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|CS3, R&D #8, GE1|
|Industry||Video game industry|
|Headquarters||Ōta, Tokyo, Japan|
|Products||List of Sonic Team games|
Sonic Team[a] is a Japanese video game development division of Sega. The initial team was composed of developers from Sega's Consumer Development division, including programmer Yuji Naka, artist Naoto Ohshima, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara. The team took the name Sonic Team in 1991 with the release of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Genesis. The game was a major success, and started the long-running Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. The next several titles were developed by Naka and Yasuhara in America at Sega Technical Institute, while Ohshima worked on Sonic CD in Japan. Naka returned to Japan in late 1994 to become the head of CS3, later renamed R&D #8. During this time, the division was branded with the Sonic Team name but also developed games that do not feature Sonic, such as Nights into Dreams (1996) and Burning Rangers (1998).
Following the release of Sonic Adventure in 1998, some Sonic Team staff moved to the United States to form Sonic Team USA and develop Sonic Adventure 2 (2001). With Sega's diversification of its studios, R&D #8 became Sonic Team in 2000, with Naka as CEO and Sonic Team USA as its subsidiary. Sega's financial troubles led to several major structural changes in the early 2000s; the United Game Artists studio was absorbed by Sonic Team in 2003, and Sonic Team USA became Sega Studios USA in 2004. After Sammy Corporation purchased Sega in 2005, Sonic Team was restructured to become Sega's GE1 research and development department, and later, CS2.
In 1983, programmer Yuji Naka was hired to Sega's Consumer Development division. His first project was Girl's Garden, which he and Hiroshi Kawaguchi created as part of their training process. Naka's abilities were further demonstrated in 1987 by his work on Phantasy Star for the Master System, for which he created the pseudo-3D animation effects in the first-person dungeons. He met artists Naoto Ohshima and Rieko Kodama when working on the game, with all three later working on other projects together.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, a rivalry formed between Sega and Nintendo due to the release of their 16-bit era video game consoles: the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. Sega needed a mascot character that was as synonymous to their brand as Mario was to Nintendo. To distinguish themselves from Nintendo, Sega wanted a killer app and character that could appeal to an older demographic than preteens, demonstrate the capabilities of the Genesis system, and ensure commercial success in North America.
Sega of Japan held an internal competition to submit characters designs for a mascot. Ohshima designed a blue hedgehog named Sonic, and Sonic was inserted into a prototype game created by Naka. The Sonic design was refined to be less aggressive and appeal to a wider audience before the division began development on their platform game Sonic the Hedgehog. Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara served as programmer and designer respectively on the game, which was released in 1991. This group of around 15 employees took the name Sonic Team for the game's release. Naka has referred to Sonic Team as only a "team name" at this point. The game proved a major success, contributing to millions of sales of the Genesis.
Shortly after the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, Naka, Yasuhara and a number of other Japanese developers relocated to California to join Sega Technical Institute (STI), a development division led by Mark Cerny. Cerny aimed was to establish an elite studio to combine the design philosophies of American and Japanese developers. According to Cerny, Naka had quit Sega following disagreements over financial compensation and backlash over the time and effort it had taken to finish Sonic. Cerny, who had been in Japan while he was setting up STI, visited Naka's apartment, listened to the reasons why he left, and convinced him to join him in America as a way to solve the problems he had had with Sega in Japan. Yasuhara, who had designed most of the stages and gameplay of Sonic, joined him. In 1991, STI began work on Sonic the Hedgehog 2, which released in 1992. While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a success, its development suffered some setbacks; the language barrier and cultural differences created a rift between the Japanese and American developers.
While Naka and Yasuhara were with STI, Ohshima began work on Sonic CD. Though Naka was not directly involved in the Sonic CD development, he exchanged design ideas with Ohshima. Sonic CD was released in Japan on 23 September 1993 and in Europe in October 1993. Sega of America delayed it for two months to have a new soundtrack by Spencer Nilsen and David Young of STI, and Mark Crew. Sonic CD received critical acclaim. The Sega CD version sold more than 1.5 million copies, making it the system's bestselling game.. Once development on Sonic 2 concluded, Cerny departed STI and was replaced by Atari veteran Roger Hector. The American developers developed Sonic Spinball (1993), while the Japanese developers worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994) and Sonic & Knuckles (1994). During the development of Sonic 3, the Japanese team began experimenting with 3D computer graphics, but were unable to implement the technology on Genesis.
