Sega Technical Institute and the return of Sonic the Hedgehog

We look into the development of Sonic 2 on the Mega Drive, as well as 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, model robots and vehicles in 3D for the Battletech (Sega Mega Drive) and Battlecars (Super Nintendo) games, and early storyboards and exploratory drawings for Cliffhanger (Sega Mega CD).

During this time, he 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.

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.

Why did STI have such a low profile?

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.

Why did STI have a diminished role with Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles?

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 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.

Why a two-team approach for developing Sonic X-treme?

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.

What did Sega do to promote the game during development?

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

How was former Sega CEO Hayao Nakayama's visit to STI in early 1996?

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.

Why turn to Sega PC to potentially publish the game?

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.

Why did Sega PC decide not to publish the game?

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.

What did you think of Sonic 3D Blast by Traveller's Tales?

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.

Why was STI shut down?

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

What did you think of Sonic Adventure on the Dreamcast?

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 Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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Patrick Budmar

Patrick Budmar

PC World
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