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Interview: Tony Van (SOA Producer)

Chances are, if you’ve played the Genesis or Sega CD for any amount of time, you’ve played a game done by Tony Van. As a designer and producer, he has worked on dozens of games for multiple platforms, including the NES, PC, and of course both the Genesis and Sega CD.

Getting his start in the industry In 1987, he began to work for Mediagenic (Activision & Infocom), where he produced and designed such titles as Die Hard for the NES and Battletech: The Crescent Hawks’ Revenge for the PC. After stints at Strategic Simulations and Lucasfilm Games, he eventually found himself at Sega of America, where he was responsible for over a dozen titles, among them fan favorites like Shadowrun, and the U.S. version of Beyond Oasis. Many FMV games were also created while he was there and regardless of how they may make you feel, wait until you read what it was like to create them! He has also worked for Electronic Arts and SegaSoft (where he launched HEAT.net) and is now an executive producer for UbiSoft.

Mr. Van was kind enough to take some time to talk to Sega-16 about his time at Sega and what it was like to work on our two favorite consoles.

 

Sega-16: You stated that you arrived at Sega right after Sonic the Hedgehog had shipped. What was the atmosphere like at the company during this time? Could you feel the “David vs. Goliath” attitude that we hear about so often?

Tony Van: Yeah, though Sega was still “far from the top” in ‘92, it finally had the icon it needed to challenge Mario. Speed and Attitude defined Sonic, and those core values are what Sega continued to foster in America.

SOJ (Sega of Japan) was cranking out the A titles (especially the arcade ports we all know), and SOA (Sega of America) was in charge of making games more suited to the American audience as well as “expanding the catalogue” (This was a way to beat the Super Nintendo by having more games on the shelves then they did, even if they were not all high quality. Still a popular marketing technique today.)

By building lots of games that were more in tune with the US market, we were able to start chipping away at the Nintendo advantage. The tide really started to turn when we had good games, the CD platform and the “Sega!” ads around ‘94-‘95, all that cemented us as the “cool guys.”

Sega-16: How much creative freedom were you given at Sega? How much influence did Sega of Japan have in the decision-making process?

Tony Van: Since our charter was to build out games for North America, we pretty much built whatever we thought was going to resonate. Of course, not EVERY game idea was approved…all ideas had to be approved by our Director of Product Development, Director of Marketing and our executive staff.

If a game was particularly expensive, then we needed to get SOJ’s (Sega of Japan) and SOE’s (Sega of Europe) blessings too, to guarantee that the game would sell in those markets too. More projected revenue = more money for development.

Sega-16: As you know, Shadowrun is an extremely popular title (and expensive on eBay). Were there ever any plans to localize the Japanese Sega CD version of Shadowrun? Any other import titles?

Tony Van: Shadowrun is my favorite game that I both produced and designed, and since the demand exceeds supply on eBay, I guess indicate others like it a lot too 🙂

When finishing Shadowrun Genesis, I was asked if I could localize it for Japan, but the game’s cart size was a problem for them (16 megabit ROMs cost more to produce then they typical 8 megabit ROMS they were used to.) The text size was also an issue (Japanese titles need 16 pixel areas for their character sets, and we built Shadowrun with only eight pixels for the English character set.) So, SOJ ultimately passed.

The funny thing about Shadowrun Sega CD is I had NO IDEA it even existed until about 2001, where I hit upon it while surfing the web. Obviously, it’s a COMPLETELY different game then mine (which was a completely different game from the SNES version.) I know that FASA was creating a Japanese version of the Shadowrun RPG when I was finishing Shadowrun Genesis, so I assume the RPG was a hit there, and someone in Japan licensed it and did their own game.

I’ve never played the Sega CD version, by the way. But I still crank up my old game every once in a while, and I still find it challenging and fun, even after all these years and knowing all its secrets.

Sega-16: Many gamers complain that SubTerrania is too difficult. Do you agree with this assessment? Why or why not?

