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Interview: Ed Annunziata (SOA Producer)

Interview- Ed Annuziata 5Genesis fans might not be able to call out Ed Annunziata’s name on cue, but they probably can’t mention some of their favorite games without mentioning one that has his stamp on it. As the major force behind such franchises as Chakan The Forever Man, Ecco the Dolphin and Kolibri, he was all over Sega’s 16-bit console. An industry veteran, Annunziata’s Sega years stand out because of his willingness to take risks on games that didn’t fit traditional molds. A shooter starring a hummingbird and  a dolphin-based platformer were just some of the titles that must have sounded ludicrous when explained aloud but worked quite well in practice.

Annunziata left Sega after almost a decade as a producer, founding AndNow LLC and producing at several other companies. He jumped head-first into the mobile games arena, working on titles at companies such as Nokia and SmartyAnts Inc. Moreover, he’s started other companies dedicated to mobile gaming. Currently, he heads AndNow and Twitch Games, as well as a new start up called Playlchemy.

Sega-16 recently had the chance to chat with Mr. Annunziata about his Sega days.

 

Sega-16: After you left Novotrade, you started your own company called AndNow, and released a couple of titles including Tiny Tank for the Playstation, and the browser based game Smallball. What happened to AndNow, and is there a future for projects you were working on such as Virtual Ocean and a sequel to Chakan?

Ed Annunziata: I was working for SEGA, not Novotrade. After an awesome seven years at SEGA I started a new development studio, AndNow, which was in business for about seven years. Many of the titles we created are still out there in one form or another. For example, SmallBall Baseball (smallball.com) launched 13 years ago and is STILL running. I intend to keep that game alive forever. Eventually I will move it over to mobile and Facebook. Bob Kraus and I are talking about a new Chakan, which I’m really excited about. I am going to try the crowd source funding thing, and hopefully there are enough fans out there to help make it happen. We are excited about the possibility of a NEW Chakan game. I was devastated when Dreamcast failed, temporarily killing the Chakan sequal we were working on at the time. But he is the “forever” man so I’ll never give up, and eventually it will happen.

After I left Sega, I started AndNow and recruited many of the best people I’ve worked with in the past. Our first big title was TinyTank for the Playstation. Tiny was a sentient tank/robot that was created as a mascot to help get public support for an automated army of killing machines (like drones.) Tiny, being alive and a wise ass, had formed some opinions about this and it comes through in in his personality. I LOVED this character and game. As I searched for this TinyTank video I remembered something cool about the TinyTank play mechanics: Part of the game play was to mount new guns and canons, from fallen enemies, around Tiny’s body. You can fire all the guns at once in all directions, but you where also able to collect “brains,” again from fallen enemies, and apply them to each of the extra guns, making the guns SMARTER. The more brains they had the better they aimed and fired. If you added enough brains, the guns would actually lead the targets. It was a very satisfying play mechanic, in my opinion.

Tiny Tank: A Cute Killing Machine. Tiny Tank for the PS1/PSX console. All I can say is that this game was not only fun, but it had one of the most likable video game mascots ever. It’s a shame …

Sega-16: Something Chakan fans have been wondering is, when you beat Chakan and manage to finish the final boss, you are taken to the hourglass screen, however there is no ending credits or texts, and you are forced to turn the game off. Why did this occur, and what was the actual ending intended to be?

Ed Annunziata: When you finish the final boss the game ends. The story goes: Now that all supernatural evils upon the earth were slain, thanks to Chakan, Mr. Death shows up and points out that most stars in the heavens have planets and many of those harbor supernatural evils. This means Chakan has to wait around until mankind becomes a space faring civilization. This is the story ending, then the credits roll. After that, yes there is another boss as a post-ending bonus, and if you manage to beat him…The hour glass appears. How long does Chakan have to wait before the end comes to him? It was not an easy decision, we could have just ended the game with the story and credits, but something was nagging at me – it’s NOT the end for Chakan. Imagine after so much pain and suffering, thinking the end is near, only to find out it has hardly just begun. Artistically, we were obligated to share his pain, for Chakan. The hour glass where YOU wait forever was for Chakan.

Sega-16: It seems like you have been doing a lot of work on mobile platforms over the years. With the industry changing so much due to the advent of devices like the iPhone, how has the process of development changed, for better or worse?

Ed Annunziata: Well tools and technology is a lot more advanced than it used to be. Back in the Genesis days there were not a lot of engineers (we called them programmers back then) that had experience with “in-circuit emulators,” and Motorola 68000 assembly language, not to mention actual game development experience. Today anyone with a good idea could roll up her sleeves and with, for example, Unity and make something cool. Personally I love iOS, especially the iPad.

Sega-16: You had mentioned recently that Sega rejected your proposition for a new Ecco the Dolphin title. Are you able to shed any insight into this, and if so, what does the future look like for that iconic series?

Ed Annunziata: For at least 15 years I’ve been trying to convince Sega to allow me to make another Ecco. Honestly I am not sure what the problem is. I even offered to find the funding for development myself if they would just license the character back to me. Maybe one day it will happen, but for now they don’t seem that interested. I would even be happy if someone else made a new version. Ecco deserves better than limbo. I have considered making a different, dolphin based game without the Ecco license, but as irrational as this may sound, I don’t want to hurt Ecco’s feelings. If I made Dave the Dolphin for example, I’d feel like I was cheating on Ecco. Silly, I know. So, I’ll wait and be patient. The current crew at Sega will eventually retire, or get laid off, then I’ll come at them fresh again and maybe get some support. The truth is, it took me almost two years of pleading to get them to sign up to the original Ecco – but luckily I rolled an 18 for tenacity and eventually convinced them. I’ll write you back if anything changes on the Ecco front.

