Interview: Steve Lycett on Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
Dash into this exciting interview in time for the 10th anniversary of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
November 16, 2022 marked the tenth anniversary of the initial release date of Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. It began on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. However, it soon rolled out with the launch of the Wii U. The game continued arriving on new platforms including PlayStation Vita, Nintendo 3DS, Steam for PC, and iOS and Android. It even went on to be part of the Backwards Compatibility program for Xbox One and the Series X|S consoles. Now, you can race with Sonic and friends at 60FPS!
As we did for the tenth anniversary of Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing two years ago, we spoke with Steve Lycett, Executive Producer at Sumo Digital for the SEGA All-Stars series. Lycett was kind enough to take the time to look back with us at how this title came together.
The following has light edits for clarity/formatting.
Transforming Sonic & All-Stars Racing
Mega Visions: I guess the first place to start is: When was the decision made to make a sequel?
Steve Lycett: Pretty much as we wrapped up the original All-Stars Racing. We’d learned a lot from making that game. And we had a bunch of unused ideas and elements we wanted to change or improve. Really it was the “hook” we were missing, speaking of which…
MV: When and how did the idea for transforming vehicles come about? Would you say the inspiration was “more than meets the eye”?
Lycett: …so here is something, this came from SEGA as a suggestion from Simon Woodroffe (yes, of Simon the Sorcerer fame!). The idea of doing an All-Star Racing sequel with transforming vehicles was just packed full of potential. For me, it was a chance to go wider on what SEGA IPs we could pull in. Notably, I had visions of AfterBurner and OutRun. For others the idea of getting off track was key. And yes, I think we had a few fans of those robots who saw it as a way we could pay a homage!
Speeding across land, sea and air
MV: Were they always going to be land, sea, and air based? Or were there other considerations, like say — just as examples– submarines, hovercrafts, or big stomping robots?
Lycett: Pretty much from the start it was land, water and air. Indeed, the first ‘test’ track we did was set around a caldera (flooded volcano). You did the track on the first lap. On the second, the side of the caldera fell away and flooded the “base” of the level. So, you raced on water. Then, for the last lap, we had a Robo-fish smash the track to make a ramp that launched you into the air. You can already see the base ingredients, we also added some simple mines to drop and missiles to fire.
But… what it showed us is that we had a lot of problems to fix. We understood driving fine. However water was problematic in terms of flow and how that affected handling. Once we got into the air, as the level was “open”, most people just pointed themselves at the finish line instead of following a defined route. Plus, as we allowed the player to transform at will, this meant they all changed into a plane immediately and ignored 2/3rds of the race!
We spent a lot of time resolving those issues. We worked getting water handling right and finding ways for you to follow a course in the air. Plus, we introduced the transformation “zones” that triggered the transform. So, we took control of when the player could transform — or limited the options at least.
In the end, we opted to scrap the initial track completely. Most of these problems were fixed by the track design in conjunction with elements like the transform zones. The next track we did was the Panzer Dragoon one. If you look at that track, you’ll see the road is tightly defined. It breaks to drop you into the water in the base of the valley. When you do take to the air, you’re restricted by where you go by the canyon walls. As a player, it feels natural. But let me tell you a lot of effort went into making that feel the case!
Mario: “Hey Sonic, can I copy your homework?”
MV: Between the release of this game and its predecessor, Sonic & SEGA All-Stars Racing, Nintendo would introduce underwater driving and hang gliding in Mario Kart 7. Was there any sort of reaction from your development team, or from SEGA, to this, despite the similar ideas being rather quite different in the end?
Lycett: Yeah, I remember sitting in the office feeling pretty glum when we heard details before the reveal of Mario Kart 7. We sat and watched the reveal trailer together and once we saw how they’d chosen to deliver their air and water sections, we pretty much all cheered in relief as we were way more advanced than what they were showing. SEGA weren’t worried throughout; I think they’d realized we were pushing the concept pretty hard.
The SEGA All-Stars
MV: Compared to the first game, how involved was SEGA? More hands-on, or maybe less? About the same?
Lycett: Over the course of working on OutRun, Virtua Tennis, and both SEGA Superstars Tennis and All-Stars Racing, we’d gained a lot of trust and respect with the Japanese studios, and if anything, one of the problems we jointly had with SEGA was working out which IPs made sense to include. We wanted to make sure there were tracks and characters for existing fans, players completely fresh to SEGA classic IP, and also make sure it was accessible to all. Therefore, we had to politely decline inclusion of some of SEGA’s newer games to try and create a suitable cast of characters and worlds that dug instead into their rich history.
