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VolatileMike

How was Sonic Team capable of making Unleashed?

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A new graphics engine, new character designs, a new art style, a fully orchestrated soundtrack, two completely new gameplay styles, multiple bosses and cutscenes, seven hub worlds, seven level hubs, collectibles, and miles-long stages. In a game that came out just two years after the last main title and split in development with Secret Rings and the upcoming Black Knight. 

How did Sonic Team accomplish such a feat? I can see how Colors and Generations were made concurrently in the same three years, as those were very meat-and-potatoes experiences with little extra flair. But Unleashed? How?

Its never really made much sense to me. 

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In the interest of fairness, as ambitious as Unleashed was, it isn't the most competently-programmed game.  I mean, by all accounts it's leagues ahead of Sonic '06, but even the HD version suffers from awkward controls, massive drops in framerate, and more than a few annoying gameplay modes here and there.  It's probably my favorite 3D Sonic game, but I'd say even as relatively recent as Unleashed is, it's about on par with SA1 in terms of functioning mechanics, which isn't exactly a good thing.

As for the graphics and music, Sega has never had a problem with awesome visual and audio.  It's arguably the strongest part of their overall company right now.  Even '06 (barring the disgusting in-game models) had top notch graphics and some amazing music here and there.

Basically, what I'm saying is that as much as I love Unleashed and commend its effort and ambition, it doesn't really seem that much of a stretch that the game would come in the aftermath of '06.  The divided development team does raise some interesting points, though, as it is amazing what they managed to pull of with the resources they had.

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On Retro's Wiki, it says that work on The Hedgehog Engine, which Unleashed was built on, started development in 2005, so while '06 was being developed, the seeds that would later become Unleashed were probably already being planted in the background.

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29 minutes ago, Nepenthe said:

There was probably an incentive or a genuine desire to get the franchise back on track after Sonic 06, and the team simply pulled together to make that happen. You can glean the attitude from the PR. Hashimoto was the first guy outside of Iizuka and Naka to put his name and face to a Sonic game in the public eye in a long time. We also saw Sega producing interviews and side material with their own employees. There's an interview of Tomoya Ohtani out there, along with a blog by two female employees who played around with Sonic merchandise. It just seems like they all came together around a common cause and were having fun at the same time, until the game got ripped apart.

Adding and expanding on this bit, I think the Storybook games and Sonic 2006 have elements of it too. Granted, Hashimoto could be said to have left more of a mark with his take on Sonic with Unleashed, which could be said to be unchallenged in overall presentation (graphically, marketing, scope/vision, etc.) for a Sonic game of today's era. but I do think the games all collectively have imprints by their respective production crews that --for better and for worse-- aren't seen in the Sonic games released before and afterwards. The latter half of the 2000s could be described as an "autuer" period for Sonic in general, in which you had people other than Iizuka and his close associates steering the reins when it came to developing Sonic games.

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Because they had the will to do it.

They wanted to shove money into it, and they were really hyping it, producing interviews, talking about development, they even got Marza to produce a separate animated short. Sega wanted to "fix" the Sonic franchise after SHTH and Sonic 06 and make something astounding that would make Sonic an earth-shattering success, and where very disappointed that Sonic Unleashed didn't perform like they thought, and frankly? Holy shit does it show.

 

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Well, for one, I think you have to be careful not to glorify Sonic Unleashed. Its an impressive that the game turned out the way it did, and I'm glad you like it, but it isn't as detailed and varied as you imply. Stuff like hubs and collectables aren't really big feats, especially for Sonic. :V

But as for how Sonic Team pulled it off, I think it comes down to Sonic Team developing like its life depended on it, because, well, it kind of did. Really, if it weren't for Unleashed's good sales and well-received day stages, Sonic Team and Sonic as a whole probably wouldn't have survived past 2008. It knew it had to make a big impression to change the course of the franchise, so it went all out. I think it helped that there was a purge of staff during the aftermath of Sonic 06, and with that, came new employees with a different perspectives on how to best handle Sonic. The old philosophy clearly wasn't working anymore in terms of producing good quality output, so having staff that wasn't set and complacent in the ways of old was a big help.

Actually, Unleashed had very inconsistent quality and plenty of technical issues, and that might well be the result of clashing philosophies, employee overturn, and other turbulence in the transition from old Sonic Team to new Sonic Team.

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As highly impressive as they made the engine, the visuals and the audio, Unleashed definitely still has its flaws.

Textures in HUB worlds in even some of the stages can still be kinda of low-res and not good to look at, some sound effects are pretty generic (QTE being a door bell and the generic vase breaking sound) and the frame rate goes through a lot of drops.

