We spoke with the producer of Sonic Lost World about level design, pancakes, and Smash Bros.
During E3 2013 Nintendo World Report had the opportunity to sit down with Takashi Iizuka to discuss Sonic Lost World for both Wii U and Nintendo 3DS. Mr. Iizuka was Senior Game Designer on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles for Genesis, and has played a leading role in many subsequent console Sonic games, including Director of Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 and Producer of more recent games such as Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations. He has also been heavily involved in the Nights series, serving as both Director and Producer of Nights: Journey of Dreams on Wii.
Nintendo World Report (NWR): Hello, we're here with Takashi Iizuka. Can you please tell us what your title is?
Takashi Iizuka (TI): I am producer of Sonic Lost World.
NWR: For both versions?
TI: Yes, both versions.
NWR: So as producer what is your role in leading development?
TI: A broad range of duties from being heavily involved in the early concept phase to basically managing the development and production process of titles going forward.
NWR: The demo for Wii U on display had three very different types of levels. Could you please explain the level design philosophy and how you are approaching the different levels?
TI: A couple of things. One of the important goals of the development team when they were concepting the game early was they wanted to give the player more choice. There's always trade-offs in development and one of the trade-offs in past Sonic games for the 3D forward view sections was there's more of a linear path. You can go to the left or right, but you can't go too far to the left or right. The idea that the team had to try to address that and give the player more choice is to put Sonic on geometric shapes like a tube. Windy Hill is the first stage you can see in the build on the show floor and that is a great representative stage of the game because that's kind of the first geometric shape that they thought of. Of course there's going to be a lot more geometric shapes and types of levels in the game, but that was kind of their starting point to change things up and give the player more choice.
Another important point for the philosophy behind the level design and another important goal in development was to have a lot more variety both in the aesthetics and visuals of the stages and also in the gameplay of the stages. In previous games you would go to World 1 Stage 1, World 1 Stage 2, and the aesthetics would look similar, maybe a little bit different, but kind of similar and the gameplay you also could expect what you were going to get to a certain degree. This time they wanted to surprise players and create a lot more variety visually and in the gameplay sections, so [hence] the two stages in Desert Ruins. You can even see by the name, the two stages don't look like the desert. They are kind of candy stages. One is their take on more traditional side-view Sonic, which is very dynamic in the ways the camera is moving. The camera is moving all around and you are bouncing left and right and upwards. Also, in Desert Ruins 2, which is a forward view, it's kind of a auto-run forward view and uses these hex geometrical patterns to create this very cool type of challenge that you've never seen before in a Sonic game.
NWR: You mentioned the level made of candy. Many of the levels have this more surreal look that we haven't really seen in past Sonic games so was one of the desires to surprise the players? Let's put pancakes in there. (laughs) They're not going to expect that! Or is there a theme that governs the worlds?
TI: The candy stage sticks out as a little more unusual, even more than the other stages actually, but it still comes from what we were saying. You're in the Desert Ruins world now. Even though you might get tired of the desert after two stages you're going to be in the desert for six stages now. Players might get tired of that. So that's coming from the idea that we want to try something different. More variety, especially in the worlds that people might get more tired of.
You may have also noticed that there's been a general simplification of the graphic design. That's coming from a few different angles. Number one, in the past few games they've been using global illumination, baked-in HD backgrounds and they're very beautiful, but they're always trade-offs in development and one of the problems is that enemies and rings kind of bleed into the background and it can be harder to see them at times so this time they wanted to try something different and come up with more iconic and simplified graphics that make things pop so the enemies pop more, the rings pop more. Also the simplification of the graphics let us reach an important development goal that we've had for a long time which is 60 frames per second. Things definitely feel a lot more fluid at sixty frames per second which we weren't able to hit in past games with the HD backgrounds. And finally the development team members have wanted to kind of accentuate the connection to the past Genesis games.
Interpreter: Iizuka-san has said in the past that the two main inspirations for this game are the modern Sonic games like Generations and Colors, but also the Genesis games so those are kind of the parents of this title.
NWR: We've talked about the Wii U game. I noticed that in the 3DS game, the sidescrolling levels have a bit more of a puzzle element with switches and the like. Can you talk a little about the difference in level design between the Wii U and 3DS games?
TI: The 3DS is actually a interesting title because it's the first time we've been able to do a 3D forward-looking Sonic game on a Nintendo handheld platform and it matches very nicely with the 3D features. And as you can probably see since you've played it, that a lot of the controls pretty much map directly over from the Wii U version. With that said, the level design is completely different so while there is the same story between the Wii U and the 3DS game and the general themes of the levels and the themes of the game are the same, the level design is completely different. There's not a single level in the Wii U and the 3DS that overlap and appear in both games.
