What's Next for Sonic the Hedgehog (and friends)?

With a new Sonic Boom game on the horizon, Jaz talks to Sega producer Omar Woodley about the future of the franchise.

Article by Jaz Rignall, .

Over the years, many developers have been involved in the creation of Sonic games. Which have made the very best is open to debate, but I doubt whether Sanzaru Games, who produced last year's Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal on 3DS, would figure particularly highly in the discussion.

That game wasn't very well received by critics. However, judging by my recent visit to Sega's soon-to-be-vacated San Francisco office, it sounds like Sega and Sanzaru have been listening to the feedback. The follow-up to last year's more exploratory take on the Sonic franchise is being tightened up to deliver something more akin to what fans of the storied series are looking for.

I sat down with Sega producer Omar Woodley to talk about the upcoming Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice and find out where the new Sonic franchise is headed.

"We launched Sonic Boom as a new franchise last year with Shattered Crystal, at the same time as a new animated series that airs on Cartoon Network," says Omar. "Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice is the next episode in conjunction with the animated series."

"We're developing the game with Sanzaru Games, who also did Shattered Crystal. We think that they grasp the concept of Sonic, and what makes him unique. They also got on board with Sonic being more exploratory and having more adventure instead of that classic arcadey feel of gameplay. That's not to say we distance ourselves from that – there is quite a bit of speed in the new game, and quite a bit of the same nostalgia that's familiar, but new. But in a nutshell, this is a new franchise."

"A lot of the characters are shared between the series and the game. Sticks is the new character – she's a jungle badger. She's a bit of a hermit, but she befriends Sonic and Amy, and they help to bring her out of her shell. She's very shy and a bit neurotic, and thinks everyone is out to kill her. But she's a cool character who's very different to the other Sonic characters."

As Omar talks, he begins to play the game. Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice is a 2.5D platformer that at first glance looks like a classic Sonic the Hedgehog game. The graphics are a little less arcade-like, and not quite as vibrant as the early games, but it still retains a quintessential Sonic feel.

Omar addresses player reaction to Sonic Boom: Shattered Crystal. "With our previous game, it was a kind of a shock to the fanbase how we designed it. There was more focus on exploration and less focus on speed. We've toned down on the exploration and put a bit more speed into Fire and Ice. In the previous game we dropped you into this enormous labyrinth, a Castlevania-style level design. Sonic fans were like, "What is this? I just want to run through and hit bounce pads and spring boards and speed boosts and ping-pong around." So we've dialed down the length and the size of the levels and cut a linear path through the middle. The exploration now happens above and below it. So now you can have that classic experience of running through the level at high speed if you want, but now you can also explore too."

"There are a lot of collectibles in the game too, which is tied up in the exploration aspect of the game – they all unlock stuff like characters and bonuses. We have seven islands in the game, six of which are exploration-based and feature four levels plus two bonus stages. Then the seventh is called Thunder Island. This is new to 3DS and the Sonic Boom franchise, and it's basically a two-player local play option that is based on a race between Eggman's bots."

"Basically, Eggman has found a new element called Ragnium, which he melts down and combusts as fuel. These bots, which are henchmen in the animated series, have been brought into this game as rival racers. Eggman's goal is to humiliate Sonic by making bots that are faster than him. Of course that whole plot fails… but to do that you need to beat all the bots in the game to prove Eggman is wrong – there's one on each island. As you progress, you unlock character bots that can then be used to race your friends in local play on the crazy courses we've designed."

"The main story follows a henchman called Defect. He's been designed by Eggman to find Ragnium and mine it. He has these eco magnets that are supposed to enable him to raise it out of the ground. However, when Eggman turns him on, it totally fails – which is why he's called Defect. However, it turns out that he can magnetize everything other than Ragnium, so he begins to use his powers to build himself up so he can beat Sonic. Also, part of the storyline is that as Eggman collects Ragnium, he's polluting the environment. So part of the game is restoring the environment – which is an homage to the original Sonic games."

