Sonic Boom and the quest for more money
2014 may be the Chinese year of the horse, but according to Sega, it’s the year of Sonic. If you’ve been following hedgehog news lately you’ll know that Sega has announced a new game, 3D animated series, and toys under the name Sonic Boom. If that has you humming the intro theme from Sonic CD, you might be wondering, once again, what Sega’s latest attempt to revitalize Sonic has to offer. We’ve heard Sega claim they’ve learned lessons, that they’re bringing a new Sonic to the table again and again, so what makes this attempt different?
At a NYC event last week, I listened as Sega representatives spoke about their hopes for this new Sonic. On the one hand, you had Marcella Churchill, CEO of Marketing at Sega, selling us on an “...extensive merchandising program, with more than 40 licensing partners across 17 different product categories and growing.” On the other hand was Bob Rafei, head of Big Red Button Entertainment and former Naughty Dog art director, who helped redesign Sonic and friends. His studio is responsible for the Wii U version of Sonic Boom.
Most long-running franchises like this probably involve significant give and take between creators and marketing types, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit cynical about the whole presentation. Sure, there are trailers for both the game and the show that have promise, but the toy line and the character redesign as a marketing opportunity is hard to deny.
I’m probably not the target audience for Sonic Boom, so my seeing it as a way to sell toys may be a bit irrelevant. After all, Skylanders and Disney Infinity are about as blatant a toy-selling scheme as can be, yet they’re loved by kids and respected by adults. Perhaps Sonic Boom can strike that balance as well.
There are some promising elements to the refresh, though. For Sonic Boom, Sega passed development responsibilities to Western development studios Big Red Button Entertainment and Sanzaru, creating the Wii U and 3DS versions respectively. Sonic Team is overseeing the project, while presumably continuing to work on their own Sonic games. “Sonic Boom won’t be replacing modern Sonic...it’s just taking the franchise to another level,” explained Marcella Churchill.
Big Red Button’s involvement is particularly interesting. Bob Rafei’s Naughty Dog pedigree can be felt in Sonic’s new design (that scarf is sooo Jak & Daxter or Nathan Drake), the visuals, and even the adventurous aspects of the gameplay. I had expected a reskin of Sonic: Lost World, especially since the 3D Sonic games have been following a pretty similar framework since Sonic Adventure, but this looked different. Good different or bad different won’t be clear until we get our hands on it, but at least there’s some variation to look forward to.
The game focuses on four characters -- Sonic, Tails, Knuckles, and Amy. The emphasis is on teamwork, with co-op play and characters with different abilities. In a way, it almost comes off like a modern attempt at Sonic Adventure with a multiplayer wrinkle added in. The trailer also shows a greater emphasis on combat and exploration over running, and the developers made a point to say the game will follow through on that.
So here we are again, Sega. Another promising Sonic game, another potential disappointment? We’ve been at this fan-fueled song and dance for a while now, but never with quite so many toys and TV shows involved. With western studios getting free reign to revitalize Sonic, just about anything can happen. And at the very least, Sega will probably sell a whole bunch of toys.
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