NWR: The 3DS game seemed to have a greater emphasis on wall jumping. Is that something unique to the 3DS or is that just not showcased in the Wii U version on the show floor?
TI: It really depends on the stage so it's not that 3DS is putting more emphasis on the wall jumping. It's just that the stages we've selected for E3 happen to put more emphasis on that and the Wii U version will have stages that require wall jumping to proceed as well so they're probably about the same in the emphasis of wall jumping.
NWR: Which level on display at E3 is your favorite?
TI: Probably I would have to say it is Windy Hill because we've spent so much time prototyping that level, different versions of the level, over and over. Tearing it apart and putting it back together, and trying to find the fun and great experience there for the gameplay we are trying to accomplish in this game. And also in the 3DS version, Windy Hill was also a test of the technology to see if we could build something on 3DS, [something] that was similar to what we're trying to do on Wii U. Putting in lots of ideas in unique ways to do things on the 3DS.
NWR: The demos on the floor are all single player. Can you discuss the co-op and versus multiplayer?
TI: We'll have different multiplayer modes on both Wii U and 3DS. On the Wii U, there's booth cooperative and versus multiplayer. In cooperative play, Sonic will be using the Wii U GamePad and someone can be supporting Sonic in co-op with the Wii Remote. In versus mode, one player will be playing on the TV screen and the other player will be racing using the GamePad so you don't have to have split screen. You both have your own screen and can race each other. The Wii U multiplayer is not on the Internet. It's basically everyone sitting on the same couch. The 3DS for the first time we're having 4-player versus racing over Wi-Fi and the Internet.
NWR: You've worked on many Sonic games over the years. What have you found makes for a good Sonic game in terms of level design and overall pacing of the game?
TI: I think two really important aspects of Sonic are obviously speed, but also the platforming experience. I think if you go too far in one direction of supporting one or the other then that can harm the gameplay and make for a game that's not as good. One thing I'm very proud of with Sonic Lost World is that we've been able to create what I feel is a better balance between the speed and platforming than what we've had in our past games.
NWR: When you look back at the original Sonic the Hedgehog, it featured one button gameplay, run and you jump. Over time, more moves have been introduced, and maybe a little more complexity. How do you balance the additional movesets with trying to keep the game accessible and easy to understand?
TI: It's always a challenge. It's something we're thinking about it in development all the time. How to add complexity for the advanced user, but keep things simple and easy on the other hand. Especially when Sonic is moving fast you don't want to have a lot of buttons you have to push. As much as possible you want to limit your button pushes while your running to one thing or maybe two things at the most. Something that people can always push intuitively, immediately without thinking about it. An example where we were thinking about this in the new game is the homing attack and the double jump. In the past, we've always had the homing attack on the same button as the jump and you know that's great for simplicity, but there are development trade-offs. Sometimes you want to double jump and you push 'A' 'A' but the game doesn't read it contextually, it's hard to read exactly what the player wants to do. Sometimes the player even with enemies there, they want to double jump, but it does a homing attack so we decided to address that this time by having both the 'A' and 'B' button do a jump, but one of the buttons always does a jump with the homing attack and one always does a double jump. That way you can still push one to do a quick jump, but then you can separate your intentions by using one or the other.
NWR: Do you find that the context sensitive controls sometimes confuse players? For example, there's a kick move in this game, but you can only do it when you're near an enemy. I know when I was playing I had difficulty understanding how that move worked because I could only do it when I was near an enemy, I couldn't practice. When you're play testing a Sonic game, how do you iron out those types of challenges?
TI: A couple things there. Yea, probably on the show floor, it's a little bit not clear when and how to use kick, but that's just because it's not a part of the full game. In the full game, there will be more of a contextual tutorial that will say, "hey you can use kick on these enemies" without getting in the way. And [there will be] other ways that will let the player know about that ability. Kind of the challenge there in development is, yes, when you're moving fast you definitely want players to just think of one thing and quickly attack enemies, but on the other side of the coin is that if you only have one attack that kills all enemies in the game then that can also lead to things getting a little bit boring. So that's why they decided to add the kick move to mix up the combat a little bit and we're trying to make it obvious that the kick needs to be used against enemies that have a hard shell so you can kind of read when you need to use the kick.
NWR: One more question here. Sonic was very popular in Smash Bros. for Wii. Is there any possibility of him making a return appearance in the next Smash Bros.?
TI: All we can say is that we also think it would be awesome if he was in the next Smash Bros. So yea, but that's more of a question for Nintendo than us.
NWR: Thank you very much for your time.
TI: Thank you.
Thanks to Mr. Iizuka, his interpretor, and Sega for this interview opportunity and their time.