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Dreamcast 20th anniversary interview extravaganza

by Brandon Sheffield on 09/09/19 12:17:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

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The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

The Dreamcast turns 20 in America today. The 9/9/99 launch date was huge for Sega, setting retail records, and building huge hope for the future of the company. The Dreamcast itself had so many innovations - the Visual Memory Unit which could play minigames or serve as a vital second screen (choosing playlists in NFL 2K without letting your friend see). The broadband (and modem) adapter that allowed folks to play online games on their console. Seaman, with its microphone controller. The motion-sensing maracas of Samba de Amigo. The Dreamcast was a hotbed of innovation during its scant two-plus years of life.

As we celebrate the life of the Dreamcast rather than its demise, I asked a number of people who worked on the platform to share their thoughts, 20 years later. Many of these people haven't been interviewed in years, and share their Dreamcast stories for the first time. Happy 20th anniversary Dreamcast, you were a weird gleam in the night sky for far too short a time! 

 


The classic "it's thinking" promo ads.

Heather Hawkins - The face of Dreamcast PR

Being part of the Dreamcast launch team was, hands down, the absolute best company/team experience I've had in my career. Never before or since have I worked alongside such a passionate, dedicated and intrinsically motivated group of people.

The development teams inside Sega at the time were such an oddball bunch of absolute visionaries, and we were 100% committed to being a company that lived its values by supporting some incredibly leading-edge game concepts. I got the sense that the Japanese dev teams really appreciated how much Sega of America was willing to push the envelope alongside them-- I mean, running a national TV campaign for Seaman? Releasing the Maraca peripheral in the face of financial projections for just one game? Typing of the Dead?... We loved every bit of what they were doing and tried to match them in the creativity of our marketing campaigns.

It's pretty widely known (and I think not uncommon for the time) that there was a definite lack of connection between territories. I don't think anyone in Japan or London is getting together to celebrate November 27 or October 14. Speaking only for what we did in the United States, we absolutely accomplished what we set out to do - biggest 24 hours at retail, 1M units in less than a month. More than a third of the console market recaptured. Alignment might be nice to think about, but in what direction would the alignment have flowed? I'm glad we had some autonomy to do what we did under Peter [Moore] and with our marketing in the states. More than a few times even Peter turned a blind eye to our shenanigans with a grin and a twinkle. We were able to be pretty guerrilla about it all.

Reflections 20 years later... So many fond memories and a "work" experience that I'm quite sure will never be matched! We weren't just colleagues, we were family. I said at a panel this weekend, "I will always show up." Not to get too RPG about it, but I feel Dreamcast is a lifelong banner and a quest that I'm honored to carry for those that were there and have left us, for every gamer that gave us their $199 (or $99, or $79 or even $49.) Everyone who trusted us - I had the honor of being the voice of those people inside the company, and I will continue showing up as long as they want me to. As I like to say "my hair might have been blue, but I bled orange."

 


Floigan Bros Episode 1. Subsequent episodes never made it out.

Hirokazu Yasuhara - Floigan Bros game designer (also of Sonic the hedgehog, Uncharted, etc fame)

[Before the Dreamcast's launch] I was in San Francisco, so I wasn't asked for any comment about the design, I mean specifications of the chips and size of memory. But I do remember that I was asked to pick a "favorite" controller from a bunch of mock ups for the hardware. Do you remember the "round shape" one? I said "it is Bad."

But the hardware was much better than the Saturn. It had almost the same "power" of PS. But SEGA still kept the "2D sprite" function in it. It was a bad point for rendering polygon objects. If the Dreamcast were designed as a dedicated polygon machine, we would see a different future.   

But I enjoyed working with teams at the time.  Maybe the Floigan Bros was the first AI driven character action game in the industry!

But my feeling when the Dreamcast launched was difficult. SEGA tried to change its political power structure from the inside. So, employees weren't unite to fight against rival companies. Sony would look like a much more credible partner if I were an individual development studio at the time.

I do feel that it was good hardware at the era. But it had too many functions...like Internet or whatever. Sega didn't have enough human power to handle such things with the number of employees it had. Ultimately Sega lost trust because of its internal political problems. The hardware was just unlucky, it doesn't have any responsibility for its supposed "failure."

 


Seaman. Voiced in Japan by Yoot Saito himself.