"The adventure stages are the main levels of gameplay through the game. There are four per island, and you can use each of the game's characters in every level. Each character has his or her own special powers and there are setups in the game where you need to use all of them at some point. You can switch between them on the fly by using the touch pad. Sonic can jump higher than all the other characters, and has a special air dash. New to the cast is Amy, and she has a hammer that can break things and alter the terrain of a level. Tails returns and he's the gadget guy. He can hover and fly by using air streams, plus he also has a blaster that can reflect off mirrors. Knuckles can punch stuff, and can also burrow underground and reach parts of the landscape no other characters can access. Sticks has a cool boomerang that you can take control of and guide around so it can hit things that might be around corners."

"Also, every character has fire and ice abilities that can be used to freeze water so you can walk over it. There are setups where ice blocks are in the way that you can melt to go through, or water spouts that you have to turn into ice so you can run across them. In some situations you have to change from fire to ice ability very quickly. It can be very fast – almost like changing gear in a racing game."

At this point Omar reaches one of the game's Challenge Rooms. These are designed specifically for hardcore Sonic fans. He explains, "You don't have to complete the Challenge Rooms to finish the game, but you have to finish them if you want to get 100% completion. They're basically optional, but they have some really cool setups. More seasoned gamers will have a lot of fun with them."

The room Omar showed me had Sonic grinding down a rail, reminiscent of Sonic Adventure 2 on Dreamcast.

As Omar plays the game, I note that much of its challenge seems to come from environmental puzzles – jumping over gaps and using the fire and ice abilities to avoid hazards. He agrees. "Most enemies in this game aren't that aggressive – they're not really there to chase you around and confront you. They're mostly there to assist with you with the rhythm play so you can bounce off them. But there are a few oddballs in there that will chase you – so you have to be careful when you're bouncing off enemies because some will come after you."

Of course there are bosses too. Omar reveals, "There are four in all, and we did something unique with them – they use both of the 3DS' screens so they're basically two screens high. You're always going to be Sonic in a boss fight, but for each fight you're paired with another character so you can use their special abilities."

Each boss fight sees Defect using items from the environment to construct a giant monster. In the boss fight Omar demoed, Defect was driving a large creature made out of tar and dinosaur bones, which attempted to smash Sonic at the bottom of the screen. Tar flowed out of the ground that Sonic had to avoid stepping into, and then Defect blew tar bubbles, which companion character Tails was able to dodge by floating over. Once they were safely negotiated, the creature was momentarily vulnerable to attack. It was classic gaming pattern-learning stuff, and looked like fun.

After the boss fight, Omar switched to a bonus area that takes the form of a classic 3D tunnel run from Sonic 2, where you're running down a tube collecting rings and dodging hazards. Apparently there are twelve of these in Fire and Ice.

There are also two other types of bonus levels. One features the Sea Fox submarine from Game Gear Tails Adventure, where you float around shooting at things with your sub while looking for collectibles. This part of the game feels quite serene and calm, and is a nice change of pace from the more hectic main levels. There's also a hovercraft game where you're racing up the screen trying to avoid or blast icebergs. Again, there are collectibles to pick up.

Demo finished, I am quite impressed. It's hard to judge a game just by watching, but my immediate impression of Sonic Boom: Fire and Ice is that it seems to be a lot more immediate and direct than last year's more labyrinthine and much slower-paced game. Basically, you can play the game more like a traditional high-speed Sonic platformer. The more exploratory and adventure aspects are optional detours this time around.

I ask whether this new Sonic game represents the future of the franchise. Omar explains, "Sonic Boom is meant to branch away from the classic/legacy Sonic. Our plan is to go forward with both the modern Sonic and the legacy Sonic, but the Sonic Team will handle the legacy side of things in Japan. For us, the Western initiatives will tie into the toys, merchandizing, animation – movies potentially even. We're branching out into the more upbeat adventure style theme for Sonic Boom."

