Sega Technical Institute

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Sega Technical Institute
Industry Video games
SuccessorSega of America Product Development
Founded1991;29 years ago (1991)
Founder Mark Cerny   OOjs UI icon edit-ltr-progressive.svg
Palo Alto and Redwood City, California
United States
Key people
Parent Sega of America

Sega Technical Institute (STI) was an American development division of Sega. Founded by Atari veteran Mark Cerny in 1991, the studio sought to combine elite Japanese developers, including Sonic Team programmer Yuji Naka and his team, with new American talent. STI developed games for Sega Genesis, including several Sonic the Hedgehog games, before it was closed at the end of 1996.


After working in Japan for Sega on games for the Master System, Cerny proposed the creation of a development studio in America, which was approved. When Naka quit Sega after the release of Sonic the Hedgehog , Cerny convinced him and Sonic level designer Hirokazu Yasuhara to join him at STI. After completing Sonic the Hedgehog 2 in 1992, STI was divided in two due to friction between the Japanese and American developers: the Japanese developers developed Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Sonic & Knuckles before leaving in 1994, while the American team developed games including Sonic Spinball . The failed development of Sonic X-treme for the Sega Saturn became representative of a culture shift at Sega, and STI closed at the end of 1996.

Games developed by STI are considered significant in the history of the Genesis, and many were well-received or sold well. Developers have described STI as a unique workplace that did not fit into Sega's corporate structure, and have fond memories of the environment.



Mark Cerny, founder of Sega Technical Institute Mark Cerny 2010.jpg
Mark Cerny, founder of Sega Technical Institute

Mark Cerny, a fan of computer programming and arcade games, joined Atari in 1982 aged 17. [1] At 18, he designed and co-programmed Marble Madness , his first major success. After his time with Atari, he joined Sega in Japan, where he worked on various Master System products, [2] including launch games and the 3D glasses accessory. [3]

In 1990, Cerny returned to the United States with a desire to create a small development team. At the same time, Sega of America CEO Michael Katz and executive vice president Shinobu Toyoda had prioritized increasing game development in the United States due to a lack of games catering to American tastes. [4] By 1991, Sega allowed Cerny to start STI as a game development studio. [3] The studio's first project was Dick Tracy , [4] and two additional projects began early in 1991: Kid Chameleon and Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude! [3]

Shortly after the release of Sonic the Hedgehog in 1991, Sonic Team developers Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara, and several other Japanese developers relocated to California to join STI. [3] [5] Naka had quit Sega following disagreements over salary and backlash from the company over the time and effort it had taken to finish Sonic. Cerny, who had been in Japan while he was setting up STI, visited Naka's apartment, listened to the reasons why he left, and convinced Naka to join him in America as a way to fix the problems he had had with Sega in Japan. [2] [6] Yasuhara, who had designed most of the Sonic stages and gameplay, chose to come with Naka. [4] Cerny's aim was to establish an elite development studio that would combine the design philosophies of American and Japanese developers. [3]

Later in 1991, STI began development on Sonic the Hedgehog 2 , with a team composed of both nationalities. According to Cerny, Sega of Japan was slow to approve the project, costing two months of development of a normal 11-month schedule. [3] Sega's plan to develop Sonic 2 involved sending members of the development teams from Japan over to STI, but Sega failed to acquire visas, resulting in STI being staffed with American developers before beginning work. [7] While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was a success, its development suffered some setbacks; the language barrier and cultural differences created a rift between the Japanese and American developers. [3] [7] According to STI artist Craig Stitt, he did not believe the junior American members of the team were learning from the more senior Japanese members. Stitt also stated that while Yasuhara and lead artist Yasushi Yamaguchi were easy to work with, Naka was not interested in working with the Americans. [7] Cerny said, "Sonic 2 did ship but after that we said 'no more!'" [3]

Division into two teams

Yuji Naka, co-creator of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, led development on three Sonic games created by STI. Yuji Naka' - Magic - Monaco - 2015-03-21- P1030036 (cropped).jpg
Yuji Naka, co-creator of the Sonic the Hedgehog series, led development on three Sonic games created by STI.

Once development on Sonic 2 concluded, Cerny departed STI and was replaced by Atari veteran Roger Hector. Under Hector, STI was divided into two teams: the Japanese developers led by Naka, and the American developers. STI became unusual in Sega's organizational structure. According to Hector, STI reported both to Sega of Japan and Sega of America, but was independent and did not fit into corporate structure. Hector credited this unusual arrangement for fostering creativity and making STI " very special". Developers Peter Morawiec and Adrian Stephens, who worked for STI, expressed fond memories of working there for its uniqueness. [3] Hector's roles with the Japanese team included keeping them on track while ensuring they had necessary resources and preventing outside interference on the team. To facilitate better communication, Hector brought in a language teacher to instruct a Berlitz class in Japanese. [8]

In 1993, STI's Japanese team worked on Sonic the Hedgehog 3 , but it would not be complete for Christmas season; [4] it was split into two games, with Sonic 3 released in February 1994 and Sonic & Knuckles in October. [8] [9] STI's American team worked on a spinoff, Sonic Spinball , proposed by Morawiec following the marketing department's request for a game based on the casino levels of previous Sonic games. The team was tasked with completing the game in nine months, without help from the Japanese team. Though it received poor reviews, Sonic Spinball sold well and helped to build the reputation of its developers. [4]

