Sega Europe's chief Mike Hayes and Sonic Brand Director David Corless argues that the video-game character is still a strong icon.
Would you believe that Sonic the Hedgehog is 20 years old? Since bursting on to consoles in 1991, the gaming world has changed immeasurably, yet Sonic spins on. It’s a remarkable achievement in a fast-moving industry, making Sonic a powerful … brand? Character?
“First and foremost, Sonic is a character,” explains Sega Europe’s chief executive Mike Hayes, although the presence of David Corless – whose business card reads “Sonic Brand Director” – suggests the company is very aware it’s both.
Neither Mike nor David worked for Sega at the time of Sonic’s launch. Mike was working with arch rivals and Mario-creators Nintendo: “Sonic was something we only played to see how the opposition was going.”
The success of Sonic clearly echoes back to those old days of console rivalry. “Sega was the arch-enemy,” laughs Mike. “It’s quite ironic that Mario and Sonic came together [for the "at the Olympic Games" title]. In my day, that would have been inconceivable.
“Nintendo v Sega got big articles in things like the Mail on Sunday. It was as big as Coca-Cola vs Pepsi, Levi vs Wrangler, the Rolling Stones vs the Beatles … At Nintendo we were more family friendly, the Beatles and Coca-Cola to Sega’s Stones and Pepsi. They were more cutting edge, Oasis to our Blur, and we played it up. There was nobody else in the business and at that point, and we thought that nobody else would join. And then, of course, along came Sony and changed the game.”
While 30-something (and above) gamers will remember those times, it’s perhaps strange for younger gamers to consider that this was ever the case.
“Kids now are agnostic,” confirms Mike. He holds up his iPhone. “My kids are all about this at the moment. That whole Xbox vs PS3 or DS, that’s sort of disappeared. We can’t play on those stories anymore, the big newspaper coverage has gone.”
“I think part of the problem is we don’t have celebrities,” adds Corless. “We don’t have a Brad Pitt, a Robbie Williams. That’s why we play up Sonic so much: with Sonic and Mario you’ve got two of the only recognisable characters in the video gaming world.”
The relative lack of newspaper exposure hasn’t harmed the business and it’s certainly become more mainstream and acceptable – and highly lucrative as a commercial model.
“At first, when I went around for dinner with friends, those with children would tut and say ‘Video games? I make sure they don’t play.’ Now it’s ‘So what’s the next thing? Should I buy a 3DS or wait?’. When you see that Call of Duty is 2010’s biggest-selling piece of media, then it’s Avatar, then it’s Fifa. Out of the top three, two are video games. The biggest CD is nowhere close in terms of volume let alone revenue.”
In terms of answering those friends’ questions or predicting where Sonic will be in another 20 years, both David and Mike happily shrug.
“What we want to do in coming years is push Sonic further,” reveals David. “How do we make Sonic even more relevant for 12-, 13-year-olds but still deliver the nostalgia to the older market? It’s a challenge but quite a luxury: there are very few gaming IPs where that applies.”
“Sonic’s transferable across platforms, that’s definitely been proven,” states Mike. “We’ve had huge success on Apple, PSN, XBLA, all the traditional platforms, handheld and TV-based. Do we take Sonic to a freemium model for a different audience? Do we think how Sonic can be more episodic on a tablet, for example? I have no idea – that’s the interesting thing – but I think Sonic will carry on, because it’s such an icon.”
• Sonic the Hedgehog will appear in two games released in 2012: Sonic Generations and Mario & Sonic at London 2012.
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