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Interview: Michael Latham (Head of SOA Omega Group)

One cannot discuss the Genesis library without mentioning Eternal Champions. The American-made game and its Sega CD cousin are fan favorites and were quite successful in a market still dominated by Japanese software. A third game, Eternal Champions: The Final Chapter, was slated for release on the Saturn but slipped off the radar. Still highly regarded by gamers today, both Eternal Champions games are must-haves for any serious Genesis fan’s library.

The man behind the series was Michael Latham, a Sega insider for nearly a decade, both as a designer and producer. Among his credits are Greendog: the Beached Surfer Dude and the Heat.net Game Network. As leader of the Omega Group (the largest U.S.-based development team and most wide ranging at Sega), Latham is recognized with having been involved with over 50 products, ranging from software on every console the company made to even Sega Toys. It is with the Deep Water label and Eternal Champions, however, that Sega gamers know and love him best.

 

Sega-16: How exactly did you get your start at Sega?

Michael Latham: I started in the business working for a European game company called Rainbird, which at the time was owned by British Telecom who sold it as they said the future of people using the internet to play games wouldn’t be big. I then was at Activision when the company changed its name to Mediagenic and wanted to be in the business software business, and promptly went bankrupt and was taken over and moved to LA. We were one of the first Sega Genesis developers at that time, and we had two projects. One was a disaster football game we were doing for Sega directly and the other was Tongue of the Fatman, the first fighting game for that platform, which was based on a PC fighting game I had done before the first Street Fighter came out. In the game you were a human that went against aliens, and you made money bets on certain aspects of the fight, and if successful used the winnings to buy DNA upgrades to give you special abilities. So while the Sega guys were angry at the football team for not delivering the product, they thought I did a good job on my game, which was never to be released due to the company going under and I was the last hire of the original Sega production team when the company was only maybe 50 people.

Sega-16: You joined the company during a time of great transition. Tom Kalinske was about to take over, and Sonic was about to make his stellar debut. What was it like being a producer at Sega at this time?

Michael Latham: It was simply the most fun of any job I ever had. Everything just exploded, and for a young guy in the business it allowed me to do so much so fast. I entered the company as a producer, quickly moved up to run my own production group, and even became a VP before the age of 30, thanks to the unbelievable growth and talented people I worked with. It’s so hard to have all the right people in the right places, and when you do, you get hit companies and products. We were on movie sets, meeting with sport teams, going backstage at concerts – all kinds of exciting projects – and the development teams were still small and you really knew everyone you worked with unlike the mega development teams of today’s games.

Sega-16: Many people think that Sega made a huge mistake in discontinuing the Genesis in 1995, and feel there was plenty of life left in the 16-bit market at the time. Do you agree?

Michael Latham: Yes, I agree. Nintendo was always better at phasing their systems out than us. I believe there was a fear that people wouldn’t upgrade to the new system if we kept doing stuff on the Genesis, which was wrong, but also I can tell you the retailers also played a role in this belief, so it wasn’t just Sega’s bad call.

Sega-16: How did you originally come up with the concept for Eternal Champions? What was your inspiration?

Michael Latham: As noted above I had done other fighting games and really wanted to build one, but another producer at the time with more seniority than me got that project. He had gotten a Street Fighter 2 machine to study (at the time I was the office champ on it) and when that producer decided to leave, Clyde – the head of production at that time – gave me the project. Against Clyde’s wishes I started the design completely over, which I wasn’t supposed to do, but I kept one thing from the other project, and that was the prototype sketch of Shadow. I always felt that fighting games didn’t have to lack great story and character development, and so the entire story of the three games was always developed from the beginning. I also felt strongly that fighting games should be based on real martial art moves and styles.

Like I said above if you have the right team you will get that hit, and we had an awesome team. My second in command on both projects was a guy named Erik Wahlberg who was a real-life martial artist and a talented game designer in his own right, and the development team was a group I had worked for years, and to this day was the most talented team of people I have ever worked with.

Sega-16: Many gamers were eagerly anticipating the final installment of the series on the Saturn. That console’s packaging went as far as to include a photo and lableled it as “coming soon,” yet the game was cancelled. Rumors abound that Sega of Japan were responsible, as they didn’t want competition for Virtua Fighter. Is this true? Exactly what happened?

Michael Latham: Well, your sources are correct. Sega of Japan felt that Eternal Champions was keeping Virtua Fighter from being more successful in the US and that it would be better if the company focused on only one franchise…and as Sega is a Japanese company, the Japan side won. It was a crushing blow, and was the only time in working nearly a decade at Sega I considered quitting. I mainly stayed with the hope to change that decision, but sadly never could. Even when we did the NetFighter project for Heat.net, we weren’t able to use the Eternal characters as a hidden bonus. From Japan’s view the game never existed, in spite of its stellar sales and even offers to do comic books and a cartoon around it.

Sega-16: Information about the Saturn Eternal Champions game is almost non existent. How far along was it when it was cancelled? Are there any demos, screen shots, or perhaps concept art floating around?

Michael Latham: I had about 20 pages of the design when I got informed of its cancellation, but as I told you, I had the basic story always worked out from the beginning. The idea was that just like the Eternal Champions, there was a second set of fighters fighting to regain their lives (called the Infernals), and this created a certain balance to the time line. The story of the Saturn version was that a third force, called Chaos, comes in and starts ripping apart the time line and the two sides have to work together fight this new threat. So you can choose the side of the Eternals or Infernals, good and evil, but not black and white as you think, and then fight to fix the damaged time-line.