He continues. "Our main target audience is 7-11, but what we saw when we released the first game is that Sonic fans picked it up. That's a challenge: you've got your older audience and younger audience, but the older fans had a harder time getting into it, because it they're so used to classic and legacy Sonic, and that's what they thought Shattered Crystal was going to be."

"It can be tricky sometimes. You're developing a game that is for an intended audience, but we have a legacy group of people that played the Genesis and Megadrive games. Then you have the audience that played the Dreamcast and GameCube era games. Then you have the modern, younger audience. Each of these three groups is looking for something slightly different. Our challenge is how do you make a game that appeals to everybody. That everyone can play and say, "I like this." That's the challenge we're working with."

In terms of the future, it seems that Sonic will essentially have two lines. "We have all the Sonic Boom stuff, but we also do classic lines of stuff," explains Omar. "There's all sorts of merchandizing that's designed to appeal to the older audience and the younger audience. When we first announced the Sonic Boom initiative, the fans were all, "why is Knuckles so big, and why does Sonic have a scarf". All these little things. But we said, "don't worry, we're not taking the old Sonic and getting rid of him." The original Sonic design is still here and he's here to stay. They're just two separate universes that are running parallel to one another."

"We're thinking bigger than just the video game. We want to branch out into the Western market a bit more and update Sonic's look and appeal to a younger age group – the new gamers. And so we wanted to do something exploration-based. We didn't want to just reboot the classic series. We wanted to do something new – and not alienate the classic players."

However, Omar is quick to admit that the first iteration wasn’t perfect. "I think we went a bit too far with the exploration in the last game. There were a lot of speed runs and rhythm play sections, but they were so spread out you lost that speed aspect of the game. That was one of the big things that people complained about – "if you slow down Sonic, it doesn't feel like Sonic." Now we're trying to fix that. We want to keep what's going on in the animated series, the adventure and exploration, but we also want to keep the feel of classic Sonic. So now we've made the levels smaller, and cut a linear path through them, and plugged in all the classic Sonic pieces, and now the game feels more like the classic game."

Of course, without playing it myself, I can't definitively say whether Fire and Ice truly feels like a classic Sonic game, but it's certainly looking promising – and very different from last year's game. We'll be able to find out just how good it is when it's released at the end of this year.

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Comments 16

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  • Avatar for brionfoulke91 #1 brionfoulke91 3 years ago
    Sonic Boom was the worst Sonic game to date... yes, even worse than Sonic 06. It had the really derivative and uninspired gameplay, and the incredibly annoying talky characters that the really bad Sonic games have. But it also had a really bad soundtrack to boot, something that even Sonic 06 does a better job of. Judging by the ugly looking 2.5D screenshots of this game, we can't expect much better from this game.
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  • Avatar for pennybags #2 pennybags 3 years ago
    @Trancephalic They can hardly afford to do anything else than throw out things that don't pay off given their finances.

    Anyway I've been way more loyal to this series than most people and continued to enjoy the post-Adventure titles (with the exception of some stinkers like Secret Rings -- but I enjoyed, say, Sonic 06, which wasn't popular) but Sonic Boom was just not very good. Collectathons don't appeal to me and the world doesn't need Yet Another Metroidvania instead of what makes Sonic games different and appealing. I'll probably skip this next one too since "we're basically keeping the same thing, except now we're putting one single path in the middle you can go through" doesn't really address this; it's trying to bolt on the old gameplay to something totally different.Edited June 2015 by pennybags
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #3 CK20XX 3 years ago
    I'm afraid I couldn't hear this announcement over the sounds of me playing Freedom Planet. Why settle for any lesser amount of speed and adventure?Edited June 2015 by CK20XX
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  • Avatar for Sturat #4 Sturat 3 years ago
    The future of Sonic should be another game like Generations made by the Generations team, ideally without the customization options so online competition and story mode could be merged into one complete experience.

