Sonic Team is a game developer owned by Sega, a Japanese video game company, operating within Sega’s Sega CS Research and Development No. 2 division. The studio is renowned for creating the enduring Sonic the Hedgehog series and notable titles like Nights into Dreams and Phantasy Star Online.
The team was originally established in 1990, bringing together members from Sega’s Consumer Development division, including programmer Yuji Naka, artist Naoto Ohshima, and level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara. Sonic Team officially adopted its name in 1991 when it released its inaugural game, Sonic the Hedgehog, for the Sega Genesis. This game achieved massive success and significantly boosted Genesis sales. Subsequent Sonic games were created by Naka and Yasuhara at Sega Technical Institute in the United States, while Ohshima worked on Sonic CD in Japan. Naka returned to Japan in late 1994 to lead CS3, which later became R&D No. 8. During this period, the division adopted the Sonic Team moniker but diversified into creating games unrelated to Sonic, including Nights into Dreams (1996) and Burning Rangers (1998).
After Sonic Adventure’s launch in 1998, some Sonic Team members relocated to the United States to establish Sonic Team USA, responsible for Sonic Adventure 2 (2001). When Sega divided its studios into separate companies, R&D No. 8 transformed into SONICTEAM Ltd. in 2000, led by Naka as CEO, and Sonic Team USA became its subsidiary. Sega’s financial struggles in the early 2000s prompted significant organizational changes, including the merger of the United Game Artists studio into Sonic Team in 2003 and the transformation of Sonic Team USA into Sega Studios USA in 2004. Following Sammy Corporation’s acquisition of Sega in 2004, Sonic Team was restructured into Sega’s GE1 research and development department.
Naka left during the development of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), and Sega Studios USA was reintegrated into Sonic Team in 2008. The ensuing decade saw a range of Sonic games with varying reception, and the studio’s head, Takashi Iizuka, acknowledged a focus on shipping games over prioritizing quality during this period.
In 1983, programmer Yuji Naka was recruited into Sega’s Consumer Development division“Sega’s new beginning”. Edge. No. 89. Future plc. October 2000. pp. 68–78. ISSN1350-1593.. His initial project, Girl’s Garden, was created alongside Hiroshi Kawaguchi as part of their training“The Making of OutRun”. NowGamer. Imagine Publishing. 29 April 2016. Archived from the original on 20 April 2016. Retrieved 8 April 2016.. For his subsequent game, Phantasy Star (1987) on the Master System, Naka introduced pseudo-3D animation effectsHorowitz, Ken (6 December 2017). “Behind the Design: Phantasy Star”. Sega-16. Ken Horowitz. Archived from the original on 22 March 2018. Retrieved 21 March 2018.. It was during this time that he crossed paths with artist Naoto Ohshima while collaborating on the gameHorowitz, Ken (5 January 2012). “Sega Stars: Naoto Ōshima”. Sega-16. Ken Horowitz. Archived from the original on 17 June 2018. Retrieved 17 June 2018..
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a fierce competition emerged between Sega and Nintendo, fueled by the launch of their 16-bit video game consoles: the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo Entertainment SystemSmith, Sean (2006). “Company Profile: Sonic Team”. Retro Gamer. No. 26. Imagine Publishing. pp. 24–29. ISSN1742-3155.Thorpe, Nick (2016). “The Story of Sonic the Hedgehog”. Retro Gamer. No. 158. Imagine Publishing. pp. 18–25. ISSN1742-3155.Kelion, Leo (13 May 2014). “Sega v Nintendo: Sonic, Mario and the 1990s console war”. BBC News. BBC. Archived from the original on 15 October 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.. Sega was in search of a mascot character that could become as iconic for their brand as Mario was for NintendoHester, Blake (8 February 2016). “Sonic the Hedgehog’s long, great, rocky history”. Polygon. Vox Media. Archived from the original on 1 December 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.. Their aim was to create a standout character and game capable of appealing to an older audience than just preteens, showcasing the Genesis’ capabilities, and ensuring commercial success, particularly in North America.
