By now there shouldn’t be a single video game enthusiast that doesn’t know about the infamous SONIC THE HEDGEHOG released in 2006 for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, commonly referred to as Sonic 2006.
With its unpolished gameplay, ridiculous glitches, awful writing and disappointing visuals there’s not much that wasn’t laughable about the final product SEGA put out for the 15th anniversary of its own company mascot. Even SEGA themselves have recently made easter eggs bashing the existence of Sonic 2006. But one question keep on popping up whenever anybody gets their hands on the game; just how did SEGA, a professional AAA publisher and developer, allow this to happen?
Get ready, because this is one really weird and long answer.
In The Beginning…
Our story begins long before Sonic 2006 was a thing at an unspecific date somewhere before fall 2004. Yoshinari Amaike, whose latest work had been designing enemies in Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg was part of a small development team at SEGA that had come up with a new game concept. The idea was to have a game set in a realistic world where the player would be playing around with physics to manipulate the world and solve puzzles. The Havok engine was already in consideration by the team, due to having shown great promise in earlier games and tech demonstrations around the time.
But as the fourth quarter of 2004 came around, Shun Nakamura got a phone call about how SEGA was forming a new team to start working on a game for Sonic’s 15th anniversary in 2006. Nakamura‘s biggest role in development up to this point was having directed the Dreamcast hit Samba De Amigo, though he did have past experience with Sonic games, having worked on Sonic R, both Sonic Adventure games as well as the recently released Sonic Heroes. For this new project however, Nakamura was going to take on a major role, as he was assigned to be Chief Game Designer on this grand new project.
The team grew for the next couple of months with Yojiro Ogawa being set to direct the title and series co-created Yuji Naka once again taking the seat as producer. Amaike also joined the team as a character artist, tasked to come up with new characters for the title. When Amaike learned that the team wanted to use a more realistic world design than previous games he remembered the project his old team had wanted to create, and suggested that the player should be able to manipulate and play around with physics at will. It was decided that this would indeed be the direction the game would head in and the ball was finally moving.
Work on the project begins in early 2005 and it doesn’t take long before SEGA demands to have a presentation behind closed doors for press of their new game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) of that year. Since the game was very early in production there was no feasible way to have a gameplay demonstration ready for E3, so the team put together a quick tech demo showing the visual style and general tone they’re going for with the next Sonic title. The demonstration was said to be presented in real time and and the general buzz from press in May 2005 was positive.
In the video, which surfaced online shortly after E3, we see Sonic running through a thick forest and leaping out over a large green field before entering a small temple-like structure which would later be reused in the level Kingdom Valley in the final game. In here, depending on the presentation, Sonic would either look around in first person mode, or SEGA would demonstrate the footage being real time by tossing out boxes of rings into the room. This would later be reused in the final game as Tails’ attack, for reasons unknown.
After the first person section, various robots drop in and Sonic leaps onto them before outrunning their fire and bouncing out of the temple onto a large open grass field. Here is where another asset that would later appear in the final game appears, the newly redesigned Egg Carrier. It drops in several more robots that gun down Sonic in a surprisingly brutal sequence before Sonic leaps up from the ground, turns into Super Sonic and rams into the crowd of robots ending the demo. It was a powerful demonstration and to this date it’s often brought up as an example of what a lot of fans wishes modern Sonic games were like.
So after a successful E3 it was time to get back to work. The team now had a set standard to aim for and it was clear they would have to present live gameplay sooner rather than later. This is where the development of Sonic 2006 goes south.
The Exodus of Sonic 2006
It’s summer 2005 and production is moving forward with Sonic 2006, the next big presentation will be at Tokyo Game Show (TGS) in September and the team is working hard to make things presentable in time. The story has begun taking shape and some early in-game levels were created to test the physics. While the team has faced major struggles with working on the new hardware and have had to basically recreate everything from previous 3D Sonic games from scratch, it’s not a problem that any team working on new generation tech hadn’t expected.