Tony Van: Well, you know the line “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder?” If you saw SubTerrania BEFORE it was released, you would say the final version was much easier — we tweaked it THAT much!

I personally could finish the game, and I’m not anywhere near as good as most gamers, so I think it got a bad rap — a few people were put off by it, and the rest just agreed without trying it. It was one of the WORST selling games SOA ever released, which surprised me…Gamers usually LOVE a challenge!

Sega-16: You worked on quite a lot of full motion video (FMV) games for the Sega CD. This genre has been stigmatized, somewhat unfairly, by gamers who lump them all together in the same boat as Night Trap. How do you feel about these types of games and what do you think could have been done to make them more appealing to gamers?

Tony Van: Ah, FMV, the genre I love and hate. Let me give some background first before I answer the question.

The first FMV game was an arcade game in the ‘80s called Dragon’s Lair, a game that broke all the rules and showed how movies and games could co-exist. The good news was it was GORGEOUS and FUNNY, the bad news was it was linear, repetitive and completely unforgiving in playing it “the right way” as only so much footage existed.

Game design philosophy dictates that the player needs to have a large number of choices with some of them fruitful. There should NOT always be a single good choice of 100% success while all other choices are bad. The arch-typical FMV game (including Dragon’s Lair) does exactly this: do the right thing at the right time, or you are hosed, end of story. I liken this type of FMV design to digital coin tosses: guess which way it will land — NOPE you’re wrong, you die. Play again? OK guess again – you’re right, here’s a bit of video. Now, guess again…

I created Star Wars: Rebel Assault for the PC-CD and Sega CD at Lucasfilm Games in ’92. At that time, I was asked how I could make a good Star Wars game using a CD (which was a brand new technology at the time). I imagined a Dragon’s Lair-style game where you had much more control and multiple outcomes, you were literally CONTROLING A MOVIE instead of watching clips with limited gameplay. In a month, we created an internal prototype that had branching realistic video, ability to move the X-Wing up and down the screen, and collisions with terrain and enemies. The final game was completed by a different Project Leader (who took sole design credit), but who did not understand my game philosophy, so Rebel Assault became much more of a “traditional rails shooter” then I ever intended it to be.

But I took this philosophy with me to Sega when I did Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (more on that below.) My success in design and production of MMPR brought 3 other “late” FMV games to my door. These were all games that were over a year late and needed to be completed ASAP. The filming was complete, the design was done, and all I could hope for was to “patch them up” a bit before they were released.

They all suffered from the classic “FMV bad design” concepts (one right choice or DEATH), and I modified them the best I could in the time that I had (about 2 months each, which is normally all the time you have just to DEBUG a game, not make radical changes to its gameplay.) Fahrenheit got such gameplay additions as Oxygen and a map (as the environments you had to navigate were REALLY confusing), Surgical Strike got a ton of gameplay enhancements (including weapons that had strategic uses and a much faster pacing of gameplay), and Wirehead, which was SO locked in the classic “FMV bad design” nothing could be done except try to add more humor to the game via RoboCop-type text.

The FMV genre died due to so many of these transgressions, and now that 3D is really getting there with realism, it would be pretty pointless to try to bring it back, as we can do so much more in a non-linear environment. But the design lessons from the genre are still there to be learned for future designers…Always give your players choices, and try not to be too harsh with a casual mistake.

Sega-16: You and your team basically preformed a minor miracle to get the Sega CD version of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers out on time. The gameplay mechanics you came up with seem very innovative and it would have been nice to have seen it implemented and refined in later games. What was it like to work on that title and have you ever wanted to use its style of play in other games?

Tony Van: I love to tell this story, so excuse me if it’s a bit long…

In June of ‘94, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was a huge hit on kids TV, and I was told to have a MMPR Sega CD game done by Xmas. That may sound like a lot of time, but what that means is you have to have the game DONE in September in order to be in stores by November to sell at least 1 month before Xmas. So, I had less then 4 months to make a game from scratch. (Most games take a year or more to create, BTW.)

