Sega Technical Institute founder Mark Cerny has kept pretty quiet about his time at Sega. Working on both sides of the Pacific, he saw Sega’s heady rise from 8-bit wannabe to 16-bit power. A true cross-cultural rarity, Cerny was able to reunite the Sonic Team after their post-Sonic breakup, for which we should all be grateful!
Cerny was already an industry veteran when he joined Sega, having created the arcade classic Marble Madness for Atari. After Sega, he’s shown that he also knows a bit about character action games – working variously as Producer, Executive Producer, designer and programmer on the Crash Bandicoot and Spyro the Dragon series for the original Playstation, and the Ratchet and Clank and Jak and Daxter series for Playstation 2.
In 2004, Cerny received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the IGDA. It is a tradition for the previous year’s winner to present it: Cerny, as the fourth ever recipient of the award, thus narrowly missed being presented it by Yuji Naka, the second person to be so honored!
After two years of effort, Sega-16 was finally able to interview Cerny. Read ahead for stories that have never been told before…
Sega-16: How did you start working at Sega?
Mark Cerny: In 1982, when I was seventeen years-old, I was a huge fan of arcade games and managed to snag my dream job at Atari creating them. It was an incredible time to be making games! For one thing, the teams were tiny… typically a game was made by just one person, so we were all programmer-slash-designers and we usually did our own artwork too.
My final game at Atari was Marble Madness. It was a hit, and the graphics and gameplay were done by a larger but still very small team. In addition to me, there was just one other programmer and an artist. So at this point my entrepreneurial spirit started getting the best of me – if the teams are this small, what’s keeping me from setting up my own shop? Through contacts, I was able to set up a meeting with Hayao Nakayama and David Rosen, who agreed to fund my next project.
But then I ran into reality – the project went much more slowly than I’d hoped. After about a year of poor progress, Nakayama suggested that I drop the arcade project, come to Tokyo, and make games for what would soon be sold as the Master System. I said yes, and basically hopped on the next plane to Tokyo!
Sega-16: What was it like working in Tokyo?
Mark Cerny: Beyond the culture shock? Well, they had one room with about forty people in it, and it was trying to make, in this one room, essentially all games that would be needed to launch and support the Master System. A typical project was one or two programmers, three months. And the pressure was very, very high.
But at the same time, we did some great work. And there were some very talented people, both Reiko Kodama and Yuji Naka were in this room, and Yu Suzuki was only two floors away, in the same building, reinventing arcade games.
Sega-16: Do you have any stories from the 8-bit days?
Mark Cerny: Tokyo Disneyland had opened only a few years before, and it was very popular with the younger people at Sega. On one of my many trips there I saw a 3D movie called Captain EO, starring Michael Jackson… on the way out I was thinking, can we do 3D in games? So I decided to talk Sega into making a liquid crystal shutter peripheral for the Master System. Actually, it was pretty easy, Sega was looking any ammunition they could use in the fight against Nintendo, and pretty soon a prototype landed on my desk.
The 3D glasses were a moderately successful peripheral, we made about six games for it, but the most interesting story has to do with a game that didn’t get made. The prototype arrived in our office before a week-long holiday. I built a quick ball and paddle demo for it and took off. While I was gone, Yuji Naka built a 3D graphics engine – for the Master System! – and constructed a tunnel chase demo. He’s an amazing programmer, no doubt about it. However, the Master System was so weak that the 3D window was only two inches on a side, and the demo sadly never became a game.
Sega-16: What was your initial impression of the Genesis hardware? After having such a big part in the Master System’s run, what did you think of the new console?
Mark Cerny: For a while, it was a two way struggle between Genesis and NEC’s PC Engine (which was sold as the TurboGraphx-16 in North America). We were doing pretty well, as the PC Engine couldn’t really do anything that we couldn’t do; however, after a bit of a delay, Nintendo released their SNES, which had a “mode 7” that could be used to create all sorts of effects: rotating backgrounds, ground planes, and so on. It was a difficult time, as we had a huge head start on Nintendo, but our games simply couldn’t create the kinds of effects that the Nintendo games had. We really had to wrack our brains for ideas to compete… you can see a lot of that in the original Sonic the Hedgehog. The bonus stages rotate, in no small part, to show that you can in fact do that kind of effect on the Genesis. And the speed of the game was something that had never been seen before, on any system.
Sega-16: In your opinion, what was the biggest contrast between the American and Japanese branches of Sega?
Mark Cerny: The experiences of the late 1980s were very different between the American and Japanese branches of Sega. In Japan, the arcade and location businesses had been booming. Every year Sega would create a few “must have” machines for every location, and Sega was building a tremendous number of arcades of its own.
By contrast, at Sega of America, things had been going very poorly. At one point, I believe that Nintendo’s NES had a 94% market share, and the Sega Master System only had 4%… that means that Nintendo’s business was twenty-four times larger than Sega’s! So when the Genesis arrived in 1989, it came into an organization that had been through the wars and basically gotten thrashed.
Sega-16: The original Sonic the Hedgehog changed the landscape for Sega. Were you involved in its development?
Mark Cerny: No, I moved back to the states just as the team started work on it, and I didn’t get involved in the Sonic franchise until Sonic 2. But I did visit Japan frequently during its development, so I did get to see it at various stages of completion.
