The Making Of…
To make a racer this good took AGES
How Sumo Digital paid tribute to a rich gaming heritage with Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
Rogue’s Landing is one of Sonic & All-Stars
Racing Transformed’s best and most beloved tracks. Paying homage to Overworks’ Dreamcast classic Skies Of
Arcadia, it’s a nostalgic jaunt that sees you gliding past air galleons during the magic hour. But when the time came to show the track to one of its creators, Sumo Digital surely couldn’t have anticipated the response it received. The RPG’s co-director Shuntaro Tanaka sat in silence during
Steve Lycett’s presentation, and remained quiet after it had finished. Suddenly, he began to cry. But he quickly explained these were tears of joy. “He said, ‘It’s brilliant – you’ve perfectly captured what the original game was like. You’ve made me really, really happy,’” Lycett recalls.
It’s a moment that was emblematic of the game’s development, a journey of highs and lows that began when Craig Duncan and Simon Woodroffe, both now at Rare, first conceived an idea for a follow-up to the warmly regarded
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. “It was basically, ‘What if we had vehicles which transformed and [travelled across] land, air and sea?’” Lycett says. “That was the initial back-of-a-fag-packet idea that became the basis of Transformed.”
With Sega prepared to pour plenty of money into the game’s budget, Sumo was keen to pull out all the stops, adding features that were missing from the original Sonic & Sega All-Stars
Racing along with characters fans had been requesting, while canvassing forum opinion to gauge the most popular ideas. “We made everything fourplayer; we made sure every single track had its own individual [style]. In a way, we almost didn’t care what Sega thought, as long as the fans were happy,” Lycett says. “We said we wanted to deliver absolutely everything we could, and we never pulled back from that, to the point where we were sneaking updates and various bits and pieces under the radar.”
But that original concept caused its fair share of problems, as art director Andy Ritson explains. “It was already being discussed with Sega before they actually put it to the team!” he laughs. “When we found out, it was a very scary proposition, because it meant having to create three lots of landscapes for every track.” Newly arrived design director Gareth
Wilson, meanwhile, found himself in a similarly daunting position. Having emerged from the chaos of Bizarre Creations’ closure, he found himself involved in building a racing game of a very different kind to the Project Gotham games he’d helped to design. “It took me about four or five months to get my head around how to build a track,” he concedes. “We had to rub the rough edges off one another,” Lycett agrees. “There was a period of adjustment,” Ritson diplomatically concludes, prompting raucous laughter from Wilson and Lycett.
The team settled on a summary that would define the game: rollercoaster, not racing. This helped establish a design methodology for tracks that was unlike anything Wilson had previously encountered. Rather than tight hairpins, tracks would have long, sweeping corners with large, recognisable landmarks and plenty of verticality. For Ritson, this meant placing “something fantastic-looking” over the brow of every hill. “It was always about trying to create memorable moments,” he says. “So when you went around a corner, the next vista would open up in front of you on the straight just afterwards.”
In other words, the tracks would look quite simple from a top-down perspective, but the complexity would come from power-ups, boost pads and alternate routes. Even if all corners could be taken without braking, Sumo was keen to ensure that players would be kept busy at all times. Lycett: “You’re always either drifting, or firing weapons, or dodging. You’re always trying to boost or roll or do something. Like on the radio, they have dead air where nobody talks – it was like that: having the player doing nothing [but accelerate] was a cardinal sin to us.”
Though the handling model was tweaked from its predecessor, Sumo found getting the land vehicles up and running comparatively straightforward. The water sections were another story. The original plan was to make the water feel as authentic as possible, with wave physics that would affect the movement of each vehicle’s aquatic form – much like Nintendo’s Wave Race games. It didn’t work. “Fun and accurate were diametrically opposed, really,” Ritson tells us. “You could make it really ‘sim’-like, but it just wasn’t fun.” After producing 47 different prototypes, eventually the team settled upon something similar to Midway’s Hydro Thunder and its XBLA successor, though only after trying “pretty much everything” else. “We worked through big waves, small waves, tidal waves, whirlpools, you name it,” Lycett says.
This was, however, nothing compared to solving the problem of flight. At first, players had the freedom to fly anywhere; naturally, most would take the shortest possible route as the crow flies to the finish line. “We tried forcing them into tunnels, we had them running along a spline, we had a fly-by-wire [system], but it was just awful,” Wilson recalls. “You never felt like you had proper control, so that didn’t work.”
Months of work were about to go to waste. Sumo had built a course based on Seaside Hill from Sonic Heroes, attempting to slot land, sea, and air sections into a circuit where they perhaps weren’t a comfortable fit. Eventually, a decision was taken to write it off and start again. “The tricky part was trying to make it feel like they were all part of the same ‘family’,” Wilson explains. “Because when we started, the car felt like one game, then the boat felt like a completely different game, and then the planes felt like a completely different game again.”