To discover this mascot, Sega organized an internal competition for submitting character designsThomas, Lucas M. (26 January 2007). “Sonic the Hedgehog VC Review”. IGN. Ziff Davis. Archived from the original on 13 January 2016. Retrieved 23 February 2014.. Naoto Ohshima came up with the concept of a blue hedgehog named Sonic, which was then integrated into a prototype game crafted by Yuji Naka. The Sonic character design was subsequently refined to be less aggressive and to have a broader appeal before the team commenced the development of their platform game, Sonic the Hedgehog. According to Ohshima, Sega was actively seeking a game that could perform well in both the United States and Japan. He and Naka had already made significant progress, having collaborated with Sega’s toy and stationery department on design concepts. Ohshima asserted that the substantial effort and time they had invested in their proposal gave them confidence that it would be chosenNaoto Ohshima (2013). Les Editions Pix’n Love (ed.). “Interview With Naoto Ôshima”. The History Of Sonic The Hedgehog (Interview). UDON Entertainment Corp. pp. 96–101. ISBN978-1-926778-96-9..
The Sonic the Hedgehog project initially involved only Naka and Ohshima“Game Design Psychology: The Full Hirokazu Yasuhara Interview”. Gamasutra. UBM Tech, Ltd. 25 August 2008. Archived from the original on 9 July 2018. Retrieved 9 July 2018., but it expanded to include two programmers, two sound engineers, and three designersYuji Naka (2013). Les Editions Pix’n Love (ed.). “Interview With Yuji Naka”. The History Of Sonic The Hedgehog (Interview). UDON Entertainment Corp. pp. 90–95. ISBN978-1-926778-96-9.. Hirokazu Yasuhara joined to oversee Naka and Ohshima’s work and to contribute to level design, eventually becoming the lead designer. To meet Naka’s request for a simple, one-button design, Yasuhara devised a mechanic where Sonic could inflict damage by jumpingLes Editions Pix’n Love, ed. (2013). “Zone 1 Genesis”. The History Of Sonic the Hedgehog. Ontario: UDON Entertainment Corp. pp. 20–33. ISBN978-1-926778-96-9.. Sonic the Hedgehog was ultimately released in 1991 and enjoyed significant success, significantly boosting Genesis sales. It was upon the game’s release that the development team adopted the name Sonic Team, with Naka referring to it as primarily a “team name” at that point in time.
1994–1998: Re-Establishment and New Intellectual Properties
Shortly after Sonic the Hedgehog’s release, Yuji Naka, Hirokazu Yasuhara, and several other Japanese developers made a significant move to California to join Sega Technical Institute (STI). STI was a development division established by Mark Cerny, aiming to combine the design philosophies of both American and Japanese developers.Day, Ashley (2007). “Company Profile: Sega Technical Institute”. Retro Gamer. No. 36. Imagine Publishing. pp. 28–33. ISSN1742-3155. While at STI, Naka and Yasuhara worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 2, while Naoto Ohshima focused on Sonic CD, a sequel for the Sega CD add-on. Although Naka wasn’t directly involved in Sonic CD’s development, he collaborated with Ohshima on design concepts.Sheffield, Brandon (4 December 2009). “Out of the Blue: Naoto Ohshima Speaks”. Gamasutra. UBM TechWeb. Archived from the original on 24 April 2016. Retrieved 15 April 2017.
After Sonic & Knuckles was released in 1994, Yasuhara left the team, citing differences with Naka. Naka returned to Japan, where he accepted a producer role. He took charge of Sega’s Consumer Development Department 3, also known as CS3.“Topics: The 1998”. Sega Saturn Magazine (in Japanese). Soft Bank Publishing. 23 January 1998. pp. 18–29. In this new role, Naka reunited with Ohshima and brought Takashi IizukaHunt, Stuart; Jones, Darran (December 2007). “The Making of… Nights”. Retro Gamer. No. 45. Imagine Publishing., who had previously worked with Naka’s team at STI. During the mid-1990s, Sonic Team embarked on creating new intellectual properties, resulting in the development of Nights into Dreams (1996) and Burning Rangers (1998) for the Sega Saturn. Naka noted that Nights’ release marked the true formation of Sonic Team as a recognized brand.
