Game News, Game Secrets, Interviews

Retro Interview: Steve Lycett on Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing

All Stars Racing Transformed is only a little over a month away at this point. With this close to release, a number of people may be looking to retire their copy of Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing. Comparing the two is almost like comparing apples to oranges. That said it still acts as an important stepping stone that deserves an honorable mention. Before it becomes overshadowed from it’s upcoming sequel, we rattled the memories of Executive Producer at Sumo Digital Steve Lycett in an E-mail interview regarding development for Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing and what it’s sequel has benefited from their efforts.

 

Retro: We appreciate your time in conducting this interview. Just to preface what the interview is about, this is actually an interview regarding Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing regarding its development as well as serve as a retrospective for the game while making comparisons to Transformed.  There will also be a handful of questions regarding Transformed itself and what to expect from it when it releases in November.

Steve: Not a problem, I’ve slept a fair bit since we did the original game, but I’ll try and remember how it all went!

How would you recommend Sonic and Sega All Stars Racing to those who haven’t played it at this point?

If you like fast arcade fun, and you have even a passing interest in all things SEGA, I’d highly recommend you give it a go! We built it thinking ‘If SEGA took OutRun, and added all manner of classic SEGA games into it to make a brand new arcade machine… What would it be!’. We shipped the answer I think!

 

On Development

When did development of the game begin?

Now you’re asking…I’ve slept since then. We kicked off around January 2008, pretty much right after we’d wrapped up on SEGA Superstars Tennis. We actually split the SST team into two, I got ASR rolling, and Toby Allen kicked off the other half of the team on Virtua Tennis 2009. Was a really busy time for us with two *big* SEGA games in at the same time!

Sega Superstars Tennis was Sumo’s previous Sega All-Star game with similar gameplay changes.

The last Sega all star title was Sega Superstars Tennis which features different kinds of gameplay variety including Planet Superstars and mini games. How did these kinds of elements translate to the racing game?

Well the main thing is we wanted to have a lot more content than SST. When you look at the core things you can do in Tennis VS Racing, there are plenty more things you can play with from a purely mechanics angle. In Tennis it was about positioning shots, accuracy and court movement, but you’re effectively locked into a given area.

With ASR, suddenly we’ve got a much greater choice of mechanics, you’ve got the core driving, the drift and boost system, weapons, and a much wider variety of locations. So we looked at how we could take these and twist our core driving experience into some interesting and fun game modes!

The original game featured a Mario Kart-like weapon system because at the time it helped to fill the void of what was missing from the game. Were there any other design decisions that were considered to help fill the void?

Well the game kind of evolved through a number of changes. When we first set off the plan was to have a mixture of character movement styles, so Sonic would be on foot, Tails was in a plane, Gilius rode chicken leg, but well… It wasn’t actually that much fun. We had all manner of differences in character size, speed and turning ability, so we basically ‘fixed’ it by putting everyone in a vehicle, plus pulling down the flying characters so they hovered.

Thing is, as a straight racer, even though we had the drifts and boosts, it felt like there was something missing. We tried a system called ‘Race Roulette’ which caused different things to happen. Sometimes the whole track would freeze for a lap, sometimes it would cause a whole bunch of hazards to appear, and sometimes it would furnish all the players with a weapon.

It was round about the same time we added the All-Stars, originally as a means to get players who had fallen behind back into the race.

What we found were some of the Roulette events just weren’t fun, or didn’t play too well, but the things that were being enjoyed by the team were the weapons play and the All-Star moves. We bit the bullet and dropped the Roulette and instead went with a more traditional weapon system. At the end of the day, it made the game play better, and with the more SEGA feel we had with the drifts, whilst we expected comparisons, it’s a very different game experience. I’d say we’re a racing game that has weapons, rather than the other way around!

Was it a reaction to how the Mario Kart series favored over the top action over strategic gameplay?

To be honest, not really! We set out to make it very much evoke classic SEGA games, we just evolved into the direction. If anything, our mindset was Arcade immediacy all the way through. Simple controls, fast action, over the top energy and as much SEGA as we could cram it!