Following the release of Sonic & Knuckles, Yasuhara quit, citing differences with Naka. Naka returned to Japan, having been offered a role as a producer. He was placed in charge of Sega's consumer development department 3, also known as CS3. In the mid-1990s, Sonic Team started work on new intellectual property, leading to the creation of Nights into Dreams (1996) and Burning Rangers (1998) for the Sega Saturn. Naka was reunited with Ohshima and brought with him Takashi Iizuka, who had also worked with Naka's team at STI. Naka stated that the release of Nights is when Sonic Team was truly formed as a brand. During the development of Nights, STI was working on Sonic X-treme. After Sega executive vice president Bernie Stolar obtained the game engine from Nights for use, Naka threatened to leave Sega if the engine were used for X-treme, resulting in its access being revoked.
The Saturn did not achieve the same commercial success as the Genesis, and so Sega focused its efforts on a new home console system, the Dreamcast, which debuted in Japan in 1998. The Dreamcast was seen as opportunity for Sonic Team to revisit the Sonic series which had stalled in recent years. Sonic Team was originally creating a fully 3D Sonic game for the Saturn, but development moved to the Dreamcast to align with Sega's plans. Takashi Iizuka led the project; Iizuka had long wanted to create a Sonic role-playing game and felt the Dreamcast was powerful enough to achieve his vision. The game became Sonic Adventure, launched in 1998, which became the bestselling Dreamcast game. Around this time, CS3 was renamed to Sega research and development department 8 (R&D #8).
Sega began to restructure its studios as part of the dissolution of Sega Enterprises; when the departments took new names, Naka felt it important to preserve the Sonic Team brand name, and so it was formed as a subsidiary of Sega, with Naka as the CEO. Sonic Team USA was set as a subsidiary of Sonic Team in Japan. In 1999, shortly after the release of Sonic Adventure, twelve members of Sonic Team relocated to San Francisco to establish Sonic Team USA, while others remained in Japan. Sonic Team USA was led by Iizuka and began work on Sonic Adventure 2, released for the Dreamcast in 2001.
In the late 1990s, a number of key employees—including Ohshima—left Sega to form a new studio, Artoon. Sonic Team achieved success in the arcade game market in 1999 with the launch of rhythm game Samba de Amigo, released the following year for the Dreamcast. The studio also began exploring online gaming; in 1999, they released ChuChu Rocket! (1999), a puzzle game that made use of the Dreamcast's online capabilities. In 2000, Sonic Team launched the role-playing game Phantasy Star Online, to critical and commercial success. Despite a number of well-received games, Sega discontinued the Dreamcast in 2001 and exited the hardware business. Sega transitioned into a third-party developer and began developing games for multiple platforms. Sonic Adventure 2 was ported to the Nintendo GameCube in 2001, one of the first Sega games released on a major non-Sega platform. Sonic Team USA developed Sonic Heroes, the first multi-platform Sonic game, for the Gamecube, PlayStation 2, and Xbox.. As Sega underwent financial struggles, Sonic Team was financially solvent; in 2003, it absorbed United Game Artists, another Sega subsidiary led by Tetsuya Mizuguchi and known for the music games Space Channel 5 (1999) and Rez (2001).
In 2004, Japanese company Sammy acquired a controlling interest in Sega and formed Sega Sammy Corporation. Sonic Team was reintegrated with the main company; Sonic Team USA became Sega Studios USA, while Sonic Team became Sega's Global Entertainment 1 research and development division (GE1). The team is still referred to as Sonic Team.
Naka announced his departure on 8 May 2006 and formed a new studio, Prope, to focus on creating original games. He left during the development of the 2006 game Sonic the Hedgehog, released as part of the 15-year anniversary of the Sonic franchise. Noted for its bugs and design flaws, Sonic the Hedgehog was panned, as was 2008's Sonic Unleashed. Both games were released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360; Sonic Team also developed a series of Sonic games exclusively for the Wii and Nintendo DS, such as 2007's Sonic and the Secret Rings.
In 2009, Sega Studios USA was merged into GE1 and renamed CS2. Iizuka was installed as the leader of Sonic Team. After a series of difficult Sonic releases, Sonic Team focused on speed and more traditional side-scrolling, such as Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I and Sonic Generations, which received more mixed reviews. In 2015, Iizuka recognized in an interview with Polygon that Sonic Team had prioritized shipping games over quality, and did not enough involvement in third-party Sonic games, such as Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. He hoped the Sonic Team logo would stand as a "mark of quality"; he planned to release quality games and expand the Sonic brand, while retaining the modern Sonic design.
Sonic Team has developed a number of video games since its founding, with many of them becoming bestsellers. The studio is best known for its Sonic the Hedgehog series of platform games. Though Sonic games account for the majority of Sonic Team's work, they have also developed a wide variety of games, including the action games Nights into Dreams and Burning Rangers, the puzzler ChuChu Rocket!, and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg (2003).