The Sega Saturn didn’t achieve the commercial success of the Genesis, so Sega shifted its focus to a new console, the Dreamcast, which debuted in Japan in 1998. The Dreamcast presented an opportunity for Sonic Team to revitalize the Sonic series, which had experienced a lull in recent years. Initially, Sonic Team had been working on a fully 3D Sonic game for the Saturn, but development transitioned to the Dreamcast to align with Sega’s strategic plans. Takashi Iizuka led this project, as he had long aspired to create a Sonic role-playing video game and believed the Dreamcast’s capabilities could bring his vision to life. The result was Sonic Adventure, released in 1998 and becoming the Dreamcast’s best-selling game.Shea, Brian (1 October 2016). “Jumping Platforms: How Sonic Made The Leap To Nintendo”. Game Informer. GameStop. Archived from the original on 6 November 2016. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
Around this period, CS3 underwent a name change, becoming Sega Research and Development Department 8 (R&D #8).“Sega development divisions”. Dreamcast Magazine (in Japanese). Soft Bank Publishing. 19 November 1999. p. 13. Although Sonic Team was sometimes referred to as AM8 or “Sega-AM8,”Robinson, Martin (6 July 2017). “Maybe it’s time for us to leave Sonic Team’s take on its own series behind”. Eurogamer. Gamer Network, Ltd. Archived from the original on 3 January 2018. Retrieved 9 July 2018. based on the R&D structure’s title as the Sega Amusement Machine Research and Development (AM) teams, the team’s primary focus was on home console games.Horowitz, Ken (2018). The Sega Arcade Revolution: A History in 62 Games. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company. p. 170. ISBN9781476631967. This designation was sometimes noted as both R&D #8EGM Staff (October 2000). “Sega’s R&D Hierarchy”. Electronic Gaming Monthly. No. 135. Sendai Publishing. p. 40. ISSN1058-918X. and AM8“Sega: On the Rebound or On the Ropes?”. Next Generation. No. 68. Imagine Media. October 2000. p. 8. ISSN1078-9693. in the media until 2000.
1999–2003: Dreamcast and Sega Restructuring
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. Following this move, several key employees, including Naoto Ohshima, departed Sega to create a new studio called Artoon. Meanwhile, Sonic Team achieved success in the arcade game market with the launch of the rhythm game Samba de Amigo in 1999, which was later released for the Dreamcast. Additionally, the studio ventured into the world of online games. In 1999, they released ChuChu Rocket!, a puzzle game designed to utilize the Dreamcast’s online capabilities. Sonic Team’s biggest online success came in 2000 with the release of the role-playing game Phantasy Star Online, which garnered critical acclaim and strong commercial performance.
Sega initiated a restructuring of its studios in October 2000, leading to the establishment of subsidiary companies for its software divisions. During this transition, Yuji Naka, recognizing the importance of preserving the Sonic Team brand, ensured the continuation of the name. The newly formed company was legally named SONICTEAM, Ltd., with Naka appointed as its CEO. Sonic Team USA became a subsidiary of this newly formed entity.
Despite creating several well-received games, Sega discontinued the Dreamcast in 2001, marking the company’s exit from the hardware business. Sega transformed into a third-party developer, producing games for various platforms. Beginning in 2000, Sonic Team in Japan started to release fewer titles, with a focus on games like the puzzle game Puyo Pop and the action-adventure game Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. The changes in Sega’s structure and the absence of a Sega console had an impact on Sonic Team. According to Naka, in a 2006 interview, their approach was always tied to creating strategic concepts that considered hardware. The shift represented a challenge for Sonic Team, as they missed the opportunity to tackle these ongoing challenges.