I spent a month just trying to figure out what it would be. I got the entire first season footage from the show, and watched it all with my wife, to trying to figure out what the heck I was going to do for the game. The day arrived when I had to tell my boss that what the game was, and I literally didn’t know until I entered his office.

I knew I had a bunch of video footage, and a really sharp programmer who just started his own company by the name of Chuck Batson. I knew we had a technique to play video behind basic game icons (as other FMV games existed.) And I knew it had to be simple for kids as young as 6 to play. And I didn’t want it to suck.

Thus, I proposed something that had never been done at Sega: take only existing footage (no new footage shot) and edit about 1 hour of “action combat scenes” from the shows into the game. Then put a Dragon’s Lair style game over it, but one much more “kid friendly.” This was all I could do in less then 3 months, and though everyone thought it was impossible, I began on writing the full design and Chuck started learning everything he could about programming the Sega CD.

I used a variation of my FMV philosophy from Rebel Assault to create what I consider to be the ultimate evolution of the Dragon’s Lair game design: While playing 5 minute combat sequences from the show, I put in arrows to represent combat rolls, punches, kicks and blocks. But, instead of a few clicks for each scene (ala Dragon’s Lair), I had set inputs for every few seconds, literally 50 or so a minute. So you were interacting like crazy here! If you made a mistake, instead of killing you, it drops your health bar a bit. If you were quick, you could recover and hit the correct move before it left the screen, ’cause if you didn’t you would get even more health loss. This REALLY changed the gameplay mechanic tremendously, and made you feel like you were really “controlling” the heroes in the story, doing those combat moves they were doing on screen and getting the visual payoff only FMVs could provide.

I also added new concepts such as a “damage resistance” sequence using the old Track and Field “beat-the-keys quick to make the bar rise” mechanic to prevent damage, “breather” video sequence that restored some life between those frantic combats, and “secret” combos the player could do to gain even more life. So even when the video was just playing, game mechanics were going on in the background, adding anticipation.

Scoring and continues also were created, as acting correctly and quickly on each input brought you more points then acting correctly and slowly. There were even 3 different difficulty modes, which represented fewer move sequences and more time to get them right. There was a ton of original game design in there!

I also cut together a real “story” which was the creation of the Power Rangers and the story of the creation of the “Green Ranger” (this was cool stuff if you were in to that show back then!)

The game was done from pre-production to code release in 2 ½ months, which was a record for development at SOA, as well as a complete testing cycle of just 5 days, another record (most games take 2 or more months for final testing.)

The game was successful, I won the yearly “President’s Award” for outstanding performance, and it got me the dubious “reward” of completing the other FMV’s as noted above. However, MMPR Sega CD was not really appreciated, mostly due to the target audience of the license. I highly recommend you check it out if you can, I think it’s pretty cool for what it is.

As for the question about wanting to use the design again…Yes, I wish I could have done more with it. At the time, I wanted Sega to go after the X-men cartoon license, and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys had just started. Both would have been great video backdrops for this mechanic.

But the days of FMV are gone. As for the mechanic, this is probably just a coincidence, but Dance Dance Revolution is very similar to the same concepts I pioneered back then. I NEVER considered using it as a way to dance to music at the time, but works super well for them!

Old design mechanics never die, they just come back in new forms.

Sega-16: There are companies, like Good Deal Games, that are always on the lookout for unreleased titles and prototypes. The unreleased 32X game you worked on, Midnight Raiders, sounds very interesting. Do you know what became of its prototype?

Tony Van: It think it’s totally cool what these companies are doing. And the prototype for Midnight Raiders is still in my garage! However, it’s just a technology prototype, NOT a finished game. There’s only enough there show what it could be, but there’s no gameplay. I think it will remain unseen. 🙂

Sega-16: X-Perts is a game that was treated pretty harshly by the press. Do you agree with them? Had you been able to, what changes would you have made to it?

