Interview with Christian G. Senn
PACHUKA (P): ok, you were the working for STI as the director of the project, correct?All names and logos are properties of their respective owners.
Christian Senn (CS): No. lol ...The project went through a great many people over the course of its 3-year lifespan. At one point, I was coordinating the team, art directing and leading the design. But... that is sort of meaningless unless the rest of the picture is understood.
P: Who else worked on the project?
CS: The following Product Development people were involved to varying degrees with Sonic Xtreme along the way: Roger Hector, Michael Kosaka, Dean Lester, Robert Morgan, Manny Granillo, Mike Wallis, Chris Ebert, Don Goddard, Ofer Alon, Mark Kupper, Chris Coffin, Dave Sanner, Richard Wheeler, Jason Kuo, Yasuhara Hirokazu, Jeremy Cantor, Fei Cheng, Craig Stitt, Ross Harris, Andy Probert, Andrew Mundy, Dean Ruggles, Bob Steele, Stieg Hedlund, Tom Tobey, Alan Ackerman, Aoki Kunitake and Howard Drossin. I hope I didn't forget anyone's name. lol
P: so what did you start as?
CS: I started as an artist. At that time, Michael Kosaka was the Producer, Designer and Team Leader. Chris Ebert was the programmer, and Jeremy Cantor was in charge of creating the first promotional artwork for the game.
P: So what art did you work on?
CS: At this point, it was in the very early stages of getting the project off the ground. Michael was studying the previous Sonic games and creating the design document for the game. I joined because my style of art fit. And I seem to remember making some 2D side-view animations of Sonic at that early stage. My first real artwork consisted of 2 animations demonstrating the game concept. They were flat-shaded and looked like actual games in action. I even made ring-counters that incremented when Sonic picked them up. lol... oh how I put in so much extra effort into things like that (back in the day). These animations were to be used to sell the concept to the executives.
P: ahhh, so who exactly did you have to sell the idea to, and what did they think of your team's concept?
CS: I honestly can't recall... maybe Tom Kalinske, Shinobu Toyoda and 2-3 other executives... They voiced some concern about the simplistic graphics in light of games such as Donkey Kong Country (I think that was it) that looked so much more advanced. But what we were attempting was the first 3D Sonic game... and management was deciding whether this game would be for the Genesis - or the Saturn... So we explained that though this was a less flashy demo, it showed the gameplay very clearly. Since we weren't sure about which target system and the resulting capabilities, we took a more conservative approach to the visuals. That and the fact that we were very short on time. Yuji Naka watched the demo animations and shook his head and said, "good luck," I remember... very clearly. If only we'd known how true his forecast was...
P: Shook his head in a bad way?
CS: My interpretation was that what we were attempting was, in his opinion, too much for the system's capabilities. We're talking a fully 3D world... way back before decent 3D was an element in games... Man, I can still see that animation in my mind. It would have been so cool!
P: What was Yuji Naka's attitude towards the project?
CS: Well, being the programmer of the Sonic games, I think he was hard-pressed to believe that any westerners could do his baby (Sonic) justice. We were enthusiastic and dedicated... but who knows what he was really thinking...
P: So, what was the plan for the game? Basic storyline?
CS: Good question. lol Let me put on my thinking cap from 1993-4... As I recall (and I can verify later), Sonic, Eggman (Dr. Robotnik) and his robotic cronies were going to be joined by a new character... Tiara. Michael Kosaka came up with this concept, and I did a bunch of different designs for her until we settled on one we liked. The storyline eludes me now, but Sonic had to - surprise - save the day by defeating Robotnik... I have to say, we went through about six or seven completely different storylines over the course of three years - so you'll have to bear with my confusion... Sorry, I guess that doesn't answer your question :P
P: No, it does, I expected the basic plot to be like that. Who did the sprites?
CS: I did the first "temporary" sprites for the game - working with the first programmer, Chris Ebert, and doing technical tests, while Michael continued designing the game. At this point, it was Michael, Chris, myself and Richard Wheeler who we'd hired as an intern. I created more demonstrations of the concepts - such as the bonus round design of Michael's - and started to do estimates on how long graphics would take. We sat down and created a huge list of everything that we think needed to be done - then tried to allocate time to each task. At this time, I started focusing on creating enemy designs. All in all, I created over 50 enemy designs, which Ross Harris translated beautifully into 3D (Andy Probert did a few, too) much later on. Most were my own designs, while some were reworked versions of Michael's initial sketches. We didn't have any actual production graphics until later. I'm sorry - I'm getting into this story-telling mode... ask me another question... :-B (basically there was quite a bit of pre-production)
P: ok, can you explain a bit on the actual gameplay?