But, the main thing is, they really wanted to make a big come back from the disaster of Sonic 06, so they did the absolute best they could.

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1 hour ago, Haalyle said:

As highly impressive as they made the engine, the visuals and the audio, Unleashed definitely still has its flaws.

Textures in HUB worlds in even some of the stages can still be kinda of low-res and not good to look at, some sound effects are pretty generic (QTE being a door bell and the generic vase breaking sound) and the frame rate goes through a lot of drops.

I really do want to harp on the textures, because a lot of them really do look like ass in Unleashed particular. You can really see it a lot in like Windmill Isle and Chun-Nan on the mountains in particular. There's also a lack of tessellation, which really stands out on rock-faces. In addition, I don't like how faces in general are animated in Unleashed, especially for NPC's.

Colors and Generations, while the lighting doesn't look as fantastic and I always felt that Sonic animated much better in the stages themselves, I felt like those two were much better when it comes to hiding lower resolution assets. There wasn't a moment in those games where I felt like "that's a really ugly ass texture" or "that rock looks like it's made out of play-doh".

Not to mention, Generations was better at some things like vegetation. Compare the openings of Windmill Isle Act 1 to Planet Wisp Act 2, and where Windmill Isle is lacking in terms vegetation, Planet Wisp is just incredibly lush and teeming with it.

And the fact that Unleashed runs at 880x720 and still fails to hold 30fps is a pretty poor showing in terms of performance. Generations and Colors both hold their target framerates at 1280x720 and 480p widescreen.

This doesn't change my opinion for wanting a PC port of Unleashed, because I do think that there are still parts of the game that's visually spectacular such as the lighting, but I don't think it's seriously the most amazing looking Sonic game period, because it really does drop the ball a lot.

 

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We can point out legitimate flaws all we want, but there's a sheer scope and ambition to the whole thing that you probably wouldn't normally associate with a 2 and a half year development cycle. While some areas are rushed, you have to look at the levels and ask yourself how they did this. I know we all love Mario examples, but imagine if a glitchy, unstable version of Super Mario Galaxy came out just two years after Sunshine. Two years! I'm just repeating myself at this point, but it blows my mind. 

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Windmill Isle is a seaside location while Planet Wisp is an alien forest. Of course the focus on vegetation is going to be different. A fairer comparison would be Jungle Joyride Day, which has far more cohesive elements and in general is still prettier to look at. Seriously, Planet Wisp in Gens is hard on the eyes, and I don't know if it's the lighting or the color choices; in general it just looks washed out with blue and kinda gross looking:

sonic_generations_planet_wisp_by_sonicth

249620081117195031.jpg

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@Nepenthe

I reckon its the lighting. The lighting in Unleashed is vastly superior to any subsequent game. The shadows are stronger and more natural, light source is less....incandescent/strobe-like and resembles sunlight more.

Now in the case of Planet Wisp, it could be due to the fact that its an alien planet. But I do agree. Its a beautiful stage in terms of the way it was constructed (textures models etc.) but the lighting makes everything too bright and washed out. There is no contrast, which is what Unleashed did way better.

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4 hours ago, Nepenthe said:

Windmill Isle is a seaside location while Planet Wisp is an alien forest. Of course the focus on vegetation is going to be different. A fairer comparison would be Jungle Joyride Day, which has far more cohesive elements and in general is still prettier to look at. Seriously, Planet Wisp in Gens is hard on the eyes, and I don't know if it's the lighting or the color choices; in general it just looks washed out with blue and kinda gross looking:

sonic_generations_planet_wisp_by_sonicth

249620081117195031.jpg

And I disagree, you can still se a clear lack of foliage on the bottom with the same general ugly ground textures, something that Generations is much better at concealing even if it's still there.

Also, I find the opposite in regards of being oversaturated. The bloom in Adabat in particular is truly ridiculous, especially when you're on the open water sections where all the light is reflecting off the water. That in conjunction with the abysmal framerate makes Adabat more difficult to play than it should be. Generations can be bland at times in regard, but I don't find it as blindingly oversaturated when you get to the particularly bright stages in Unleashed.

I feel like it's the case with Unleashed graphics, that it hit a bit of the old Icarus syndrome. They made this graphics engine with an extremely advanced lighting system that was ahead of its time, and strived to provide graphics that would be on par with a Pixar movie. But it ended up being too much for the consoles, and that all came to bite the game back and it caused poor framerates, a sub-HD resolution, ugly textures, and untesellated geometry. Unleashed is a pretty game for 2008, and in some ways still manages to dazzle to this day, but it's aged poorly in many regards.