Tony Van: Wow, X-Perts was probably the hardest and least fulfilling thing I’ve ever done in my professional life. It was like someone telling you to make Coke from a lemon… The expectations were through the roof, and we tried SO HARD to make it happen, but the technology, design and market were never going to line up.

On the plus side, I’m really proud of the look we finally achieved. This was around the time of the 32X, and people would walk by, see the pre-rendered 3D characters and say “Is that a 32X game?” So that was nice. And I loved the adventure story idea Michael Latham (the creator or Eternal Champions) came up with, as well as the concept of “spinning off” an Eternal Champion” character into her own game. I also liked my unique “semi-non linear” adventure game design, which kept the player zipping through the complex dealing with storyline tasks by manipulating multiple characters.

But I really didn’t understand the fighting genre, so the core design I created sucked, and if your core design sucks, you are in trouble! There should have been a “mini-game” when doing a task, to help speed it up and make it more interactive. And while the look of the main characters was good, it was SO COSTLY in ROM space (the game was a 32 Megabit ROM, the biggest Sega had ever made) that it really limited the variety of enemies and animations. Also, I left the company about 5 months before final, and a change of leadership in any creative endeavor will change the focus of a game, especially since the core design wasn’t strong to start with… Finally, it was a cost-saving idea by Sega at the last minute to remove the battery back-up of the game. You were never supposed to have to input a million characters to “re-load” your game!

So yeah, X-Perts is defiantly flawed, but know that it was never intended to be so, it just had aspirations that were beyond what we could achieve.

Sega-16: Sega didn’t really give the 32X CD the same support as they did the cartridge format. Any idea why?

Tony Van: Sega CD never achieved the promise of “Welcome to the next level” the clever marketing slogan Sega used in the commercials. Almost all CD games looked like cart games with better music or the dreaded FMV games, which if done right, could have been great. Sega CD really had no Killer App.

32X had a killer app in a way. Virtua Racing shipped for like $70 originally, because it had all this sophisticated 3D hardware in the cart. Someone at Sega said “Hey! Let’s not sell carts with this hardware in it, let’s sell the hardware and plug the carts in.” So the 32X was born. Done maybe 6 months earlier, it might have had a chance, but the 16-bit market was ending, as Sony had a new Playstation game that was ALL 3D and looked much better, and Sega was working on its new platform, Saturn.

Now, to sell a 32X CD game, you needed the consumer to have both the CD AND the 32X. Those number combinations just weren’t good (and worse in Europe and Japan), and again, there was nothing COMPELLING to buy if you did have both (remember, forecast revenue = development revenue.) Hence, it was too little too late.

Sega-16: Finally, what did you enjoy the most about working at Sega? Do you have any regrets?

Interview- Tony Van 3Tony Van: Overall, it was a heck of ride! I was there from the beginning of ’92 to end of ’95, and saw a lotta cool stuff.

This sounds corny, but the people were fantastic! Product Development and Marketing were full of creative and driven people. On top of that, my co-workers included my best friend and my wife. I even referred my old boss who hired me INTO this industry to be the head of Sega Sports. To this day, I still run into my co-workers, many of which are in high-level jobs in other companies.

We all just wanted to make great games, and had a ton of support by management and our developers to help make that happen. That was a big reason we ultimately became #1 system over Nintendo.

And it was nice that the office was only two miles from my house!

Regrets…Yes, I wish I had learned more from the Japanese designers at SOJ, I feel that was a HUGE opportunity I missed. I wish I had met and talked with even more people then I did, as I am CONSTANTLY meeting people I had no idea worked there at the time! And there are a number of design changes I would have made to my games, knowing what I know now about game design and target markets, but that’s more “wishful thinking” then regrets.

 

Sega-16 would like to thank Mr. Van for taking time out of his busy schedule to speak to us and for being such an all around cool guy. If you would like to know more about him and his work, check out his website.

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