Carson School alumnus Flick is level designer for Sonic Mania videogame
calendar icon27 Sep 2017 user iconBy Kathe C. Andersen
Lincoln, Neb.--Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film Alumnus Brad Flick (B.F.A. 2010) worked on the creative team as a level designer for the new Sonic Mania video game released in August by SEGA.
Christian Whitehead, Headcannon and PagodaWest Games, who were all chosen for their work in the Sonic community, developed the game in collaboration with SEGA of America. Sonic Mania celebrates the series’ 25th anniversary and features the best of Classic Sonic, while pushing the envelope forward with 60 frames-per-second gameplay and pixel-perfect physics.
“I still don’t think Sonic Mania is real because the scenario where a big Japanese publisher gives their top I.P. to a small, Western, independent team is unheard of,” Flick said. “And they gave us a lot of creative freedom, too. They were fantastic at enabling what we wanted to do and were great mentors. I think their leadership shows in the reviews. People are talking about how there’s just so much to do and so much stuff being thrown at you at all times, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming.”
As a level designer, Flick and the other designers were responsible for the area that the player plays in.
“Basically, you take the area that the player plays in from the conceptual stage all the way to the finished form,” Flick said. “In the case of Sonic Mania, we had a handful of original levels, so those are ideas they we had to come up with completely from scratch. Then there’s Sonic Team, which is the Japanese development studio responsible for doing the Sonic titles at SEGA. We had a modest proposal of a couple of original zones, and then they wanted us to add a bunch of zones from Sonic’s previous games. We had to cherry pick from Sonic’s history, update the graphics, update the mechanics and figure out how to make it fresh and new without feeling like it’s a retread. Then, I helped build the environments that everyone has fun in.”
Flick has been a fan of the game since he was growing up in St. Louis, Missouri.
“When I was younger, we didn’t have a gaming console, but we had a Windows 95 computer,” he said. “My uncle had a Sega Genesis with Sonic on it, and that’s all he had for it really, so we would go to my grandma’s house, where he lived at that time, and played it. And then when you play for a while, you just want to figure out how it works.”
He later got Sonic CD for his computer for Christmas one year.
“That was like really the only videogame we had, so it was just years of constantly repeating and playing it over and over and over again,” he said. “When you’re doing that, you go from enjoying the game as a consumer into getting analytical with how it functions, how it behaves and why it does what it does. The game only uses a single button, but because Sonic uses momentum and physics, there’s a lot of mechanical depth to be found. People go nuts on Sonic. The gameplay gets really crazy and impressive, but it’s just a single button. That has always fascinated me.”
SEGA and Sonic Team eventually stopped making the two-dimensional Sonic games, but Flick remained intrigued.
“I still thought that there were some ideas to explore, so around age 13, I started trying to teach myself how those things work,” he said. “I thought it would be good to have design, programming and art in my skillset. So I would spend a lot of time doing homework, then just sitting on the computer and practicing techniques. Eventually, you run into communities where other people are doing the same thing.”
Those online forums are where he met Whitehead and Simon Thomley, who are now all part of the Sonic Mania development team.
What he likes about the Sonic universe is that it’s both simple and complex.
“The character design is really magnetic and popular. The design itself has a natural charisma to it that people love,” Flick said. “The gameplay is just running and jumping, so there’s a low barrier for entry. But then, there’s a very, very high skill ceiling because, again, there’s so much mechanical depth in Sonic. There’s so much creativity in terms of the way to complete a level and interact with the environment. For some reason, the colors, the music and how the gameplay works inspires people to create, whether it be drawing or programming or whatever. Sonic has a passionate and talented fanbase.”
Flick found there was no direct path into designing video games, so he ended up attending the Johnny Carson School of Theatre and Film and majoring in theatre with an emphasis in film and new media.
“At UNL, Brad was always the go-to for film audio,” said Associate Professor of Film Rick Endacott. “I know he worked on a lot of student films, building tracks and mixing audio. He also worked very closely with me and our colleagues at NET on our first Carson Film, ‘Vipers in the Grass.’ I think that experience cemented Brad’s plan to move to Los Angeles and pursue a career in film and television audio post-production.”
Flick has been a sound effects and dialogue editor for a number of television shows and films, including the recent film “Get Out.”
“Once in Hollywood, he had his ups and downs, but he knew what his goals were, and he pursued them to success as a union audio editor,” Endacott said. “He’s been very successful in that regard. What is ironic is that his work on Sonic actually pre-dates his time at the Carson School. As is so often the case, once a graduate moves into the industry, opportunities arise and lead in new directions. Brad has told me many times that the range of experiences he had with us beyond audio made him better prepared to take on the Sonic game project.”
“I just cut some sound yesterday, so I’m still doing both. I think being that malleable is pretty important now in entertainment,” he said. “I’ve lived through a couple of sound company bankruptcies, and some of the people only have one skill in the field, and they can’t adapt. For me, getting all the other skills at Nebraska was important, too.”
Endacott said, “Educating students with that depth of knowledge and flexibility is something we have always done. What is exciting for me is knowing that the new Carson Center for Emerging Media Arts will further expand our students skills so that, like Brad, have the flexibility to take advantage of opportunities when they arise.”
Flick is adjusting to life as a video game designer.
“I think we sold something like 600,000 copies in the first week and our critical average is in the high 80 percent range,” Flick said. “I have kids coming up to me at conventions and talking with us. People send fan art. I’m getting e-mails, Twitter, DMs. It’s nuts,” he said. “The original Sonic Team has told us that we’re doing a good job and said the game’s fantastic. I still don’t think it feels real right now.”
Flick is getting ready to travel to Japan for a month, but after that is unsure what’s next.
“We’re going to go to the Tokyo Game Show, which is the big video game trade show in Japan in September,” he said. “And then we’ll stay for a month just to relax and reward ourselves for what we accomplished. If the game sells well and has been reviewed well, then I don’t see SEGA not green-lighting more Sonic products with our team.”
It’s been an evolution for Flick.
“I definitely want to keep cultivating the relationship now that I’ve taken it from being a fan to being a peer and now being a developer for them,” he said. “I think there’s only up from here. I had a hand in making pop culture.”