How did the drifting and trick mechanics evolve during development?

The drifts were there from day one, again, cue the OutRun handling ground work. Originally what they did was build a boost bar that you could use at will, so the more you drifted, the more you could decide where to boost.

When the weapons became a permanent fixture, we didn’t really want to add to the control complexity. So rather than have a boost bar, we switched it to an immediate reward for doing a drift correctly. A .lot of people got good at lots of short drifts, so to combat this, we opted to have the drift boost charge, so the better you got at holding a drift, which in itself is harder to do, the more boost you got as a reward.

Sumo Digital was also responsible for the home console ports of Outrun 2 and Outrun 2006.

It’s funny how small changes like that can change the whole flavour and feel of the game. It’s not so funny making it all balanced!

Of course, we’d also added some stunts in as we’d got these huge jumps where you kind of just watched the screen, so here we went ‘We’ll give them something to do to show off!’. Of course Trav then magpied these into also awarding boost, but to add some risk to this, if you landed them incorrectly, it actually slowed you right down. We ended up tuning this back, but it all added to the underlying ‘Boost as much as you can!’ ethos.

Where did the idea of an All-Star move come from? How difficult was it giving each character a unique all-star power?

Actually… This came about after we’d been over to see Sonic Team to discuss the game and the design. In the meeting we talked about all the things we planned, and they said ‘What are you doing with the All-Star moves this time?’ as they’d loved the ones we did in SST. We explained we weren’t planning to do them at all, as we couldn’t really figure out how they sat in a racing game.

That night, over a number of beers, we had a chat about why we’d even need it. In SST it served as a game changer, something to mix up the action, but in a racing game, you don’t really want to necessarily have that, especially for the front runners.

So we originally decided it would help players right at the back get into the race, maybe mixing up the rest of the pack as a side effect. That’s why you don’t really see it at the front of the pack, else it would just separate the pack right out.

Of course, from a high concept to the final design was a long and involved process. As we opted to go for a unique move per character, they took a lot of time, a lot of experimentation, quite a fair chunk of discussion with the various IP holders and were really a haven for all manner of bugs!

By the time we got through it, we didn’t have time to network them, which was a real shame, but they were cool and stand out moments, provided you were losing!

In addition to cars, the game also features bicycles as well as airborne vehicles for three of the playable characters, were there any difficulties giving them a unique feel for the game?

Was there ever. Getting cars, bikes and hover vehicles feeling different and balanced took a lot of time, not least with the balancing, but also for collision, animation and more.

Add online networking to the mix and it didn’t get much easier. In the end we wound up shifting from real physics to much more fake physics, like you might get in a platform game. That made a lot of it simpler, but then you had to make things feel like they had different weights, handling, grip and more.

Hats off to the guys though, they pulled it off, especially on DS, where it had to be re-invented again due to the difference in CPU horse power!

A number of characters had vehicles created solely for this game, what were some of the inspiring elements that went into the design for them?

The game’s 24 playable characters also feature 24 unique vehicles each with their own set of animations and All-Star moves.

Most of the time, we reference the character themselves. So we pull on signature shapes and colours, and try and work some of the character in the vehicle.

In quite a few cases, the character may already have some cues. For example we used the Eggpod as a basis for Eggman’s Monster Truck, or the Pedicopter (or Peticopter if you prefer…!) for Alex Kidd.

Then where this might not work, say for Jacky and Akira, we instead considered the studio. Clearly they are AM2 creations, and there is that famous AM2 racing game, let’s go and look over there.

Then there were some we just had to come up with from scratch, say the House of the Dead EX car. All the way through we worked with the original creators to make sure they were happy with the design and direction, till finally we had a full set. Phew!

You refer to the aesthetics of the game and the characters to give off a cartoonish vibe and activity. Was it a challenge for the more serious characters such as the Virtual Fighters to co-exist with other characters?

