The Tragedy of Sonic ’06

2016 was a great year for gaming with plenty of new faces, highly anticipated sequels and one or two we thought would never leave development (*cough* Final Fantasy XV *cough*).  The ever-increasing backlog of titles I need to play at some point brought me to remember a certain “game” that was making the headlines around this time 10 years ago…

That being Sonic the Hedgehog (2006).

It may be hard to believe if you don’t remember the hype around the game’s release, but Sonic ‘06 could have actually been a good game. I mean, we all thought it would be.

In the initial stages of development there was no sign of any possible complications in the otherwise, rather ambitious project and the 2005 E3 technical demonstration (see here), still looks pretty impressive by today’s standards, so where did it all go wrong?

2005-tgs

I would say that the real story probably starts with the moment Sonic Team received the developer’s kit for what was then known as the Nintendo ‘Revolution’…

The First of Many Problems

Assuming that Nintendo’s new console would have similar specs to the other consoles, just like in the previous generation, SEGA had already agreed to release one of the first third party titles on it, thinking they would be able to easily port the game once they completed the version for Playstation 3.

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So this stick  you wave around is the controller…?

However, when Director Yojiro Ogawa saw the Wii Remote and significantly less powerful graphics chip, he realised that releasing a version for the Wii would not be quite as easy as he originally thought. So what did he do? He snatched half the team to work exclusively on the Wii version, leaving Chief Game Designer Shun Nakamura in charge of the game’s direction.

Dropping like flies

We already know that ’06 was never released on the Wii. Not long after he split the team, Ogawa decided that a port wasn’t even worth trying. But they still needed a game for Nintendo’s console, and so, the solution Ogawa came up with was to take his half of the team and leave the project altogether in order to create Sonic and the Secret Rings.

So now the project had only part of a team, no director and the Tokyo Game Show (TGS) rapidly approaching for what was already an ambitious game on unfamiliar consoles.

They did make a playable demo (see here) in time for TGS and even included noticeable improvements from the previous tech demo shown at 2005’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), like better camera controls, fixed issues with the boost pads and the homing attack and even a dynamic day-to-night cycle.

It was pretty clear that, despite all the shuffling around, the team still knew what they were doing.

But the worst was yet to come.

Around the time of the game’s official announcement in October 2005, Producer Yuji Naka left SEGA (along with several members of the Sonic ‘06 team) to create his own studio.

So they now had an even smaller team, no director, no producer and E3 to worry about.

The E3 Façade

sega booth.jpg

Ah, the days when E3 was actually a huge event anyone could get a ticket for…

With their 2006 E3 presentation requiring a story-based trailer (as well as another playable demo), English dubbing began. There was just one “small” problem: The script wasn’t finished.

Due to the looming deadline and shortage of staff, the team had already cut out various features like the hub areas and changed the story considerably but that meant that the script, which was yet to be completed, didn’t even make sense in context in some places and on top of that, they were still changing the names of various things, particularly the Sceptre of Darkness, even after they had started recording.To give you an idea of how last minute these changes were, the latest revisions made to the leaked copy of the game’s script were dated 10th March 2006, less than eight months before its release, and even that version doesn’t match the final game word for word, so we have no idea when it was actually completed. 

This is probably what led to the confusing almost non-existent plot and weird things like the reference to “The Book of Darkness”(see clip here).

Just wave and smile at the fans and no one will notice…

They did finish a demo in time for E3 where one could play part of Sonic or Silver’s story (see here) but it appears that this was done by removing the improvements shown in the TGS demo. Regardless, no one seemed to notice and, despite it being very unpolished and a bit confusing for the player, the game was met by a very hopeful response. They also released a story based trailer (see here) along with it, which, as I remember, received a great amount of hype.

However, I think this is the moment the team realised that it would be impossible to finish the game in time. They only had about 5 months and limited resources to, not only finish the game but iron out all the problems that the E3 demo was clearly riddled with. That would definitely be an infeasible task .

Not like SEGA cared.

You can’t keep Microsoft Santa waiting!

SEGA had already signed a deal with Microsoft and, although we’re not entirely sure of its contents, it probably included a promise to release the game on Xbox 360 in time for the Christmas of 2006 in return for a ridiculous amount of promotion (or something like that).

Either way,  any chance of delay was impossible. At this point their top priority became salvaging whatever they could in order to release at least something.

 

The tile screen for the Xbox Live demo

Nothing new was shown until September at Microsoft’s X06 event, where they released a new demo on the Xbox Live Marketplace (see here). The improvements from 2005’s TGS demo (apart from the day-to-night cycle) were back and all the problems in the E3 demo seem to have been solved and so the hype increased for the what had been dubbed the must-have game of the holiday season.

 

 

And then release day arrived.

The Result

The biggest game of the year turned into one of the worst games ever released by a AAA publisher almost overnight.

Fans felt angry, frustrated and betrayed. It was glitch-ridden to the point that many parts became unplayable and even the highly acclaimed soundtrack couldn’t make up for the surplus of game-breaking flaws.  It was as if any sign of progress shown in the Xbox Live demo had just been an illusion, a figment of the player’s imagination.

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It’s a long way to fall back to earth…

In fact, all the improvement were only ever made to the demo itself. The team had prioritised making it look like the game, which was anywhere but complete, was ready to be sold. By the end of development, the production team had completely ignored the Quality Assurance Tester bug reports, just to make sure they managed to complete it in time for a Christmas release, something we all know shows quite clearly in the final release.

 

How did this happen?

The question most people ask is “Who’s to blame?” and that was actually something I wanted to try and answer when I originally started researching this, but ultimately there isn’t any one party more at fault than the others.

It’s easy to look back and point the finger at whoever you believe to be most despicable, however, the whole incident ultimately comes down to a series of false assumptions, miscommunication and unrealistic expectations. Perhaps the game would have been properly finished if they could have delayed it’s release for another six months, or if the team’s size wasn’t ever decreasing and the management wasn’t being shuffled around, or if the game was less ambitious, or if…I could go on, but we can only hope this story doesn’t ever repeat itself…

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By the way, who’s excited for ‘Project Sonic 2017’?

 


 

Sources:

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