At one point when I visited Sega headquarters, Naoto Ohshima – the Sonic Team character artist – showed me some sketches of potential player characters for the game. He asked me what I, as an American, thought of the characters. There were a number of them, including an early Sonic, Robotnik, and a character with a heavy Simpsons influence. I believe that he was really trying to get my opinion of Sonic, and that the other characters were decoys.
My feeling was “well, I’m just a random American, let’s ask the Sega of America marketing people,” as I was under the impression that they should have a much better feeling of what would or would not appeal to the U.S. market than I would. So I made some color copies, attached a note saying that this was the work of the Tokyo headquarters’ “top team,” and could they please give some feedback.
A month or two had passed, and no feedback had arrived from Sega of America’s marketing group, so I asked if they had any comments for the team. I heard, I kid you not, that the characters were “unsalvageable,” that this was a “disaster,” and that “procedures would be put in place to make sure that this sort of thing would never happen again.” These “procedures” included a proposed “top ten list of dos and don’ts” to follow when making products for the American market. Additionally, I was told that the marketing group would be contacting a known character designer (I won’t reveal the name, but it made me cringe at the time) to make a character that showed exactly what the American market needed. Needless to say, this character designer would have been totally inappropriate for the Japanese market. Not that great for the American market either, I suspect.
I returned to these conversations a lot after Sonic became an international hit… what could these people have been thinking? In the end, I suppose I feel that Sonic The Hedgehog was a good enough character, like Mario or Crash Bandicoot, that when coupled with an extraordinary game could really stick in people’s minds, but you might have to see and play the game to appreciate that.
Actually, this was not the last interaction with marketing that left me shaking my head. In September 1991, four months after Sonic The Hedgehog‘s release in North America, I’d managed to reunite two of the three key Sonic Team members (Yuji Naka, the Sonic programmer and team leader, and Hirokazu Yasuhara, the designer) at my Sega Technical Institute. They were ready to start work on their next project, and so I asked marketing the obvious question, “would you like another Sonic?” Bizarrely, the response was, and again I kid you not, “no, it’s much too soon.” So we found another game to make, and in November, as we were getting started, marketing came back and said “oops, we do need that game, and we need it now.” So the team lost two months out of an eleven month schedule!
One much smaller Sonic inside story: the character’s color was changed just prior to release. Sonic had been a lighter blue, but he was very hard to see against the ocean backgrounds, so his color was darkened at the last moment.
Sega-16: Tom Kalinske, despite having no background in video games, was said to be a very quick learner, eventually bringing great success to Sega. Because of this, many people tend to forget how much Michael Katz did to launch the Genesis. How did you feel about the change of management?
Mark Cerny: I think it really helped that fresh management came into Sega of America, not once but twice. As I said, the late 1980s had been just brutal, and so a certain amount of fresh blood was needed to balance the hard bitten veterans of the 8-bit wars. And then later, to bring in Tom, with his energy and enthusiasm – that was just great! He understood that this was to no small degree a battle of image between Sega and Nintendo.
Sega-16: The Sega Technical Institute was originally founded to beef up Sega’s game development in the U.S. , and though many potential franchises were developed, Sega seemed to have little interest in making sequels to great games like Comix Zone. Why was that?
Mark Cerny: After setting up the Sega Technical Institute, I left just as Sonic 2 was finishing up, so I wasn’t there for Comix Zone. I was rooting for Peter Morawiec as I left though, and even though he’d never made games before, he seemed to be someone with exceptional talent. For those not familiar with him, his later career after Comix Zone includes Vigilante 8 and True Crime: Streets of LA.
As for why Sega probably didn’t make sequels, the question is always who is going to create them? It isn’t as if there are hugely talented game creators sitting around, waiting to make the next game in your series. Frankly, if they’re any good, they are busy working on their own series!
Another reason is that the Sega Technical Institute was a very volatile mix of people; given half a chance it kept falling apart at the seams. Part of the initial concept was that we would bring together two groups: fresh Americans who hadn’t done much in the way of game development before, and experienced developers from the Japanese headquarters. The Japanese would mentor, the Americans would learn.
This turned out to be a tremendous mistake. The Japanese didn’t arrive until the Americans were already in place, as we had huge visa problems. Once they arrived, there were language problems and cultural problems too – I don’t want to go into any details but it was unpleasant. Sonic 2 did ship, and the team that created it was half Japanese and half American, but after that everyone said “no more!” Sonic Spinball was done by the American staff, and Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles were done by the Japanese.
Sega-16: How much creative freedom was STI given by management?
Mark Cerny: We had, for better or for worse, one hundred percent complete creative freedom. Hard to believe, in this day and age, isn’t it? Though the results were not what I would have hoped. When a similar opportunity arose at Universal Studios to work without a formal approval process, let’s just say I did a bit better with it.
Sega-16: Finally, I have to ask! What did you think of the Genesis port of Marble Madness?
Mark Cerny: I’d specifically warned Sega off of it. After all, Marble Madness is an arcade game based on a trackball. It won’t, of course, play as well with a digital joypad, and the game is only four minutes from start to finish if you don’t die, which is fine in the arcade, but not at home. Can you imagine buying a cartridge and being done with it within two hours… well, at least it was pretty!
Our thanks to Mr. Cerny for the great insight into Sega’s history.
Sonic vs. Mario art property of segavenom.