Generations and Colors, while they might not have the same level of splender, acted within the limitations of their respective consoles and they came off better for it. They ran at a smooth 30fps, at an HD resolution (at least in regards to Generations), and there's a generally smarter usage of resources so that something like bad textures don't just stick out like a sore thumb. Especially given the fact that these games can be run on PC also helps in that they can be pushed to higher resolutions and be ran at 60fps.

I'm not saying that Unleashed is a bad looking game, but (and I hate this term) it's pretty overrated in terms of its visuals. Yes, its GIA is revolutionary, and yes the general art direction is impressive. But it comes at the very clear detriment of other areas, and I come to value Generations and Colors more wise and careful management of resources.

 

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I feel performance and graphical direction and visual pleasantness are separate issues despite the effect that one can have on the other; that a game that doesn't perform at its best doesn't necessarily look worse than a game that does. The fact is, Unleashed has far more impressive lighting and color usage, which I feel leads to a more pleasant direction than Colors which for some reason has this whole thing where everything is washed out in brown (on top of being, well, a Wii game) and Generations where there's a shitload more aliasing and flat lighting that results in things like no shadows and lipstick on the characters. No one denies that the later games perform better; the question is, in terms of how they look, what does that have to do with anything?

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It'd be interesting if Sonic Team were to make a special edition of Unleashed, a Mark II for current gen consoles with 1080p, 60fps, a few more stages and some small control and physics tweaks. That would probably require more effort than SEGA is willing to put in right now, though. 

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32 minutes ago, VolatileMike said:

It'd be interesting if Sonic Team were to make a special edition of Unleashed, a Mark II for current gen consoles with 1080p, 60fps, a few more stages and some small control and physics tweaks. That would probably require more effort than SEGA is willing to put in right now, though. 

A PC port while you're at it. 

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Just on the subject of Jungle Joyride vs Planet Wisp. Jungle Joyride might well have a few more iffy-looking textures and maybe Planet Wisp does have more foliage in places but here's the thing. JJ does its best to maintain all of the water, greenery and lighting for an entire 4-5 minute level. PW might well have a more consistent framerate but you're barely in its natural environment for 45 seconds before you're sent into Rocket Rocket Spike Spike Factory Zone. 

Jungle Joyride is definitely the more visually impressive for me overall. I do think it's a particularly extreme example of Unleashed's framerate issues though.

Actually, on the subject of framerate, am I the only one that didn't seem to see as much of an issue with it as much as you'd be led to believe online? I would say that Unleashed is quite a different experience between the 360 and PS3. The 360 locks the game to 30fps which leads to a more consistent framerate with stutters here and there with JJ's jungle chase sequences probably being the worst of it. The PS3 meanwhile lets the game try to get to 60fps and while I hear that works out in a few places like Holoska, the game as a whole isn't up to it and so you get an experience that fluctuates wildly between the 30 and 60 marks.

I've played the 360 version since Christmas 2008. I did get to try the PS3 version once a year or two later and the framerate issues were immediately apparent to me compared to the seemingly smoother 360 version.

2 hours ago, Nepenthe said:

 Generations where there's a shitload more aliasing and flat lighting that results in things like no shadows and lipstick on the characters. 

I've been trying to describe the issue with the characters' mouths in Gens for years now and I could never get it down in words so thanks for the lipstick comparison! That weird brown fill to Sonic's mouth is really off compared to how natural it looked in Unleashed.

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9 hours ago, VolatileMike said:

We can point out legitimate flaws all we want, but there's a sheer scope and ambition to the whole thing that you probably wouldn't normally associate with a 2 and a half year development cycle. While some areas are rushed, you have to look at the levels and ask yourself how they did this. I know we all love Mario examples, but imagine if a glitchy, unstable version of Super Mario Galaxy came out just two years after Sunshine. Two years! I'm just repeating myself at this point, but it blows my mind. 

I can tell you from my own experience with learning Game Development, Unleashed really isn't something huge and massive. They come up with ideas, concepts, then storyboards and the like. Seriously, when you're given a time-limit, then you go by it and that's all Unleashed happened to go through (although, I'm pretty sure the engine was made with even more years, so they had things to off by, so really, they already had some tools down). It really doesn't surprise me that they managed to make this game in a two-year deadline.

I going opposite with the example, I actually think Gens Planet Wisp looks better than Jungle Joyride. I love the colours of Planet Wisp and the lighting of Jungle Joyride. But there's something oddly beautiful with Planet Wisp that Jungle Joyride is missing.

