When Sonic Boom was announced as a TV show, toy range and — perhaps most importantly — a game for Wii U and 3DS, there was an explosion of interest around the web. Much excitable chatter in those initial hours wasn't so much about the setting of the show of the potential style of the games, however, but on the character designs. In fact the words "what have they done to Knuckles?" was one of the most common sentences when the cast (above) was revealed.
The furore has perhaps died down a little now, and we can start to look ahead with some anticipation to the games themselves. While Sanzaru Games is taking on the 3DS iteration, most attention is on the home console entry from Big Red Button, a studio making its début yet boasting an impressive pedigree in its staff. Bob Rafei, best known for his time at Naughty Dog, is very much the front-man for the studio, and he recently spoke to Gamespot about those character designs that prompted such fierce debate among series fans.
In comments that may surprise those that already think the designs are quite a departure, the developer did experiment with even more distinctive looks, before feedback from the Sonic Team put a sensible break on proceedings. Takashi Iizuka, who heads up the Sonic Team, didn't find the process easy.
We went pretty wide with the designs at first, and by going too wide, we lost some of the spirit of the character and had to rein it in. Sonic Team and Sega were very open-minded about our approach, and accepting of a lot of things we were doing. Ultimately, because of some of our really wacky ideas, we did find the boundaries of things we could and couldn't do.
We experimented with different colors and surface features on the characters, such as fur or scales, and quickly Sonic Team came back with their discomfort of that. They were great guardrails for us to understand when we were deviating too far from the character. Without their input, the character would have been a lot more alien and different from what Sonic is known for.
...Early on, when we had our first review of all the crazy things we wanted to try, Iizuka-san came down to Los Angeles and looked through all the different concepts.
I felt sorry for the guy because sometimes he couldn't actually look at the screen — it was too traumatic seeing all the crazy stuff we wanted to do. Over the course of that meeting, when we were coming up with new ideas, we had a very sincere — just two adults talking — conversation about why a character should or should not wear pants, and that was a very surreal moment in my life and my career. But it helped us understand the rules of clothing in this universe. Any small adjustment went a very long way, so we had to be very careful.
As for the looks that we now have, it's explained that the visual touches applied to each character are there to make their abilities and characteristics instinctively understandable, with fashion choices reflecting their personalities.
It's really important for me to make sure when you have an ensemble of characters that they all have distinct shapes so you can quickly [internalize] the variety between them. With that comes a quick understanding on who these characters are. That's why, for instance, we requested to beef up Knuckles, to make him look more like the bruiser he is.
From my perspective, it was important the characters have a practical heroism to them and not vanity, which is more fitting for villains. The arm and leg wraps were inspired by fighters and American football players — two groups who don't really care what they look like so long as the end result is that they kick ass at what they do. That was something I wanted associated with these characters. The sports tape is meant to show the characters are not vain; it's just a part of their daily routine. When the world is in jeopardy, you don't have time to worry about what you look like. It's a more grounded approach for the characters.
This is in contrast to Eggman and his very formal, military-esque attire. That's a very conscious design choice because his character is more vain and is very concerned with what his robots look like and what he looks like. Hopefully you can see the thought that went into this and not just something we threw out for the sake of it.
The dust has now settled since that flurry of activity when the Sonic Boom spin-off series was announced. Let us know what you think of the designs and Rafei's comments, while below is the behind the scenes video originally released in February.