At EGX, I was gifted the opportunity of talking to Derek Littlewood, Design Director at Sumo Digital, about their upcoming title, Team Sonic Racing. We got to talk about how the idea for the game came about, the way it plays, and trying to make a game for both new players and fans of the previous entries.
Nintendo Enthusiast: In your last Sonic racing game, Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed, there were boats and planes as well as cars. What made you decide to strip it back to just cars for Team Sonic Racing, and what led to the team idea?
Derek Littlewood: It was an opportunity to explore a new kind of racing experience. As developers, we always want to try something new and do something different. With this game, there was a strong urge to explore a co-operative racing experience, and if we’re doing that then having all the other stuff going off didn’t really fit in. What we’ve done is focus it in on being a car-based racing game, and the team play is the big new thing. What we do have is a customisation system in the game which allows you to customise both the performance and the look of your vehicle. When people start digging into that, they’ll find as much depth there as there was in the transformations of the previous game.
NE: So, is that combining bits from other cars, or like a shop where you can buy upgrades? I’m assuming it’s not going to be like Forza or Gran Turismo where you can completely customise your car and strip out weight, change tires, or modify the suspension.
DL: We’re not talking in detail about the customisation at the moment. You will unlock bits as you go through the game, but it’s something we’ll talk about nearer release.
NE: I had a play of the game yesterday, and it feels as though powersliding is more important than it was in previous games. I thought the handling was like a cross between Mario Kart and Ridge Racer. It wants you to powerslide for as long as you can, charging up that boost. Does this affect the tracks you build, or is it just to reward the better racers?
DL: The drifting has always been a key part of the series. Particularly in [Sonic & All-Stars Racing] Transformed, the really high-level players would develop a technique where you could drift all the way around the track, and that was something that we wanted to make sure we still catered to. I think what we’ve done in Team Sonic Racing is [lower] the skill bar required to do drifts in the first place. It’s easier to do a cool drift, but I think it’s still as hard as it was before to put together a really expert drift going all the way around the track doing that. Because we have the team things going on as well, we wanted to make the core handling system feel as intuitive as possible. We’ve definitely tweaked the feel of that, but fans of the previous game will still feel it’s familiar. There’s a lot of depth that they’ll have to dig in to discover.
NE: To me, it felt like you could get into a slide a lot more easily, which is opening it up to a lot more people. And controlling the drift felt a lot — not necessarily simpler, but — easier to control, so as you came into the straights you could just keep holding your car sideways.
DL: There are other things that you can do with it [so that] being able to put your drift exactly where you want it is useful. For instance, one of the team actions in the game is that your leading teammate will leave a slingshot tail behind. So, what you can do is be drifting and following the slingshot tail at the same time and charging boost for you both. Another thing you can do is we still have a stunt system in the game, so if you go over a jump and perform a stunt, you’ll get a boost for it. If you do up to three stunts, you’ll get a level three boost, but you can combine drifts and stunts now. If you drift into a jump, go over it, and perform a stunt, you’ll charge up a level two boost. If you then land and carry on drifting, you charge up a level three boost and can then release that. There’s a lot more you can do with it than in the previous game.
We wanted to make the drifting feel accessible without losing that room for the high-level players to really show their mettle. And that applies to all of the team stuff as well. There are aspects of that that make it very accessible. You can help out teammates. If you are playing with people who aren’t as good as you, you can pass them items, or lay a slingshot trail for them; you can give them a skim-boost to help them when they’ve spun out. But there are also ways of combining these mechanics so that high-level players will really show their worth. We’re very conscious that there is that fan base who really want that aspect. While we wanted to make it accessible, we didn’t want to lose their support either.
NE: How did you come up with the idea for the different team mechanics, like the slingshot and passing of items? And were there any crazy ones that you came up with that you thought were just too bizarre to put in the game?
DL: When we first started the project, we thought about what it means to be part of a team. What different emotions that invokes. There’s this sense of collaboration and coordination between you. There’s also the idea of developing a rivalry with other teams. One of the things we put in as a result of that was the team communication system, which allows you and your team to talk and build a camaraderie. But also, your rivals come in and are like, “Ah, you’re useless,” or whatever; that’s not an actual line. The lines are much better than anything I could write. That’s something that reinforces the sense of being in a team[,] having that rival team getting at you. So, we thought about that, but we also looked at a lot of real-world references as well. The slipstreaming thing is something that is common in both racing and track cycling. And the skim-boost, where you catapult a teammate back up to speed is from that. There’s a track cycling event [the Madison] where they do just that. One of the things I like to do early on in development is think about what are the things that annoy me or are frustrating in a game like this? Getting spun out is kind of frustrating, and if your team could help you with that, that would be cool. That was where the skim-boost came from.
