While this year's SAGE might be over, that doesn't mean that the interviews are stopping anytime soon. If you've followed the news lately, you'd know that next year marks the 25th anniversary of the Sonic Fangames HQ! To celebrate the community's huge milestone, I managed to sit with BlazeHedgehog (Blaze), who you may know as the founder of SAGE itself. Blaze has his own YouTube channel; links to it and his Patreon will be at the end of the interview if you want to hear more from him.

Personal favorite of mine.

Daisuke: Hello, how are you today? Can you tell the audience about who you are and what you do?

BlazeHedgehog: My real name is Ryan Bloom, but generally online I've been going by BlazeHedgehog since 1998. Which means that, yes, it does pre-date the Sonic Rush games. I suppose you could call me a "content producer"? Basically, that means I've made games, I do video, and I dabble in all sorts of other creative outlets. My most famous games were probably Sonic: The Fated Hour, which I worked on for ten years before canceling. I also made Super Mario: Blue Twilight, a game that's probably had more than a million downloads total and was even featured on G4TV's Attack of The Show back in the day. Most notably, I am the founder of the Sonic Amateur Games Expo (SAGE). I handled the first 3-4 shows, originally two per year, starting from September 9th, 2000 up through 2001 or 2002. After that, I hung around and helped others run SAGE until 2005 or 2006.

Also! I am doing well. A bit sleepy, but so it goes.

The OG's remember this one
Daisuke: What is your connections with the general Sonic fan community? What got you into making things like fangames in the first place?

Blaze: It goes all the way back to getting online for the first time. Back then there weren't really any kind of social media like we have today, or algorithms to feed us content, or anything. Search engines were a lot more primitive, too. If you wanted stuff to look at, you had to manually dig it up for yourself, by following links through pages people had created. It could be a real journey. And in my travels online, I happened upon a page for something called "Sonic 2000." Somebody was trying to make their own Sonic game in C++. The idea was very interesting to me, because a few years earlier I was the one among my friends to start asking questions about how games were made. The fact you could just make your own Sonic games blew my mind.

I think the page for Sonic 2000 eventually lead me to a site called SFGHQ (Sonic Fan Games HQ), which at this point was only a year or two old. But there was already a sizable community of people making their own games, and the big talk of the town when I got there was the recently released Sonic Robo-Blast, the original. It was the biggest game the community had ever seen at the time. I... was not terribly impressed by it. It was buggy, it lacked scrolling, and the visuals were very primitive. Some or all of that can be blamed on the tools it was made with, but I figured I could do better.


We've gone a long way
By this point I was already starting to teach myself some BASIC coding on my TI82 graphing calculator. That was slow and if your batteries went dead, all your work was erased. Somebody at SFGHQ let me, uh, borrow a copy of Corel Click & Create and I was kind of off to the races. It was a lot easier to work with than typing text into a calculator.
Daisuke: Sounds very similar to how people borrow Clickteam Fusion nowadays. What made you begin thinking about founding something like SAGE to begin with? What made you take the leap?

Blaze: SFGHQ grew pretty rapidly. The bar was always raising. But trying to talk about this stuff to anyone outside of SFGHQ would get you dirty looks. Back then, fangames were much more closely associated with bootlegs and piracy. People thought what you were doing was illicit, even though if you drew a piece of fanart or wrote fanfiction, you'd be welcomed with open arms. I thought that was weird. So SAGE's original goal was to dispel the negativity surrounding fangames as pirate bootleg games and to get bigger gaming news outlets to start talking about what we were doing in a more positive light.

Daisuke: Did you start SAGE on your own completely, or did you have a group of people to help you out?

Blaze: My memory for these things isn't always the best, but I think the general idea of SAGE was mine, but it was undoubtedly something I bounced off of friends and they contributed to fleshing out what "The E3 of Fangames" was supposed to be. For the most part, I did try and do as much as I could by myself, but I eventually had friends swoop in and give me support when they thought I needed it. Like, for example, I'm pretty sure SSNTails (of Sonic Robo-Blast 2 fame) bought the domain for me. I also had the random idea during the first event to run a Shoutcast audio stream, coining the term "Sagecast" on the spot. And by that I mean, that wasn't planned to be part of the first SAGE, I just had the software and did it on a whim. But my dinky little 56k connection couldn't handle running a Shoutcast server, so SSNTails also swooped in and let me use the one he installed on his web server. Stuff like that tended to happen.