There was a lot of support from SEGA Europe, both on the production side but also on design and art. I miss working with the team as whilst we did have the occasional disagreement (We had to keep pushing back on the idea of adding a story…), it was a very collaborative effort and I think we all realized we were working on something very special.
Narrowing it down to the best of the best
MV: A lot of new fan-favorite characters were added for this entry, while others were cut from the last roster. Can you tell us about how the decisions were made for who should be added, cut, and kept?
Lycett: The first challenge here is to realize that for every character, we effectively had to build and animate not just the character themselves, but also three versions of their vehicle. That is a lot of art to create!
Although we knew we wanted to aim at having 25 selectable characters, we started with a much bigger list of over a hundred. We then went through a few passes. First, did SEGA own the IP, and could we use it? If the character was from an older game, could we adapt the design to work in 3D? Did the character look fine from the back in a vehicle? Was the character audience-appropriate?
That got us down to closer to 50 characters, then we started concepts of vehicles. Could we create a suitable vehicle? Was the vehicle design approved by the IP holder within SEGA? That dropped quite a few. We either couldn’t make it work and look good, or the resultant design wasn’t suitable for the game.
By the time we’d done we wound up at 25 for the core game, phew! And again, that’s also making sure we have a wide variety of characters to appeal to fans old and new.
How do you like my new ride?
MV: Some returning characters wound up with new vehicles that made them feel rather different from before, such as Shadow and Eggman. What sort of considerations were there for these cases?
Lycett: You’ll notice we have no motorbikes in Transformed. All vehicles conform to a required footprint to ensure bikes didn’t have the advantage the second time around! We very almost didn’t have Shadow in, as he usually rides a bike!
That footprint is important. If you have narrow vehicles, they’re harder to hit with direct line fire weapons, plus they get an advantage when it comes to avoiding obstacles or weaving through the pack. Equally if you have large bulky design, you’re a much easier target and find getting through the pack harder.
We defined the footprint early and made sure vehicles constrained to it in the name of better balance, it’s fine to have some variation and of course we lent into vehicle stats too, but even there, we allowed the player to apply mods so they could tailor the handling to a degree.
That did mean we had to wave goodbye to the bikes (which, as a biker, still makes me sad!) and to Eggman’s MAHOOSIVE original vehicle, but it was in the name of gameplay.
Now that’s what I call a crossover!
MV: One of the more, shall we say, “controversial” elements of the game among fans was the inclusion of real-life sports celebrity Danica Patrick and Disney character Wreck-It Ralph. Personally speaking, I thought these felt like cool, modern throwbacks to SEGA’s history of utilizing celebrities in their titles and working with Disney, respectively. But what was the view on their inclusion from your side of things? And to address some fans’ concerns, did they “take” slots that could have gone to other SEGA characters, or were additional slots allotted to fit them in?
Lycett: They certainly didn’t replace any SEGA characters, these always had slots specified for guest characters. After all, we’d had Banjo and Kazooie in the original All-Stars Racing. SEGA worked to get those guest characters and like any of the other characters, we went through the same process of “Can we make this work?” and that included vehicle concepts and making sure we could build and animate the characters in a way they were coherent with the rest of the game.
Danica made sense, as she is a real-world racing driving, it also helped us bring in a female icon to ensure we had a diverse cast. I know the day it was announced there was a HUGE increase of interest in the game from an audience that normally wouldn’t be looking at a racing game with a hedgehog in a car, so in terms of broadening the appeal of the game and helping introduce a new group of players, I can only say it was a success!
Ralph, we loved the second it was mooted. Here was a “new” classic video game character, and we had some amazing collaboration on the vehicle designs with Rich Moore and the team at Disney. That was a special moment for me, when we announced Ralph’s inclusion at Sonic Boom together.
A look at what could’ve been
MV: Any characters or tracks you wish you’d gotten to include this time, but didn’t?
Lycett: With every game, there are choices you wished you made and didn’t at the time. Having recently played through the Yakuza games, whilst I’m not sure it would strictly meet our age appropriate guidelines, I think I’d now want to include Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima. Such great characters and I’m sure we could come up with some fun vehicles for them to use!
