Interview: In the middle of an abandoned steel factory up north, we sat down to interview SONIC & ALL-STARS RACING TRANSFORMED executive producer Steve Lycett. The biggest question? Who would mention the dreaded ‘M’ word first?
While the rest of the UK’s games journalism cohort blockaded Brighton over Rezzed weekend, I had my work cut out holding the Northern outposts, and spent Sunday in an abandoned steel factory on the outskirts of Rotherham (No, really).
The ten-foot high cauldrons and empty furnaces dotted around the perimeter of Games Britannia: Replayed looked like they’d been pulled, dimly-lit and decaying, from a Metro 2033 environmental artist’s wet dream for the occasion. Like 1C‘s shooter, though, on the inside it was all corridors – hallways lined with posters which, from Sensible‘s Wizball to Tom Francis‘ Gunpoint, cherry picked the best from 40 years of UK development.
It’s through a blank doorway off one of these corridors that we find two mainstays of Northern game development: a Commodore 64 keyboard casually discarded in a cardboard box, and Steve Lycett, executive producer at Sheffield-based Sumo Digital – the man in charge of one of Sega‘s best new franchises in the last decade, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing.
We talked in broad, unintelligible South Yorkshire dialect about Sega All-Stars Racing: Transformed, crate-digging for old Sega IPs, and the ‘M’ word.
The original Sonic & Sega All-Stars has had an incredible second run on iOS in the last couple of years. How did that happen?
The iOS version was done in house, and we started and stopped it about three times because we weren’t sure if there’d be a market for it. Sega themselves were thinking, ‘We’re not sure it’ll be successful, but we’ll try us luck’.
So we developed it with a small team and put it out there, and much to our surprise it was a massive, gigantic success. To give you an idea, [Apple] gave it away free as part of the Twelve Days of Christmas app. We shifted something like three million copies free, and thought that it wouldn’t be so successful afterwards. But on the following weeks, it sold not much less, purely through word-of-mouth. We were chuffed to bits. I was chuffed to bits.
What was it about your attitude to iOS development that led to All-Stars’ success? It used to be that an iOS version of a game would be considered an inferior version.
With All-Stars, instead of trying to do it on the cheap, we said, ‘Okay, we’ll try and make it support as many devices as possible, so we’ll take the lowest-end phone and that’ll be the target and we want it to run good on there’. If and above it we’ll take advantage of the features – if you have retina display and high res textures, we’ll use that.
If you look at that space, games are becoming more like those on other platforms rather than just quick distractions. When I think back to games on Nokia phones, they were very simple. Through the App Store, we’ve gone from there to Infinity Blade, a console-quality game you can play on a phone.
So I think All-Stars was a success because we said we’d try and cater to as many people as we can, and we’ll not treat it any less than we would a console product.
So when development started on Sega All-Stars Racing: Transformed, did you keep cross-platform in mind from the very beginning?
We had cross-platform in mind for the first game, but [in 2006] things like the App Store were still in their infancy, so we never really considered iOS as a platform while we were making the ‘big version’. For this game, we’re trying to keep an eye on the future, so we’ve developed a brand new engine, which is scalable from the 3DS all the way back up to the top end.
Potentially if new consoles come – and we know they’re on the way – it should scale to new consoles as well. We’ve done that to be flexible, so that if we’re asked for an iOS version, we have an engine to build it on and we can probably share code from some of the other platforms. We can just build it to the scale of the machine we’re using.
We’ve seen the PS3 version today, and there’s no sense of compromise there.
We look at the Sega stuff as our benchmark, us at our best. I think that’s why the games are successful – players can see the love and effort that’s poured into them.
So the first we saw of Transformed was the teaser trailer a few months ago, in which Sonic’s car transformed mid-air into a boat, and then a plane…
The reality of course is that we’d been working on the game for a year and a half at that point. [Laughs] It galls me to this very day, when last year at the E3 press conference they announced Mario Kart 7 with Mario driving and transforming into a hand glider. We said, ‘Oh no, not again’.
We do look at that series and people compare us. In this game though, we’re all about racing on realistic water, which is dynamic – on top of the waves, not just on the seabed. And water’s not just water. One of the things we’ve got today is the Golden Axe level, where you race on lava. [In mock innocence] I’ve not seen that in a Mario Kart game.
And of course we’ve got air sections as well, and we give you proper full 3D flying. You have control, you can dodge, you can boost, you can slow down. Whereas in Mario Kart 7 it’s more about falling with style, trying to land.