Sega-16: One of the lesser known titles for the ill fated 32X was Kolibri, which has been dubbed humorously by the webcomic Penny Arcade as “arguably the finest hummingbird based shooter on the 32X”. Along with that, there was a short tech demo produced for an Ecco title on the 32X which was ultimately never developed. How was it working with the 32X architecture, working on Kolibri in general, and how did you feel about the platform at the time and looking back retrospectively?

Ed Annunziata: Well… 32x… it was dumb. I remember the logic: Bridge the gap between Genesis and Saturn… Ugh. I admit Kolibri was a silly idea. I was inspired by a real hummingbird that flew directly in front of my face, true story. I was a smoker at the time and unfortunately for the hummingbird, he decided to check out my face right on an exhale. He twitched then flew off. I finished my cigarette and forgot all about it. A few days later the same hummingbird flew up to my face again, this time I could sense it’s aggression. I am convinced that he was pissed that I second-hand smoked him, and he remembered me. He was an angry bird; he was calling me out! That event inspired me to start to research hummingbirds. I learned what little bad asses hummers really are, and how they fight in air, and can turn on a dime at full speed. A hummingbird flies by creating duel vortexes of air, totally different physics from any other bird. With this idea of zipping around a stunning beautiful, floral environment, how could I avoid making a side-scroller based on a hummingbird? 32X let us add a third scrolling play field with an amazing 256 colors, the end result was, in fact, the finest hummingbird shooter that ever existed.

Sega-16: In the current market, there is a much greater emphasis on “art” games, on exploring thought provoking themes and expressing larger ideas through intricately woven stories and game worlds. Ecco the Dolphin has created quite a reputation among its fans and outsiders for invoking a sense of fear and obscurity due to its strange environments, haunting music, and beautifully rendered graphics. Looking back, how intentional was this at the time, how important were the advancements of hardware for facilitating such ideas, and what are your thoughts on the progressive nature of video games as a medium of artistic expression now?

Ed Annunziata: I agree with you. I am excited about how big the market is and how great it responds to well crafted and unique games. Like I said earlier, its easier to make games so creativity should thrive. I LOVED the game Limbo and other indie artsy games. Games as art, it’s a great time to be into games, as a player and designer.

Sega-16: You helped to found a company called Twofish a few years ago which specialized in the design of in game economy in casual mass market games. From what I can see currently, Twofish was at some point changed to Live Gamer, but Twofish seemed to be an early response to the now exploding social game market, which you yourself seem to be interested in. What was the aim of Twofish, and how are you currently involved in social games now, if at all?

Ed Annunziata: I’m focused on mobile/tablet games now with social features, etc, etc. I founded a new company called Playchemy with the goal of making iPad games. I think the iPad is an awesome game platform.

Sega-16: Virtual Ocean itself seemed to be a project which was in some way attempting to create a massively multi-player online environment which was more casual in nature, and which in some ways was predicted the current thirst for more casual experiences. Do you have any plans to continue work on, or start a new project in that vein now that the market is more open to such experiences?

Ed Annunziata: Yep, eventually. I love the VO concept and can see it working now more than ever. Of course I don’t expect anyone to ever fund it, so I have to get rich and fund it myself. Wish me luck!

Sega-16: Do you feel that the current climate has allowed more flexibility for creativity in video games compared to earlier generations, and if so, do you think that developers are using this freedom wisely? Did the limitations of working on consoles such as the Sega Genesis seem stifling in retrospect?

Ed Annunziata: I don’t know, they always seem like “good old days!” From a game design perspective you always come up against limitations immediately so it seems the same frustrations exist on every platform, maybe just in slightly different flavors. I love how our industry constantly wows people with what works. Hits are ALWAYS a surprise. So yes I do think developers are taking advantage of the powerful technology we have and super sophisticated market we cater too.

Sega-16: Over the years you have seized the opportunity to work on a variety of different platforms. In all of your years as a game designer, and working in the industry at large, what would you say your most memorable, enjoyable experience has been?

Ed Annunziata: That’s a hard one. Every game was memorable and enjoyable. Over the years on each of the game projects I’ve been involved with I got to work with awesome people and that is where the enjoyment comes from. I enjoyed working on all the platforms, even the Ngage… seriously. As for platforms, Leapfrog’s Leapster, Sony Platforms, smart phones, PCs, they were all great, but my first love will always be the Genesis. Ahh, side-scroll games SPRITES!! 60hz games on TV’s with D-pads…

Sega-16: Do you have any current or future projects you would like to share with us?

Ed Annunziata: I am working on iPad games as I mentioned. I founded a new company called Playchemy.  Our first game, Super Smashball will be released soon. Here’s a trailer. Playchemy will create original games with novel play mechanics. A great example is Slice HD. I think its a GREAT multi touch game that really takes advantage of the iPad as a game playing platform. Warning: its an intensely visceral and bloody game! The other important element of Playchemy will be that we will connect directly with our users. I want everyone involved in the game development process and the post launch evolution of the games. I come from a world where there’s an abstraction layer between us game developers and the game players. Not anymore!!! We will add forums and chat on the Playchemy site and be active on the social networks. My personal twitter is @edannunziata – I am going to force myself to stay in the faces of game players. No more producing games from a cave.


We are very grateful to Mr. Annunziata for taking the time to chat with us.

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