    I own every portable Sonic game except Sonic Boom, and I have no intention to buy any Sonic games from Sanzaru or Big Red Button.
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  • Avatar for Asintador #5 Asintador 3 years ago
    @pennybags Sonic and the Secret Rings was... OK. It does say a lot, though, when I've actually finished Sonic '06 but not Secret Rings... so count me in that very small group that actually had some fun with '06.

    I will agree that pushing more towards exploratory gameplay hurt Sonic Boom 3DS. It felt more like a 2D Sly Cooper game than a Sonic game (oh hey, Sanzaru made the last Sly game, too), and I'm not completely sold on how they're attempting to rectify that.

    As long as they're not citing Sonic Labyrinth on Game Gear as an influence...
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  • Avatar for CK20XX #6 CK20XX 3 years ago
    @brionfoulke91 Sonic 2006 was "Ed Wood" bad. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric was more "Uwe Boll" bad. The main difference between them was probably their towers of ambition and how big of an entertaining crash they made when they fell.
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  • Avatar for metalangel #7 metalangel 3 years ago
    @CK20XX I agree. Freedom Planet is everything a Sonic game is supposed to be.
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  • Avatar for andrewmayes78 #8 andrewmayes78 3 years ago
    @Sturat A game like Generations, which was running on the Unleashed engine, by the Generations team, which was largely the same as the Unleashed team. So you want another game like Unleashed then?

    While Generations was a very well-crafted game, it was severely disappointing in both length and content (hope you like green, city, and factory levels -- heck, one level is all three!), and while it works fine as an anniversary celebration, we can't reasonably expect that formula to work with every game.

    Personally, I think Sonic Colors was still the overall superior game to Generations, and (the severely underappreciated) Sonic Lost World has done a much better job of moving the franchise forward from there, subverting fan expectations while still managing to be a downright fun game. Unfortunately, as both of those games were exclusive to Nintendo consoles, they seem to have passed under the radar for most.Edited June 2015 by andrewmayes78
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  • Avatar for siamesegiant #9 siamesegiant 3 years ago
    I want a fishing game with Big the Cat or nothing at all!
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  • Avatar for Sturat #10 Sturat 3 years ago
    @andrewmayes78 Unleashed had terrible pacing problems, and the daytime stages in Unleashed didn't control quite as well as Generations. Colors and Lost World were pretty good, but they lacked the polish and oomph of Generations, and they were a little too gimmicky for me. Generations is clearly the best, although I wish they'd cut some of the play time out. (The bosses definitely dragged) I would consider all of the aforementioned games to be worth playing (with Unleashed the weakest of the four) while the Sonic Boom games are taints on the series.
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  • Avatar for andrewmayes78 #11 andrewmayes78 3 years ago
    @Sturat See, that's the thing; all the "polish and oomph" in Generations was there mainly to cover up how by-the-numbers and basic the entire game really was. The wisps in Colors managed to add gameplay depth without feeling forced or gimmicky, and its level design was a step above Generations's, if you ask me. Sonic Lost World brought back the wisps whether they made sense or not (which I'm totally okay with), and has some of the most interesting, open level design of the franchise. I just don't see how Generations's fairly linear level designs can compete. Honestly, take away the nostalgia factor -- which was easily the game's biggest claim to fame -- and you're left with a fairly middle-of-the-road Sonic game. Sonic has always been about experimentation to a certain degree, and so while Generations is a great way to celebrate what's come before, if every Sonic game were made like it, I'd grow really bored really quickly.

    While I wouldn't mind Sega pulling out another Generations-type game every five or ten years for the anniversaries and such, I'm rather fond of the way each Sonic game refuses to rest on its laurels and toys around with new ideas. Sure, they may not always work out, but I think it differentiates the series from other popular platformers like Mario.Edited 2 times. Last edited June 2015 by andrewmayes78
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  • Avatar for markparkell54 #12 markparkell54 3 years ago
    And thats exactly what you did, was alienate the sonic fans. I met a 5 year old kid the other day with a classic sonic shirt while I was at work serving his family subs. I pointed out that I liked his shirt as I have been a sonic fan since I was a little boy too. And do you know the first thing the boy said "sonic boom sucks, why did they change him?" A 5 year old boy said this.