That’s a brilliant mechanic – don’t get me wrong, I love Mario Kart 7 and it’s a great game. But I like to think we’re different enough that people get a new experience from playing this.
I have wondered – how does it feel to enter a genre with such an obvious elephant in the room? Do you block it out?
I grew up with Mario – I had a SNES for my 18th birthday, so that’s a sign of my allegiance. So things like F-Zero and Mario Kart were things I played as a kid and loved. We’re not arrogant enough to think we can make a game that is better, but we constantly strive to do the best that we can and to do something that has got a very different feel.
I always thought as a younger man that Sega was more attitude and Nintendo was more safe and family friendly. So when we make these games now, we try and bring a bit of edge and a bit of attitude to it. And also Sega did things you just didn’t expect – completely mental things.
I played Fighting Vipers and you can play as a Daytona, and there was a cheat where you could play as an island. I always love to bring a bit of that [madness] back and we always think, ‘What if we did this, which is a reference on that?’.
So we get in touch with Sega, and ask if we can try it, and they go, ‘Why do you want to do that?’. Even they don’t understand it sometimes. The number of times we’ve asked to get [Akira Kurosawa parody and batshit Sega Saturn TV ad character] Segato Sanshiro in. We’ve got to find some way of getting that in.
So really, it’s about doing something that’s fun and a bit tongue-in-cheek, and obviously we have that competitor – we don’t like to say the ‘M’ word too much – but I think our stuff is a different tone.
Mario Kart is fast but very low to the ground, whereas we’ve tried to make [Transformed] more like a traditional racing game, like OutRun. There’s lots of speed, drifting and boosting, it’s all about picking lines and corners, whereas Mario’s very much about the weapon play.
Seeing the game in action today, it looks like the flying and boating sections control completely differently to the driving.
We want each of those things to feel as good as they possibly can – like each could be a game in its own right. And then somehow we’ve got to weld those three together. The way the game would fail is if you got to the water bit and thought, ‘I don’t want to play this anymore’.
So the balance is keeping those things equally as good, but each with their own take. When you’re driving, you want to drift around corners. You want tight chicanes, you want to think about your racing line.
That doesn’t work on water. It’s wide and dynamic, you’re being bounced around. That’s a very different experience, so you need to design the track so that you’ve got the space to do that without banging off the sides.
With the air, again, it’s a very different experience. The problem is, if you have a plane at the same speed as a car and a boat, as soon as you get away from any point of reference it feels incredibly slow – like watching a jet plane inching across the sky, when in reality it’s doing 600 mph. So we’ve increased the speed, which of course means we have a special track design issue for that as well.
I hope when people play it feels seamless, and you don’t really think about it. But to get to that point where it feels natural, it was a lot of work. It’s very technically challenging, and sometimes there are some long hours, but I can think of much worse jobs I’ve done in the past.
Another key aspect of All-Stars is the clash of its franchises. There’s something kind of powerful about reference and mixing familiar elements that rarely happens in games because there are so many copyright issues.
This is the thing. You need to work with a company which has a wide catalogue of IP. Sega is quite lucky – because they’ve done so many fantastic games over the years, we’re spoilt for choice with what we can pick and choose from.
But even then there’s problematic issues. For the original All-Stars Racing we wanted to get Alex Kidd and Wonder Boy. Alex Kidd was fine and we knew we had the rights to that, but when we looked at Wonder Boy, Sega weren’t really sure – because back then nobody really did contracts or worried about sharing things. I mean, the original OutRun’s got a Ferrari in it, and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t licensed from Ferrari.
With Wonder Boy there was confusion over who actually owns it. It was done by a company called Westholme and then published by Sega in the arcade, but it also appeared on Hudson‘s PC Engine, and morphed into different games and different series. [Sega] just went, ‘Right. I tell you what, can you pick somebody else?’.
We’ve always asked for reference assets from previous games to help ours look like the originals, as you remember them. And in a lot of cases either assets have not been stored or belong to a person who’s left the company, and it becomes a bit of archaeology to find this stuff sometimes.
I guess this is a particular issue for the games industry, where so many companies are shut down and classic IPs end up in the most obscure places.
The classic case in Atari. You look at Atari, and they’ve been around for 40 years but it’s like Trigger’s broom – 16 different heads and 15 different handles. I’m a big fan of Gauntlet, and I’d love to do a new Gauntlet game. But who owns the rights now? Nobody knows, it’s so complicated.