Actually, a huge amount of work goes into making sure that all the characters look like they belong in the same race, and look like they’re connected to the world. A lot of it comes down to ensuring that technically the poly counts are similar, the textures are of the same resolution, everyone is equally animated and of course, the lighting does a huge job to pull it all together.

Our lead artist and art director for the game describes it best as Cartoon Realistic. It can be cartoony, but all the materials have to be believable, so glass is glass, chrome is chrome and paint is the proper shiny car paint!

How much input was provided from internal teams from Sega?

Lots! As I’ve mentioned above the  original creators in each character or game were involved in the concept process, saw regular updates on level and character art builds, animation and more.

In addition we had frequent builds and feedback to all departments to ensure we were on track.

That happens every game and not only am I truly thankful for all the support, it’s actually fascinating to have some of the developers of the games you played growing up on hand to pass on experience and knowledge. We don’t always agree on everything, that is part of the creative process, but we all care deeply about making sure we deliver a game that’s true to the spirit of what made those universes so special in the first place!

Were there any specific guidelines given to how characters animate or react?

Absolutely! You have to make sure that all characters behave and act as they would in their own games. That requires a lot of focus on the animation, the speech, their vehicle design, pretty much right through every discipline.

As an example, we spent 6 months working with the Space Channel 5 creator making sure the make-up and facial animations were just right for Ulala. There’s real attention to detail at every stage!

The game was designed on the Playstation 3 first and then later to other platforms. What were some of the challenges bringing the game to other platforms?

Whenever you make a game, you always pick a platform to lead with, as this is where you do your prototyping, prove out your gameplay and generally deliver a vertical slice, i.e. a one level demo of how you intend the final game to look and play.

We opted to go with PS3, simply as around that time it was a coin flip to see which was more popular with consumers between it and 360.

We generally write everything with portability in mind, so a lot of the code went over to the Xbox360 and the Wii, with specific portions written or altered as best fits each hardwares strengths.

We did have to write the DS version separately, using the code base we’d built for SST, but that’s as there is such a difference in power between that and the home consoles. You can only push just over 2000 polygons for example.

Then the biggest challenge was really getting three levels of art built (PS3 & 360 at the top end, Wii in the middle, and DS at the bottom) – plus squeezing a full HD game into the Wii was a challenge on the memory side. Not to mention the different online systems, save media and more. Don’t ever talk to me about 360 profile support unless you want a rant! If you sign out half way through a game you console should explode to teach you a lesson!

So it can be a challenge, but luckily we’ve got code and art wizards who make it all happen!

Was there a Playstation 2 version in the cards?

It was discussed right at the start, but we had to limit the amount of platforms we could tackle. Plus memory wise, we had concerns right from the start that it wouldn’t fit. So past a conversation, we never took it further.

Is there an Android version of All Stars Racing or Transformed planned?

You know, I don’t think there are any plans right at the moment, but that’s mostly as we’ve got our hands full with Transformed! Given the success of the iOS version though, I don’t think it’s been ruled out.

How was it implementing motion controls to the Playstation 3 and Wii versions of the game?

The motion controls actually weren’t that difficult. Effectively we were only really mapping the steering and stunts to motion, and given the analog nature of the controls, it actually went pretty smoothly!

We did a test actually with Kinect after the game shipped and had it running and playable nicely, though for me, I’d much rather a gamepad!

Multiplayer is a big component to the game, and has a number of game modes for local multiplayer, how was it developing these other game modes?

Fun! We had originally wanted to get all the local multiplayer modes online too, but as with the All-Stars, as they were finished quite late it just meant the time was instead spent fixing bugs and polishing content. Our of all of them, I think the one that works the best offline was Capture the Chao. Hence it’s back for the new game – and online this time!

What were some of the challenges of developing the online game mode? Since it would be counter intuitive to have all eight players synchronized, how does the game interpret the interaction between players?

All Stars Racing’s online options still allow for plenty of customization.