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I think it's a bit underselling the game to say that it's not ambitious in any sense or has no appreciable scale when a little less than half the playable content was a new gameplay style that is exceedingly inefficient to develop for due to the amount of land that must be accounted for alone, something a Sonic Team artist lamented in an interview themselves and something people constantly point to as a negative against the boost gameplay itself. The fact that it was developed on schedule doesn't seem to have much to do with that; almost every game has a schedule that it's roughly bound to. 

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I really wish a game would come out that looked as good as Unleashed again. I remember being really excited to see the characters in Sonic Generations with the lighting and graphical presentation that Unleashed had. One of the more impressive things about the game to me was just how much I seriously sat Sonic down just to stare at stuff. Looking at the Tails and Amy NPCs when they were just standing there talking was amazing. I kept thinking back to how they looked in SA2 and almost felt overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. There was even a time where I had Sonic just sit there in the Empire City hub for 30 minutes just so I could soak in the atmosphere and music. That and because it was hella nostalgic to me due to Sonic and New York City having such a heavy relation towards my experience with him.

When Generations came out however, I saw the characters lined up in that white void and not only was I never able to get a competent close-up look on them but when I saw them in the cutscenes they just didn't look as good as they did in Unleashed. It didn't really look like the models and graphics had changed all that much so it must have been the lighting or something. Either way, I kind of got a little upset. All of Generations kind of felt like a step-down in the looks department. Especially comparing something like Eggmanland to Chemical Plant.

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To answer the OP:

A lot of the old people in the Adventure-06 era got fired, others got moved around / eventually found their way back in through other means, new young recruit (many which grew up as Sonic fans IIRC) were added to the team, and Sega gave them a big budget and marketing campaign to push as hard as they could that the series wasn't dead.

This gave Sonic Team huge ambitions, and we got developer's blogs that talked about working on the Hedgehog Engine, creating the concept art / translating it into the game, interviews with specific members of the team, and other things that shown that they really were putting all the love they could into this. Everyone developing Unleashed seemed legitimately happy about it and eager to show people what it felt like to work on it; a thing the company hadn't done since Sonic Adventure.

The only problem is that, going unfiltered, Sonic Team made half the game about an alternate gameplay style wrapped around a bizarre concept in itself, and then put an overwhelming amount of focus on it in the marketing, leading to an all-around disaster on their behalf. That said, I don't believe the quality of nearly anything in Unleashed made for a bad game (except for the Tornado sections...), and I do feel like the amount of hate it got was extremely unwarranted, but I also couldn't blame people for being so turned off from such strange ideas in the first place.

I believe a 'Sonic World Adventure' with no Werehog and twice the daytime levels would've been so far better received than what we got with Unleashed that it (rather than Colors) would've been seen as Sonic's big "return to form" or whatever. And maybe we'd be in a timeline right now where Sonic's public perception is far less sour, since people would've seen Sonic's fall from grace quickly picked back up (what could've been) rather than dug deeper down (what we got), but there's no way to really know that would've been the case. Can't time travel and all, you know.

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Remember that the Sonic Team that developed Unleashed was pretty fresh - SEGA reshuffled Sonic Team a lot after 06's poor reception, and brought in a whole load of fresh hires for Unleashed - even some just out of university. That meant you had a lot of people eager to work on a Sonic game, as opposed to a tired team who have been grinding a Sonic game a year for a while. That had to have a psychological effect on the team.

The Hedgehog Engine is probably the culmination of Sonic 06's 'Day/Night cycle' thing that was shown in the early days of development at TGS. Lighting, especially for huge stages like in Unleashed, can be a massive time sink for development from what I understand, so the Hedgehog Engine was designed to streamline that process  and free up development time for everything else. As a contrast, UnWiished was probably developed in roughly the same amount of time, and has less day stages and far more Werehog. 

They also were finally familiar with PS3 (which was quite difficult to use, despite being slightly more powerful) and Xbox 360 hardware, whereas 06 had them learning how it worked whilst also on a tight deadline. Knowing the machines capabilities also allows you to really push that sucker for graphical fidelity, rather than the glossy Gamecube graphics of 06.

As for textures... nowhere near a deal breaker, and certainly a compromise based on the fact that for most of the time you're either flying through stages at hundreds of miles an hour or focussing on beating up robots. 

The main reason that Sonic Unleashed, which is a pretty big project, works so well is that the basic moving parts are pretty simple. 06 isn't as grand in scope, yet has a huge range of player characters with differing abilities to balance and craft levels for, as well as Hard Modes and Multiplayer, huge hub worlds, and a lot of in engine cutscenes to animate. Sonic Unleashed pared a lot of that down, focused on two distinct gameplay styles (with one minigame), far fewer cutscenes, and so on. The project was simply better managed to be finished to a reasonable deadline, by a new, eager team.

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