I've got the strangest feeling that the level designers of Sonic Forces just plain don't give a shit.
Don’t ever make this assumption. Unless you’re working the worst retail/restaurant/customer service job ever, very few people go in to work every day with the goal of not caring. At least in theory, you do not make it to the production level of video game development by not caring.
It’s far more likely that something about Sonic Team’s development pipeline is gumming up the works. Supposedly, Hedgehog Engine 2 uses PBR. PBR stands for “physics-based lighting” which in general terms means complex, natural light simulation. Lighting in older games would fake effects like shadows, where unique shaders would have to be written for every object in every possible condition. PBR simulates light so that you simply assign properties to surfaces and they react naturally. Think of it like this: in older games, to make something reflective, you had to custom-write code to make that one object reflective. If you wanted to make a different object reflective, it would require separate code files, even if you were simply copying and pasting the code from the previous object.
With PBR, you simply tell the engine, “this surface is reflective.” And that’s all you have to do. The core lighting physics engine simulates the properties of light and makes it reflective. PBR is for light what Havok was for gravity. (That’s a hamfisted example, but whatever)
The benefit of PBR is that, again, in theory, it means that modifying lighting is incredibly easy. Think back to that Sonic Unleashed example for Hedgehog Engine – it would take an entire renderfarm of I dunno, a dozen PCs all crunching numbers a full 24 hours to generate lighting data for just one level. What this means is that last minute edits for levels in Sonic Unleashed were undoubtedly very difficult to make because changing the position of one object could necessitate re-rendering all of the lighting data, which would take another 24 hours.
PBR is why something like Metal Gear Solid 5 is so impressive, because it is incredibly easy for them to change the time of day, move objects around to create new missions, etc. PBR removes some of the limitations of pre-rendered lighting.
Not only that, but that pre-rendered lighting data took up a lot of space on the disc. Notoriously, Sonic Unleashed could have supported much higher resolution lighting than it shipped with, but there simply wasn’t enough space on the DVD for it (so they sold the full-resolution lighting data as a bonus with the DLC, bringing a full-size-install of Sonic Unleashed up to something like 9gb+).
So PBR solves a lot of problems for level designers if implemented properly. No tedious rendering time, less data bloat, everybody wins.
But if that’s the case, then why does Sonic Team seem to be so afraid of changing its levels? They gave a talk recently about how they design their levels, about how they design around flow, and it was all of the most basic advice you can imagine.
But most importantly, what I think this could show off is an unwillingness to modify their level geometry. Like the people who build the environments and the people who place rings and enemies are two different entities. Once the level geometry is set in stone, it can’t be modified. But that doesn’t make any sense.
(Of course, really, I’m just parroting Dario, here, who apparently doesn’t know how to make twitter threads, so either I link 15 individual tweets or I just link his profile and let y’all go digging for what he said about his observations on Hedgehog Engine 2)
Either way, I don’t think they “Don’t give a shit” especially not if they’re out there giving presentations on their level design methodology as if they are proud of what they can do. I think they probably have limitations they are working within, are making the best of those limitations that they can. Unfortunately, instead of making long-term solutions, they’re doing quick and dirty patchwork like constructing massive sections of a stage out of cubes they’ve glued together, because that’s faster and easier than significantly changing an existing piece of artwork (or re-writing a part of the engine).
It sucks, but it also plays in to what I’ve been saying all along: They spent four years coming up with the idea of Sonic Forces and have only spent the last, say, 18 months actually developing that idea in to a game. Which for a modern 2017 game is kind of no time at all. Games like Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, Assassin’s Creed, Shadow of War, etc. all take 3-5+ years of active production to get where they are.
Assassin’s Creed is actually a special case: it used to be that Ubisoft would alternate between a Team A and a Team B for those games. Each team would get two years to work on the next game, which meant that there was a new AC game every year. Even at two years per game, Assassin’s Creed built a reputation for being the buggiest, jankiest games on the market, and it only got worse when development moved to the Xbox One and PS4, where environment complexity increased tenfold. So now, Ubisoft is spreading AC games out – we get them every two years, which means the teams get four years to develop each game. This gives developers more time to polish each game, and, in turn, deliver a better, more robust and less buggy end product.
Now, most of the examples I just listed were open world games. But given how fast Sonic moves, his stages need to be similarly sized. There are obviously ways to speed up the creation of large worlds, but the ultimate point in all of this is that Sonic Team might not be taking advantage of those shortcuts and with so little time to develop their games, the end result is obviously suffering for it.
But don’t assume they don’t care. There are a million other reasons this could be a problem – and only a very small percentage can be fixed in the time allotted, and that’s assuming they even realize they are problems to begin with.
It’s also entirely possible – and I know this will sound crazy, but hear me out – that whoever they have as their level design manager just isn’t good at their job.