We’ve got a really well developed and mature set of network libraries, basically developed before even OutRun2 in some cases. We did a big overhaul on these for VT3 onwards, and we’ve got some very clever guys who can pull off all manner of tricks even with the bandwidth restrictions on the current generation of consoles.

Without going into too much depth, it mostly works as a peer to peer system, players communicate with each other where possible. We have a nominated host who acts as an arbiter for places like results decisions and kicking off the start and end of races, then the rest of the time it’s down to sending player positions, network events (such as weapon hits) as well as things like voice data.

It gets messy with strict NATS, when some players can only talk to the host, or really messy when the Host is on a strict NAT, but we try and matchmake in such a way as to avoid these situations.

However… the internet is only getting faster, so it’ll be interesting to see what doors this opens up for future games…!

All star moves, and the alternate game modes are missing from online modes. What happened to these features?

Really this was simply down to time, plus the All-Star moves would have effectively needed separate networking for each one. Due to the complexity of some, they likely would never have worked nicely over the network, given the choice between laggy, buggy All-Star moves and no All-Star moves, the choice was taken to go with the latter.

Well after the game’s release, most skillful players have leaned toward playing as bicycle riders such as Shadow and Alex Kidd. Also players who have taken a serious lead have a good chance of avoiding being hit by items thrown by opposing players. What was the reaction from staff when player reaction revealed these elements?

To try and balance this one better! The bike problem mostly came about due to the late addition of boosts for doing wheelies. In hindsight this shouldn’t have been as effective as it is and had a reduced cooldown. We did actually pull it back to clamp the maximum boost in the DLC Title Updates on 360 and PS3, but we also didn’t want to completely make the bikes an unviable choice.

Same goes for the ‘double steering’. On some of the flying characters it’s possible to use both the Analog stick and D-pad to put in steering input. This allowed you to earn insane amounts of drift, even on straights, though it takes some real skill to do. I very nearly removed this too in the update, but since a handful of players worldwide can do it, we relented and left it in.

Getting out in the lead and getting away was a problem we did see in late in testing, but without resorting to some form of Blue Shell style weapon, there wasn’t much we could do that late in the development. There was some subtle rubber banding added in the Title Update, but again, we didn’t want to break the game.

You live, and you learn. This time we started off knowing the faults and exploits, plus we’ve had a huge team involved in getting the game balanced. You can never know it’s perfect before it’s in the hands of the gaming audience, all you can do is try and take the right steps to get it as balanced as it can be.

 

On Characters

Considering that the main angle of the game is including a host of Sega mascot characters, what are the challenges a producer and designer has to face when selecting a character or even focusing on a gameplay feature based off input from both fans and internal staff?

Well… It usually involves a lot of arguments and arm twisting to get everyone to agree!

We do try and approach it with science though. First we work out rough minimum and maximum sizes of characters. This is to make sure if we’ve got interactions, they’re not swiping over each other heads! When you’ve got vehicles, this is less of a problem, as you can make up for differences in size there, but even then, you’ve got to make sure the characters look attractive in the vehicle!

Once you’re through that, then you work out if we’ve got a good mix of male and female characters. Then you consider the age rating, will a character affect that as they’ve associated with a violent game for example. Cue the House of the Dead EX characters, as clearly, that didn’t mean an instant 18 rating!

Next we want to have a mix of styles, some you need some good guys, some bad guys, maybe a robot, perhaps some Monkeys, Ninja’s, Jesters and pirates!

Then… we need to try and make sure we cover all ages of SEGA. We’ve got fans who have had Master Systems or MK III’s – right up to kids whose first console was a PS3. You need to try and make sure there is something for everyone.

And… if that wasn’t hard enough already… Then we have to run focus groups, make sure the characters appeal to non-fans and fans alike, plus appeal to different age groups.

That’s before we talk about legal checks (is the character actually owned by SEGA) – or IP approval (is the original creator happy to allow the character to appear in the game) and restrictions that might occur in a given region.

Does it sound hard? It should! It is! But… we get through it each time, and we try and incorporate new characters, but we also have a hard limit of how many we can make.

