In nearly two weeks time, this year’s annual Summer of Sonic convention will be held in Hove (a small town on the south coast of England). Initially curated by fans and longtime Sonic stalwart Svend ‘Dreadknux’ Joscelyne in 2006, the first Summer of Sonic was simply an excuse for like-minded individuals to get together in a small pub. But it wasn’t until 2008 when Svend Joscelyne really got serious and decided to scrape together a “couple of hundred quid” to see if there was any longevity in the event. Luckily, the convention was a success and since then, Summer of Sonic has grown to become an internationally recognised gaming event – with the resultant success being that it’s attracted official sponsorship from Sega, as well as a number of high-profile gaming celebrities gracing its convention halls each and every year.
To celebrate this, and to find out a little bit more about Summer of Sonic’s history, I decided to interview Svend Joscelyne and also took the opportunity to discover out as to what Summer of Sonic 2012 has in store for Sonic fans this year.
First off: what inspired you to set up your own Sonic themed convention, and did you ever consider broadening the convention’s appeal by incorporating a less exclusionist label – ie a convention geared towards videogames in general?
Summer of Sonic originally began as an online collaborative website to celebrate Sonic the Hedgehog’s 15th Anniversary. That was back in 2006. In 2007, I went to meet with a friend that I knew from the Sonic online community. It was only meant to be a small gathering, but word spread pretty virally and eventually a group of 20 Sonic fans ended up meeting for the first time in London. We took over a pub that day, it was pretty fun. The success of that meet-up was really the inspiration for a full-blown convention.
I felt that there wasn’t a real-life avenue for like-minded Sonic fans to come to and make friends – or meet face-to-face with friends that they’ve known for years as a username on the internet. Speaking about the ‘exclusionist’ thing, I actually feel that making a convention dedicated solely for Sonic fans is the exact opposite. There are many conventions out there that cater to many different kinds of cult TV, movie and video game series. Having a platform where Sonic fans specifically can get together is a great complement to things like MCM Expo, Eurogamer Expo and similar events.
How did you go about setting up the very first Summer of Sonic convention, and did you encounter any obstacles along the way which made you doubt your resolve?
In late 2007, I approached the then-SEGA Europe Community Manager Kevin Eva about the idea and whether SEGA could provide support in some way. So we had some limited support from SEGA there in the first year – demo pods of Sonic Chronicles, competition prizes, etc. I had interviewed Richard Jacques for the Summer of Sonic 2006 website before, and he kindly agreed to perform for a convention.
The rest of the planning came from organising events in a hall with a small team of volunteers who would help make the day as awesome as it was. For the venue itself, it was simply a case of me flinging a couple of hundred quid at a wall to see if this experiment (which it really was at the time) would be a success.
There weren’t really many obstacles for the 2008 convention, so to speak – it was a new frontier, and a totally new experience for many of us, so we took most things in our stride and had a very positive approach to things. Perhaps the most stressful thing was setting up and packing away!
Has it always been your intention to make Summer of Sonic an annual event, or did you start off with the intention of making Summer of Sonic a one-off? At what point did you start thinking of the event as having a longterm future?
You know, thinking back I’m not really sure. There was always a hope that the 2008 convention would be successful enough – and should that be the case (and thankfully, it was) we’d do Summer of Sonic for a second year. But it was really an untested thing. Nobody had ever done anything like this before. There have been conventions based specifically on game franchises, for sure, but none that have had such a grassroots beginning as Summer of Sonic. We didn’t know if it was going to tank or flourish.
So I guess there was an optimism to make SoS an annual event, but an understanding that it might not actually happen. When it came to the end of our second convention in 2009 though, we all knew that we had to continue running it for as long as we were able. There is still a wealth of Sonic universes, guests and fan works that we’ve yet to tap into yet before we can stop.
Previous Summer of Sonic conventions have been held in London, with this year’s event being the first to be held outside of London – in Hove (near Brighton)? What was the reasoning behind the change in venue location, and what has the reaction been like from fans?
There were two major reasons for moving the convention from London to Brighton this year. The first was cost – we had to be mindful of how much things were going to be this year, especially as we’re hosting a free event that continues to grow in size. Factor in the increased travel complexities from the 2012 Olympics – the second major reason why we avoided London this year – and it all makes sense.
I think the reaction from fans has been very positive. Many people saw the benefits of this great seaside area and see it as a wonderful summer adventure – which will add to the fond memories they will get from the day.
How much preparation and planning usually goes into putting on an event of this type, and how do you ensure that you’re able to market the event effectively?
It’s a massive team effort, for sure. We plan months in advance for something like this, and everyone pulls their own weight and has their own responsibilities. As for marketing the event, many of the volunteers run their own Sonic fansite so we are able to cross-promote the convention throughout the community in this way.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of putting on their own gaming convention?
Make sure you have a full plan covering all bases before you even think about going ahead with it – where it’s going to be, how many people you want to put in the venue, what events and equipment you’ll need, how many volunteers… All of these things cost money, and time. Start small and experiment first beforehand – Summer of Sonic was first held in a community hall in Covent Garden that could fit 200 people.
How supportive has the games industry been towards your endeavour, and how did you manage to get Sega to sponsor and get involved with Summer of Sonic?