What was the real cool part was that things you did affected the timeline in real-time in the game, and so it would effect the characters looks, abilities, histories, and the way the world looked. You could even effect the time flow during the fight which created all kinds of twists for the game mechanics. If you were successful, you could find a way to return everyone to their timelines and their effect on history then created a very special ending, and there were other sub-endings, 30 in all. My friend Tony Van (a very successful game producer and designer in his own right) warned me you never end any movie, TV show, or game with a “to be continued” ending like I did in the Sega CD versions; if you do you are doomed, and there will never be another one. A wise insight, from a wise guy.

Sega-16: Which game are you most proud of from your time at Sega? Why?

Michael Latham: Without a doubt it’s Eternal Champions. I recently looked at the design, and I’m proud that it still stands the test of time. It’s the only game I can look back on and know I would do it all the same again if I had the chance. I was just reading some reviews and someone noted that the mechanics of the fighting system are still more complex than most of the games of today, and that we have certain original ideas yet to be duplicated, and that makes me feel very proud. Also as noted, I don’t think I would ever be so lucky again to have such a special group of people all in one team again.

Sega-16: You were the only person to make a Sega CD game that displayed all 256 colors onscreen simultaneously. What did you really think of the hardware?

Michael Latham: I loved the Sega CD. I always thought the platform was under-appreciated and that it was hurt by an over-concentration of trying to make Hollywood interactive film games versus using its storage and extended abilities to make just plain great video games.

Sega-16: Were there any projects you were working on that never made it to retail?

Michael Latham: Actually more than I could mention here. I often think how tough it is to get a game from idea to package. You are selling an idea that lots of people, money, and other resources have to be committed against. During the 32X days it was really tough, as the platform clearly was flawed, but we had to do our best to make it succeed. I feel I was at my best as a game designer and produced three strong concepts for it but all the projects where killed when the platform failed.

The first game was called A Town Called Chaos, New Mexico. The concept came from me not really being into SimCity, but enjoying the part of the game where things went wrong. So I created a game concept where you could be part of a small town where things always went wrong. A simple malfunction of a water heater could lead to half the town exploding, as one event chained into another and so on. The difference was that the results were always done with humor and comic style. So you could choose to help create or contain the chaos by choosing from playing one of the many town characters, and in a lot of ways, it was very similar to the SIMS but the world was the main character more than the people.

The next title was called B.A.N.E, which was an acronym which stood for Biologically Adaptive Nanotechnology Engineering. The idea was in the future, the world government is under attack from an alien source it doesn’t understand but it shoots down one of their attack vehicles. It is able to use one key technology, which is a mix of nano-and-halo technology to create a robotically driven sphere tank that can emulate whatever surface it touches; so it can be earth, fire, water, concrete, grass, and so on. At a push of a button you become the surface you are rolling on, to attack hopefully something that is negatively affected by your current form. When the sphere took damage it lost mass, and under too much damage it imploded, but could regain its mass by absorbing the energy of a destroyed enemy. It was simple yet very addictive and infinitely complex.

The final one was my favorite and a real heart breaker when cancelled. The project was called Ratchet and Bolt. The idea was that in the future technology is so cheap and easy all people are tech savvy and bored, so crime becomes a common way of life. So average people are building giant building size robots to commit petty crimes. Imagine a giant-sized shopping lady robot, curlers and all, walking down a major city, ripping the tops off various shopping buildings to empty into her giant sized shopping bag. The problem is made worse by the fact the police are now a private organization and quite broke. They pay the most famous scientist to create an army of robots to be the police for this future, but he embezzles the money, and builds only two: Ratchet and Bolt. They are very special robots who can have special arms and legs attached, each with their own powers, and can be combined into combo attack for more unique powers.

The giant robots they go against had both outside and inside structures, and were 10×10 screens large at the smallest. Another fun idea was that damage caused the limbs to be blown off Ratchet and Bolt, who started looking human but underneath were metallic robots, and ended up as little micro-chips that could run at the most critical damage level. They would have to call their creator, who was spending his ill gotten gains for a long vacation, and purchase replacement parts from the money they got for the various arrests. The concept used every cool thing the 32X could do, and I’m sad it never got built, as the bosses would have made video game history for some of the funniest.

Sega-16: What are your thoughts on today’s Sega? Do you think their “platform agnostic” policy was as inevitable as some people say?

Michael Latham: I think it was inevitable in some ways, as Sega, while making arcade hardware, always worked with outside partners to produce the console designs. In this way, software always was a company priority over the hardware. So when we started SegaSoft, sadly the company wasn’t fully ready to really do great software for all platforms, and that delay in going to this model has hurt the company a lot.

To this day though, I believe the Sega brand and style has a place in the marketplace and miss its dominance. I hope the company will find its center again, as it has the legacy, talent, and ideas to make great games. There isn’t a day that I’m not tempted to help with that, as I love Sega that much, but I think the business is a young person’s game, and I’m too much of an old man to help create that come-back. I hope some young persons like we once were will make that exciting future happen and the glory days of the Sega brand will return.

 

Sega-16 is very grateful to Mr. Latham for granting this interview and wish him all the best in the future.

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