TSS Interview: Sumo Digital on Team Sonic Racing

Sumo Digital has been a close partner of SEGA’s for many years, ever since the Sheffield-based studio worked on a console port of OutRun2 back in 2003. But in recent years, the developer has worked on several racing games featuring Sonic the Hedgehog – Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing and Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, which were released to critical acclaim.

For the third outing, the company’s new Nottingham studio has taken a brand new direction with the series, focusing on Sonic’s friends and co-operative teamwork. We caught up with Derek Littlewood and Ben Wilson to find out more about the creative process that went into making Team Sonic Racing!

Derek Littlewood (L) and Ben Wilson (R), of Sumo Digital.

The Sonic Stadium: Derek, Ben, thank you very much for taking the time to talk to us. First off, how did the idea for Team Sonic Racing come about? The Sonic Universe is huge, and with nearly 28 years’ worth of history to build on, where do you start when working on a game in a franchise like this?

Derek Littlewood: My starting point for any game is “what is the experience you want to provide people with?” and then figure out which pieces allow you to provide that experience. With TSR, our starting point was our aim to make the game a team racing experience, and we looked at what elements best support that. The Sonic Universe has always had a theme of teamwork running throughout it; I think back to my memories of when I played Sonic 2 and how Tails helicopters Sonic to a safe spot, or games like Sonic Heroes – there are already lots of examples of games that have lent themselves to the teamwork theme. Some of the racing teams even came “pre-canned”, such as Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles, who are already an established team. The rest of the elements came from what we, as fans, wanted to see in the game such as characters, Wisps and locations.

TSS: You mentioned Sonic 2 – what other “Sonical” experiences that have influenced you and the development of TSR?

DL: I’m a massive Sonic Adventure fan and have great memories of playing it on the Dreamcast, and one thing I really wanted to include in the game were the Chao. We originally proposed having Chao as a companion, and every character would have a one on their car deploying Wisps and power ups. SEGA said that this idea didn’t feel quite right, but instead suggested that the Chao could instead drive a car! We asked them how that might work, and so the idea developed into “maybe several Chao could drive the car!”. That ended up with this idea of a team within a team, with three Chao driving and Omachao doing the talking.

TSS: The game mechanic in TSR differs from the typical racing game model of “race to win for yourself” and sounds like a great way for gamers of all skill levels to play together. Do you have any tips or tricks for beginners who will be picking the game up next month?

Ben Wilson: I’d recommend trying each of the character types and become familiar with each of their abilities. That way you can think strategically when you’re facing those character or when they’re on your team.

DL: Play it with your friends! You see most clearly what is most exciting about that experience, particularly if you can play it on the local play – when you can actually chat to them and say, “I need an item!” or “we should use our team ultimate!” – that’s where the team experience really comes into its own.

BW: That tip is better [laughs]. You do learn a lot faster when you play co-operatively as you can give each other heads up, and you can share knowledge as you go.

TSS: One of the mechanics we have seen today that we really like, and we think we’re going to call it “leap-Froggying”, is exploiting each other’s slipstreams one after another, so even if your whole team is far behind you can quickly catch up if you and your team work in unison.

DL: That’s something we’ve not purposely designed into the game, but the way we have balanced the Skim boost and Slingshot abilities means that you could chain these tricks together. We saw QA testers discovering new combinations, and we realised that this was a great game element for advanced players to exploit.

TSS: On that note, we wanted to touch on how the team gameplay informed how you went about balancing the game, how tracks were designed and how characters were picked for the roster.

DL: It was difficult at first to figure out how to build a cooperative racing game. Our starting point was to understand what team work would involve; collaboration, reliance, and rivalry with other teams – and the initial ideas for the team actions came out of that thought process.

The other big element that informed the process was the general awareness that you could never be sure if you are near other people on the track. The ideas for the team actions came from the requirement for moves you could do when you are next to team mates like the Skim boost, moves you can execute at a distance such as the Slingshot, and item transfers that can be performed anywhere regardless of your relative positions.

Those ideas where present in the early development of the game as a broad concept, with the implementations refined over dozens and dozens of iterations to give the players the least restrictions when playing.

BW: We didn’t want the moves to be either overly restrictive or hard to understand – it was balancing these two elements that meant it took many revisions.

TSS: Story is a big part of Sonic titles, with the Team Sonic Racing: Overdrive cartoons and he comic tie-ins alongside Team Adventure mode in the game. The burning question that every fan is asking is who is DodonPa and what role will he play in the game?

DL: We couldn’t possibly give that away, but there may be more to him than initially meets the eye! One of the really cool things to do in TSR was to add a new character to the Sonic Universe – in fact the concept for the character of DodonPa came from the Sonic Team in Japan, who designed the character for us. It was great to get the concept artwork through from the team to say this is what the character should look like. If fans are curious about the character, then they should buy the game and play Team Adventure mode to find out more!

TSS: It’s great to see how tongue-in-cheek it all is, as when we first saw the character during Gamescom last year, our first thought was “that guy is definitely working for Eggman!”. We love how this is played upon in the beginning of the adventure mode – and we love how right from the off it is light-hearted and doesn’t take itself too seriously – but maybe it’s a double bluff and that’s not where the story is going! Either way, we dig that you get the humour of modern Sonic games.

DL: A lot of the narrative has been influenced by SEGA, and we’ve worked closely with them to figure out what the story should be and how it is communicated.

TSS: We love the soundtracks to Sonic the Hedgehog games, and we’ve already heard so much eclectic material that has been teased for inclusion in the game that has been created by the likes of Jun Senoue, Tee Lopes and Tyler Smyth. Which tracks have become your favourites?

DL: I really like the Planet Wisp track as it’s got a great keyboard part!

BW: I remember the day we came into the office and we received a build of the game that included music, and suddenly, we had themes to the tracks – it made us realise we were making a real video game!

DL: I’d also like to give credit to our lead audio technician who previously worked with us at Free Radical – his sound design has made the whole sound design come together, creating a unique sound treatment that commonly occurs in the game. One example is when you have an item approaching you there is a “tick tock” sound and it is immediately distinguishable.

BW: He has also taken from the iconography of Sonic games and thrown them into the sound design – again, when you get spun-out, you can hear the classic sound of Sonic screeching to a halt…

DL: …and the skim boost features the spring sound effect, which makes executing the move all the more satisfying.

TSS: To finish – you’ve mentioned in previous interviews that there were internal debates about which characters to use in the game, and which classes they would fall in. Which characters were left on the cutting room floor, and is there scope to add more characters in DLC?

DL: Yeah, there is definitely scope for additional characters. It wasn’t easy for us to let go of the SEGA All Stars characters as a lot of us are old school SEGA fans, and making another All Stars game is something we’d like to go back to sometime. But I hope fans like the trade-off in that it allows us to tell a Sonic Universe story with the game.

BW: Cream the Rabbit.

TSS: [laughs]. Definitely! We are pleased to see characters like Chao and Vector who probably wouldn’t get a look-in on the All Stars games. Thank you both very much for your time, and we look forward to spending hours with the game when it sees release next month.

DL: Leap-frogging all over the place!

All: [laughs]

Thank you to SEGA and Sumo Digital for the opportunity to interview the design team!

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Published by

Adam Tuff

With a decade under his belt, Adam is one of The Sonic Stadium's most seasoned writers, with interests in the music and merchandise of the Sonic the Hedgehog universe. Adam is the co-organiser for the Summer of Sonic convention.