Dear Javed: A Response to DEAR SEGA // Sonic Re-design

Javed is an animator by trade, and it shows! The video’s presentation is clean and lively. Certainly the work of a professional.

I believe if you’re going to criticise the creative content of others, bring a creative solution to the table with you.

This is the opening statement to Javed’s critique “DEAR SEGA // Sonic Re-design”. It’s a statement that I disagree with. It’s hard enough to talk about games and articulate clear points about specific design elements, there’s no need to make it harder by throwing in your own ideas. It’s overreaching to suggest that all critics should attempt to step outside of their direct experience with a game and expertise with critical analysis, then pretend to be a designer. Doing so complicates the critique process and runs the risk of under-analyzing the source, over-scoping, and distracting the audience from the critical conversation by focusing too much on your ideas, which are immaterial to your critique of the game. Javed suffers in just this way: he over-scopes by addressing the entire Sonic series, fails to analyze any part of any one game sufficiently, and offers fairly generic design suggestions.

“Before we go further I think it’s important that we look your sales and ratings and take a look at how your platforming rival Mario is tracking as well. “

Games criticism and analysis has little to do with sales and ratings. A critic should be able to play a game and say something meaningful about the game or their experience. I can’t help but think that the reason Sonic doesn’t sell well these days is because the games aren’t very good. And so all talk of marketing, demographics, and how the “true fans” are now 30-year-olds with jobs and money is completely beside the point. Games criticism isn’t about sales at the end each fiscal year; it’s about the games at our fingertips.

After throwing all these numbers and graphs at us, the most Javed extracts from the data is “Mario is doing something right here.”

“When Sonic jumps he doesn’t become a ball straight away like the original games . A second action like the x button triggers a charge attack, and here he is powerful against enemies. Down and x smashes sonic into the ground. Left and right and x gives sonic a kind of air dash. While in his basic jump mode he’s vulnerable and this adds great tension into the gameplay. “

Javed describes how he would change Sonic’s mechanics and says this approach is different from the most recent Sonic games. His approach isn’t so different–many Sonic games already feature the mechanics Javed proposed. I can’t tell if he knows that these Sonic mechanics exist, or if he thinks they weren’t good enough as mechanics, or if he thinks the level design wasn’t good enough to highlight these design elements. The more recent games like Sonic Unleashed, Sonic Generations, and Sonic The Lost World feature gameplay that’s a refined mix of classic Sonic 2D platforming gameplay, 2D Sonic Rush gameplay, and the on-rails, runner-style of Sonic and the Secret Rings. Many of these games feature some kind of air dash, homing attack, and ground slam.

“[Sega hasn’t] arrived yet at a platform where Sonic’s speed can thrive in a 3D environment”

The big question is why hasn’t Sonic worked in 3D. Javed supports his claim about Sonic in 3D by describing the various surface-level differences between Sonic games without diving into specific examples, or giving reasons rooted in principles of game design. Almost every statement is missing the specific examples that would give his analysis weight. His discussion of Sonic Generation, again, uses sales and ratings data to make a claim about game design. There’s no mention of the camera design, level design, enemy design, or mechanics design. Though I know 2D platformers are easier to design and easier for players to control, the specific reasons must be articulated.

“I believe the best way to use Sonic’s speed …  is a momentum-based system where the player determines how fast or slow they wish to proceed.”

When is this not the case for a Sonic game? I know there are a few auto-runners out there where players can’t directly control Sonic’s speed. But for all the others, players have lots of control over their movement.

Javed does better when he talks about puzzle design and puzzle ideas for his version of Sonic. In his attempt to elegantly solve the problem of multiple gameplay types and the need for Sonic to have lives and restart levels, Javed proposes a power-up backpack and ring currency system. I like it a lot though the application is a bit janky. Javed’s idea essentially takes a power-up and makes it portable, like the hold items in many Mario games, but then turns the activation of the power-up into a more dynamic mechanic.

I find it weird to introduce a “summon block” mechanic into a platformer because, based on some of the examples given, it needlessly adds “summon” as a main verb along side MOVE, RUN, or JUMP. It doesn’t fit with Sonic’s platformer roots and Javed’s principle of Sonic games being all about moving and managing inertia.

The entire analysis lacks the kind of detail that would lend it substance, and then Javed lowers the level of critique further by resorting to incredibly short-sighted faux game design rules of thumb such as “respect the intellect of the player.” These phrase-crutches often treat players and developers as if they are in a kind of personal struggle. Thus when a game disappoints them, some gamers talk as if they were directly insulted, when by no means is a game’s quality some kind of intentional direct attack on the player’s intellect, time, or wallet. There are many reasons why games fail to be great–making games is unbelievably hard. The failure to deliver is not a personal slight aimed at every player, it’s the end of a long journey that mostly consists of well-meaning people making understandable mistakes.

Dear Javed, the talent and energy you’ve displayed is impressive. Let’s have a chat about Sonic’s game design sometime to see if we can aim the conversation in a more Design Oriented direction.