Interview with Sumo Digital Producer Steve Lycett on Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
One of the worst-kept secrets around here is how excited I am about Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed; just one look at the tag shows that it has some of the most extensive coverage of any single game on the site (as well as a few articles over at PoisonMushroom.Org). And when I found out that Steve Lycett, Producer at Transformed developer Sumo Digital, was doing interviews with different websites (such as this one at TSSZ News), I leaped at the chance to do one of my own. And, to my delight, he accepted!
Before we get started, however, a little background: While I’ve played the original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing a lot (it’s one of my all-time favorite games), at the time this interview was written, I had not played Transformed at all yet. I’m still waiting on my review copy from SEGA (shipping to Canada can take a while, I’ve learned) as I make this post, but between sending these questions off and now, I have had a chance to sit down with the Xbox 360 demo and watch people talk about it on the Wii U’s Miiverse.
Though I am working on several reviews together, once this game comes in, I’ll definitely make it a priority and give you my full thoughts on it. But for now, please enjoy this post-release interview with the game’s Producer, Steve Lycett.
First, thanks for taking the time to answer these questions today, and on such short notice!
You’ve mentioned before the surprise you and your team have had when Nintendo revealed Mario Kart 7 at E3 2011, and despite the clear differences, some have held firm to the idea that Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed (ASRT) is doing more or less the same thing. Now that the game is out and in peoples’ hands, have you seen a shift in reaction from players? How has the response been so far?
Oh we did have a jolly good old swear that day, mostly as we were about a year into the game at that point and had a pretty solid demo working with ‘proper’ flight and boating. We relaxed though as we saw footage, I think we’ve actually pushed it a lot further in terms of handling, mechanics and track design.
If anything we’re seeing players seeing very clear differences between the two games. It’s also sort of creating some playground rivalry between players who prefer Transformed and players who prefer MK7. It’s actually somewhat of a compliment I guess that players feel this way!
Even prior to the official release, hackers in the SEGA/Sonic community– seemingly some of the most proficient I’ve seen– have managed to dig up all sorts of odds and ends which weren’t meant to be seen yet, if at all. Do you have any thoughts on fans going all-in, and so quickly at that?
It’s surprising that fans would rather hack the game than play it. It’s a shame some fans seem intent on ruining surprises for everyone !
Since its release, it seems that the Wii U version of the game has drawn attention for a number of glitches. I’ve read that there has been at least one patch so far (as of this writing), but is there anything you would like to say to the Wii U players out there regarding these issues?
First a huge apology! We’ve worked hard with SEGA to ensure the game is as solid as possible, but sadly the day one update had some unforeseen problems. The new update puts all this right and also brings some improvements based on feedback we’ve seen out there.
The original Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing (ASR) was a lot of fun, and I was able to perform far better in that than I ever could in Mario Kart (150cc is impossible for me, leaving me out of a lot of unlockables in MK, but ASR‘s highest difficulty felt perfect– I could win or lose any given race). But word is that Transformed has upped the difficulty a bit.
Can you tell us anything about how you think the two compare in terms of challenge?
We have upped the difficulty this time. One of the criticisms we had last time was that once people had mastered the drifting, they found it very easy to complete the game, regardless of difficulty. We also felt that having more difficulty levels allowed us to spread the difficulty around more.
Hence this time there are 4 difficulty levels to play through, though the hardest is unlocked later in the game. Easy and Medium are likely comparable to the original game. Hard is now set for more experienced gamers and Expert… Well that’s proper hardcore. I find this difficult!
But we have made strides to make sure the weapons are fair, and the AI is set to be fair and beatable. I think people are making comparisons because they’re trying to play the new game like the old one, but we’ve spent a lot of time on the handling and drifts in Transformed to add some more depth. So you need to adjust your gameplay tactics.
In a previous interview which has become well-publicized, you mentioned that you would like to see Mario Kart “take a leaf from our game for their next Mario Kart.” Personally, I’d have loved to see them adopt the SEGA Miles system, among a few other things. But is there anything in particular (besides expanding beyond the Mario universe, which they’ve expressed no desire to do) you would like to see them utilize from your game?
Me and my big mouth! I’ve a huge amount of respect for the Mario Kart series, indeed I’ve owned and enjoyed every single entry in the series. However, I think we’ve done a number of things that do push the genre forward.
The land, air and sea play allow us to make tracks that are very dynamic. You’re not simply racing three laps with a few tweaks to the track as you go. Instead, you get a race that can completely change on every lap. It’s allowed us to work in elements such as racing through asteroids, through a volcano on lava, and on tracks where the players can actually change the route of the race too.
Plus, we’ve really pushed the local multiplayer and GamePad use too. You can play almost the entire game with 5-player splitscreen, work together co-operatively to run through an extensive World Tour campaign as well as asymmetric modes – and also take you 5 local players into online races too.
Breaking out of just the Sonic universe has also meant we can really go to town with variety too. I’d actually love to play a “Super Smash Bros. Kart” and escape the Mushroom Kingdom.