Not strictly a SEGA character necessarily, but we’ve had enough demands for Hatsune Miku over the years that I’d think we likely would need to consider if the chance ever came up again.
Tracks-wise, I think I managed to cross off two of my personal Holy SEGA Arcade trinity in the shape of OutRun and AfterBurner. However, Space Harrier remains begging to get a track. Every time I suggested it to the art team, they demonstrated concern about how to pull it off. We did get the music in for “Race of Ages”, but it remains a bucket list goal! We’d also wanted to do a Phantasy Star Online track, but just ran out of time.
Console exclusive characters that never came
MV: You mentioned last time how Banjo found his way to inclusion, and that there were even ideas for Master Chief, but this time, the only platform-exclusive characters (well, on consoles, anyway) were the Avatars and Miis. Was there any particular reason they didn’t make the cut here?
Lycett: Did you know I did the voices for the male Mii and Avatar characters? That was a fun day in the studio! With the sheer volume of characters and vehicle modes, we opted to avoid any platform specific characters, even though we discussed it. I remember we had a shortlist: Master Chief for Xbox, Sackboy for PlayStation (note this predated SUMO working on the LittleBigPlanet series, too!) and for Nintendo, Kirby! I was adamant on that last one!
Everyone has a favorite
MV: As I forgot to ask this last time, consider this for both games: Do you have a personal favorite racer and/or course, and what makes them your favorite(s)?
Lycett: Courses-wise, I flip-flop between Panzer Dragoon, just as I think that was when we realized we could do Transformed (and how!), and Golden Axe, as for me, that encapsulated us just nailing a track design. I’d suggested we race on lava instead of water, much to the horror of the SEGA team at the time. “But that’s dangerous! We can’t do that!” To which I just said, “We’ve got a hedgehog driving a car, we can do whatever we want!” and sealed the deal. It captures the iconography, the character select skeleton, the statues of Death Adder, the brooding nature and lighting, and then that Richard Jacques remix of the theme. Now and again I boot it up and go, “We made this?!?”.
A race that stands apart from a story
MV: Though there was a comic tie-in, the Sonic racing games wouldn’t see a fully fleshed-out story mode until Team Sonic Racing. Was there any consideration towards including one here, or some other way for the characters to interact more personally?
Lycett: I think I touched on this above. However, there was concern that we needed to explain why the characters were all racing and for what purpose. Indeed, there was this concept of a shadowy Impresario that somehow kidnapped all the characters and had them racing for a reason. We used it to try and define a language for elements like the start/finish line and other track furniture to provide constants throughout varied worlds.
But we resisted this. We’d not needed a story for the original All-Stars Racing, and when it comes to story, it generally involves lots of cutscenes or VO, and producing that is quite time consuming and expensive. Instead, we wanted to focus on the gameplay, and ultimately I think that was the right choice for Transformed. There were also the practicalities of it, doing voice for the entire cast would be difficult, especially to get back the original talent. That would have been easier for Team Sonic Racing, as they pulled back to just Sonic characters and they have a current day cast, but for us, some characters either didn’t have voices, or certainly didn’t have English voices!
If we were to do it again, I think I’d instead look more to showing some rivalry between characters, so Sonic and Eggman taunting each other as they overtake. I think this would introduce more implied story and help new players understand character relations that existing fans come with. It’d add narrative without an implicit story.
MV: Strangely, Shenmue‘s Ryo Hazuki and his transforming SEGA arcade cabinet would come to the game post-launch, but sadly for us console and handheld racers, it was only for the mobile and PC versions. Are you able to share why Ryo never came to console or handheld?
Lycett: We’ll not mention my infamous fan poll which caused a bit of a headache when it escaped the bounds of the SEGA forum. But fans constantly requested Ryo coming back as a playable character. We managed to do that for PC at least. I was especially pleased with our AM2 homage with the driveble OutRun, Space Harrier, and Hang-On cabs. The boat one was the trickiest!
At that point although we wanted to do it for consoles, the team had effectively moved onto doing the Japanese and mobile versions of Transformed, which is almost an interesting story in itself, but this meant we just didn’t have people free to be able to go back and do updates to the EU/US version of the game.
Changing the course of the game
MV: In Transformed, you guys ditched the SEGA Miles system (R.I.P.) and introduced a new World Tour mode, where you can earn stars to unlock characters instead. How and why did this change come about?
