Gaming Under Construction 0.04- Sonic 4: Sega’s Important Experiment



The biggest innovations are often born out of necessity, as the cliche goes. In this console generation, Sony is mired in last place and is beginning to take more risks than Microsoft or Nintendo. On the third party software side, there is no better company than Sega to exemplify a struggling underdog in 2010 that is starting to take risks with a huge upside.

Facing struggling sales for many of their titles, Sega is actually doing something remarkable in 2010 – listening to its most diehard fans.

Despite decent sales for games like Sonic Unleashed, diehard gamers have almost unanimously thumbed their collective noses at most of Sonic’s 3D outings, even beginning with the faux-3D Sonic 3D Blast. The popular opinion is that Sega needed to go back to Sonic’s 2D roots, and to stop expanding the universe of characters and gameplay techniques.

Beginning a few months ago, Sega began teasing a new Sonic game – Project Needlemouse. Over the course of a few months, Sega revealed small bits of information about the game. At this point, we know now that Project Needlemouse is actually Sonic The Hedgehog 4, the first true sequel to the core series in over a decade. There is still much to be revealed, all being done with countdowns and online buzz marketing on SonicTheHedgehog4.com

Taking a page from Nintendo’s New Super Mario Brothers Wii book, Sonic 4 will be a modern upgrade of the original gameplay style – 3D graphics set on a 2D gameplay plane. The game will be old and new at the same time – a formula that has paid off in spades for Nintendo.

However, unlike the Wii Mario release, Sega is taking some bold risks in presenting Sonic 4. Rather than opt for full-blown retail release of a complete game, Sega is breaking it up into separate pieces, and releasing it solely on digital platforms. Each episode will contain a number of levels, with additional levels coming in the months ahead.

This style of release for their marquee property indicates that Sega, like Sony, is willing to take a leap into uncharted territory.

Just as I wrote about last month, there are opportunities in the digital space to capitalize on true diehard gamefans, cultivate anticipation to that fanbase, and release a more niche product with a lower development cost. Facing development costs that continue to spiral upward, companies like Sega are turning to the these fans – the ones that buy the most games – to support them in stemming the tide.

Early screenshots and information are promising – Sega seems to be taking the right approach in producing a game that the fanbase is clamoring for. It remains to be seen if the game delivers on its promises, but if it is does, it will be an important barometer to see how much digital distribution can truly be relied upon in 2010 to change the gaming landscape.

Sonic 4 isn’t unique in some of its risks, but it might be the largest scale experiment in the digital space for an existing console superstar. Sonic 4 is attempting to do many new concepts all at once:

Small Scale Development Scope
Rather than creating a gigantic, cutting edge 3D universe for Sonic, developers have created a colorful 3D engine that runs on a 2D plane. The difference in cost between developing this style of game as compared with a full blown HD 3D game is exponential.

Digital-only Distribution
By skipping retail, Sega is slashing costs across the board – executives needed to close deals with retailers, packaging costs, shipment costs, the overhead of predicting demand for a title (at which Sega seems particularly poor). By going digital only, Sega is able to further cut its development budget for Sonic 4.

Targeted Niche Games
As the gaming industry continues to grow in size and breadth, there will be more and more segmenting of the marketplace. When Sonic 1 was released in 1991, furry-animal based platformers were considered mainstream; the same can not be said in 2010. Fans of platformers, traditional shooters, RPGs and other smaller genres would be better served with games specifically targeted towards them.

Cheaper, Episodic Content
The expectations for a full priced, $60 game on an HD system are larger than ever. By focusing on the $10 range for a digital game, Sega is lowering the barrier to entry – gamers scared to spend $60 might be much more willing to give a game a chance at $10. If the game is good, providing a regular stream of new content will provide the gamers with new content and developers/publishers with additional revenue.

Platform Agnostic
Sonic 4 will be available on WiiWare, Xbox Live and Playstation Network – and the Apple AppStore. This means it will also be playable on iPhone, iPod Touch and the upcoming iPad. Outside of Steam or another PC-focused platform (which they will hopefully add at some point), Sonic 4 will be playable almost everywhere.

Suddenly Sega is doing a 180 and repositioning themselves – instead of creating new Sonic games solely aimed at younger gamers, Sega is becoming the ultimate fan’s company. They are creating an entire game at the behest of the online diehard gaming community. They are marketing it solely to websites – weekly teases, gameplay screens and character designs. They are making it available to the maximum amount of players and platforms.

Sega is using their diehard fanbase for the powers of good! So many times the intentions of big companies are in question – but in this case, at least the majority of what’s being done is fan-intended.

Nintendo has proven it can expand the videogame fanbase to new sections of the population. However, there is still a huge segment of the existing core gaming audience that wants something specific, something nostalgic, or something experimental. Sonic 4 is an exciting product for developers, fans and publishers alike. Sega has a broad range of diehard-focused properties that seem unlikely candidates for modern updates. But if Sonic can prove a business model for a digitally distributed, niche-focused, episodic game that actually turn a profit, everyone wins. Fans of Panzer Dragoon, Guardian Heroes or Nights should be rooting for Sonic 4 – not only for it to be the game that it needs to be creatively and developmentally – but for the market to be ready to adopt this style of product.

Jonathan Widro is the publisher of Diehard GAMEFAN and owner/CEO of the Inside Pulse Network. He has worked as a writer and publisher for over a decade, after working in game-related retail for over five years. He has worked in game development, most notably creating user-generated gaming portal Fyrebug and over 100 Flash games. Gaming Under Construction, Jonathan’s perspective on the gaming industry, is published every Wednesday on Diehard GAMEFAN.

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