When footage of Sonic Frontiers was shared this month, a common response was that it looked like a fan-made game. Some meant it as a positive, but for most it seemed to express disappointment or at least surprise.
But among fangame developers themselves, the comparison is not welcome. “Such a reaction is a big negative to us,” says Aleksey Dmitriev, an animator and CEO at Ouroboros, a studio currently working on the fangame Sonic Omens.
People who put the time and effort into creating fangames are almost inherently huge fans of the original franchise. In Dmitriev’s eyes, there’s no question whether fangames or official releases are better quality. If there was, the Sonic series wouldn’t have such dedicated fans in the first place.
The same goes for developers who are working on games inspired by the Sonic franchise. Project Rascal is one of these, also citing inspiration from other classic games like Mario and Kirby. “We’ve seen comparisons [with Sonic Frontiers] drawn to our game,” says the team, who asked to be quoted together rather than as any particular individual involved. “While it’s very flattering, we’re not trying to compete. […] The Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, despite its ups and downs, has done nothing other than inspire us.”
Elsewhere in the community, there are other reasons for disliking the comparison. They consider themselves to be in a very precarious position. Consider, for example, the reaction in comparison to other games which have sparked disappointment for similar reasons. People have been quick to criticize Pokémon’s graphics across recent releases, but Pokémon doesn’t have a fangame community thanks to Nintendo’s infamously litigious reaction to anything they think infringes their IP rights.
SEGA, on the other hand, employs a more hands-off approach. This has enabled “all the efforts and hard-work of the very passionate people that compose it and keep making projects,” say the Project Rascal team, who have also been involved in the Sonic Amateur Games Expo (SAGE), a yearly fangame showcase.
In 2021, SEGA confirmed on Twitter via SEGA of America’s Associate Influencer Manager Katie Chrzanowski that “using our blue boy to hone your art and dev skills,” is “usually” fine as long as the game isn’t being sold for profit. (“For legal reasons, I can’t promise all content is ok,” they added.)
“Only thanks to SEGA’s good will” can the community flourish, says Dmitriev. On the Discord server for SAGE, the rules expressly prohibit comparisons to official titles. “Do NOT say your stuff is better than SEGA,” reads, in part, the rule called “don’t poke the bear.” They position their work as educational, reflecting the language of Chrzanowski’s tweet.
This focus on learning is how Dmitriev positions Sonic Omens, too. “[The game] is our attempt to dive into the field of game design, to do something new. And we were successful in this attempt. It gave us the opportunity to find out our strengths and weaknesses, study the potential audience, and learn a lot,” he says.
Dmitriev also explains that the comparison between fan and official games is usually a massive oversimplification. Some of the best regarded fan creations, like Sonic Utopia or Sonic Project Hero, only exist in demo form. Dmitriev points out that implementing certain code, physics, momentum, or anything else which makes them impressive projects, does not make them finished games. “Here, most often, the fan developers themselves run into a dead end,” he says.
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Fangames tend to be very slow to produce even if they do make it to release. One of the developers behind Sonic Utopia said that it was still in development this June, but there have been no major updates in the last few years. The creators behind Sonic Project Hero posted a video in August 2021, apologizing for infrequent updates – though there hasn’t been another since. “It’ll come some day,” the developer says in the video, explaining that real-life obligations have slowed work on the project significantly.
It was this that really undermined the idea that Sonic Frontiers looked like a fangame, to me. For starters, 3D open-world fangames are relatively rare compared with the hundreds of games and demos out there, likely because of their difficulty to make. Those that do exist have often drawn well-deserved attention, but tend to be on hiatus or canceled. This isn’t a criticism of fangames or fan developers, given their nature as passion projects, but it draws attention to some of the key differences between fan projects and professional ones — consistency, development time, and at the end of the day, a full release.
Nonetheless, Sonic Omens, which was delayed recently but is expected to have its final chapters released by the end of the summer, should hit all of the elements that people enjoy in Sonic games, says Dmitriev, including gameplay, story, and atmosphere. But he still doesn’t think it compares to the official Sonic games. “No fan game could and will not be able to do this. And to say the opposite, belittling the official product of the franchise to the level of a fangame is nonsense.”
Fangames, says Dmitriev, echoing the language of the community rules, shouldn’t be about correcting the perceived mistakes of the official games, or attempting to surpass them. Instead, they “should show what the original can’t afford.” In other words, they can lean into the creative freedom that SEGA has given them in a way that an original release never could.
So while fan remakes and reimaginings exist, they’re not what’s most interesting in the community. “[You can] do something that no one could have imagined or dreamed of,” says Dmitriev. “Let Sonic meet Elise again, send him on a journey to all the planets, come up with a level consisting entirely of a Time Eater, combine pixel Sonic and Sonic Boom. Whatever you want!”
Ultimately, fan projects are inherently different to official games on many levels, and a lot of fan developers prefer to lean into that fact. They might not be able to stop the comparisons being made, but they won’t be making them themselves.