CS: The basic gameplay was focusing on Sonic being in 3D for the first time... so running, spindashing, etc. in a 3D world. Collecting rings was still the bread and butter goal while getting through the levels. Everything else stemmed from this classic set up... just variety in the scenery, concepts, special objects per world, etc. This was the gameplay at the beginning, which was enhanced later on long after Michael had left and the 3rd programmer was in charge of the coding... It's important to note how long this project lasted... three years... as you can imagine, a lot happened in that time - many changes for one reason or another. Changes from outside the team, outside the division - outside the country... down to changes within the team... making for a difficult mix to settle down and just get a game done.
P: I can imagine. So, it started on the 32x attachment for Genesis, correct?
CS: Ah - something I forgot, which is kind of important... (before we move on to the 32X). The gameplay was further enhanced by the enemies that populated each world. A lot of thought was put into giving the enemies personality, attacks and defenses that really changed how the player needed to navigate/act/react when near them. This branched out to some of the initial basic power-ups, as well, further intertwining more levels of basic gameplay.
P: So the enemy AI was part of the level structure, used for puzzle solving?
CS: Something like that, but not so complicated. There wasn't much "puzzle-solving" involved at this point.
P: Never really is in Sonic games =P
CS: Well, I felt/feel Sonic I. was the perfect blend of speed and puzzle-solving... great pacing...
P: ok, so tell me about the first actual build of the game, what platform was it on?
CS: Hmm. Another good question. lol
P: you don't remember?
CS: Yes - just sorting things in my mind... it went through 5 platform changes... so... I'm trying to remember... it might have actually started as an attempt to be for the Genesis... but then the Saturn was the target. And months later, management came in and said, "say, how would you like to make this for a top-secret new system called the 32X? It's got the power of the Saturn but will undersell the competition..." There were a lot of technical tests in the beginning... not to mention the 2-3 platform changes... so there lacked excitement and flashiness for some time. We had tests running on the 32X hardware - considering it was still in development and unstable - making it difficult to work with. We were tasked with: 1) coming up with the next great Sonic game and 2) working on an unfinished/developing new hardware platform.
P: so was the 32x version put on a development board, or was it dumped into the system from a pc?
CS: I don't remember, actually, but it makes sense that a combination of the two was used... the dev kit plugged into the PC and into the 32X... Technical questions are best suited towards a programmer, by the way :) (at least as far as hardware issues)
P: I'm just trying to establish what prototypes may exsist. I've hunted this game for years =P
CS: Really? It's funny... I don't know of any prototypes... lol
P: I know of a few people with saturn builds, that's about it.
P: so, what were the politics surrounding this project?
CS: Oh man. Why'd you have to go and ask that? Too many.
P: the hundred million dollar question
CS: From the bottom of the pole all the way up. Once they got started, it became a mish-mash clouding perception of just about everything... if you got involved. That, incidentally, is a key reason why Michael Kosaka left. It was just after his one-year review... and he'd had enough of the executive politics. That was a big blow to the team and project... On a similar note - Jeremy Cantor, a good friend who helped get me into STI, took off 6 months after arriving. Imagine me on a tiny 6'x6' desert island saying, "thanks man..." and waving... lol
P: can you take a look at this url and tell me if it's your work?
CS: No. I'm trying to remember the bottom storyboards, though... I could be mistaken, but the boards were done by, or at least directed by a guy named Andrew Mundy - a short-term member who joined near the end of the legacy that would become simply "Sonic Xtreme." I created the names, though :) Most of the names came from conceptual music I created while designing... over 50 songs... Richard Wheeler also came up with names. He and I worked closely to create some very intriguing designs. Which never saw the light of day, of course :(
P: Wow, a new name every few minutes. This project had a huge turnover rate.
CS: You can say that again.
P: was the music ever released?
CS: I used music, graphics, text and animations to translate my ideas into something we could later use. Unfortunately, me spending time doing music didn't go over well with some. It could have been my imagination, but I thought it was more of a problem than someone simply not liking the music... but I'll never know, and it doesn't really matter. Suffice to say that the purely conceptual music I created has remained hidden from the public.
P: Ever consider releasing it to fans?
CS: Sure, but it would not be "official" by any means... meaning it was never sanctioned by Sega... it was just created by a long-time member of a team that failed to release a Sonic game. lol. How depressing.
P: I would personally love to have a copy, it's like holding a piece of Atlantis
CS: Actually, you can hear one of the music pieces now... let me find the link...
(it's the first one called "Egyptian" and the description is the boss level of one of the Red Sands levels... oh man... the memories... SO much material that nobody ever saw... a damn shame, I tell you.)