Weapon-wise, we’ve shown you can have an alternative to the blue shell, one that still can be avoided with skill but will allow trailing players to catch up. I like to think we’ve shown that weapons can impact on a race, but not dominate it.
When you look at the whole game as a package, I think Transformed has set a really high bar, especially on Wii U, and I’m excited to see what Mario Kart can do to raise it!
A lot of fans (myself included) have wanted to see Mario appear in the Nintendo versions of ASR and Transformed, much as Banjo and Kazooie did in the Xbox 360 version of ASR. Think this could ever happen? And if not Mario, are there any other Nintendo characters you might be interested in using? (Donkey Kong? Captain Falcon? Kirby? R.O.B.? [I miss R.O.B. from MKDS])
We talk a lot about this internally. If we opened the cast up to characters outside of the SEGA universe, who would be our top picks? First you do have to consider that we’re a cross platform game, I’m not sure Nintendo would want to see their characters on the Xbox 360 or PS3!
So unless you did something like guest characters who are platform specific (and we have looked at this in the past, not least with Avatars and Mii’s!) I think if we did expand outside of the world of SEGA, you’d have to look at characters who have that cross platform appeal.
Maybe Bub and Bob from Bubble Bobble, or Arthur from Ghosts’n Goblins. Characters like Mega Man or Pac-Man are equally at home on many platforms. How cool would it be to have “SEGA Vs Everyone Else”?
Though if I personally had my pick, it’d be Kirby! Everyone knows he is nails!
From what I’ve seen (and please ignore this if it’s inaccurate), the Miis/Avatars aren’t available by default this time around. Is there any reason they’ve been locked away?
They’re not available at the start, you do have to play through the game to unlock these. We wanted to hide characters throughout the game so the players can have fun finding them and unlocking them.
We need 10 characters unlocked from the start to make sure we’ve got 10 characters available for the online multiplayer, so we made sure this was the case and then we make you earn the others!
Since E3, it’s been known that Danica Patrick would not only be featured as a racer in the game, but would drive her own blue ASRT-decorated NASCAR with matching suit in real life. Many expected her in-game appearance to match that, but surprisingly, she has a green color scheme and an F1-styled Hot Wheels “Danicar” instead. Can you shed any light on why the difference, or if the real life Sonic car was ever a consideration?
We developed the car in-game with Team Danica and Hot Wheels, but this was before the ASRT NASCAR had been shown or announced. For all the vehicles in the game we make sure it fits certain criteria in terms of size as well as making sure it can transform! This is done to make sure the gameplay is fair regardless of the character you choose.
As much as we’d like to see it, using a car that can transform into a boat or a plane probably isn’t allowed under the NASCAR rules, so for the real world, we had to go for a safer option.
From what I’ve seen of Wreck-It Ralph in the trailers, his voice doesn’t seem to be the same as from the movie, that of John C. Reilly. Can you shed any light on the change? Did using Reilly simply not fit the budget, or were there other considerations?
Actually, I’m not sure on this one! We worked very closely with Disney and the animation team for the movie – which incidentally is amazing, go and see it – not least in the vehicle design, animation, and more.
In a game featuring SEGA stars racing in (and as) vehicles which can transform between land, sea, and air modes, a surprising omission is Vectorman, whose ability to transform into different forms seems perfect for the concept.
While there is buzz surrounding him as one of the voting choices for potential DLC, can you tell us how he didn’t make the initial cut?
To talk about this, we have to talk about the huge challenge involved in making sure you’ve got a varied roster. Not only do we have to pick characters that represent a huge range of SEGA’s history, but we also have to make sure we have variety, a good mix of male and female characters, as well as making sure that the characters picked also appeal to people who may have never seen a SEGA game. Imagine that!
We also have to make sure we pick characters that adhere to a range of scales, purely for gameplay reasons. If a character is huge or tiny it makes building a vehicle that isn’t at an advantage or disadvantage very difficult. That’s before you get into tropes — we’ve got hedgehogs, monkeys, pirates, ninja, and more. Then there are licensing considerations. Are the characters wholly owned by SEGA? Do we have access to people who worked on the original games to make sure we’re being true to a given characters?
So in the case of Vectorman, we’d already got a robotic character in the roster in the shape of Metal Sonic. The studio that created the game isn’t in business anymore, and so tracking down the original creator and checking it was fine from a licensing point of view wasn’t straight-forward either. Also, whilst the character design was cutting edge in 1995, could we update it to work in 3D in 2012? With all these factors in mind, we decided that this time he wouldn’t be part of the playable roster.
Speaking of the DLC voting, are there any in particular you’d like to see reach the top?
Well first I should be clear that DLC is by no means confirmed. I saw on the forums there was a desire to be involved in any decision making if there was DLC and so rather than look at an endless thread full of lists, I gave the community a challenge: Work together and agree on what the top characters you’d like are and, if they could give us some usable data, we’ll discuss it with SEGA.
I’ve actually been surprised by the way they’ve taken this on and pulled together! I don’t want to skew the voting though, so I’ll let the community to continue to decide, after all this is the fans chance to have their input. Let’s see who wins!
