The Problem with Fan-Games..
Tuesday, 28th July 2009, 11:40am (BST), 9 Comments
Those of you who have your head buried in the sand to any and all Sonic news will have no doubt missed that this year's SAGE event (Sonic Amateur Games Expo) is upon us yet again for this week only, where fan-gamers put together minisites to publicly release latest demos of their fan-game projects. I've played a handful of them and at first I thought I'd like to give brief reviews of my experiences with them, but they've caused me to think a little deeper, so instead I have a bit of an article on Sonic fan-gaming in general. These are just my own opinions about where fan-game development could go and why I feel, as a whole, it hasn't lived up to its full potential. It's not really a rant as such, I don't think anyone's lazy or that they should be working flat out to achieve their goals at the expensive of their real lives, but I end with a suggestion of what I think might be a better approach for all of us. I've no idea whether or not I speak for a large numbers of others, but it's just some thoughts.

I've been following the fan-game quadrant of Sonic fandom for the best part of a decade and in that time, it's grown exponentially. I remember when all you got when you put "Sonic fan-game" into google was a couple of very basic platform-ish games that had no hope of emulating the true Sonic experience. I myself contributed to such things back in 2001/2002 with my own attempt. Looking back I shudder at certain design and story approaches I took with it and if I were to make another attempt (which I would like to do, in some way), it would be a significantly different affair, although as basic and imperfect a Sonic emulation as it was, I must admit I do kind of enjoy a play of it once in a long while.

Things are a different story now though, there's a number of generic Sonic engines for a number of different languages/programs, most of which are very capable of providing a pretty thorough Sonic experience with momentum, friction, loops, curves and the kitchen sink, and frankly you'd be a fool to ignore them, if incapable of doing a better job yourself. It's what people have come to expect, having been spoilt on pixel-perfect titles such as Sonic Nexus, Retro Sonic, Project Mettrix, to name some of the best, plus legions of the slightly less famous too. We can now do it, we've been able to do amazing things for years. Just this morning there arose an example of how brilliant this community can be. We can make games that can be just like sequels to the original Mega Drive Sonic titles, even surpass them in technical quality.. so why haven't we done so yet?

How come that seemingly 99% (an estimate, but probably one that's not far off) of Sonic fan-game projects that have ever been started have either been scrapped or are yet to actually be completed? It seems that a promising game in the form of a single level demo might materialise one year, you may not see it again for another one or two and when it finally does come back with an update, it's essentially the same thing but with a slightly better engine, or maybe just one new level if you're lucky.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not having a go. Quite the opposite in fact. I know full well that a little thing called "real life" gets in the way. I suffer from the same problem with this site, the concept and content of which is but a month away from its fifth year in existence and look at me, all I've got is five game guides written and only three of them published online. Everything take ages and like a fan-gamer desperately seeking to irradicate every little imperfection in his engine, I too have gone back and re-written old material, taking months and ending up with something that, to most people, is essentially the same. But that won't do for a perfectionist. A love of Sonic and a belief in our respective dreams drives us to strive for that holy grail, and nothing else will do.

However, I could come up with a list of probably at least 20 different games (maybe loads more if I really looked back over old files) that I've played demos of in the early to middle portion of this decade that I would have loved to see completed by now and not one of them has been. Most of them either officially canned or missing, presumed dead. Perhaps the developers had bigger issues to sort out, or they got bored with it. Perhaps the pressures became too great, maybe they got a girlfriend or something tragic happened. Who knows? Not my place to judge. I know that a small number of people scrapped their promising fan-game in favour of a new one that essentially fulfilled the same purpose! Frustrating for someone like me who only really craves new exciting levels to play rather than complete stories that have levels crow-barred into them. Some however, are still going strong. Or perhaps crawling along with their fingertips would be a better way of putting it. They pop up every other SAGE or so with something only slightly new, they said they were about 60% there 6 years ago and now they're still 60% there, having built an entirely new engine.