The other thing we endeavour to do with them is to make sure that you can always do something team-based wherever your teammates are on the track. Early on, a lot of our ideas were based on the idea that your teammates were always next to you, but that never happens in a racing game. You’re always going at different speeds, in different places. We had ideas about team formations, like getting your cars in a particular pattern, which activated a buff for you. It just never happened though; it was a cool idea but you could never orchestrate it. Even in test scenarios when everyone knew they were meant to be doing it, we still struggled to do it. If we can’t do it here, then players aren’t going to do it in the game. Instead, we looked at having a range of different team actions that allow you to positively interact as a team wherever your teammates are on the track. So, we made sure that there were mechanics available, like the item transfer, [where it] doesn’t matter where your teammates are because you will always be able to ask them for an item or offer them an item. And that eventually became a really important thing to us. That wherever you are on the track, whatever is going on, there is always something team-based that you can do.
NE: Speaking of teams, is there any talk of putting clans in or something like that with leaderboards, where your three-man team can prove to the world that they’re the best?
DL: It is a really cool thing that we would like to be able to do. We did actually talk early on about having persistent teams. You’d name your team and then your team is a persistent thing even when you’re not playing. Your teammates would be contributing to the success of that team. It ended up being out of the scope of what we were trying to do, though. So, we’re not able to support anything like that, but it would have been really cool to do. There’s 12-player online play with full leaderboards and achievements, and you can also play four-player split-screen. You can even mix split-screen and online play together.
NE: Another thing the series is known for is quirky characters. I assume you’re not going to be allowed to tell me all the characters you have in the game, but are there quirky characters in the game?
DL: Yeah. I think we have a good mix of characters. There are some we’ve not yet announced. Personally, I really like that we managed to get Chao into the game, particularly the set of four Chao [Dark Chao, Hero Chao, Neutral Chao, and Omochao] all driving the car together. That’s kind of my favourite quirky one. There are a few bits of fan service elsewhere in the game as well, but they’ll be things for people to dig out once they have the game.
NE: How many tracks and characters are there in the game?
DL: There are 21 tracks in the game. We’re not talking about the number of characters at the moment.
NE: Okay, are you allowed to tell me how many characters you start the game with?
DL: You start with just Team Sonic (Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles). We’re conscious that people who only mostly want to play online don’t want to be blocked by having to play through the single player. So, we’ve catered for that a little bit. The unlock path to other characters is quite fast. There’s a team adventure mode, which is a bit like the World Tour mode from Transformed in that it has a mix of different Grand Prix, Single Races, and Challenge Events, but they’re wrapped in a Sonic universe story. At the start of that, you’re playing as Team Sonic and the teams are introduced as the story develops. And that’s where the other characters are unlocked.
NE: What are your favourite power-ups in the game?
DL: Ooh, we have the Scion Laser, which I really like. They’re all Wisps from Sonic Colors, and a lot of them just obviously translated over. In some ways, it was kind of too easy with some of them. The Scion Laser fires straight ahead of you and goes on for ages. It’s interesting because it lasts for a decent period of time and can spin out multiple people, depending on who you can focus it on. If you get on to a straight with a big pack ahead of you, it’s possible to take them all out. Another thing I like is the Sonic invincibility. It’s not a Wisp, but in certain secret areas or hard-to-reach bits of track you’ll find this capsule that gives invincibility. We couldn’t do a Sonic game without invincibility.
NE: What’s the mix in the development team between Sonic fans and racing game fans?
DL: We have a bit of both really. Sumo Digital obviously has a lot of Sega fans because, even in the early days, we have a history of working with them and a lot of people came to Sumo for the opportunity to work on Sega games. We’ve also worked on a lot of high-profile racing titles. So, we have a good mix. I don’t know if it’s one more than the other, and we definitely have a lot of people who are both Sonic fans and racing game fans.
NE: Final question. Who’s your favourite character to race as?
DL: Tails! And I’ll tell you why. My formative gaming years were in the ’90s, playing Super Nintendo and Mega Drive [Sega Genesis]. I remember Sonic [the Hedgehog] 2 coming out so clearly and being so amazed by that game. I’ve always been fond of Tails for that reason. Also, in the game, he’s got cool abilities. He’s a technique-type character, so he has not only very nimble handling but has the ability to go across rough surfaces and not lose any speed. So, he allows you to cheekily cut some corners and find special routes across the track. He allows me to do cool things like that, that people racing as other character-types can’t do. Also, as far as the customisation system goes, he has the best as far as I’m concerned. His car looks awesome. It references some of Tails’ history, which fans will love. Yeah, it’s got some cool stuff.
NE: So, is he your favourite because he has that cool stuff, or does he have the best customisable car because he’s your favourite?
DL: Ha ha, I cannot believe you would suggest that I would make Tails the best just because he’s my favourite. That’s both outrageous and maybe slightly true.
Team Sonic Racing is scheduled to launch for PlayStation 4, Switch, and Xbox One in December.