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

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.






8 responses to “Gaming Under Construction 0.04- Sonic 4: Sega’s Important Experiment”

  1. guest087 Avatar

    so its being produced by the people who made the sonic advance and sonic rush games? I saw the video and saw how sonic ran; it reminds me a lot of those games. I think even though they call it “Sonic 4” they may as well call it “Sonic Rush 3”. Did they scaled back the graphics so it’d run on the iphone? I don’t think so, especially since street fighter 4 will be on the iphone. It just looks like a prettier DS game.

    I remember reading reviews for the old sonic advance games: the words “repetitive” were thrown around.

    This product was once a must-buy but now that they mention gimps I’m on the fence about buying it.

    I predict this will sell more on the iphone/itouch than anywhere else (combined?).

  2. Aaron Sirois Avatar

    Mentioning the Mario franchise doesn’t really work here. NSMB didn’t need to happen. The 3d games are selling perfectly fine.

    What Sonic needed to do was stop sucking. The people clamoring for a new 2D entry were mostly hoping that this kind of approach would work.

    Also, Capcom is clearly far ahead of Sega is this regard, having released Mega Man 9 and soon Mega Man 10.

    Notice how they didn’t have to screw the customer over with episodic content either.

    Cause when you add all of the pieces together, Sonic 4 will probably cost as much or more than a retail copy would, yet you won’t have a physical copy at all. Not to mention that, except in rare cases, a player can feel like they’ve been screwed with this episodic nonsense.

    I expect the first part to sell the most, and they’ll lose customers with each subsequent release.

  3. Widro Avatar

    mentioning mario works perfectly here – they are always compared, and both are making modern-styled 2d versions of the franchise beginning. i would gamble sega is definitely continuing the 3d line for sonic too.

    capcom is doing something similar with megaman 9 and 10, absolutely and it’s worked out for them. i prefer the 2d remakes to have modern graphics, but i like the retro 8 and 16 bit games capcom and konami have done too. the difference is that megaman is not their top franchise

    overall you’re making assumptions based on cynicism and negativity, which is natural with sega in the past, but just based upon what they has shown and how they have acted so far with sonic 4, it looks like they are trying to learn from their mistakes, and i fail to see how that is ‘screwing the customer’ in any way.

    if it turns out to be a terrible game with fizzling quality as the episodes continue, then it will appropriate to blindly criticize

  4. Nalyd Psycho Avatar
    Nalyd Psycho

    I’m intrigued and looking forward to reviews. I’m finding I have less time for gaming, so fun retro games I can play for 20-30 minutes and stop are rising on my want list.

  5. guest87 Avatar

    These Sonic games…

    The thing is, it doesn’t compare to mario games only because the original crew is working on those new games just as they did on the old ones.

    The thing is, it doesn’t compare to megaman games only because the original crew is working on those new games just as they did on the old ones.

    The retro remake of the old megaman game didn’t just look like an old game, they were blogs about it development stating that megaman 9 had the same limitations as 1-6.

    I suspect this new sonic game to be comparable to the handheld ones. I hope it doesn’t though just as:
    I certainly hope it doesn’t have bottomless pits in the middle of the stage in the middle of nowhere.
    I certainly hope it doesn’t stifle the freedom to really run anywhere.
    I certainly hope there’s just a jump button and maybe even a spin-dash.

  6. […] Diehard GameFAN | Gaming Under Construction 0.04- Sonic 4: Sega’s Important Experiment […]

  7. […] of my personal most anticipated games for E3 2010 is Sonic The Hedgehog 4 and Sega had it playable at their booth for Nintendo Wii as well as Xbox 360. Gameplay-wise they […]

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