The target platform during development for Sonic 2006 was PlayStation 3, but the game was also meant to see release on Xbox 360 and Wii. The latter might come as a surprise to some, but it’s actually true. Before the team had received the development units for Nintendo’s new console, they assumed it would be easy to port a PlayStation 3 game over to it as they had done the previous generation with the Gamecube developed Sonic Heroes and Shadow the Hedgehog. Once the team got their hands on the dev units however, things changed.
Realizing that porting a game developed for PlayStation 3 to Wii would be a major feat, Ogawa, the director of the entire Sonic 2006 project, decided to split the development team and take charge of the part responsible for porting the game to Nintendo’s system. While doing this, the team focusing on core development was left without a director. As such, directorial duties were passed down to Nakamura who had to pick up from where Ogawa had left off and work with this smaller team to get something ready for TGS. At least the two were still working on the same game, so they were still somewhat on the same page and able to communicate.
However, that didn’t last long as Ogawa soon realized that the idea of porting Sonic 2006 to Wii was not worth trying and instead took the sizable portion of the development team he had charge of and left the Sonic 2006 altogether to work on a new game, Sonic and the Secret Rings. At this point in time Nakamura had to not only take over Ogawa‘s duties, but do so with a smaller team than originally intended for the project. Why SEGA allowed this to happen is unclear, but it’s not hard to imagine that they wanted to make sure they had Sonic covered for Nintendo’s system as well and just went with the flow.
TGS was approaching and despite the grand setbacks Nakamura and his team managed to get a playable build ready for the presentation, which was once again behind closed doors. Like before, it didn’t take long before it leaked online and people were once again impressed by what was shown. Naka proudly presents the new game and reveals the title to be SONIC THE HEDGEHOG, a name that him and Nakamura had decided on together to indicate that this was meant to be major entry and starting point for a whole new generation.
There’s a lot of things worth noting about the tech demo presented at TGS when compared to the final product or even just later demonstrations of the game. First of all, the level presented in the tech demo would later become Kingdom Valley in the final product. In the TGS demo it’s a fairly short level created to easily show off Sonic’s abilities and the engine’s capabilities. The Havok physics engine is heavily demonstrated with Sonic knocking enemies into debris and knocking down bridges much like in the final game and we’re also shown a dynamic day-to-night cycle that were meant to allow stages to be playable at all times of the day. This never made it into the final game, which might explain some of the odd jumps in time of day in the final product’s story.
Sonic also seems to move less stiff in the demo, as boostpads doesn’t seem to lock him into a fixed path like in the final game and his Homing Attack doesn’t send him straight forward but rather in an arch downwards as well as continuing said arch until he hits ground or a target rather than stopping and dropping Sonic straight to the ground. Grinding on rails is also much faster, giving you a good sense of speed rather than the rather leisurely rides of the final game. Not only that, but the camera seems less obstructive as well, even though it’s fairly zoomed in on Sonic when standing still and moving slowly, it zooms out when he speeds up or reaches a more open area, seemingly to allow for better maneuvering. In the final game, nothing like this happens and the stiff movement of both Sonic and the camera is one reason why even the less broken sections of the game can become unplayable.
Everything suggested that Sonic 2006 was going to be a hit. Of course, nobody knew about the team’s downscaling or troubles with the system and SEGA wasn’t about to let the good buzz from press and fans stop them. As such, on October 13th 2005 SEGA officially announced SONIC THE HEDGEHOG for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, releasing on Sonic’s 15th Anniversary with the launch of its official website, sporting screenshots taken from their E3 presentation that spread like wildfire across the net and are still used on the game’s official Xbox Live Marketplace page.
Work continued on the game despite all the problems they were facing. On October 12th, a day before the official announcement of the game, the team wasn’t even sure on what they would be able to create for the game. We can read in the revision notes from the game’s leaked script that they had considered a desert, snow and forest areas for the hubworld. In the end, we only see a forest area, but this original content explains why the script asks the player to “Go to the desert!” early in the game in order to progress. Originally the world was to be much larger, but even a year before release they realized they were in trouble.
