about this sonic re-design pitch

about this sonic re-design pitch

about this sonic re-design pitch

I believe if you’re going to criticize the creative content of others, bring a creative solution to the table with you. While this video analyzes certain aspects of Sonic’s game play, I do not claim to be an authority on game design. I only mean to present creative ideas to a problem I recognize in a struggling franchise.

Dear Sega,

My name is Javed. I work as an animator for a creative studio in Sydney, Australia. I’m also a game design graduate who develops small time games on the side. In this video, I’ll be presenting my case for redesign for one of your most enigmatic franchises, Sonic the Hedgehog.

It’s no secret that your Sonic has seen brighter days. As I’m sure you’re very aware, you don’t have to look far to find an opinion or article from writers explaining why they don’t like your games anymore. To be honest, they aren’t inaccurate. I haven’t seen their creative suggestions on how to remedy what seemed to be holes in the vision for Sonic. This is what I want to do here.

I want to look at the cold, hard data and present a creative solution for a redirecting, if you will, of your mascot. Before we go further, I think it’s important that we look at your sales and your ratings and take a look at how your platforming rival, Mario, is tracking as well.

“After all those years and these different attempts, I believe we’re left with something without an identity.”
Here is a graph of your sales to date in millions, telling us that Sonic on the Genesis has been your highest success in terms of units sold, coming in at six million. Sonic Boom, being your lowest at 400,000. Now let’s add in Super Mario. I’ve lined these out by year of release. Without any surprise, Mario’s first game, which came out during the very young and ripe age of gaming, earned spot number four on the list of best selling video games of all time at 40 million.

The sales fluctuate quite a lot, as well, which is completely normal. There are a few factors here that aren’t accounted for such as regions of release and also console sales data at the time of the game’s release. This does make this data a bit unreliable. I’ve put this here so we can start to get an idea of where you’re roughly sitting in your relation to the most successful platform series.

Let’s move onto reviews. These are very important in gauging how successful the game was in connecting with your audience. Here is a graph of Sonic’s reviews according to gameranking.com. This tells us that Sonic 3 on the Genesis is your highest ranking game, at 89%. Sonic Boom, again, is at the lowest at 33%. Now, let’s add in Mario.

What I think is worth noting here, is that at the beginning of Sonic’s career, each new game was connecting more successfully than the last. It seems Mario, in the beginning, struggled to find his feet. It’s important to state that I think Nintendo established the foundation for compelling platforming before Sonic arrived on the scene. Even so, it’s clear that your games were maturing at a promising rate.

The reason I’ve been adding in Mario is to show you that as a competitive platform game, he’s still connecting with his audience and pulling in a huge revenue, especially in this age where the platform game is no longer the king of the industry. Mario is doing something right here and I think it’s safe to say, judging by your very low and chaotic shifts in ratings, it’s something that hasn’t come clear to you yet.

This information is telling us that there is a disconnect happening between your games and your audience. I think I know what it is. Here, I will present my ideas, while at the same time explaining what I believe are the problems worth fixing. Let’s bring in Sonic.

First this to notice is the art style. You’re steering away from the 3-D models you’ve been using for the last seventeen years and bringing in a more organic aesthetic through paint and water brush. Colors remain relatively the same, but Sonic’s lean and a bit more animal as opposed to your former more attitude heavy design. He has a backpack symbolizing adventure and his gloves and socks are gone. He’s wide eyed and vulnerable. He’s still fast but isn’t cocky about it. In fact, he doesn’t have much expression at all. He’s a blank canvas. While I think the overall spirit and feel for Sonic is there, he’s a little bit different. Why? He isn’t designed to appeal to children.

Sega, this is why I believe your games aren’t connecting anymore. You’re targeting the wrong demographic. Let me explain. Sonic 1 was released in ’91. This was the ad:

Speaker 2: Got to go. Hey, guy! You’re the first serious gamer I’ve seen all morning. Check this out! Brand new, 16 bit Super Nintendo and Super Mario World. Wow! Speaker 3: What’s this one? Speaker 2: Oh, this is Sonic the Hedgehog from the Sega Genesis. Hey! Look at these radical colors, huh? Speaker 3: Wow! Sonic’s fast, too. Speaker 2: No, over here! Speaker 3: I like Genesis and it costs a lot less. Speaker 2: But that game there. Speaker 3: I’ll take Sonic and Genesis. Speaker 4: Sonic the Hedgehog. More action, more speed. Sega Genesis, it’s all about more for less. Speaker 1: It’s pretty clear that because of the this is cooler approach this was targeted at kids and young teens between six and fifteen. Judging by those sales and ratings we saw earlier, you pretty much nailed it. Now, let’s watch an ad from 2014’s Sonic Boom. Speaker 5: Kitty, come down! Speaker 6: Let’s rock! Speaker 7: I got this! Speaker 6: Oh, yeah. Oh! Oh, no. We’re better at this in our world. Speaker 8: Sonic Boom, Rise of Lyric. You can pre-order it now.

