The Sonic Fan Base Effect

Today, I want to talk to you all about a little something I like to call the Sonic Fan Base Effect. This really shouldn’t ring a bell for anybody, since I made the term up, so let me begin my explanation (like always) with some background.

The Sonic Fan Base Effect (named so because Sonic the Hedgehog’s fan base is such a perfect example), can simply be described as a phenomenon that occurs when fans of a video game series combine forces to create fan-made games that are better than anything the official developer is currently shoveling onto the market. I don’t just mean marginally better or comparable, either. I mean markedly, astonishingly better content than the official game has to offer. I can’t really think of any other media format where this sort of fan takeover occurs, or is evenpossible! What, then, creates the Sonic Fan Base Effect? Let’s find out.

Condition 1: The franchise in question has to be (or has to have been) big, illustrious and well-loved by thousands. It’s got to be one of those games that defined thousands of people’s childhoods—one of the games that sticks with you forever. Maybe it’s because of the game’s good level design, maybe the game had lovable characters, snappy dialogue, good controls, an extremely challenging difficulty curve … whatever the reason, the game had to have been considered a good game or a good series by a legion of loyal fans.

Condition 2: The franchise in question has to have hit rock bottom. This seems to happen most often with Japanese titles that never really made it too far past the Super Nintendo/Sega Genesis era—series that struggled to make the transition into 3D, or whose entire development teams retired and were replaced by designers fresh out of college who know nothing about the franchise. You can almost always tell that this condition has been met when classic games from the series are being re-released on every mobile platform imaginable at a breakneck pace for $5 a pop. I’m looking at you, Sonic the Hedgehog and Megaman X.

Condition 3: The game’s fan base has to be organized and well-educated in computer science. God only knows how this condition gets filled, but it’s nonetheless a fact that most of the premiere examples of the Sonic Fan Base Effect have all come out of one specific forum which is home to some programmers who can manipulate functions that would make most of us cry blood.

Once all of these conditions are met, the results are often nothing short of astounding. Real games get made. Not fifth grade proof-of-concept projects, mind you. Real video games. If anyone’s curious, go look up the following: Sonic Fan Remix, Ultimate Flash Sonic, Super Smash Bros. Project M or Megaman Battle Network Chrono X, just to name a few. In each case, fans have created something that is truly, measurably, two or three orders of magnitude better than any official release by the holding company in the last five years.

This phenomenon fascinates me to no end. I can’t think of another media form where anything like this is even close to possible. No fans of action blockbuster movies have ever created their own fan-made installment to rival Hollywood’s latest and greatest. Nor can literary fan-fiction usually (usually—there are a few exceptions) surpass the quality of the original work. Thus, the Sonic Fan Base Effect begs two rather important questions.

First, why is the Sonic Fan Base Effect even possible? Although I don’t know if there’s any one answer to this question, I would speculate that it’s due to the relative youth of the gaming industry. While films have more than a century of experience to draw upon, and literature has literally millennia under its belt, the video game industry as we know it today has had just a little over thirty years to grow and expand.

The tool set available to game developers, although ever-expanding, is, in some very real senses, no different than the tool set available to a high school first-year. Anyone with Internet connection today can get access to Visual Studio, the XNA framework, the Xcode developing environment or any number of highly advanced programming and design tools that are used by professionals in the industry. The gap between professional and amateur may widen significantly in the years to come as software evolves and specializes, but for right now, when pros and newbies use the same tools, it’s easily possible that they might achieve similar results.

Second, why aren’t the big studios hiring the fans behind Sonic Fan Base Effect productions? This question is much harder to answer, and I’ll admit: it stumps me. Here you have dedicated, brilliant minds, literally giving away better products than your studio is turning out, and you don’t see that as an opportunity? 

The closest any developer came to capitalizing on this effect was Capcom, who solicited loads of fan-made content and input for their prospective 3DS title, Megaman Legends 3. Then, of course, they cancelled the project right before release, angering countless fans and prompting a renaissance of Sonic Fan Base Effect Megaman games.

Often, it truly seems like major design studios would rather watch their most cherished franchises crash and burn to the ground rather than make the obvious move and hire the fans who can actually design the kinds of games that they need to maintain relevance in the current gaming market. It’s obvious to me. What’s stopping them? 

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