of gameplay. Could you tell us about any ideas you had but did not include to keep this specific focus?

One of the keys to Sonic Rivals was to keep it simple. This game has been built from the ground up as a multiplayer experience – whether you are competing against your friend over Adhoc Wifi or the AI rival. This allowed us to really focus on that gameplay experience and make it the best we could. One of the ideas we had but later tossed out was to have advanced enemies that actually chased you through the levels. We avoided this to maintain the focus on rivalry between the two characters.

As recent Sonic games have also been criticised for introducing too new many characters, it is refreshing to see that Rivals only features four characters from the existing cast. How did you select which characters to include? Will any of the core Sonic characters, such as Tails, Metal Sonic or Team Chaotix, appear in the game (perhaps as non-player characters)? Will we see the return of any older characters from the 16-bit days, such as Fang or Mighty?

Sonic Rivals is all about the rivalry between the most notable characters in the Sonic universe. There are definitely well known feuds between Sonic, Knuckles, Shadow and Metal Sonic. Silver is a new comer the universe and a well deserved addition to help mix things up. Other classic characters like Tails, Amy and Rouge make their appearances in each of the characters unique storylines too.

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The card system reflects on 15 years of Hedgehog heroics </center>

Sonic Rivals is the first project BackBone Entertainment has produced for Sega. How did BackBone get involved with the Rivals project?

Backbone has a long history of developing 2D portable games. That coupled with our 3D action game experience (such as Death Jr. 1 and 2) made a us a perfect fit to build Sonic Rivals – a 3D looking game that plays like a 2D game. Besides from this, we are Sonic fanatics and really wanted a chance to pour our creative passion into this game.

Did the Rivals idea originate from Sega or BackBone? If it was from BackBone, why did you decide to produce a racing game?

Sonic Rivals was a collaborative effort between SEGA and Backbone. Originally Backbone designed a traditional platformer for the PSP. Takashi Iizuka, who is a lead designer for the Sonic series came in and helped steer the game into a more unique direction for the PSP. We then collaborated with them to design a competitive action platformer.


How much control does BackBone have over Rivals? For example, what aspects of the level design, story and gameplay mechanics come from Sega?

Backbone designed almost the entire game but with a guiding hand from SEGA. There were definite sections of the game that we felt more comfortable handing off to SEGA – such as the Story. Overall we worked very closely with SEGA to ensure consistency of the brand, quality of the product and to guarantee gameplay was fun! All the levels and gameplay mechanics were designed internally, then tweaked and iterated on to be approved by SEGA.

Has Yuji Naka or any other Sonic Team member been involved in the project? If so, what form has the involvement taken?

We had numerous members of the Sega Studio USA looking over the direction of the game and providing feedback as the project progressed. Takashi Iizuka, the Game Director of Sonic Adventure, Sonic 2 Battle, and Sonic Heroes has been involved in the project from the initial conception of Sonic Rivals. He has been the greatest asset to us to ensure we were moving the right direction and keeping our game true to the brand. Also directly involved with the project were Mr. Kazuyuki Hoshino, Art Director and Hiroshi Nishiyama, Environment Director.

How much is Rivals influenced by previous Sonic games? Were there any specific titles you looked at when developing the game?
Rivals is based off the legacy of the all the past Sonic titles. We tried to pull the best parts from all of these games and use them in Rivals. We specifically used level design from Rush and all 4 original Mega Drive / Genesis games. Sonic Heroes also influenced the 3D nature of our game, since this was the last 3D game that included the original characters.

Thank you for your time

Special thanks to: Joe Bonar (Studio Director of BackBone Vancouver), Sega of America’s PR department (for allowing the interview to take place), Popcorn (for feedback). Questions by big_smile
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Postby Locit » Fri Dec 01, 2006 2:18 pm

Hey, we have interviews now. With real developer-people, no less! Very cool! Well done, big_smile!
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Postby Frieza2000 » Fri Dec 01, 2006 2:46 pm

He was all excited about dishing out an old school game, but then Iizuka comes in and forces another bad gameplay mechanic on him. Long live Emperor Iizuka!
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Postby Popcorn » Fri Dec 01, 2006 4:27 pm

Although he-- understandably-- managed to sway all of the more interesting questions back to Sonic Rivals PR crap that's still quite an achievement there, Smiley. Congratulations.
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Postby (...) » Fri Dec 01, 2006 4:37 pm

LMAO. GHZ is a lot less mean and cynical when faced with an actual developer!
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Postby Neo » Fri Dec 01, 2006 4:37 pm

It troubles me that it seems they didn't actually play through the classics, but were rather shown the level maps for the stages. While it does infact help, looking at a picture isn't the same as playing a game.