Nevertheless, Sonic Team maintained a commitment to originality. Instead of producing Sonic Adventure 3, they developed Sonic Heroes, explored the digital card game genre with Phantasy Star Online Episode III: C.A.R.D Battle, and created the original game Billy Hatcher.“インタビュー『ソニックヒーローズ』 – 電撃オンライン”. dengekionline.com. Retrieved 19 November 2022. Naka attributed Sonic’s enduring success to the character’s appeal to children, with the goal of reaching the widest possible audience, especially children.Reed, Kristan (23 May 2003). “E3 2003: Yuji Naka speaks”. Eurogamer. Retrieved 14 July 2021.
In early 2003, Sega’s president, Hideki Sato, and COO, Tetsu Kamaya, announced their resignations. Hisao Oguchi, the head of Hitmaker, succeeded Sato. Oguchi unveiled a restructuring plan aimed at consolidating Sega’s studios into “four or five core operations.”Fahey, Rob (20 May 2003). “Sega reports a profit, but top execs step down”. GamesIndustry.biz. Gamer Network. Archived from the original on 11 July 2018. Retrieved 11 July 2018. Sonic Team, financially stable, absorbed United Game Artists, another Sega subsidiary led by Tetsuya Mizuguchi, known for music games like Space Channel 5 (1999) and Rez (2001).Robinson, Martin (8 February 2015). “In media Rez: the return of Tetsuya Mizuguchi”. Eurogamer. Gamer Network. Archived from the original on 20 November 2016. Retrieved 19 November 2016.
However, on May 8, 2006, Yuji Naka announced his departure from Sonic Team to establish a new studio called Prope, with a focus on creating original games. His departure occurred during the development of Sonic the Hedgehog (2006), which was released as part of the 15-year anniversary celebration of the Sonic franchise. Unfortunately, this game was criticized for its bugs and design issues. Following Naka’s exit, Sonic Team continued its work, releasing Sonic Unleashed (2008), which received mixed reviews but performed well commercially. Both titles were launched on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. In addition, Sonic Team produced a series of Sonic games for the Wii and Nintendo DS, including Sonic and the Secret Rings in 2007.
By 2010, Sonic Team had become part of CS Research and Development No. 2 (CS2), Sega Studios USA had been reintegrated into the Japanese team, and Takashi Iizuka had taken over as the head of the department.Inemoto, Tetsuya (28 December 2011). “Producer Takashi Iizuka speaks, “Sonic Generations White Space-Time Space / Blue Adventure” Production Secret Story and Sonic Series 20 Years of Progress”. www.4gamer.net (in Japanese). Aetas, Inc. Archived from the original on 21 August 2017. Retrieved 11 July 2018.Higham, Rupert (6 October 2010). “Interview: Sonic Team’s Takashi Iizuka”. Kikizo. Superglobal Ltd. Archived from the original on 27 March 2018. Retrieved 27 March 2018. After a string of poorly received Sonic releases, Sonic Team shifted its focus back to speed and traditional side-scrolling in games like Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode I and II, Sonic Generations, and Sonic Colors. These titles garnered improved reviews from both fans and critics. In a 2015 interview with Polygon, Iizuka acknowledged that Sonic Team had previously prioritized releasing games over ensuring their quality and had not been deeply involved in later third-party Sonic titles like Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. He expressed a desire for the Sonic Team logo to represent a “mark of quality” and outlined plans to release high-quality games that would expand the Sonic brand while retaining the modern Sonic design. Iizuka also noted that experimenting with the franchise had its merits and challenges at times.Shea, Brian. “Where Sonic Went Wrong”. Game Informer. Retrieved 19 November 2022.
Sonic Team USA, later known as Sega Studios USA, started as a division of Sega and Sonic Team, which was itself a subsidiary company. It was established in 1999 when twelve members of Sonic Team, including Takashi Iizuka, moved to San Francisco, California. By 2000, it had become a subsidiary of SONICTEAM, Ltd. The team’s primary responsibilities included game development, localization, and market research in the United States, until they returned to Japan and merged back into Sonic Team in 2008.