P: (side note: my dsl is acting up, so if I vanish, you'll know why)
CS: Also, the "Space Queens" was the music I created for the PC demo of the game near the end of the project...
P: this is so beyond cool
CS: Really? I'm glad you like it... the visions in my mind have survived only in animation demos, paper designs, 3D models... and my imagination... lol, I know exactly what you mean! :D
P: would you consider showing some of that material?
P: so you ended up working on the port, correct?
CS: The PC version?
CS: Ofer Alon and I split from the rest of the team to do what we thought needed to be done... without the political distractions that were running rampant throughout the company. He and I spent 1 month - he creating more of the game engine, polish and nifty do-dads... while I created 4 different worlds with enemies. Everyone else in the company (literally) was working on a different version of the game... based on a game engine Ofer had created before, but, due to more politics, had been ousted from the "lead" position (Ofer was a genius, but didn't fit in socially - and thus jealousy was a problem, as well as having people properly directed/led by someone who sat for 22 hours a day programming amazing things...)... only to have his editor taken by a technical director who worked with an outside company to create a secret demo to promote themselves... combined with management siding with the TD and opening the flood-gates (I had been very careful to keep the team small and tightly knit) to get everyone in the division to work on the game that was extremely late with a lot of work left to complete it... How's that for a mouthful??? lol It's funny. When management called Ofer and I in to their office to tell Ofer he was basically "out"... they had actually had a security guard posted outside the door "just in case" something happened. Can you believe that? That gives you a small idea of the political quagmire that game was stuck in... I mean, come on... hiring a security guard??? Amazing...
CS: A high profile project, egos, inexperience... and changes brought on by all levels... it really was the project from Hell.
P: terrible, so was that it's basic downfall?
CS: Well, yes. All of those things together made it next to impossible to finish anything. And I include myself in the ego and inexperience category. Though I did not consciously participate in any politics, I was young, very ambitious and was given - and I question the wisdom of that giving - the opportunity to lead the design, to art direct... and still do the graphics... I took on far more than was healthy... and after 2 years I became extremely ill... a nurse told me he thought I had 6 months to live, actually. I lost 25 pounds, was sick all the time, had cramps... and still went in to work... all due to too much stress. I was managing and doing far too much... taking on too many responsibilities, trying to train people, being a perfectionist... and doing actual trench work... Not to mention supporting Ofer, who, through his disconnection with the rest of the team, created a rift that helped break the team in two. He was, however, the one to create an amazing game engine... one that could have been a fantastic Sonic game - with uniqueness never-before seen. Management and other team members had differences with Ofer that I tried to resolve... because I was dedicated to him, and knew that we needed to all stick together... But all that was just too much.
P: wow. the project that killed someone.... ok, off the politics =) You did the level design?
CS: Well, no. Though I did quite a few level designs, I don't think any of them were ever finished. They were anywhere from 30-60% done... but lacked the finishing touches to make a level "complete." Richard Wheeler did a tremendous amount of level design... and when the project split... Yasuhara Hirokazu took charge of designing levels. Since he'd completed the Sonic Blast designs, he went in the same style direction of designing new Sonic Xtreme levels. I loved his drawings - great designs. A few months after this was when the sh*t really hit the fan... Nakayama-san visited to check the progress and was outraged to see how much was left to be done. This was the day Ofer and I had planned to show him what the two of us had created on our own...
P: i guess that day was a bad choice
CS: We had hoped to show him and get the go ahead to finish... but due to yet more politics, the BMOC of Japan was carted away before we had a chance to show him... he only saw what the "other" group had made (based on a much older game engine with many new project recruits who were just learning the tools and what the game was all about).
P: so the pc version wasn't finished either?
CS: Well, we were attempting to Wow the right people in order to get the "go ahead" to finish the game. Actually - now that I think of it - what we were showing was still for the Saturn... the idea to do it for the PC came after the hopes for finishing it for the Saturn tanked. Make sense?
P: yeah. so was there ever a pc build?
CS: Yes. But not like you'd hope...
P: and I suppose you don't have a copy of that either?
CS: The editor which Ofer had created allowed one to play the level at any time (in between editing it) He and I would be the only ones, I think (unless it's a super old version of the editor, in which case, it would probably be too basic). I'll have to look around to see if I have anything stashed away.
P: Ok, so pc was canned before it could leave the ground, but it was farther. Was it far anough to have any CG done?
CS: CG - meaning cinematic sequences? "CG" means computer graphics - so, yes, computer graphics were done... but no cinematics.