Summer of Sonic is a pretty niche event, but we’ve still had a lot of support from the games industry. Journalists came down to interview Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka in 2011, and covered the event itself as a result. Nintendo has been a big supporter in recent years, and Summer of Sonic was even featured on the Wii’s Nintendo Channel.
SEGA has been supporting Summer of Sonic from the very start, from providing pods for Sonic Chronicles play tests to sponsoring the event going forward. To have this happen – a grass-roots convention created by fans, sponsored by the official company – is unprecedented in the games industry, and SEGA has been very forward-thinking in this manner.
With the plethora of activities and guests involved, it can be argued that Summer of Sonic should be a paid-for event, yet you have always strived to keep the event free. What’s the reasoning behind this?
The first year we made the event free so that we could make it as accessible as possible. Over the years, we just kept to that philosophy. You’re right though, with the amount of things that we offer, it can be argued that Summer of Sonic should be a paid-for event.
Last year’s convention was pretty memorable in that it celebrated Sonic’s 20th birthday, and you were able to secure guest appearances from Yuji Naka and Takashi Iizuka. My question is: how are you going to top last year, and what can we expect to see at Summer of Sonic 2012?
It’s always challenging to try and beat whatever you do the year before, but we think we have a fantastic lineup this year that really makes 2012’s convention its own. Crush 40 have returned to perform once more at Summer of Sonic, and Sonic Team leader Takashi Iizuka is attending to meet with fans and answer questions. We also have Sonic the Comic legends Nigel Kitching and Nigel Dobbyn there to chat with fans and present their artwork. SUMO Digital is showing off Sonic & All-Stars Transformed, the next great Sonic game, and fans can play that for the very first time. Our stage show is packed with surprises, too!
The ticketing system for this year’s event has been heavily criticised by long-time Summer of Sonic attendees, as well as general Sonic fans, in that tickets have sold out in a ridiculously short space of time. What prompted you to release the tickets in waves, and did you ever consider the venue as being far too small – especially considering the level of demand that there has been for Summer of Sonic 2012? How will you do things differently for next year so that the same mistakes aren’t repeated again?
I wouldn’t quite say that it was “heavily criticised” by “long-time” attendees. A lot of people were simply surprised that they couldn’t get a ticket in the phenomenal speed in which we sold out, and I think that’s a fair reaction. Nobody was more surprised than we were, let me tell you! There was no way anybody could have predicted how popular this year’s Summer of Sonic was going to be – and we did some pretty good calculations based on attendance from past years.
We released the tickets in waves simply because people asked us to in the previous year, and we thought it was a good idea to do so.
What would you regard as being your favourite Sonic game in the main series canon, and why?
My favourite Sonic game would be Sonic 3 & Knuckles. It’s simply a fantastic example of how a platforming game should be, and one with an epic storyline to boot. A close second is Sonic the Hedgehog 2 on the Mega Drive, just in how much of a leap forward from the original it truly was.
Conversely, what would you regard as being your least favourite Sonic game in the main series canon, and why?
I really have three, depending on who it is that’s asking. If we’re talking mainstream Sonic games, I dislike Sonic The Hedgehog (2006) the most. It’s an unfinished game which has drab presentation and a unnecessary storyline. And Elise. If someone with better knowledge of the series asked me, I’d say Tails’ Sky Patrol on the Game Gear. I’d also say Sonic Jam on the Tiger Game.com – that would be my underground choice – but I’d just prefer to forget that game ever existed. Go check it out for yourself. I can’t even class it as a game. It’s hilariously bad.
Lastly, many gaming enthusiasts regard Sonic’s best games as having come out during the Megadrive and Dreamcast era, with his recent games being considered as being sub-par and substandard in comparison. Why do you think Sonic still enjoys enormous levels of popularity, despite Sega’s seeming inability to rekindle what made Sonic so great in the first place, and why do you think Sonic has been unable to transition to the 3D dimension in as convincing a manner as long-time platforming stalwart and industry rival, Mario?
Sonic the Hedgehog is just a timeless video gaming icon, I think that’s why you still see him around. It’s like asking why Mickey Mouse is still prominent in various Disney products. First and foremost, though, Sonic is a franchise targeted at children. And it’s evident that kids love the blue blur – whatever adults may think of his latest adventures, young gamers are mesmerised by the character, the artwork, the music and the personality that is in every title. That’s one reason why Sonic is still very popular.
The other side of Sonic fans are people my age, though – adults who grew up playing Sonic on the Mega Drive. Most of these people left Sonic – and video games in general for that matter – behind shortly after they left school. So when you talk to them today about Sonic, they remember the Mega Drive games fondly and go out and dig out their old consoles – or purchase copies of the game on their smartphones for that nostalgia kick.
To answer your second question, it’s all about direction at the end of the day. Sonic Adventure and Sonic Adventure 2 had fantastic direction and were great forays into 3D. Playing the Sonic stages in those games is still a fantastic thrill. But I think, even Sonic Team has admitted, that there was a period where the Sonic series lacked positive direction. That resulted in Sonic (2006) and, to a degree, Sonic Unleashed. The arrival of Sonic Colours on the Wii changed that downward spiral, and was a really bold step in proving that Sonic can work in 3D. Sonic Generations followed, and was brilliant too.
So I think Sonic Team and SEGA is pretty much back in the saddle with the franchise. I’m looking forward to seeing where the Sonic series is going to go in the future.