To repeat myself, I know why, I'm not knocking them and in fact I admire their dedication to perfection, but to be honest, as a Sonic fan and a consumer of fan-made products (whom they're hopefully trying to reach, aside from making the game of their dreams) I'm getting a little tired of it. Every year we have half a dozen variations of Green Hill Zone, as most fan-games seem to start with their own version of the tropical paradise level, so naturally that'll be the one level of their demo. This by no means speaks for everyone but it's becoming a pattern and the fact that in about eight years I can name only three (count them, three) complete, decent fan-games, two of which are released this week(!), is baffling! And none of them are quite my idea of a "Sonic 4". I understand stuff gets in the way and these things take time, but taking an overall view, you would think that number would be much higher by now.

With a third Sonic Rush looking increasingly unlikely this year, and that mobile Sonic Unleashed game hardly a suitable replacement, I'm wondering if there's a responsibility for fan-gamers to contribute more traditional 2D gameplay to the fanbase? The Sonic Rush style of play is a great experience, but it's not the same as the classic form, where the emphasis was on unique level designs, exploration, multiple routes and straightforward stories and character moves. Sega haven't quite provided us with this in the same way they used to for a number of years now, but fan-gamers can, and many of them are working on it and what they're capable of amazes me. My concern is just that.. will we ever get to see it?

When I started writing this little article/gentle rant, I guess I didn't really have a solution, but as it went on, I realised I did. Something that I thought I would probably be inclined to do if I were to start creating my own levels, and indeed something I actually did in that brief fan-gaming stint of mine I mentioned earlier. Hell, it's the very same technique I employ with updates to this website. Summed up in four words: Release games in bits.

Technically that's already the way it's working. Except in those very rare cases, the only thing that ever gets released is a one or two level demo. That's a bit. It's enough to provide us with entertainment and hope but the problem is we keep getting the same demos while the creators are working on the later, unseen levels. What's worse is that all the different demos are essentially the same! A tropical paradise level. So why would it be so bad to release individual levels in their own self contained pack? Maybe a pair of levels. If you insist on a complex story, why not break that up into those parts too? Release them as you make them, and then every year we actually have a variety of different levels to explore. Different levels at different degrees of difficulty, with different themes. Lots and lots of individual chunks that we can play at will.

With impressive engines like Sonic Worlds for Multimedia Fusion (and upon reading that page it looks as if they're attempting something on the lines of what I'm suggesting), various Game Maker engines, plus the brilliant Retro Sonic engine and Damian Grove's anticipated ProSonic tool, it seems we're getting closer, if we're not there already, to cleanly separating programming from design. You don't need to be a scientific genius to figure out how to make Sonic go up and down a slope properly, it's already there. So now, more than ever, should it be possible to just whip out clean, singular levels with largely uniform gameplay physics on a pretty frequent basis.

I can see that someone who is aiming to achieve a big, deep, story-centered experience might see the solution as less attractive for their game. If you've got a complex plot or a lot of surprises later on, you might not want people jumping in half way through because that's the part they've started with. Certainly, some games would benefit more from the full experience and that should always be an option. If it ever is released, it's going to be a lot more fun to play something that feels like a whole game. However, I just think many fan-gamers need to start thinking a little more realistically about their projects. Something that takes years and years may never fully come to fruition and if it doesn't, then all that work is wasted because nothing ever comes of it. We never get to play those lost levels. Maybe it's something that more people should start to think about, as an insurance policy and something to help maintain the strength of the Sonic fan development scene.

At the end of the day, everyone is doing what they do because they want to. No one should ever be forced to feel pressured into making anything if it's purely a hobby. However on the other hand, the things that fan-gamers show us, excite us and we like to know things are still ticking along and we like to play them whenever we can. If things were done in levels rather than games, I believe there would be much less pressure on anyone. You make however many levels you can, whenever you can, we get to play one as soon as its finished and no one has to end up waiting for something that might just be scrapped in the end, losing forever anything that may have been made. The whole cycle is reduced in length so it's not a big deal if a fan-gamer decides to call it quits on the latest level they're developing because they've already given us a whole bunch to play with.