What character would you say was the highest in demand?

Usually the one we haven’t included. Seriously! Every game highlights someone who fans feel the game could absolutely not work without. Plus it changes depending on which set of fans you talk to.

Sonic fans want more Sonic characters, they want to see Blaze, Silver, Cream, Tikal, Vector, Charmy, Mighty, the list just goes on and on.

If I talk to more old school fans, then it’s Vectorman, Ristar, Toejam & Earl, Lan Di, Sketch Turner, Ecco the Dolphin and so on.

Then we get the real hardcore, they want to see what are typically Japanese only characters, so it’s all about Alicia and Welkin from Valkyria Chronicles, Sakura Shinguki from Sakura Taisen or even Seaman! Let’s not even get started on characters from primarily like Segata Sanshiro…!

Clearly… You can’t please everyone. If we attempted to please just the Sonic fans, then SEGA fans would complain. If we please the SEGA fans, the Sonic fans would be up in arms. If we pleased just the hardcore fans… You get the idea.

So it’s all about the balancing act of playable characters, cameo characters and again, whatever other references we can get in there. All whilst having one eye on wide audience appeal.

Was there ever a plan to include some of the side characters for any of the represented Sega franchises like in Sega Superstars Tennis?

Well, with tennis we had 16 playable characters, come ASR we’re up to 24 playable choices (not to mention the cars sometimes had both a drive and passenger or passengers!). So we already had upped the roster. Not only that, but instead of just creating a character and a set of animations, we also had to create a car each. On top of this – we also really elaborated the All-Star moves for ASR. So we had to limit the choices you had just to make it manageable.

It’s funny though, no matter what game we do in the All-Star vein, whenever you spend time on the forums or at say Summer of Sonic or Sonic Boom, all the fans care about are which characters are in! It’s like the game is secondary…

So we do try and get in plenty of cameos, music, references in achievements and sound bites as well as squeeze in as many characters as are achievable, but we also care a lot about the game itself…!

 

On the Announcer

The announcer is an element that people really loved or hated. I personally felt it was a welcome element to give the game some personality. What was the decision to include the announcer?

Wacky Races also featured an announcer type system that would call out for each specific character.

The announcer came about for two reasons. Trav had seen SEGA Race TV and loved the concept of an announcer who commented the race, plus we wanted to make the player feel like there was more going off than they could see.

So you get this chatter that someone at the back is making a move up the field, or someone just had a really bad crash, and although it was happening and you couldn’t see it, it made it feel like it mattered.

Plus… we’d done a similar thing a long time before making Wacky Races on the Dreamcast and PS2 in our previous guise as Gremlin/Infogrames Sheffield House. So we knew it could be made to work…!

We recognised that not everyone would like it, but hey, you could always turn him off!

How difficult was it to come up with material for the announcer?

On that, I can’t answer, I ducked that bullet! I do remember Trav spending hours getting an initial script together – and then we sent it out of house to have a professional fix it up. Between that and adlibbing, that really brought it to life. It was a massive recording task, even if people think it repeats a little too often!

Was he ever intended for the Nintendo DS/Mobile versions of the game?

We did look into it, but on the DS it was restricted by the cartridge size, you just couldn’t fit the speech on there, plus technically, we didn’t have lots of voice channels to play with as the midi music takes up a big chunk.

It was considered for the iOS port, but again would have meant a much bigger download. When we did some focus testing on this, it seemed the download size would impact on people decisions to purchase sometimes even regardless of price. As the iOS version was also based on the DS code (just so it scaled to low end devices mind!) it would have also been a bit of a job to retrofit in. So sadly (I think!) it was opted to not include it.

 

Public relations

You appear to try and keep a direct relationship with the Sega fan base regarding both All Stars Racing and Transformed. How do you feel about producers and designers who address reaction and criticism from an indirect approach?

They’re probably doing it right! A few of the team go on the forums to interact with the community and it’s a special privilege we’re allowed by SEGA to do. Most of the time publishers want complete control over how the game is presented, it’s all too easy to say the wrong thing and cause a negative fan reaction which can actually do a lot of harm to how a game is perceived and actually impact on sales.