And things were not about to get easier as rumours began to circulate that Naka were going to leave SEGA and start his own studio. Though it would take several months before this was publicly revealed, he not only left Nakamura and his team in their troubles, but he took several members of the team with him as well to create Probe, an independent video game studio. Once again the team was downsized and once again they found themselves in more trouble.
What do you do when you have a game too large for your team to handle? You start cutting content.
The Road to E3 2006
Sonic 2006 was next meant to be seen at E3 2006, with a story-focused trailer and playable showfloor demo. As such, English dubbing started in February 2006 in order to get lines ready, but the script was not finished. Very recently, several characters and things key to the story had been changed or renamed. The Scepter of Darkness that imprisoned the new villain Mephiles had gone through multiple changes in just these few months. First being referred to as the Tears of the Sun, then the Book of Darkness before finally becoming the Scepter of Darkness. Changing parts of a script is not uncommon, but we’re talking changes that occurred so close to recording that the final in-game audio mentions the Book of Darkness.
Despite dubbing having begun, plenty of characters were yet to have their auditions finalized. This included the character Princess Elise, who is a main character in the story and arguably more important than some of the playable characters. As such, 4Kids actress Veronica Taylor lent her voice as a placeholder for the opening sequence so that it could be used at E3. But a lack of voice acting was the least of their problems with getting the game presentable. With hub areas being cut and features being taken out of the game to simplify development, the already unfinished script had begun making even less sense in context to the game’s world. Something that would become apparent in the final product.
The team basically had one goal now, the slap everything together as well as they could and not make more changes to anything. The leaked Sonic 2006 script’s last revision was made on March 10th 2006 and when compared to the final game, only minor sentence restructures were made from there. Sure enough, on April 14th 2006 SEGA relaunches the Sonic 2006 website in order to hype people up for E3. The website sports revealed our new characters Silver the Hedgehog and Princess Elise for the first time as well as Shadow the Hedgehog being a playable character.
Sure enough, May 2006 comes around and SEGA kicks off what they call the Road to E3 where they invite the press to learn about the games SEGA will be showing at the expo the week before it’ll be revealed to the public. Sonic 2006 is one of the game and it’s touted as the first Sonic game set in a human world, referring to how Sonic will have to interact with people in a realistic sense in order to progress. The game is confirmed to be released fall of 2006 and while press had yet to get their own hands on the demo, the initial reaction proved quite positive.
On the showfloor, people got a chance to play as Sonic in Kingdom Valley and as Silver in Crisis City. The demo was available on both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 units with the major difference being that the PlayStation 3 version had a higher framerate, not unlike the final game. Though the Silver portion is mostly identical to the final version of the game, the Sonic side of the demo is a bit more interesting due to it being the same level as demonstrated at TGS the year before. You can watch the demo here.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Sonic now moves the way he does in the final game, fixed boostpad paths and a very stiff sense of direction and jumping is clear from just watching someone else play the game. The Homing Attack is no longer curved in an arch and it has the habit of dropping you down after a short while like in the final game. The camera is nowhere near as dynamic as the previous tech demo and closer to that of the final game, you can clearly see how much was taken out of or just restricted in the game, most likely due to problems these otherwise good features caused in environments not built for them.
As a quick side-note, something else that’s interesting about Sonic 2006 at E3 2006 was the official flyers given out at the expo listing PC as one of the platforms the game was going to be released on. This was thought to be a mistake at first, but as the manual for the PC release of Sonic Riders would later confirm, the game was indeed planned for PC. Whatever happened to the PC version and why it was never mentioned beyond these two minor logos we do not know, though it’s likely it was cancelled because of the backlash against the game.
Most people who tried the game at E3 thought the same thing, that while there was potential in what was shown, it was very unpolished. Jumping would often get you killed, Sonic would stick to things he wasn’t meant to stick to and the game was more confusing than it was fun. It doesn’t help that despite the game being just a few months from release, the game is said to be roughly around 40% complete. And yet, despite these setbacks people proved somewhat hopeful that SEGA knew what they were doing.
Then things got worse again.
You’ll Ship It Now!