Lycett: This was based on fan feedback SEGA had received. Whilst the Miles system allowed for players to work towards their own rewards, feedback suggested players wanted more of a sense of progression and rewards unlocked by reaching goals. I’m a little torn. For me, the original system meant players could always get their desired rewards. This is opposed to potentially blocking players from certain rewards based on ability. Again, looking back, I think if we’d had some sort of “gimme” where you could effectively skip difficult content if you failed a certain amount of times and still reach the awards, that might be a better solution for all players, but I agree the sense of satisfaction getting to a given reward is definitely there in Transformed.
Beating Nintendo at their own game
MV: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed took advantage of the Wii U GamePad by allowing five players to race together locally. Meanwhile, Nintendo’s own Mario Kart 8 only allowed four when it arrived later. How did it feel to “do what Nintendon’t” on their own hardware?
Lycett: You have to remember that Transformed was actually a Wii U launch title. So, at the point we were working on the game and defining features, we were trying to work out the best way to use the new hardware. To us, five players seemed obvious and was also us just showing off a little! I don’t know how many players played that way!
I suspect Nintendo didn’t follow suit. They prefer to aim for 60fps, and trying to render five viewports and maintain framerate is rather difficult!
Dreams do come true
MV: Was there any particular wish(es) from fans of the first game that you were happy to realize with Transformed?
Lycett: We got NiGHTS and Reala back as playable characters, that certainly cheered up their fanbase! We also got Ristar in as the flag bearer. Though, we didn’t quite get Vectorman to replace his previous cameo position on the Death Egg! Really, the clear feedback we got was more characters and variety in tracks. We also addressed complaints from previous games as to the online features on all platforms. I think went bigger and better generally.
MV: Do you feel this game accomplished everything you set out to do with it?
Lycett: There are always changes you’d like to have made or elements with hindsight you’d do differently, but to me, it’s still the most rounded out game we’ve done and as we’d effectively done three All-Stars games on the trot, we’d really knocked it out of the park as we understood what worked and what didn’t.
MV: With the benefit of hindsight, if there’s anything you could go back and do differently, what would it be?
Lycett: I’d have liked to get more characters in there, but really, outside of that, as I say, it’s really the most complete game I think we did of all the SEGA titles.
Getting a boost across the track
MV: Though there are some slight flaws with the emulation, how does it feel to not only have this title as one of the games still available in the Xbox library through backwards compatibility, but enhanced with FPS Boost to run at 60FPS?
Lycett: I’ll admit it, when I got my Series X, it was the first game I played. I wanted to see how it would work. It’s incredible how well it still holds up! Can I also mention it runs very nicely on a Steam Deck? Which, given it’s a completely different set of hardware and OS to what we designed it to work on, is pretty incredible too!
A game made with love and passion
MV: What would you like to say to all the fans who have played and supported Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed these last ten years?
Lycett: All I can say is I hope you’ve had as much fun playing the game as we had making it. We genuinely made it with love and with respect as we’re just as big SEGA fans as everyone out there. I miss my time talking to that community, I might still sneak into the forums now and again 😛
MV: If you could make another game of this type for any other franchise/brand other than Sonic/SEGA, which would you like to work with?
Lycett: You know, I look at Super Smash Bros. and think: Wouldn’t a transforming vehicle racer with those characters be incredible? Why not make more of an ensemble cast of classic SEGA and other arcade or console icons racing it out?
Keeping the race alive on Xbox and Steam
MV: If there’s anything you can tell fans of racing games who have not yet tried Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed to get them to give it a try (it’s still available on Xbox platforms and Steam!), what would it be?
Lycett: Transformed is a racing game that rewards skill. It’s not a rubber-banded weapons game with driving attached. Honestly, I think it’s pure, undiluted digital fun and one of the best racing games ever made. I may have bias!
MV: If fans want to see a re-release of this game (and maybe its predecessor) on modern hardware, what would be the best way for fans to (respectfully) make their interest known to SEGA and Sumo?
Lycett: Whatever you do, don’t create a poll on SEGA’s forums! Seriously, I still work daily with members of the SEGA All-Stars series teams. We’d love to do another if the chance ever arose. I could see a world where we could update the game for current consoles and expand the character and track roster. To me, that would be a natural evolution. The decision to do it rested with SEGA. If someone presented a respectful campaign to them calling for a re-release or sequel, I’m sure they’d consider it.
We would like to thank Steve Lycett, Sumo Digital, and SEGA for making this interview possible.