Following the release of Sonic & Knuckles, Yasuhara quit, citing differences with Naka, and went on to develop games for Sega of America. Naka returned to Japan with developer Takashi Iizuka to continue work with Sonic Team, reuniting with Sonic the Hedgehog character creator Naoto Ohshima. [5] In 1995, the mostly American staff completed Comix Zone and The Ooze , the only games to bear the STI logo. STI completed one game in partnership with Sega AM1, Die Hard Arcade . [3]

Sonic X-treme and closure

As Sonic Team was working on Nights into Dreams , [4] Sega tasked STI with developing what would have been the first fully 3D Sonic game, Sonic X-treme. It was moved to the Saturn after several prototypes for other hardware (including the 32X) were discarded. [10] [11] It featured a fisheye lens camera system that rotated levels with Sonic's movement. Corporate politics both within the team at STI [11] and between Sega's Japanese and American divisions [12] [13] pervaded the game's development. After Sega president Hayao Nakayama ordered the game be reworked around the engine created for its boss battles, the developers worked between 16 and 20 hours a day to meet their December 1996 deadline. This proved fruitless after Sega of America executive vice president Bernie Stolar rescinded STI's access to Sonic Team's Nights into Dreams engine following an ultimatum by Naka, who was now producing Nights. [10] [14] [15] After programmer Ofer Alon quit and designers Chris Senn and Chris Coffin became ill, X-Treme was cancelled in early 1997. [10] [11] [15]

According to Hector, the success of the PlayStation led to corporate turmoil within Sega. STI was disbanded in 1996 as a result of changes in management at Sega of America. Hector himself had left STI and new management had taken over shortly before the studio closed. [3] Producer Mike Wallis stated that STI was not actually disbanded, but rather became Sega of America's product development department, while the previous department branched to form SegaSoft. [4] After STI's closure, developers Peter Morawiec and Adrian Stephens left Sega and formed Luxoflux. [3]

Game development

Retrospectively, STI's games have been considered important to the Sega Genesis, pictured above Sega-Genesis-Mod1-Bare.jpg
Retrospectively, STI's games have been considered important to the Sega Genesis, pictured above

Games developed by STI include four Sonic the Hedgehog games. [3] Sonic the Hedgehog 2 received critical acclaim and was a bestseller in the UK charts for 2 months. [16] As of 2006, the game had sold over 6 million copies. [17] Sonic Spinball received mixed reviews, with an average score of 61% at GameRankings, based on an aggregate score of six reviews, [18] but sold well. [4] Sonic the Hedgehog 3 holds an average score of 89% at GameRankings, indicating positive reviews based on its aggregate score of five reviews, [19] while Sonic & Knuckles also received positive reviews. [20] [21] [22] All four games have been rereleased multiple times in various Sonic compilations. [23] [24] [25] [26]

Kid Chameleon is recognized for its original character designs and abilities that made it play like "several different platform games rolled into one. [3] Mega placed the game at #35 in their Top Mega Drive Games of All Time. [27] Comix Zone, a beat 'em up, faced mixed reviews from GamePro and Electronic Gaming Monthly at the time of its release, [28] [29] but has been retrospectively praised for its originality, including the concept of moving through the pages of a comic book and defeating enemies drawn in front of the player. [3] The Ooze, originally planned as a Genesis Nomad launch title, [4] received negative reviews at its launch, [30] [31] [32] but was recognized for its originality, [32] and has been retrospectively called "one of those little-known 16-bit gems that are well worth taking the effort to play through." [3] Die Hard Arcade has also been recognized for its depth as one of the last beat 'em ups. Of Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude!, Retro Gamer writer Ashley Day criticized the title retrospectively for its poor character design and inadequate clone of Pitfall! in 16-bit form. [3] While it was never released, journalists have considered what impact Sonic X-treme, as a Sonic game for the Sega Saturn, may have had on the market. [14] [33] [34] [35] [36]

In addition to Sonic X-treme, several titles were considered by development but ultimately were never completed. One title, called Jester, featured a nearly-invulnerable clay character. Another, called Spinny & Spike, was proposed and greenlit by Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske, but never made it out of development after resources shifted to Sonic Spinball, followed by a change in producer causing the original developers to leave Sega. A sequel to Comix Zone was also proposed, but was dropped. Morawiec and Stephens had also set up an office to begin work on an original Sonic game, but that project was killed by Naka. [4]

Retrospectively, STI is given more credit for its game development than it had while it was active. More Sonic compilations have featured games developed by STI, and Sega has since opened more external studios outside of Japan. Ashley Day of Retro Gamer stated, "only time will tell if such companies can harness the same kind of magic the Sega Technical Institute did so long ago." [3] Ken Horowitz of Sega-16 stressed the importance of STI's games on the Genesis, and also framed STI's history as a cautionary tale of corporate politics. Of this, Horowitz said, "Be it the continued growth and success of the core Sonic games, the innovative original titles, or the unique development atmosphere that was unrivaled anywhere else at Sega, the Institute gave us some great games and produced some amazing talent. Today’s industry would do well to take a page from Sega’s book about how to make a development team feel at home, and the story of the Sega Technical Institute is living proof of how too much corporate interference can kill a good thing." [4]

Game [3] [4] Year released [3] [4] STI development team [3] [4]
Dick Tracy 1991American
Kid Chameleon 1992American
Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude! 1992American
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 1992Both
Sonic Spinball 1993American
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 1994Japanese
Sonic & Knuckles 1994Japanese
Comix Zone 1995American
The Ooze 1995American
Die Hard Arcade (with Sega-AM1)1996American
Sonic X-treme CancelledAmerican

See also

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