At this point the team working on Sonic 2006 knew they were not ready to produce a fully functioning product in time for release. They had lost too much workforce, they had too many problems with hardware and engines and they had already cut a whole ton of features intended to be in the game. The only way Sonic 2006 was going to be anything remotely decent was if they were given a significant delay and more assets to finish the project. Of course, in the end, that would be up to SEGA. SEGA didn’t very much like the idea of this.
Why? Well, the story goes that SEGA had signed a deal with Microsoft that they would be launching the game on Xbox 360 before holiday 2006. What exactly the deal pertained we do not know, but it was most likely based on promotional content as Sonic 2006 was mainly promoted as an Xbox 360 game in the west. As such, there was to be no further discussion on release. Nakamura and his team had to release the game when promised and that was it. As such, the team got to work at finishing as much of the game as they possibly could.
The next expos Sonic 2006 were presented at was Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany and a second appearance at TGS. Despite both being major events, no new builds were produced and the showfloor housed the same demos that had been shown at E3 2006. Until Microsoft’s own X06 event on September 27th 2006 when a new demo was not only on the showfloor, but released worldwide on the Xbox Live Marketplace. Chances are this was part of the Microsoft deal, as well. Of course, now that everyone with an Xbox 360 had their hands on the demo you’d think we would have noticed something was wrong, right?
Wrong. This is where things get even weirder.
The X06 Demo once again lets us play through Kingdom Valley with our blue friend, but this time things are different. First of all, the downwards Homing Attack arch from the TGS 2005 demo is back, allowing you to use the ability to keep momentum and speed going, Sonic no longer loses control and falls down when you run into a wall and he has increased running speed as well. He will also no longer stand still stuck to walls or ceiling. Light dash works in many more places than before and even the camera has been given tweaking to make some areas easier to navigate. You can fill up the action gauge properly by collecting chaos drives from enemies. While it’s all still very rough, it was actually clear that improvements had been made here.
And yet none of these improvements made it into the final game. In fact, these fixes are only available in the X06 demo of Sonic 2006 and nowhere else. Why is this? Well, it seems the build that these improvements were built upon was exclusively done on the Xbox 360 demo build and never on the core game being developed on PlayStation 3. It’s important to note that the Xbox 360 version is a port, despite releasing earlier than the PlayStation 3 version, and therefore anything specifically added to an Xbox 360 build will not necessarily make it into the game. We don’t know why these fixes weren’t recreated in the final code in the time between X06 and release, but whatever the reason, it’s a strange outcome.
On November 14th 2006 Sonic 2006 released in North America on Xbox 360 and quickly became one of the most infamous bad releases a AAA publisher had ever put out. The damage was done, there was nothing the dev team could do beyond this point. The PlayStation 3 version was given one more month of development but SEGA had no interest in putting money towards fixing up the game, and as such the only major difference between the two versions was the increased framerate on the PlayStation 3 version.
Whose Fault Is It Anyway?
The development meltdown is not an excuse for the state Sonic 2006 was in upon release, but it is an explanation. From Ogawa and Naka leaving the project in the hands of a far too a small team with no experience on either PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 to SEGA caring more about their promotional deal with Microsoft than getting the game properly finished, there’s not really anybody that come out with their hands clean here. The final product seems to have been built from whatever scraps the team could put together in order to make a game that was playable from start to finish, stages reuse assets and sections within themselves and nothing seems to be connected in any cohesive sense.
Sonic 2006 is not a game that was designed, it’s a game that was salvaged.
In 2007 the original director of Sonic 2006, Ogawa, famously stated “The reason why we probably ended up with what we see today, involves a lot of reasons. One is that we did want to launch the title around Christmas, and we had the PS3 launch coming up, but we had to develop for Microsoft’s 360 at the same time and the team had an awful lot of pressure on them. It was very hard for the team to try and see how we were going to come out with both versions together with just the one team. It was a big challenge.”
This was a sentiment that Nakamura shared as well in his final update on Sonic 2006‘s development blog; “Development on a next-generation machine was very difficult, with us with a lot of difficult aspects of things we didn’t understand. Understanding the variety of new technology, understanding the new hardware, handling the enormous amount of information and handling the new technology, these were all aspects that far surpassed both my expectations and experience.”