Cute and slapstick. I’d say it’s still aiming for that same age group, not that this ad was bad. Sega, here is the main problem. The fan based you established with the first Sonic game in ’91 are all 24 years old here in 2015. While your original fans hold you most dear are in their thirties, you’re still aiming for that same age group and disregarding your original fan base. Guess what? You’re original fan base now have jobs with money to buy your games and now have extensive knowledge of the Sonic universe they’ll most likely share, AKA free, positive online publicity.

An Australian study held by [inaudible 00:05:54] University shows that the average gamer is 30 years old. Your games are actually going to be played longer and by more people if this is where you’re targeting. Not only that, the age group you’re aiming for, just don’t care about Sonic anymore. They’re more interested in the next action shooter or sports game. Why? It’s cool to be playing those games. They don’t have an emotional connection with platformers like your older gamers do.

Sega, your demographic is here in the 18 to 30 year old bracket. With this new found knowledge, we need to bring some maturity into the Sonic universe. This isn’t done through guns and action. It’s through strong propelling game play and a character to play that actually enjoys playing this. Let’s go back to Sonic’s new design.

The first thing to go is all voice acting, so any character development will be through movement and animation. One question we need to ask is what is his personality in relation to his ability? Sonic is fast. In the past, we’ve seen him embrace this ability with a too cool for school persona. This was totally relevant in ’91. Now, not so much. We need a character we can grow with. Sonic’s idle stance is a little bit cautious like the player, he’s a little bit unsure of what lies ahead. He’s vulnerable and this means we are on the journey with him. When Sonic runs, he keeps that cautiousness.

Here is where I want to propose something new. When Sonic jumps, he doesn’t become a ball straight away like the original games. A second action like the X button triggers a charge attack and here he is powerful against enemies. Down and X smashes Sonic into the ground. That’s called a [inaudible 00:07:27] body-slam. Left or right and X give Sonic a kind of air dash. While in his basic jump mode, he’s vulnerable, this adds a great tension into the game play by not making Sonic too powerful. The player is required to use fast, feeble work and quick thinking.

I think the spirit of Sonic is that keep moving approach. I believe this keeps through that but just in a different way compared to the approach of your most recent games, which brings me to what I believe is problem number two, the way we’re using Sonic’s speed. Speed is the identity of the series and it’s moved around a lot, pun intended. The way speed was translated from 2D to 3D had completely changed the way players approached Sonic games. The fan base had to learn a different Sonic language. In the mid-90s when we were being introduced to polygonal graphics. I think most of your fan base were open to that.

Personally, I think it’s important to evolve, especially in the fast-growing world of game design. I totally respect you for your courage to experiment with Sonic’s design. However, without needing to elaborate on the subject that some of your experiments were horribly unpolished, you haven’t arrived yet at a platform where Sonic’s speed can thrive in a 3D environment. You’re tried auto-runners. You’ve tried slowing him down. You’ve turned him into a hedgehog version of a Werewolf. You’ve added a combat system and even taken that away. You’ve tried making him even faster.

After all those years and these different attempts, I believe we’re left with something without an identity. What is a Sonic game? I think it’s time you realized that Sonic’s speed thrived best in a 2D landscape. What helps me make this point is Sonic generations released in 2011. You’re highest ranking console game in ten years, with 79%. Not only did you give a small nod to your original fan base and the nostalgia, you gave Sonic only two dimensions to play with, for 50% of the game, at least. I believe the best way to use Sonic’s speed isn’t necessarily in a fast manner, but more so in a momentum based system where the player determines how fast or slow they wish to proceed.

Let’s talk about rings, Sonic’s staple. Collecting 100 rings gives you a life and acts as sort of a shield when you take damage. I could even go so far to say that the concept of limited lives is, ironically, dead. This is a very broad statement, but excluding Mario, most of the best modern platforms have taken the concept of lives out of the picture. I suggest we do the same. We want the player to proceed in your game. This does make rings a bit useless, but here I want to present a totally new concept to the core game play in Sonic.