Again though, let me reiterate DLC is not a certainty at this point.
On another, semi-related note: We’ve seen Banjo and Kazooie, Danica Patrick, and Wreck-It Ralph as guest-stars among the SEGA All-Stars so far; is there a guest-star you’d like to see in a future All-Stars title?
Brian Blessed! Just imagine him shouting his way around the track! Seriously though, it’s been great to have so many amazing guest stars and it’s a constant debate to make sure we pick characters that fit in with the rest of our roster.
In ASR, several characters had vehicles which could be described as matching their iconography; for example, Shadow’s motorcycle and Eggman’s pod (with monster truck tires). In Transformed, some of these characters aren’t sporting those same iconic styles of vehicle.
Can you tell us anything about the decision to make those changes? Was there any sort of reluctance to have them take on newer, less-familiar vehicles? And was there a worry about any sort of backlash from the fans?
As I mentioned before, we set ground rules for vehicle sizes right at the start of the project. Last time the bikes were a little overpowered. Not only could they do a boost from doing a wheelie, but they were much harder to hit with blind fire weapons. It’s purely coincidence by the way that I’m a biker…
Conversely, some characters vehicles were too big. This put them at a disadvantage as they were very easy to hit and couldn’t make it through the gaps that smaller vehicles could.
So we made the changes for gameplay reasons. After all, you could have every SEGA character ever in a game, but if it’s not fun to play… well, what’s the point!
Don’t forget also that for this game, effectively each character has three vehicles, so we couldn’t really use existing designs for all three anyway! Whilst we’ve seen a few grumbles, I think in general the fans have embraced the new designs. Certainly it’s been a challenge to make them!
On a related note, not everyone from ASR made it into Transformed. Can you tell us about how the decisions were made regarding who to cut from the lineup? (And, if you’re so inclined, how you selected new characters to add?)
Well… The first thing to understand is the transforming vehicles were a major feature. To make creating these easier (and to aid with the scale rules!) we set a self imposed rule of all vehicles being single seated. This of course immediately ruled out some characters from returning, like Zobio & Zobiko and the Bonanza Bros.
The scale rules also prohibited other characters, like Opa Opa, though there also, land, air and sea play would be tricky as Opa Opa hovers and… well, I’m not sure what he’d do on water!
Then we had to be certain we could create an interesting vehicle for the characters want to include. We conceived a lot of vehicles – way more than in the final game – and we picked characters just as much on strong vehicle design as well as other criteria.
We made it very clear from the start – as just because a character has appeared in one game, doesn’t mean they’ll appear in subsequent games. We pick characters that support the design of the game we’re making and this will continue to the case in the future. Besides, surely half the fun is finding out who made it in?
Can you share with us your favorite character and/or track, and why?
Character-wise it’s the final unlock, I don’t want to spoil this for people who haven’t seen it, but it’s something we think is really cool.
Track, I think out of all of them it’s probably still the Golden Axe one. Mostly as I’d pitched the idea of being able to race boats on lava and some very clever people made it happen!
The PC, Nintendo 3DS, and PlayStation Vita versions have yet to be released; is there anything you’d like to say to the people who are waiting for those versions to come out?
They’re coming! We’ve spent extra time, care and attention on them all and it will be worth the wait. We’ve some surprises especially on the PC side which players are going to find very cool!
The air and water sections of Transformed seem like they’ll be providing a new challenge for newcomers and veterans of this style of game. Can you offer any tips to help people adapt to these new styles of racing?
Absolutely! Regardless of land, air or sea it’s important to learn how to use the drifts. The longer you can hold a drift, the bigger boost you’ll get when you release it. So look for places you can take benefit of this!
Stunts are also very important, any time you do a stunt in a car or boat, it will also give you a boost, providing you land level and flat. Many places allow you to do multiple stunts, not least doing a jump off the crest of a wave.
You can also do a ‘risk boost’ in the air. Here do a last second barrel roll *just* before colliding with some of the scenery to get a boost.
Otherwise, learning when to use weapons is the best route to success. Everything can be fired forwards and behind you – the best players use this to their advantage to hold on to their position in a race!
Finally: After SEGA Superstars Tennis, two All-Stars Racing games, and the recent release of PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale, it almost seems like the next logical place to take the SEGA stars would be a Super Smash Bros.-styled fighting game.
I won’t ask whether or not anything like that is in the works (we’ll be told when we’re told, I know how it is), but I would like to ask: If such a project were to come up, do you think you and everyone at Sumo Digital are up to the challenge?
The beauty of this series is that it could be possible to do just about any genre you can possibly think of!
Certainly we’ve had many requests for “SEGA Brawl Stars”!
I like to think that we’ve shown we can create fun and accessible games no matter the genre, so I’m pretty confident if this is the route we decided to take with SEGA that it’s something we can deliver on. Of course… We have plenty of other ideas for games you’ve never seen before, too!
I’d just like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. Lycett once again for agreeing to and delivering on this interview!
Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is available now for $39.99 on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii U platforms, with Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita, and PC coming soon, and I’ll have a review for you soon after my copy gets here!