    We grew up with Sonic, and we want our kids to see the same things we loved about the character growing up as well, it's okay to change outfits, even giving them eye colours, those changes make sense, but suddenly roiding out knuckles and giving him a lobotomy, giving sonic blue arms. This is too much change. It's okay to try different styles of game play. But you cannot change the established character.

    There is a reason most reboots fail. Because it's usually a bunch of people who know jack shit about the source material, coming in and changing everything from what it originally was. Think of it like this.

    you work in a restaurant. spend a few weeks on training and then spend years doign your job one way. Then your boss retires and his green horn son comes in, suddenly every ones schedule has moved, you're hours get cut back, procedures change but don't make any sense, they were just changed so the new boss feels important and can justify why he makes more than you. suddenly your product is coming out flawed, the food is half cooked or the orders are wrong. After a few months of these random changes customers start complaining about how the food just isn't as good as it has been for the last few years, all the best co workers slowly leave. and you are left with a hollowed out shell of what that restaurant used to be. when you used to have regulars coming in all the time now you have the new crowd, and most of those people are assholes. Until finally you can't take it anymore and you move on. You rive by years later and find a new walmart is standing where you used to work.

    Moral of the story? If it works don't fuck with it, if it tanks then drop that shit in the toilet where it belongs. Boom was a colossal fuckfest all the way around. Flush that shit.
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  • Avatar for aaronwarner92 #13 aaronwarner92 3 years ago
    The problem the Sonic series faces primarily is that it doesn't focus on what it should be: developing a main, modern series that is connected from one game to the next. Just like almost every other game series out there has now. These titles should be in full 3D, featuring proper stories, set on a proper world, with a cast of characters that extends beyond the generic Genesis trio and varies from game to game, using graphics that are neither too dully realistic or painfully cartoony, and featuring proper voice acting that is neither anime nor horrendously 90's "skater boy".

    In other words, Sonic needs to get caught up, and then stay that way, progressing with the other games as time goes by. And it needs to do this without trying to use guns, swords, Werehogs, or console exclusives.

    And on the side, there should be digital and handheld titles dedicated to preserving the classic titles' spirit. But it was never going to work to try to combine the two, or try to single out just one of the many sides of the fanbase to cater to. There's too many different people who all want something different.

    While it seems they've figured that out, and probably also that not everyone can be pleased, they need to get around to the other part of this key to helping the series get to a better place: stop messing around with sub-series and side content and start focusing all things on making the Sonic series what it should be to fit in with a modern market without dropping its classic roots entirely.
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  • Avatar for andrewmayes78 #14 andrewmayes78 3 years ago
    @aaronwarner92 That's kind of what they've been doing since Sonic Colors though. The game you're describing is Sonic Lost World, almost to a tee.

    Although I have to disagree about having the games weave interconnected stories with large, varied casts, because that's exactly what it was doing during its absolute darkest days. 1999's Sonic Adventure to the infamous Sonic '06 -- a total of five main games -- all continued one another's stories, becoming more and more overwrought with baggage, with a huge cast of characters that turned the series' entire continuity into a humongous mess. In those five games alone, there were 26 total playable characters; far more than a simple platforming series needs.

    With Sonic Unleashed, Sega launched a bit of a soft reboot in terms of story, with a simple plot that doesn't try to be more than it has to be, and with the completely new voice cast of Sonic Colors, we finally have professional-quality acting in the franchise. The newer games have had stories that are self-contained but tangentially related, and have cut the main cast to Sonic, Tails, and Eggman -- with other characters showing up only if they're unobtrusive -- in addition to new, usually one-time characters in each game that are pertinent to the current story. In terms of story, Sonic doesn't need deep, interwoven plots any more than any other platformer does, and we don't need any more proof than the absolute embarrassment of games he was putting out when he tried to do just that.Edited 3 times. Last edited June 2015 by andrewmayes78
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  • Avatar for faisaladen47 #15 faisaladen47 3 years ago
    Personally I don't hate Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyrics, I can really understand why people hated it so much and I don't blame them. But remember this game was worked on for about a year, it didn't had time to be finished since Sega wants to release a Sonic game every year. Sega should have just took a lot of time trying to get the game to be more enjoyable for fans, the character development is great, it's shame they kept re-using the same ost over and over. It's really annoying T_T But I wouldn't mind then remaking this game to make it sound more better and amazing to experience. I'm glad they've learned from their lesson. Although this game should have been released for the PS4 and Xbox One just in case. I really think they shouldn't have used the Cry Engine for this game.

