During the turbulent period between the announcement of the 32X and the appearance of the Saturn, Sega’s gaming think tank, the Sega Technical Institute, created some incredible software. The Ooze, Kid Chameleon, Comix Zone, and a host of others marked the legacy of one of the most unique experiments to ever take place under Sega’s roof. One of its premier artists, Chris Senn, joined at a very young age, and he found himself rubbing elbows with some of the best and brightest talent of the era. To call this a dream job would be an understatement.
During his brief tenure at STI, Senn worked on several titles, including the aforementioned Comix Zone; however, he is perhaps most remembered there for his tireless efforts on the stillborn Sonic Xtreme, a title that spanned several consoles until finally disappearing in 1996.
Sega-16 recently had the opportunity to speak to Mr. Senn about STI and that most famous Sonic game.
Sega-16: You joined Sega at a very young age, and it must have been quite an experience being a part of one of the greatest software houses in the world. How on earth did you manage to get your bearings? Anyone in particular take you under their wing?
Chris Senn: It was indeed intimidating being one of the youngest people at STI. People like Jeremy Cantor, John Duggan, Michael Kosaka, Peter Morawiec and Aoki Kunitake (to name a few) helped teach and inspire me, as well as make me feel at home. The atmosphere inside STI was very light and loose, so having been disciplined prior to coming, I loved working my butt off and immersing myself in my work. The people mixed with this drive kept me focused and comfortable.
Sega-16: It must have been weird to join such a big company and be given so much creative freedom from the get-go. Were you ever intimidated?
Chris Senn: Nope. I loved it! It was magical to have such freedom in a studio with such a reputation!
Sega-16: You once mentioned that STI wasn’t anything like you had been led to believe, and the line between the American and Japanese teams was clearly drawn. How did this affect the games in production? Was there any real communication between the two groups?
Chris Senn: I joined just as Sonic Spinball was releasing to the public in November, 1993. This project involved both sides having some contact with each other, as did Sonic 2; however, you’ll notice that for Sonic 3, in production when I joined, only the Japanese side worked on this game (save for a couple of musicians). At this time, the side I was a part of was exploring games to produce, namely The Ooze, Sonic-16, and Comix Zone for the Genesis. These three titles were produced separate from the Sonic Team side.
My opinion would be that Yuji Naka, who held enough power due to his accomplishments, associations and political prowess, wished to keep his team completely separate from our side in order to maintain control over a Japanese-speaking team. This would provide a comfortable cultural foundation from which to utilize and command the discipline and talent inherent in the Sonic Team members. I think it was this rift, rather than the hallway between us that separated both sides and prevented further co-production.
Sega-16: Mark Cerny told us that STI was ultimately done in by its volatile mix of people and the serious cultural and creative differences between the American and Japanese developers. Did you ever experience any of this first hand?
Sega-16: You worked on Spinny & Spike, a Genesis game that never got published. Can you tell us a bit about it? How far along was it when it was canceled?
Chris Senn: The game concept involved two characters fighting through various nightmares allowing for creative flexibility. I vaguely recall having a conversation with Steve Woita and Jason Plumb about this game in which they showed me a playable version they and others had created. It was fun! However, the decision had been passed down to revamp/remake the game, either through a new look, or new playing style, which led to myself and others working further on the game. Although a large portion of the graphics I had to create for two levels were complete, no relevant coding had been completed when production was stopped.
Sega-16: Denny Thorley mentioned that many parts of Battletech were influenced by Electronic Arts’ Strike series. Was this true in your case?
Chris Senn: Wow, you’re going WAY back! I honestly can’t remember. Bernie Whang was the producer and designer on that project. He’d be a good one to ask!
Sega-16: Comix Zone was one of those memorable types of games that was put together by an incredible team of talent. What was it like to work on such a great game?
Chris Senn: It was an honor to work with everyone on Comix Zone, which marked the last Genesis title I would help create.
Sega-16: You’ve probably answered more questions on Sonic Xtreme than anyone out there, and in truth your Sonic Xtreme Compendium website is a remarkable shrine to the Sonic game that never was. There are rumors that the game originated as a Genesis title but was transferred to the 32X early on. Is there any truth to this?
Chris Senn: This is true, although a bit misleading. Sonic Xtreme went through so many title and platform changes, that it’s impossible to consider the initial Sonic-16 pitch by Peter Morawiec the same game as what became Xtreme later on. There’s an image of this pitch at the SXC website, actually. =)
Sega-16: Even if you had been given sufficient resources and time, do you think the 32X would have been technologically capable of fulfilling the team’s vision of what Sonic Xtreme was to be?
Chris Senn: Two points to consider here: The team changed hands so many times as did the target platform for the game, making a collective vision for the game an inevitable impossibility. However, at the time of the 32X portion of Xtreme‘s production, Michael Kosaka was leading the team, and there was probably the strongest collective vision for what the game could have been. As to whether the 32X could deliver that vision? Hard to say. But if you consider the two pitch demo videos for it (also at the SXC) it’s possible these could have been done, but would the public have even *wanted* something like that back then? And more importantly, would that have been worthy of a Sonic title?
Sega-16: Had it been given the chance, do you think STI could have pushed the 32X hardware, either with Sonic Xtreme or another original title?
Chris Senn: If by “pushed” you mean utilized the hardware to its potential, I would hope so. But, I think the 32X was a band-aid meant to eventually fall off. If Xtreme had managed to release for it, I’m sure it would have helped prolong its life (provided it was any good!), as would another title with a name or quality that attracted sales, but how long would that last?
Our thanks to Chris Senn for this interview.