This is a very professional and shiny interview; props to you, big_smile.
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Postby One Classy Bloke » Sat Dec 02, 2006 10:49 am

I would assume they played the games as part of their research.

BTW, i'm a real developer, interview me.
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Postby Arcade » Sat Dec 02, 2006 3:36 pm

Well, is rivals just going to be a racing game? Because if that’s all it has to offer, I might just gave races in Sonic 3 with a buddy all day...
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Postby Zeta » Sat Dec 02, 2006 5:20 pm

Yes, Rivals is a racing game with boss fights. Welcome to three months ago.
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Postby SegaSonic » Sat Dec 02, 2006 5:36 pm

I like the old robots cards.
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Postby Plorpus III » Sun Dec 03, 2006 2:13 am

Good for you.
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Postby Ritz » Sun Dec 03, 2006 9:14 am

I like the cut of this guy's jib. He sounds as though he really wants to make something out of the series, but is there any truth to his claims? Can anyone attest to the actual quality of the game yet? Everyone everywhere else is saying that it's pretty playable.
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Postby Zeta » Sun Dec 03, 2006 9:27 am

As near as I can tell, most people are saying its akin to Sonic Rush - decent, not fantastic, but far from the trainwrecks of recent years.
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Postby Psxphile » Sun Dec 03, 2006 10:22 pm

Frieza2000 wrote:He was all excited about dishing out an old school game, but then Iizuka comes in and forces another bad gameplay mechanic on him. Long live Emperor Iizuka!

Everything the man touches withers and dies. The "gimmick" of competitive racing isn't nearly as endearing as having a traditional platformer molded after the original 16-bit classics. Level design is wasted when the main focus is to blow past the majority of the game in an effort to reach the end of the stage first.

The game literally punishes you for stopping to explore your surroundings (which would be reasonable in any racing game, but doesn't seem right when it's Sonic). Even the Advance games allowed you the luxury to slow down and attempt such actions as precise leaping over floating platforms or doubling back to grab rings you missed. It's basically Sonic R 2D edition w/ obstacles and enemies. What I find baffling is how the same people who piled the hate on Sonic Advance 2 for being all about "holding right and occasionally jumping" wind up having good things to say about this.

Heh, and we certainly can't blame Backbone for the continuity problems with StH now. Once again Sega manages to trip over its own shoelaces. Ah well. Anyway, if it seems like I'm totally dissing on Sonic Rivals just now... well, I am. The Iizuka comment didn't go over too well, as you can imagine.
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Postby Ngangbius » Mon Dec 04, 2006 2:09 am

So is it safe to say that Iizuka is the Akitoshi Kawazu of Sonic Team?
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Postby Senbei » Mon Dec 04, 2006 9:30 am

Psxphile wrote:Level design is wasted when the main focus is to blow past the majority of the game in an effort to reach the end of the stage first.

I don't disagree with your point about Iizuka, but just because the goal of the game is to place 1st doesn't mean you can't have the opportunity to explore the racetracks. Some games actually encourage it, since it lands you with some helpful shortcuts or power-ups, like Sonic R or Lego Racers. It definitely sounds like that's what Miller is going for. Obviously, we have no idea what the finished product will be like, but the concept is sound and level design certainly wouldn't be a waste.
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Postby Psxphile » Mon Dec 04, 2006 9:51 am

Game's been out for two weeks. *We* have a pretty good idea.
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Postby Senbei » Mon Dec 04, 2006 10:20 am

Oh, so it has. Ignore me.
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Postby Baba O'Reily » Mon Dec 04, 2006 3:43 pm

Ngangbius wrote:So is it safe to say that Iizuka is the Akitoshi Kawazu of Sonic Team?


Since I have no idea who that is, I'm going to just nod my head and smile politely.

You see, I was never big on the SaGa series.
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Postby The Doc » Tue Dec 05, 2006 5:04 pm

And, a factoid for the Sonic Wiki--Metal Sonic's sleek form in Sonic Heroes has the official name of "Neo Metal Sonic".
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Postby Arcade » Tue Dec 05, 2006 5:07 pm

That means "New Metal Sonic" how original...
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Postby Light Speed » Tue Dec 05, 2006 6:56 pm

More original than the name Metal Sonic?
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Postby MegaKitsune » Tue Dec 05, 2006 10:17 pm

Pimp. Great job, Big Smile! :)
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