The first SAGE Expo website
Daisuke: SAGE has been going on for around 20+ years, and this year, SFGHQ celebrates it's 25th anniversary. SAGE is also seen as a pretty big event within the indie gaming sphere, with many people celebrating it's arrival each year or so. How does it feel to see it evolve into the way it is now?

Blaze: I am endlessly proud that all of this is still going after so long. Like, it was to the point where some SAGEs were booking guests that were people that worked at Sega. That's wild to me. And now, like, the event is so huge, it's reached a point where it almost feels like you can't even take it all in anymore.


A few notable Indie games that have been at SAGE expos

Which sounds like a complaint, but it isn't. It's crazy for me to think about what a launch pad SAGE has been for some people, and how its attracting more people due to that. Sometimes I wonder, too... in the last few years, Steam has gotten into doing these big demo events, and it makes me think that maybe SAGE had an influence on that. It's become, and is still becoming, such a force in this industry.

Daisuke: From what I remember, one of our posts from this year's SAGE actually got the Brand Manager for Sonic's attention and approval, so at this point, even SEGA/Sonic Team is aware of it's impact. How do you feel about the influx of indie games that go to SAGE to get their game out there?

Blaze: There's been some debate over the years on what is an acceptable game at SAGE, but I think indie games are fine. Even as far back as when I was personally running SAGE, I think I was allowing non-Sonic games to show. And I myself showed Super Mario Blue Twilight at SAGE in 2004 or 2005. It's always been a community showcase. It's always important to get feedback, and as an indie developer, you need as many people to be aware of your game as possible. If SAGE can be that, I think it should be. A lot of people grow up through their time at SFGHQ, so it makes sense for the event to facilitate that, too.

Daisuke: As of late, we've been noticing a rather wide evolution when it comes to Sonic fangames. Some of the biggest projects outright remake past games, there's mods that drastically change up how classic games are played, and even indies inspired by Sonic fangames releasing and doing very well, like Freedom Planet. What is your thoughts on the ways this community has improved year after year, and what do you think caused this urge to innovate and improve?


Sonic Galactic, one of the more influential Sonic Fangames of late.
Blaze: I think it's a few different things. Obviously you can look back to my reasons for joining SFGHQ, and just wanting to say "I can do better than that." The idea that you could just sit down and do better often gets the creative juices flowing. There's a little armchair critic in all of us, and being able to make games lets you actually do something about it. I think games like Freedom Planet and Spark the Electric Jester also prove that there is a path forward to establishing yourself and potentially making this into a career, which is also a big long-term draw. And then on top of that, I think people see Sonic Mania and think there may even be a path to working with Sega. It's all about meeting the bar of quality, and maybe pushing it to the next level to prove you've got what it takes. All kinds of things await those who stick it out.

Daisuke: Sonic Mania was a rather big moment for not just the Sonic community, but fangames as a whole. Do you think a game like Mania would have been created without the big community scene that was ignited by SAGE?

Blaze: My knee-jerk answer to that is to say that no, I don't think it would have. SFGHQ hit a rough patch for a few years at one point where it barely existed at all and SAGE was the primary focus. If SAGE didn't exist, I think things would have scattered to the winds a lot more.

Beyond normalizing fangames in mainstream media, SAGE has become a very important milestone. People make demos and things for SAGE. It's a rally point for a lot of people.


SAGE 2023 had a record-breaking 250 entrees. That broke SAGE 2021's record!
Daisuke: As you may know, Rummy, the last host of SAGE for the past few years, has recently announced his retirement. What we know, is that there's going to be another host who holds the torch of handling an event that gets bigger each year. Do you have any words of advice for them?

Blaze: This is going to sound weird, but Rummy and I were talking about missing sleep for SAGE a few days ago. I read a short comic strip once written by Shigeru Mura where he talks about meeting manga legends Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori. Both Tezuka and Ishinomori were big on pulling all nighters to meet deadlines, and Mura tells them he gets "at least 10 hours of sleep" no matter what. They doubt him. Mura emphasizes, "You live longer if you sleep more. Even happiness comes through the power of sleep. The power of sleep is the root of everything!" Tezuka died in 1989. Ishinomori died in 1998. Mura lived until 2015. Please, get enough sleep.

Daisuke: It was a great time getting to interview with you. I've been a huge fan, and you have inspired people like me to join events like SAGE to make it as important as it is today. Do you have anything else to say before we sign off?

Blaze: I'm very humbled to still be thought of after all this time. Sometimes I think to myself that because I haven't been involved in SAGE for so long that maybe my connection to it doesn't matter anymore. But I'm glad it still matters for some, and I'm glad we still have SAGE.


To the next level!

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