I feel these two statements sums it up quite well. Sonic 2006 was an ambitious project at first, and developing for two new consoles would be hard for any single team, let alone a single team downsized to half a team at best. While the final outcome of Sonic 2006 is a terrible game in every right, it does serve as a great example of just why development needs to be taken seriously by those in charge. Because less time, staff and resources than intended will never amount to anything but a worse product that will do nothing but harm your brand going forward.
Next year is Sonic’s 25th anniversary. I sure hope SEGA has learned their lesson, because I have some doubts.
Sources and Other Articles on Sonic 2006:
- Cutting Room Floor – Sonic The Hedgehog
- Gamespot – Sonic Goes Next-Gen
- Gamespot – Sonic at E3 2006
- Gamespot – Sonic at TGS 2005
- Gamespot – Sonic at X06
- IGN – Creating Silver The Hedgehog
- IGN – Sonic at GC06
- Sonic Retro – Kikizo Interview with Ogawa
- Sonic Retro – Sonic The Hedgehog Development Page
- Sonic Retro – Sonic The Hedgehog Leaked Script
- Sonic The Hedgehog – Official Website (Internet Wayback Machine)
- Sonic The Hedgehog – Soleanna News (Translation of Final Entry by Irrevilent)
- YouTube – E3 2005 Tech Demo
- YouTube – E3 2005 Tech Demo (Other Footage, Ring Tossing)
- YouTube – E3 2006 Showfloor Demo
- YouTube – TGS 2005 Tech Demo
- YouTube – X06 Demo
I hope this little write-up on the development history of Sonic 2006 have been interesting and if I’ve gotten any detail wrong, please feel free to link me sources stating otherwise and I’ll gladly update it when I find time to do so.
- Silver’s original name was Venice and he was conceived as a mink rather than a hedgehog, he was also intended to be orange. He was renamed Silver on November 22nd 2005 according to the leaked script.
- Silver’s role in the game’s story is often likened to Trunks from Dragon Ball, SEGA did this deliberately as the leaked script refers to Silver’s character with “Essentially, think Trunks from Dragon Ball Z”.
- Princess Elise also went through a name change as she was originally named Princess Olga, her name was changed on March 5th 2006 which was after English dubbing had already begun recording.
- According to a SEGA representative at E3 2006, the game was going to include online multiplayer and not just local splitscreen.
- A lot of the pre-rendered scenes in the game were originally meant to be ingame sequences, including the forest scene with Sonic and Elise.
- A lot of the bosses in the leaked script are called Amigo Bosses, the Amigo system is what the game calls the sections where you switch to secondary characters. This suggests you were originally going to fight some of the bosses as these characters too, the cutscenes sometimes indicate this as well. For example; when finding Elise in the desert, Sonic calls out Tails’ name just before the Egg Cerberus boss fight to which Tails responds “Got it! Let’s go!”. This boss is listed as an Amigo Boss in the script.
- Many of the cutscenes have names that make no sense, such as the scene Elise’s Confession in Shadow’s story which doesn’t have anything to do with Elise but rather deals with E-123 Omega confessing to what he did in one of the timelines.
- Between defeating the final boss in Silver’s story and triggering the ending cutscene, for some reason Silver is given the town mission “Get info on Mephiles”. This doesn’t happen for any other character and is not seen in-game, but only in the leaked script.
- There’s an unfinished version of New Soleanna in the Sonic 2006 data in which Shadow has a new town mission and cars are driving on the street, the cars don’t have proper path finding and will run into buildings all the time. You can see it here.
- It was almost impossible to find officially published screenshots from SEGA representing the final release version of Sonic 2006 for this article. Most official screenshots that are available online are either from the 2005 tech demonstrations or from early 2006 demo builds.
- In 2010, SEGA delisted Sonic 2006 as a downloadable title from the Xbox Live Marketplace because they felt the game was harming the Sonic brand by being available for purchase.