P: How much of the actual levels were built, like BGs textures, ect
CS: I spent 1 month creating the layout, textures and a few simple enemies for 4 worlds. Game time was about 5-8 minutes per world - and I'd say they were 80% fully textured - meaning that all of the general textures that set the mood, lighting, color schemes, etc. were in place with some details - but the last 20% would have required a great deal of detailed polish (to really make it look finished). The worlds were passable, but definitely not what I would have submitted as "finished." I did what I could in the time that was available.
P: and what about sound effects and BGM?
CS: None. I had already created a ton of conceptual music that would have fit as placeholders, but there was no structure for music yet (at least as far as I remember). Although the World Editor was quite robust in many ways, I was unable to create and display the enemies as I'd designed them, and as Ross Harris had so excellently created in 3D. The 3D world was populated by great smooth path terrains and moving blocks/doors/etc. - but the enemies were flat sprites. Surprisingly, they didn't look bad in the 3D environment... but we just needed more time to put everything together. Unfortunately, there just wasn't time... the hour had passed, and although Ofer and I had created some great looking graphics and levels, they were too little, too late. (I wanted to add that to my previous answer)
P: so no sound effects were made?
CS: Good question, and my memory says "no." I don't recall having sounds in the game. Of course, I'm getting older, and maybe I was just def at the time. lol
P: heheh. so was the camera fixed?
CS: Good question. This opens up an important point about Xtreme's design. Whereas my design attempted to focus on interesting storyline, characters, enemies, bosses with gameplay enhancements... Ofer's vision for the design called for something new - some new element that would set this game apart from all others. He came up with a unique viewing mechanism that would solve some of the gameplay issues we were experiencing with a fixed camera following Sonic. This came to be known as the "Fish-Eye Lens" of Sonic Xtreme. Not only was this visually interesting and different, it provided some solutions that allowed the player to see in directions beyond the screen - around shallow corners above, below and to the sides of Sonic that would normally be invisible to the player. Though the camera was fixed, there was some rubber-banding (trailing of Sonic) - and the Fish-Eye Lens really made play much easier. Another important gameplay element that Ofer was responsible for was the rotation of the world in real-time. Imagine you're looking through a long, square tunnel. Imagine Sonic in front of you, on the floor. Imagine Sonic running on a floor plate that would force the square tunnel to rotate 90 degrees in a clockwise (or counter-clockwise) direction. This was a very fun element that opened up huge new possibilities to level design. Up could become down when playing... The left side top could become the right side bottom in a split second... Remember in Sonic 3 towards the end where Sonic ran upside down? This was 10 times better! The worlds were constructed with a combination of "Lego-like" blocks and fluid paths... so there were tremendous gameplay opportunities. Man - remembering this stuff just makes it that much more painful... so much potential... and to have it canned. Such a shame.
P: did this work in the editor you have?
CS: Yes, it worked in the World Editor. (even if I manage to find the editor, I cannot give that. It would be Ofer's choice since he made it)
CS: (sorry... that one is out of my control. I am willing to share things *I* made... but not what someone else made...)
P: ouch =(
CS: (I know - you were hoping for a complete pot of gold... but at least you're getting some nice shillings ;) )
P: k, have you heard of a project called "Sonic S"?
CS: Sonic Sh!t$? Hmm. Yes, that is the game in which he searches desperately for the Chaos Prunes. lol... no.
P: I've heard Sonic Xtreme refered to as "Sonic S"
CS: Oh man... you should ask me "So, were there any other names for Sonic Xtreme along the way?" lol, and can I guess what you're going to copy and paste next? :P
P: save me the trouble =P
CS: k - give me a sec to remember. "Blue Streak" : This was proposed as a possible tie-in for the racing car "Blue Streak." I was violently against that at the time (though now it sounds fine). I responded to that suggestion with, "that sounds like something a smurf leaves in a diaper."
CS: "SuperSonic" : This was a name that seemed cool. Some team members liked it, management wasn't too hot on it, though. "SonicBOOM" : This one was based on one of Sonic's new special moves. Course, if I was me back then (and more objective), I'd argue the point that this name could be Smurfy, too :P "Sonic RingWorlds". This was based on one of the storylines (that would have been very cool). Rick Wheeler had a heavy hand in this storyline (and was my assistant). He and I tape recorded hours of idea sessions in my office... ah... those were the days.
P: LAst question: will you pleeeeeeeease scan me some of that stuff???
CS: Scan? For life forms? :P Sure...
P: well, thanks for playing 20 (thousand) questions with me
CS: No problemo. Chill out. DiÂ©kwad. :P
CS: No problem. I hope the community enjoys it ;)
P: they will. it might soften the blow of me not landing a prototype again =P