If I were to glance ahead another eight years into the Sonic community, I would love to see a grand directory filled with individual levels that you can download. You can browse by creator, difficulty level, environment, length. Levels packs can be standalone executables, maybe containing extra missions or mini-acts. Their designs can also be huge, covering vast routes with many hidden items to seek.

I don't expect that this will be read in full by many but hopefully it strikes a chord with some fans and developers alike, and provides a simple option to contemplate. If you have read this article through and have a response, please leave me a message as I'd love some feedback on the idea, especially from fan-gamers themselves.
Comments   9 Comments have been posted.
#1. Comment posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, 28th July 2009, 3:08pm
"...I can name only three (count them, three) complete, decent fan-games, two of which are released this week(!)..."

Which fan-games are going to be released this week?
#2. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Tuesday, 28th July 2009, 3:33pm
Sonic Robo Blast 2 (although I understand it still has further work to be done, it is essentially a complete game) and Sonic Revival, which is available from Thursday.

Only other half decent, completed one that I can recall is Sonic: Time Attacked by Jamie Bailey, way back in 2003 (I think), and as nice as that was, the community has come a long way since then. If there are other good, complete fan games out there then I haven't played them.
#3. Comment posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, 28th July 2009, 10:37pm
Sonic Nebulous is another complete game I believe. Of course the art style bothers me a bit. I haven't played it yet and therefore I really can't say if it is a good fan game or not, but it is complete with only patches for possible glitches to be fixed when discovered from what I understand.
#4. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Tuesday, 28th July 2009, 11:50pm
Oh, is that complete? Fair enough. Yeah, I agree, the sprites in particular look a bit dodgy and I'm no Archie fan, but it has some interesting ideas and effects. Funny, maybe now is the time that games are actually starting to be completed, almost in unison! I still think individual levels might be the way to go for many now though.
#5. Comment posted by mercury on Wednesday, 29th July 2009, 9:53am
I agree wholeheartedly with this assessment.

When I first began my project, I'd planned on it being episodic. It was a revolutionary concept at the time. Now, I've been beaten to the punch by Sam & Max. :(
#6. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Wednesday, 29th July 2009, 2:25pm
Glad you agree! I was wondering whether you had thought about that idea for your own game.
#7. Comment posted by True Dude on Monday, 3rd August 2009, 10:39pm
You have a point LiquidShade, almost nobody finishes anything. The exceptions are the three you mentioned, and a few others, namely Sonic SV and Sonic: The Fast Revolution.
#8. Comment posted by Anonymous on Tuesday, 4th August 2009, 9:17pm
Dude what about Sonic Megamix?
I know it's a heavily modified versoin of Sonic 1 but it's bloody brilliant with some excellent level designs, plus you can burn it onto a CD-R and play it on an original Mega-CD!
#9. Comment posted by LiQuidShade on Wednesday, 5th August 2009, 9:50am
True, I suppose I had glossed over the hacks. Admittedly I haven't played many other than Sonic Megamix, but that is a very enjoyable title with a chaotic style all of its own. From what I've seen, hacked ROMS never really stray far from the original games though in terms of level themes and ideas (they usually just give the levels horrible colour palettes or make some character playable who wasn't before) - I'd just love to see a full, high quality, completely original fan made game, and I don't think I've seen a full hack that is quite like that, even though it seems to be possible to completely change the graphics and level layouts into whatever sorts of level the creator wants.
Featured Posts
Sonic's latest Wii U outing turns away from the popular and well established speed dashes of recent games, in favour of a more traditional platformer approach. But does it work? Get ready for one of the most different Sonic games in every respect!
We've finally done it! The Zone: 0 guides have reached their last big update. Owner LiQuidShade has new projects on the horizon, but this site will always remain in his heart.