After a great deal of experimentation, the three disciplines eventually began to coalesce into a consistent whole. “We’d been faffing with the controls for about a year and a half!” Wilson laughs. “Everyone was getting really annoyed because we couldn’t finish it.” In the end, it was a change of location that saved the day. Having scrapped Seaside Hill, the team
“IT TOOK ME ABOUT FOUR OR FIVE MONTHS TO GET MY HEAD AROUND HOW TO BUILD A TRACK”
began to build what would eventually become Dragon Canyon, based on cult favourite Saturn rail shooter Panzer Dragoon. “The course helped us out,” Lycett says. “The way we solved flying for that one was to put you in a canyon. The road was dead easy, then the water was in the bottom of the canyon, so you could only follow the river, and the flight [section] was within the sides of the canyon, so you couldn’t get out of the bloody canyon, no matter what! Now we had a track that supported [all three], we could actually start to put it all together.”
It had taken a long time, but finally the core design was taking shape. Not that it stopped Wilson and his design team from tinkering further. Now land, sea and air racing were working together, shortcuts, stunts and alternate routes could be added. Still that wasn’t enough. “You started that project, didn’t you?” Lycett asks him. “What did you call it – Project Unicorn or something stupid like that?” Wilson laughs: “It wasn’t Project Unicorn, but it was something [equally] ridiculous. But the idea behind it was that you could ace the whole of the track, so you could go through the entire track and boost the whole way around.” Having spent so much time and money building the tracks, this had to be a clandestine operation. “We had to keep it a secret, didn’t we?” Lycett recalls. “We did it on the sly so you could get all this set up and make it really playable without anyone catching us out on the senior management kind of side.”
Eventually, time ran out on the idea. “It had to be the way it was, because everything was slowly getting built around it,” Wilson says. Ritson and the art team had, after all, been creating tracks around a handling model that wasn’t even fully functional. “Though we knew where it was going, really, even though we didn’t have anything finalised,” he admits. “By that stage I think we’d proved to ourselves we were [on the right track]. After the first course, which was a bit of a failure, and a real learning process, we really got it right on the second.” Yet if Sumo was hoping to avoid the Mario
Kart comparisons the first game had attracted, it was out of luck. The team gathered to watch Nintendo’s E3 2011 briefing, having heard whispers that the latest Mario Kart would also feature land, sea and air racing. As the footage of Mario Kart 7 was unveiled, Sumo found its worst fears realised. “It destroyed us,” Ritson says. “We were gutted,” Wilson adds. “Of all the versions of Mario Kart to do the land, sea and air thing, they had to do it now!”
But once the initial shock had died down, Sumo realised its game held a few advantages over Nintendo’s. Mario Kart 7’ s gliding sequences were not so much about flying as falling with style, and its underwater racing amounted to little more than sub-aquatic sections of track. “They weren’t doing the same thing,” Wilson says, “but it was a bit of a shame, because ours was coming later and it looked like we’d copied them. We never thought they’d do something like that.” And, perhaps, Nintendo may have been more inspired by Sumo’s efforts than the reverse. “I also thought they’d never move away from just Mario IPs,” Lycett notes, “but they did that for the most recent Mario Kart.” With a chuckle, he continues: “I thought if I ever saw Mario Kart [feature] a lot of different IPs, they’d be treading on our turf!” With the possible exception of Smash Bros, it’s hard to imagine another game matching Transformed’s level of fan service. Sega needed to make sure it had the right studio for the job, and tested Lycett on each of his visits to Japan to see exactly how far his knowledge of the company extended. “It felt like an exam!” he admits. One creator in particular liked to keep Sumo on its toes. “The absolute worst one – and I love him to bits – was Iizuka-san, who’s in charge of Sonic Team,” Lycett says, affectionately. “We were doing the Summer Of Sonic [fan convention], and we’d finally got the character design for NiGHTS signed off. We’d been through a million processes, but he always loved to let me just dangle a little bit. In this case, we’d finally got vehicle renders done and we were going to show it, and literally just before I went on stage I had to get his approval because he’d not seen the final design. And by god did he make me sweat!”
Stuffed with cameos and hidden secrets – the celebratory Race Of AGES track has unofficial nods to Segata Sanshiro and Ecco The Dolphin – Transformed has everything a Sega acolyte could possibly need, though Sumo thinks there’s plenty of ground still to explore in a potential follow-up. “We could definitely do another one,” Wilson says. “For this one we’d just got into our stride in the last couple of months of production. We really knew exactly what the game was; we’d got all the tracks and all the tools.” A remake for PS4 and Xbox One is, Sumo admits, one of the most popular fan requests. “We could probably run it on the PS4 in 120 frames a second in 3D,” Lycett says, clearly excited. “Can you imagine that?”
Or perhaps something totally different might be in order. “If we ever do another one, we should have a fighting game where the characters are inside mechs of themselves, so you’ve got Sonic pulling Eggman’s arm off and beating him to death with it,” Lycett muses. Ritson concurs: “Yeah, that way you could do damage without damaging the character.” Wilson adds, simply, “Genius.” There’s a brief pause as this trio of Sega fans considers the wisdom of such an idea, before Lycett says, “Shall we sack off what we’re doing now?” You sense he’s only half-joking.
Sega was delighted with the finished game, eventually asking Sumo to produce a version for release in Japan. “It was the biggest honour we could imagine,” Lycett says