Late last year, Sega made a number of changes to its US business that has made a big impact on the future of its famous blue mascot.
Sonic, which celebrates its 25th year in existence this month, has a new management team with the purpose of establishing the hedgehog not just as the games pioneer it once was, but also as a major entertainment property.
Part of that team includes Takashi Iizuka, the VP of product development and creative services. Iizuka is a long-serving member of the Sonic team, having joined the company as Sonic 2 was being completed, and he was one of the designers that moved to San Francisco to work on Sonic 3. He has been involved with the brand ever since.
Joining Iizuka is Sonic's new chief brand officer Ivo Gerscovich. Gerscovich is a veteran marketer, having held roles at Fox, Paramount and Vivendi, and is charged with establishing the character both in and outside of gaming.
Here, we speak to both Gerscovich and Iizuka on the future of the iconic franchise.
Takashi Iizuka, you have worked on so many Sonic games. What would you say has been the most significant?
Iizuka: It's really Sonic Adventure. That title right there was the fundamental turning point, and is the game that cemented Sonic as we know him today. It was the transition between the flat 2D games into the 3D world. In Sega America, a lot of people were experimenting with things, because it was a time when the industry was moving from pixel to polygon. There were a lot of tests done internally on how to get a 2D game into a 3D world, there were a lot of failures, but most of the things I saw I thought: ‘This is great, but it is not Sonic.' Sonic Adventure was the thing the team was able to create that felt like a Sonic game, with a new version of the character, but still had the attitude and graphics and the 3D world that I was looking for. Without that title, everything we have seen since would have been different.
Sonic has become closely linked with Nintendo. The Boom games have been exclusive to 3DS and Wii U platforms. How have you found that collaboration?
Iizuka: When Sega stopped making hardware and just started doing software, the first platform that we released Sonic on was a Nintendo console. We felt, from the very beginning, that the Nintendo platforms were where the passionate Sonic fans were. Historically that is where our relationship started with Nintendo. Unfortunately, the Wii U didn't manage to get as many gamers on the hardware as we would have liked. That was unfortunate for Sonic because we didn't get the mass of people to enjoy the content. But Nintendo has always been a great partner, we have Mario & Sonic at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, Sonic in Super Smash Bros... we really appreciate the work that they do.
How would you evaluate the current state of Sonic The Hedgehog as a franchise?
Gerscovich: Well this year it's Sonic's 25th anniversary. Sonic has been inducted into the Hall of Fame this year by the Strong Museum. Sonic won the most votes out of 20 different gaming brands all with a long history. So we were really honoured and flattered.
We have now sold over 350m games - either physically or downloaded. We have been on more platforms than virtually any other game. Sonic is the star of his fifth TV series now, and even on mobile we have had over 200m downloads from the last few games. So the state of the brand is really, really strong and we are now energising it even further. We are rolling into 100 countries with the television show - Sonic Boom - and it is doing great in the ratings. On the games front, we have a number of different games we are putting out this year, including Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice on 3DS, Sonic will appear in LEGO Dimensions, there is Mario & Sonic at the Rio Olympics, and Sonic appeared in Sega 3D Classics. We have a lot of new announcements to come.
On the consumer product front, we have over 100 licensees around the world, and doing great, UK and Ireland as well, we have a number of new licensees, too, such as Insert Coin with the anniversary apparel, Bioworld and Iron Gut with the limited edition prints. We have a movie that is being worked on
by Sony Columbia Pictures, and the producer is the same one behind Fast & The Furious, so it should be a lot of fun. On the digital front, we have been winning awards for our social media, we have close to 9m followers across our community, and that is growing exponentially. It is a great time for the Sonic brand and we look forward to it growing even further.
Iizuka: We are doing a lot to really expand what Sonic is as a character. We are really trying to reach out as much as possible and break into many interesting areas to entertain people. From my perspective, Sonic is a games character, and I feel there is a lot of value to the Sonic The Hedgehog games that we need to keep providing to the players. That is the challenge that I have. We do recognise that the Sonic Boom games that came out two years ago... there were elements that I was not really happy with, and we do regret that it got out there. But they are out there, we did listen to a lot of people's requests, demands and complaints, we really took it to heart, and with Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, we have really tried to make sure that the games we release are of the right quality. We want to release good titles to all the players, and that is the challenge for us moving forward - making sure our games are great.
Gerscovich: We are really focused on turning Sonic into an entertainment icon, not just a games icon. We want to go across all platforms and elevate his status even further, which explains why we are doing so much.
We have seen a decline in the kids market on console. Has that had an impact on Sonic at all?
Gerscovich: We are constantly monitoring all platforms and making sure we are where the audience is. One thing to keep in mind is that we have an older audience, a lot of core and retro gamers, and we have a kids audience as well. They both have different habits and different ways of playing. So we need to make sure we are on as many platforms as possible for both audiences, and you will see that as Sonic evolves.
So what is your long-term ambition for Sonic? To re-establish him as a leading games icon?
Gerscovich: We want to take Sonic to as many touch points as makes sense, but also to deliver the best quality content on all of those platforms. Whether it be mobile or console or consumer products, Sega is really putting a huge emphasis on quality. Some of the previews that are starting to come out about Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice, is that we are delivering on that. One of the things about Sonic Boom: Fire & Ice is that we held the title for a year, which is not something Sega has traditionally done, but this focus on quality is really about trying to take Sonic back to where it used to be.