With Sega doubling-down on its pledge to mobile, Chris Southall – GM for the publisher’s Hardlight studio – tells Matthew Jarvis about bringing two of gaming’s best-known series to smart devices
When Sega announced earlier this year that it would be restructuring to focus on mobile and PC, eyebrows were raised. Whether with Sonic the Hedgehog, Yakuza or hardware such as the Mega Drive and Dreamcast, Sega has been associated with console development almost as long as modern consoles have existed.
Yet, the company had a trick up its sleeve in the form of studio Hardlight, which was founded back in 2012 to bring Sega’s best-loved franchises to mobile. It has since transformed both Sonic the Hedgehog and Crazy Taxi.
“We look for something which is true to the original DNA of the IP which translates well to a mobile device – both in terms of the inputs and the play patterns on such devices,” says Hardlight GM Chris Southall. “For example, with Crazy Taxi: City Rush, the obvious choice would be to execute a driving simulation on mobile. But speaking with the original game director, Kenji Kanno, his opinion was that the game was as much about pace and fun, and showing off to friends – so we focused on that first and foremost, spending time on the controls and experience, not on a physics sim.”
Hardlight found its feet with Sonic Jump, a remake of an older mobile title that focused entirely on Sonic’s leaping ability. The studio’s other line of Sonic mobile games – Dash – likewise concentrate on one aspect of the his movement: namely, his speed. It’s a tactic that Southall sees as key to the franchise’s successful translation into the mobile world.
“Similar to a lot of the classic Sega arcade games, a tight and simple core action mechanic has to work very well – with extra nuance or extra mechanics built off that,” he observes. “Unlike a coin-op, the meta-game around that core experience becomes essential for mobile if you want to retain players longer than a few days.”
Perfecting bitesize gameplay is common sense to any mobile dev, but Southall points out the difference between the condensed full-bodied origins of Hardlight’s mobile offerings and those from studios with no console heritage.
“For something like Crazy Taxi: City Rush or Sonic Dash, we’d expect one-to-three sessions of one-to-three ‘runs’ a day: 30 to 90 seconds each, in a setting allowing some focus,” he suggests. “We have to be pick up and play – it’s not desirable to have a wide choice of tasks to ponder over. This means you are better doing one thing well, rather than a broad set of things – in turn, this controls your budget and means you’re generally more limited – at least until initial launch.”
It may have started off as a studio dedicated to building upon the work of others, but Hardlight has quickly struck out on its own in the world of mobile.
“Sonic Jump really just allowed us to start to understand the technical and practical requirements on mobile,” Southall recalls. “Sonic Dash was frankly truer to the IP and core mechanics and, as our first F2P title, showed us how a tight experience pitched correctly can access a huge audience.”
As for what comes next, Southall says that Hardlight’s future continues to lie in expanding Sega’s portfolio in new ways.
“It’s been bounced around – and, arguably, out – before, but we’re seeing some interesting companion apps working and bringing in revenue, so we could start seeing more mobile spin-offs which talk to and interact with their bigger counterparts,” he predicts.
“I’m also curious to see if we get more triple-A spin-offs for mobile titles too, and approaches from mobile free-to-play service-led games translating back to console, where the platforms allow."