Referencing, again, the survey held by BRAUN University, the most popular game genre across all ages is, surprisingly, puzzle games, with first person shooters and action games close behind. Platformers being the least popular. I think you know this, which is why you’ve tried to blend genres by bringing in slower puzzle-based sections in your latest game. I say puzzle here very hesitantly. The definition of a puzzle is a problem designed to test ingenuity or knowledge. Like a jigsaw, we have all the pieces but it’s the question of how those pieces fit together that generates the problem. There’s a great feeling that comes when the solution finally clicks in the mind of the player. This is compelling game play.

With Sonic Boom, however, that ingenuity and knowledge aren’t being tested. Without spending too long on this, pushing buttons in a linear progression to proceed is not considered a puzzle or even interesting game play. The button is there and we press it. There’s no need for this to exist and it comes across as a cheap way to create and ebb and flow and momentum. Here, I have an idea, which I believe solves our ring problem and our puzzle problem at the same time.

Remember those amazing power ups you had in your highest ranking game, Sonic 3 Knuckles? I want to bring them back, but also connect a collection of rings with them in a currency sort of fashion. If you press the Y button, Sonic opens his backpack and you see the four power up boxes. Fifty rings, essentially buys you one of these power ups and you bring it out into the world. Invincibility, fire, lightning, and the water shield. Not only do they give their respective protection, but we can bring in creative ways to use them in simple puzzle scenarios.

The important thing here is we have all the jigsaw pieces. You could find a secret area with a row of spikes. The only way over them is you bring out an invincibility box and this leads to a hidden collectible. You could have puzzles where you need to keep a button pressed down to hold a door open. Enemies can even use them. You could finish a boss by forcing him to open a lightning box but the shield brings out a bunch of spikes that destroys the ship. This completely expands options for level design, the way Sonic interacts with his environment and also adds huge re-playable value, while at the same time giving the collection and protection of rings some weight.

Sega, this is just one creative solution. The bottom line is this: respect the intellect of the player. Do we want buttons placed in front of us just to kill time? I don’t think so. Let’s talk briefly on this last subject, the story. With no voice acting to guide us, story will be told through animation and suggestion, which is fine. We don’t need everything over-explained for us and we don’t need a complex story line to keep up compelled. The maturity is all in the game play. With that said, we do need a reason to press the forward button.

Let’s look at the opening cut scene for your most successful game, Sonic 3. Okay, that was over in about twenty seconds. In this cut scene, we meet all the important characters, we establish who our enemy is, and we are given a motive for progressing through the game. This is all that’s needed. Sega, keep the story simple and give the player a simple motive.

With that said, let’s look at a brief overview of the new design. We’ve established that your target audience is not adults and no longer children. We’ll bring Sonic back into two dimensions and we’ll remove all voice acting and we’ll shift Sonic’s experience to feel us more vulnerable. Your new set is introduced which adds great momentum based game play. We’ve introduced a new gamer through the backpack and power ups, which opens up huge game play possibilities and replay value.

Sega, this all comes from a place of love for Sonic. The very first game I owned was Sonic 1 on the master system. I fell in love with gaming instantly. Your mascot made me love games and art. It’s been hard to see your franchise get crushed into the dirt. Even if you don’t take any of this on board, I hope you are very intelligent with how you approach your next Sonic game. Thank you for taking the time to watch this.



How to design games for kids

How to design games for kids

How to design games for kids

This is a topic which is becoming increasingly important in our industry and one which is too often ignored. Surprisingly, in an industry that has for years been labeled “just for kids,” most of the products we’ve put out aimed at kids clearly haven’t had a lot of thought put into how to approach creating games for young people. Unfortunately, for years many of the “kids'” games out there were licensed titles, and these games relied on the idea that the parents buying them wouldn’t know anything about games, and so wouldn’t know a good game from a bad one.

The expectation was that the parent would walk into the video game aisle in their local Toys ‘R Us, and before them would stretch a sea of colorful boxes that meant nothing to them. Then they’d see one with Spiderman or G.I. Joe on it, and they’d think, “Hey, I know what that is. My kid likes that show. I’ll get them that.” This unfortunately meant that a company could sell almost as many titles of a licensed kids’ game by kicking it out the door as cheaply as possible as they would by creating something actually engaging and good.

Thus, often kids’ game production became about lowering production costs rather than raising quality. In fact, this is a big part of why licensed titles in our industry have such a bad rap today. Luckily this has been changing. Now that many people who grew up with games in their homes when they were kids are having kids of their own, games for children can no longer sell on box art and ignorance alone. Today these games have to better cater to their audience, and that’s one of the most difficult things when creating games for kids.