We’ve shown over the years that we can be trusted to not leak any information that is part of a marketing plan, or pick too many fights! What can be hard though is to keep that cool head in the face of less than constructive criticism, people can get personal at times too. We are human at the end of the day.

What it does allow us to do is gauge opinion on elements of the game, do some course correction based on feedback. We can also see what features were popular in previous games and we even listen to people demanding characters sometimes.

It’s also useful to explain why certain decisions have been taken, most of the time when people are going ‘Oh WHY have they done THAT!’ it’s as they don’t understand the decision we’ve taken for a gameplay or technical reason.

Plus it helps to ground people in reality now and again. You can write that list of 100 characters, but unless you have an eccentric and rich uncle and no requirement to ship the game on a given date, then please don’t expect us to include them!

It helps we can have some fun and banter doing it. Some of the time!

 

On Transformed

Why decide on making a sequel to All Stars Racing instead of focusing on a different theme?

Transformed acts as a direct sequel to Sega Super Stars/Sega All Stars rather than going for a different overall sport.

When we get to the end of a game, we always consider where we can take the franchise next.

Really though with ASR, we had unfinished business with the flight we wanted to include, the amount of multiplayer support, both on and offline and given what we’d learned about track design, weapons, online and more, we felt with the right hook, we could really knock a sequel out of the park.

It was all about finding the hook. I think Simon Woodroffe (Creative Director at SEGA) and Craig Duncan (SUMO Dev Manager) likely realised if we had land and air, water wasn’t going to be much worse, and no doubts 4 pints later, they tripped over Transformation to tie the whole concept together.

And that’s it. There was the spark. Of course taking that and making it into a game requires lots of design though, some serious prototyping, some very technical code to make water a reality, and a whole bunch of clever and dedicated people.

Could we have been safe and done a straight sequel, yes, it would have been a whole heap easier, but we saw the chance to drive the genre forward, get in a lot of the things we had to drop from the previous game and hopefully knock it out of the park!

What content, features or characters that were missing in the first game were brought into the sequel? For example Gillius was heavily hinted at making a return in some form, and system link multiplayer was also a proposed feature that didn’t make it in the final game.

Well as above, flight helped drive the whole transformation aspect, and it’s no mere gimmick, its three full handling styles that are equally good.

Multiplayer was our next big desire. Both improving the set of modes that could be played online, but also extending the offline. Pretty much the entire game can be played in Split-screen, including taking those local players online. On the back of the box, that looks like a small tick, but it’s an incredible experience, and really, there are few games that do it.

We also got to bring back some characters we really wanted to see again, mostly as it’s allowed us to really go to town on unexpected vehicles! Plus get some new ones in, we’ve been asked many times for Vyse and Joe Musashi, well here they are.

At every step we’ve tried to get in the things we wanted on the previous games and really make a game that exceeds the original. I think we’ve pretty much pulled off everything we wanted too.

Game balance appears to have been a greater focus for the sequel through testing and how items function. What were the determining factors?

Again, the desire to improve the experience. We saw the critique and decided to pull in fresh players to get us constant feedback to hone the game. Really here the credit has to go to Joe and Gareth, they have experience of this on other games and they were determined to use it to improve this one. Plus it’s also allowed us to give something back to the people involved, they’ve now got first-hand experience of how a game is made, many of them plan to move into games as a career and it’s been great to be able to support them with advice and meeting the team.

Because of the short time before release, it has been a conscious effort to not showcase the All Star moves, when can we expect anything regarding how the All Star move system works in this game?

When we’re good and ready to show it! Everyone is always keen to see what we’re up to, but we only show and reveal a feature when it meets our expectations and when we’re certain it will ship with the feature too. We have them in, they’re working online, and whilst we have scaled them back as a result of the online support, they’re still big loud moves with character specific FX, music and more. Patience, the wait for the game will be worth it!

 

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