Sonic the Hedgehog interview: Sega Technical Institute lead designer, Chris Senn

PC World talks to Sega Technical Institute lead designer, Chris Senn, about Sonic 2 on the Mega Drive, as well as the ill-fated Sonic X-treme on the Saturn

Chris Senn got his foot into in the videogame industry by starting out as a computer graphics artist at Acme Interactive, previously known as Cinemaware. Originally a summer job, it would quickly evolve into his career. For just over a year, he would work on character and vehicle paper designs, as well as model robots and vehicles in 3D for the Battletech (Sega Mega Drive) and Battlecars (Super Nintendo) games, and create early storyboards and exploratory drawings for Cliffhanger (Sega Mega CD).

During this time, he sketched every day and built up a portfolio that he would later present to Sega Technical Institute (STI) for consideration, where he was first hired as a CG artist before moving up to becoming a lead game designer.

Sega was known for keeping its AM divisions and the majority of game development in Japan, but how did STI come into existence in the U.S.?

Former Sega Technical Institute lead designer, Chris Senn: Mark Cerny, a game programmer and designer, had originally planned to start STI in the United States with Yasuhara Hirokazu, a game designer, somewhere between 1989 and 1990. At the time, Yasuhara-san had intended to travel to the United States but was delayed due to the Gulf War.

What effect did the delay have?

CS: During this delay and while still in Japan, he decided to help Naka Yuji, a game programmer, and Oushima Naoto, a character artist, with their new character-based game project designed to create a new compelling mascot for Sega. Yasuhara-san decided to finish the project and one year later the Sonic the Hedgehog game was completed.

What was going on at the U.S. side following the game's release?

CS: At this time Yasuhara-san joined Mark Cerny in the States to work on a new character action game. Several months later, after consulting with Yasuhara-san, Mark invited Naka-san to join STI and work on the Sonic the Hedgehog sequel together. Naka-san agreed and the rest is history.

How were those early days at STI?

CS: I was very excited to join Sega Technical Institute and felt very supported by both the American and Japanese sides.

Despite being an internal Sega studio and being handed the development duties of Sonic 2 for the Mega Drive, STI tended to keep such a low profile during its existence. Was there any reason for it?

CS: I'm not sure how high or low of a profile STI presented itself or actually had, but I do know that all games, save for perhaps Sonic 2, had the company logo on them.

Despite the success of Sonic 2, STI seemed to have a diminished role in the production of Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles. Why was this?

CS: Sonic 3 and Sonic & Knuckles were created within STI, which was located at that time in Redwood Shores, San Francisco. However, both titles were exclusively created by the Japanese side of STI.

What were STI's plans for the then upcoming 32X add-on for the Mega Drive?

CS: Early in development, Sonic X-treme was slated to be created and released for the 32X. However, due to its limitations and the desired scope, management ultimately decided to shift development to the Saturn. In total, Sonic X-treme would undergo five platform changes over the course of its three year development.

Interestingly, STI attempted to develop Sonic X-treme for the Sega Saturn with a two-team approach. What was the reason for pitting the two development teams in a race against each other?

CS: Sonic X-treme began development early in 1994. Originally called Sonic-16 and pitched for the Genesis, it would undergo three target platform changes before settling on its target Saturn platform. A divide developed among the team that ultimately set Ofer Alon and I working on one version of the game, with the rest of the American side of STI working on the other version.

During the course of development of Sonic X-treme, what did Sega do to promote the development of the game?

CS: A series of three articles about our project was published in 1996 for Game Players magazine entitled the "Red Shoe Diaries."

Much has been written about former Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama's visit to STI in early 1996 to look at the progress of the game, but what was it really like?

CS: When Nakayama-san visited from Japan and expressed interest in Chris Coffin's boss engine, management shifted to a new team led by Coffin. Ofer Alon and I continued development on our version to later pitch to the PC division. However, both versions were ultimately cancelled.

Despite suffering numerous setbacks, you continued work on the game in the hope of pitching it to Sega's PC division. Sega PC held an odd place in the company's overall structure, but why did you turn to that division as a last resort to get the game published?

CS: It wasn't a secret that Ofer and I were working non-stop on our version of Sonic X-treme. Sega's executives were sympathetic to Ofer and my cause, and pointed us to the PC division as a last resort. It was unclear whether or not our game would fit the market they were trying to sell to, but we wanted to try anyway.

Unfortunately, Sega PC did not pick up the game to release it on PC. What was reason for its decision?

CS: I don't know why the PC division did not pursue our version of Sonic X- treme. It might have simply been that our game did not fit in with their plan for product release, or it might have been something politically motivated.

With progress on Sonic X-treme stalling, Sega cancelled the project to release Sonic 3D Blast by Traveller's Tales. How did you react to seeing a 2D isometric Sonic game being released instead?

CS: Despite Sonic X-treme being cancelled, I understood Sega's need to release a Sonic game, and I was impressed with what Traveller's Tales was able to accomplish.

STI was soon shut down after the cancelling of Sonic X-treme. Despite releasing several high profile titles in the past, what was the reason for shutting down the studio?

CS: Unfortunately, I do not know the details as to why Sega Technical Institute was transformed into Sega Product Development.

Sonic would not appear in a proper 3D platform title until 1999 when Sonic Adventure was launched on the Dreamcast. What did you think of the game?

CS: I felt the biggest challenge Sonic Adventure faced was translating Sonic's polished and responsive 2D movement into three dimensions. However, I was very impressed by the graphics.

How would you sum up your time at STI?

CS: My time at STI was marked with tremendous learning experiences, great friendships and camaraderie, extremely tough challenges, and many, many hours of devoted work. Although I almost died while working on Sonic X-treme, I can confidently echo Friedrich Nietzsche when I suggest, "that which does not kill us makes us stronger."

For more information about Chris's past and present game development, go to: http://www.senntient.com.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out PC World's complete interview archive.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World

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