“A game which is great for a 4-year-old may not be very good for a 7-year-old and is almost certainly going to be a total miss for someone who’s 12 or older.”
You see, we often mentally lump ages 14 and up as one group when creating games. Most of the games you play probably fall into this category. People in this range may fall into many different demographics, or target audiences, and they may have vastly different underlying things which appeal to them, but age specifically isn’t usually considered a huge differentiator beyond 14. In fact, it’s only been in the last few years that we’ve started creating games specifically for the 25 and up audience, because most of the time a great game is equally appealing if you’re 14 or 45.

That’s much less true for an audience under 14. In general, you have to break them up into dramatically different demographics based on age alone. Generally it’s broken down as ages 4-6, 7-9, 10 and 11, and 12-14. With even a moment’s reflection, you can see how wildly different those groups are. A game which is great for a 4-year-old may not be very good for a 7-year-old and is almost certainly going to be a total miss for someone who’s 12 or older.

There are exceptions, of course, like Minecraft, which is catching on with kids of nearly every age, but games like that are pretty rare, which makes understanding these age demographics essential to the creation of quality children’s games. Understanding things like the fact that in the youngest demographic you can’t guarantee that your audience will know how to read or that the oldest group is much more socially aware than children just a few years younger than them. Knowing stuff like that is essential to targeting your game. This turns out to be much easier said than done, as many developers I’ve known originally thought they were creating a game for one age group, only to find out that they’d aimed too high or too low, and that is fatal to a project if not discovered early.

Good children’s games also build in multiple levels of success from the outset. You need your game to be easy enough that any child can play on their own, with or without a parent, but you also need to provide a broad enough experience that you’re not talking down to the child with your game play. This is actually one of the keys to the success of things like Angry Birds or even Skylanders. Any child can play them just by mashing buttons or tapping on the screen, but a child who thinks through the mechanics and understands the game is rewarded for doing so, for thinking more deeply.

Additionally, you have to be more aware of the different ways human beings learn when building games for kids. We touched on this a little in one of the episodes about how to build a good tutorial; in fact, we could, and probably should, dedicate a whole episode to the theories around different types of learning. While by our teens we’ve been trained to learn in ways that have become standard in our society, what will stick with or make sense to a younger child is much more vague. Actually, just to go on a quick tangent, there’s a lot of debate around learning styles in education. I’m kind of hand-waving it here; but, if we do a full episode on learning methods in games later, we’ll go into some of this and how learning styles relate to games.

The short version is, you should teach the player in every unobtrusive way possible, and, where you need to, a few obtrusive ones, too. While I don’t know about the breakdown or efficacy of any given learning style for people, I do know that games that use more of them tend to get more people to understand what they’re trying to teach. Who knows? Maybe that’s because people learn differently, or maybe it’s just a repetition thing, but this is one of the few universally true things James can say about the games he’s worked on.

Anyway, back on topic, the last difficulty in making games for kids that I want to bring up is the idea of not talking down to them, not only in your mechanics, but in every aspect of your game. We seem to have this societal bias that children can only handle pablum, banal or puerile things, and that’s absolutely false. Everything from SpongeBob to Wall-E has shown us that children can appreciate challenging ideas and humor. The best children’s books we have don’t shy away from leaving the child with something to think about, so the games we make for them should take up this mantle as well.

Here James has only one piece of advice. It’s what works for him. Perhaps it’s just what helps put him in the right head space and it won’t make sense to anybody else. When James works on experiences for children and, in fact, in general when dealing with younger people, he simply thinks of them as adults with a lot less experience. If you can build that ramp that goes from things that children already understand to the concepts you want to explore with them, I think you’ll find that children are capable of quite a lot. Everything from Winnie the Pooh to The Little Prince, Toy Story to The Lego Movie, do this, and games are perhaps even more capable of allowing children the opportunity to explore and ponder new things by bridging that gap.

I hope that helps some of you get a sense of the pitfalls of designing for a younger audience. The original question was, what are some of the difficulties designers encounter when creating for children? Of course, there’s a much larger question to be asked of how to actually design a good game for kids, which is something I’m not sure we can tackle, but hopefully this will serve as a start. Just remember how much a small difference in age can change things and how much value there is in having different levels of success in your game so kids can grow with it, and kids of different skill levels and attention spans can all have something to play. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of not talking down to your audience. As easy as that is to say, that may be the hardest thing of all. Good luck and good creating.