Sonic Team USA played a pivotal role in translating Sonic Adventure and conducting ChuChu Rocket! testing in America. Their unique location in San Francisco, as well as visits to places like Yosemite National Park, influenced their game development process. One of their significant projects was Sonic Adventure 2, released on June 23, 2001, and later ported to the GameCube. Following this, Sonic Team USA worked on Sonic Heroes (2003), which marked the first Sonic game designed for multiple platforms. For Sonic Heroes, the team decided to shift their approach away from the Sonic Adventure games and focus on gameplay reminiscent of the original Genesis titles, making it accessible even to casual gamers.
In 2004, after SONICTEAM, Ltd. was reintegrated into Sega, Sonic Team USA underwent a name change to Sega Studios USA. Their next major project was Shadow the Hedgehog, released in 2005, a spin-off game centered around the character Shadow. Unlike its predecessors, Shadow the Hedgehog was aimed at an older audience and introduced distinct gameplay styles, including gun-based mechanics and multiple story endings. While the game faced criticism for its mature themes and level design, it performed well commercially, selling over 1.59 million units.
Sega Studios USA’s final project was Nights: Journey of Dreams, a sequel to Nights into Dreams and the first Nights game since the cancellation of Air Nights in 2000. The development team aimed to retain the core concepts of the original game while introducing new gameplay mechanics. The game was released on the family-oriented Wii console in 2007 and was designed to have a more European influence compared to the Sonic games, which had a more American style. Sonic Team in Japan handled the sound and CGI aspects, while Sega Studios USA managed the rest of the development process.
During its existence, Sega Studios USA also oversaw the development of Sonic Rivals (2006) and Sonic Rivals 2 (2007) by Backbone Entertainment. In 2008, Sega Studios USA merged back with Sonic Team, with Takashi Iizuka becoming the head of Sonic Team and a vice president of product development at Sega. In 2016, Iizuka relocated to Los Angeles to oversee development with the aim of making Sega’s Los Angeles studios a central hub for the global brand.
Sega Studios USA
Sonic Team USA
Merged with Sonic Team
San Francisco, California, United States
Main article: List of Sonic Team Games
Sonic Team has an extensive history of developing video games, many of which have achieved bestseller status. The studio is most renowned for its Sonic the Hedgehog series, a collection of platform games that constitutes a significant portion of Sonic Team’s portfolio. The release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991 is often regarded as a pivotal moment in video game history. It not only propelled the sales of the Sega Genesis console but also disrupted Nintendo’s dominance in the video game industry.
In addition to Sonic titles, Sonic Team has created a diverse range of games, including action games like Nights into Dreams, Burning Rangers, and Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, the online puzzle game ChuChu Rocket!, the online role-playing game Phantasy Star Online, and the music game Samba de Amigo. Phantasy Star Online holds recognition for introducing online RPGs to console gaming and was the first online RPG experience for many players. According to Sean Smith of Retro Gamer, Sonic Team stands out as one of the few companies that have consistently released AAA games over an extended period, particularly between 1991 and 2000. Some Sonic Team games, such as the original Sonic series for the Genesis and Nights, are regarded as some of the finest video games ever created. Takashi Iizuka has expressed the studio’s willingness to develop a third Nights game or a sequel to Knuckles’ Chaotix (1995) if commissioned by Sega.
However, Sega and Sonic Team have faced criticism for their handling of Sonic the Hedgehog games following the transition to the 3D era of gaming. Edwin Evans-Thirlwell of Eurogamer characterized the 3D Sonic games as accumulating issues over the course of two decades and noted the absence of a “transcendental hit” like Nintendo’s Mario series in the 3D realm. Zolani Stewart of Kotaku argued that Sonic’s transformation in 3D, marked by the introduction of voice acting, a greater emphasis on plot, and changes in character portrayal, led to a flatter and less engaging characterization, with Sonic often reduced to a one-dimensional “radical attitude dude”. Al Nilsen, Sega of America’s marketing director, and Christian Whitehead, the developer of Sonic Mania, expressed concerns about the excessive addition of characters to the series, considering them as “padding”. In 2015, Sega CEO Haruki Satomi acknowledged that Sega had “partially betrayed” the trust of its long-time fans and expressed a commitment to prioritize quality over quantity.