    That's all I have to say.
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  • Avatar for toluwadavies14 #16 toluwadavies14 3 years ago
    There's a problem with the actually cool idea they have of throwing in some Megadrive/Genesis references for the older audiences. It even applies to the idea of focusing strictly on people who grew up with classic Sonic in the regular timeline and younger audiences ages 6-11. They're leaving out people like me who grew up in that sort of "in between" zone, ya know; the kids who were completely left in the dark as to where most of the stages in Sonic Generations were from except obvious ones like Green Hill Zone, and more recent ones like Planet Wisp and Water Palace. I'm 14 years old, and I started playing video games the moment the franchise started going downhill. That's why games like Sonic and the Secret Rings/Black Knight, the Riders series, and heck, even 06 are all close to my heart. I started playing video games when around the time when the Wii just came out; in fact it was the first video game console I ever had. I was too young to have played any of the original games, and I actually came to love Sonic through the TV show Sonic X. Of course, we were at the point where Gamecube games were no longer being sold, so there was absolutely no hope of getting to play Sonic Adventure or 2. The first Sonic game I got for the Wii was Sonic and the Secret Rings and being the young child that I was, I loved it. Next after that was Sonic Riders Zero Gravity which I also loved and still enjoy playing today. While I never did get my hands on a copy, I fell in love with Sonic and the Black Knight, as "Knight of the Wind" was the first Crush 40 song I ever heard, and possibly my favorite. And while I was a Nintendo boy growing up, my church did have a game room with all sorts of consoles, ranging from original Xbox's to PS3's. Since it was around the year 2006 (Shudder!) that I began liking Sonic, I gravitated to the demo on their Xbox 360 called simply "Sonic the Hedgehog." Even though it was a part of my childhood, I couldn't help but notice the slippy controls and out-of-the-ordinary enemies that were hard to hit. I did however become intrigued by what the story could possibly be, and began researching when I got home. I learned a bit about Mephilis and how he had killed Sonic, only to be revived by the seven Chaos Emeralds and a (gag!) kiss from a human princess named Elise who was told never to cry. I learned about Silver the Hedgehog who became my favorite Sonic character at the time, and Blaze the Cat who was always (rightfully) calling him naive, and her sacrifice to finally defeat the Iblis once and for all by sealing it and herself in another dimension. Of course, now I know that it was all for nothing as Sonic and Elise made it so that the Iblis never existed in the first place, but I still thought it was pretty heroic of her when I was younger. But hey, you can't possibly blame me for actually considering 06 to be a good thing outta the Sonic franchise; it basically defined Sonic for me when I was at a kid. Well I guess there was one time I could have chosen either Sonic Classic Collection over Sonic Rush when I was given the chance to pick out a Nintendo DS game at Walmart one day, but I think I still chose wisely, as Sonic Rush is definitely the best hand-held Sonic game I've ever played. So Sega, what about us? You're creating a new franchise for younger kids who like more cheesier story lines and comedy, while still focusing on the older fans who grew up with Sonic in the 90's and early 00's with the regular timeline, which is great, but what about us? The kids who are too young to have experienced anything that came out before the Wii and DS such as the Sonic Adventure series and any of the Classic Sonic games (Sonic 4 doesn't count!), but are too old for the simplistic (and incredibly plot-hole-ridden) story line and obviously child-focused humor of Sonic Boom?
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