From Sega Retro
The Sonic Team, best known as the main developers of the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, is one of SEGA's most beloved and well-known creatives. Originally known as Sega Consumer Department #3 or just AM8 the development team is one of the longest running within the company, with over 50 titles credited to them. Currently run by Takashi Iizuka, the team is still an active driving force both creatively and financially for SEGA.
Origins and Early Successes (1990-1997)
Back in 1990, SEGA had one goal in mind - to create a game that would rival Super Mario Bros. and put the company on the map. The earliest members of the team, Naoto Ohshima and Yuji Naka, worked together to create a proposal to pitch to SEGA as to what that game would be. The pair, having previously worked on the Phantasy Star series together, set off to work on a concept they hoped would become successful, Ohshima creating the title character while Naka began work on the engine. With the proposal accepted, work soon began on the original Sonic the Hedgehog, with Hirokazu Yasuhara being brought on to lead game development, merging the elements that already existed with the level designs that would help insure the game not only appeal to the largest audience possible, but be fun as well. Through the many twists and turns of development, the game was finally set to be released, the 15-strong team dubbing themselves "Sonic Team," after the work they were proud to call their own.
After the international success of the game, Naka, who had grown restless with upper management at Sega of Japan, left the company only to be rehired by its western branch in the form of the Sega Technical Institute, wooed by its original head Mark Cerny. Coming to America along with Yasuhara (who had been scheduled to become a part of STI before Sonic the Hedgehog had begun development), the pair would go on to continue the main line of Sonic the Hedgehog titles, albeit without the Sonic Team moniker. Sonic the Hedgehog 2, Sonic 3, and Sonic & Knuckles would retroactively be called Sonic Team productions, still containing core members of the original development team of the first. This same retroactive naming scheme would hold true of other titles of the era, including the Ohshima-led Sonic the Hedgehog CD, the ill-fated Chaotix, and the non-Sonic title Ristar, which ended up using some of the scrapped concepts of the original Sonic the Hedgehog.
After the completion of Sonic & Knuckles, Yasuhara chose to remain in America, while Naka decided to return to Japan, re-hired into the fold of Sega of Japan. Once there, he teamed back up with Ohshima, the two setting their sights on an entirely new project. Resurrecting the Sonic Team moniker, Naka became the president of AM8 in 1994, the reunited duo starting work on NiGHTS Into Dreams. With a much larger team than what they had back in 1991, members of the Japanese side of the Sega Technical Institute also became involved in the production. Among them was Takashi Iizuka, who had gotten his official start as a Senior Game Designer in Sonic 3 & Knuckles. With old and new blood, Sonic Team defined their Saturn-era work by proving they weren't afraid to try new ideas and concepts, as shown not only by NiGHTS but their follow-up title, Burning Rangers. The only Sonic-related output was the compilation title Sonic Jam, along with some supervised work on Flickies' Island and Sonic R. Though he would remain with the company until 2002, Sonic R was also the last title series director Yasuhara had any direct involvement with, eventually departing to work for game studio Naughty Dog.
The Dreamcast Era (1998-2001)
Looking to redefine what made them famous, Sonic Team returned to their namesake as the 32-bit era wound down. Though originally meant for the Sega Saturn, Sonic Adventure would instead become one of the defining games for the Sega Dreamcast, in one final bid by SEGA as a whole to return to the successes they once felt in the early 90's. Though met with critical acclaim, it also happened to be the last title Ohshima worked on with SEGA, leaving the company to form his own gaming studio, Artoon.
Though interested in pursuing other projects but knowing the demand for further games featuring Sonic, 12 members of the team were sent back to San Francisco to form Sonic Team USA, led by Takashi Iizuka. Those that remained in Japan were led by Yuji Naka, that team focusing on original titles such as Chu Chu Rocket, Samba De Amigo, and the return of the Phantasy Star series with Phantasy Star Online. Sonic Team USA, on the other hand, focused primarily with Sonic. Though their first official assignment was simply making sure Sonic Adventure was ready for a western release, the real reason they came into existence was made clear with 2001's Sonic Adventure 2. Though hopes were high, the game was not enough to change the troubles the rest of the company were having.
In April 2000, as SEGA began feeling the financial woes they hoped the Dreamcast would have erased, the decision was made to have the main development departments of SEGA, including Sonic Team, become semi-autonomous. Becoming Sonic Team Ltd, the group continued in earnest to create quality games. But even this corporate action and the impending release of Sonic Adventure 2 could not stop SEGA from announcing their decision to drop out of the hardware market, Phantasy Star Online Ver. 2 becoming the last Sonic Team title released on SEGA hardware.
Third-Party Existence (2002-2006)
Releasing titles on a variety of systems including the Nintendo GameCube and PlayStation 2, Sonic Team strove to still prove itself as a viable entity in the everchanging gaming landscape. Continuing to produce titles for existing franchises such as Sonic Heroes and Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II, the team still experimented with new franchises including Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg. 2002 also saw Sonic Team's first acquisition in the form of the Puyo Puyo series, which was bought after Compile was forced to go out of business. Continued financial woes for the whole of SEGA saw yet another restructuring of the company, and while the development teams were still semi-autonomous, they were consolidated, with United Game Artists being merged with Sonic Team. Responsible for such titles as Space Channel 5 and the critically acclaimed Rez, the UGA staff members would still continue to work together, being responsible for such games as the Feel the Magic XY/XX/The Rub Rabbits! pair for the Nintendo DS.
Even so, the financial situation of SEGA proved diresome, with rumors of the company merging with just about every gaming company under the sun running rampant. Things were finally put to rest when, in early 2004, arcade company Sammy bought a major stake in SEGA, forming Sega Sammy Holdings Inc. In its wake, the subsidiaries of SEGA including Sonic Team Ltd. were merged back into SEGA, existing as it did in the previous decade. It was around this same time period that Sonic Team USA, now busy with the development of Shadow the Hedgehog, changed their name to Sega Studios USA, still under control by Iizuka.
With SEGA looking to set itself back on the right path, the pressure for Sonic Team to create a new game for a new generation of consoles in time for their first major holiday season was on, with Yuji Naka unveiling the initial footage for what would become Sonic the Hedgehog 2006, toting features that would ultimately not be seen in the game. Though many thought Naka would once again assume a role in the project similar to what he had with Adventure, it was only a few months later that Naka announced his own leaving of the company, setting off to create his own studio much like Ohshima had years prior. Called Prope, while some financial backing was provided by SEGA, the studio was completely autonomous, Naka's departure signaling the end of an era. With these sudden changes in management, coupled with that unending pressure, Sonic 2006 was released with much fanfare but met with just as much, if not more, disappointment.
Restructuring and Modern Times (2007-Present)
Back in the United States, Sega Studios USA finished its final game, NiGHTS: Journey of Dreams for the Nintendo Wii. Met with mixed reviews, that, along with the failure of Sonic 2006, prompted Sega to merge the studio back into Sonic Team proper in 2008, having Takashi Iizuka fill the role of President that Naka left vacant. With the teams consolidated, the development group looked to refocus their energies on their core brands, including Phantasy Star, Puyo Puyo, and of course Sonic the Hedgehog. Starting with Sonic Unleashed and continuing on with Sonic Colours and Sonic Generations, the Sonic Team have looked to try and make their namesake once again as revered as it was back in the early 90's. They have even gone as far as to build new relationships with other developers within and outside SEGA to continue the longevity of the brand, such as working with Smilebit and Nintendo for the bi-yearly Mario and Sonic Olympic sports titles. Coupled with the continued partnership with developer Dimps with the handheld titles, the current incarnation of Sonic Team continues to look towards the future.