Yoot Saito - Creator of Seaman

I think you can sum up everything about the Dreamcast when it made its debut in the 90s as an incredibly unique experience. Sega was chasing after their rivals Sony and Nintendo as best they could. However, people at Sega loved doing 'fun' and 'interesting' things. So instead of playing it safe and being conservative, they went on the attack and did as many creative and crazy things as they could. That’s the sort of mindset that allowed a game so unique and unusual as Seaman to be born. They got behind it and pushed hard for it on the promotional front allowing it to become quite the hit.

So for me, the Dreamcast is a great game console with many unique features but more than that, it’s reminds me of those days when Sega was doing so many creative and wonderful things.

 


Ready 2 Rumble was an early knockout third party title.

Kathy Astromoff - Third party account manager at Sega of America for the Dreamcast launch, working on Soul Calibur and Ready 2 Rumble, among others.

The best part was working with talented game creators who were bringing their best effort for our players. A big reason I joined Apple Arcade was to get close to game developers again, on a platform with massive scale.

With the Dreamcast, we knew we were innovating on creativity. The whole team also had very deep developer empathy - we loved our partners and I think it showed in the games. For example, one day these two really nice guys from Canada came to the office to show us their progress on their game, MDK2. Ray and Greg were particularly excited about the implementation of Max the robot dog. From thence, Bioware!

But there were also more challenges during those days. Like figuring out how to get an obscure firmware bug fixed, propagated to SDK, distributed to devs, updated in binaries, burned to gold master, flown to San Francisco, checked for compliance, flown to disc replicator, and shipped to players. I don’t miss disks at all.

In all, if everyone who today tells me they loved the Dreamcast had actually bought it, and kept buying games for it, it would have been the most popular console of all time!

 


Samba De Amigo Ver. 2000, the second game released.

Satoshi Okano - Character designer of Samba De Amigo, field artist for Sonic Adventure

I joined Sega in 1996, with a background in developing NES and Super NES software. So I might have had a slightly calmer view of the Dreamcast compared to some Sega employees. Around the time the PlayStation had started to lose marketshare, I saw a mockup for the Dreamcast, and I can't say I was too impressed. Game consoles had to compete with other consumer devices in terms of product design, and compared to Sony's I wondered, can we really fight them using this? I never said anything though...

But the best thing Sega did during that time was separate out the development teams [such as Sonic Team, Smilebit, etc]. Because of that, Sonic Team was able to be recognized as a producer of high quality titles that sold well, but the team wasn't so large, and I knew everyone's face. It was a friendly atmosphere.

At the same time, we didn't have the freedom you see in modern foreign companies to do things like... go home on time. We didn't have any sort of work reform system or global standard to meet. I broke my health because of that. But for good or ill, that's what the whole game industry was like in Japan back then.

As an example, when Sonic Jam came out, I drew a cover for Sega Saturn Magazine, which was well received. Yuji Naka was going around asking, who did this? He was working on the plans for a new Sonic for Dreamcast, and wanted to give him a new style, so they held an internal competition. There was me, Naoto Ohshima [original Sonic designer], Miyake-san who was in charge of drawing "Nights," and Uekawa-san. I was working as a 3D map designer at the time, so I didn't have much time to prepare, and I got second place to Uekawa-san. I was disappointed, but it was because of my drawing that the competition happened at all, which wound up setting the direction of the new Sonic, so it's a bittersweet memory.


Okano's Sonic design.

But from there, I got to work on Samba de Amigo. The game had a rough demo and a 1-sheet design document when I saw it. I thought to myself... this is definitely gonna sell. Shun Nakamura was in charge of the project, and at the time people were assigned to games by higher ups, and didn't get to decide what games they wanted to work on. But I kept going over to Nakamura with my ideas, saying "how about this?" I got scolded by some bosses of other teams for that.

But in the end I got to do character design for the game, which was a huge hit in arcades, and got two versions on the Dreamcast. I guess you could say it's my personal masterpiece. The art director gets the credit for the character design, but it was me - I hid in the shadows like a ninja. I even got invited out by vice president Hisashi Suzuki, to the frustration of my team. It was a pretty rare opportunity to eat high class eel while talking casually with the vice president!

The game got a lot of magazine coverage, and I'll never forget the first time I saw it in a game center. When I saw someone take a 100 yen coin out of their wallet and put it into the machine, I swallowed hard wondering how it would go. You never get to see people's faces when they play your games if you're making console games, so that was a really priceless moment for me. Seeing that person's 100 yen coin go into the slot I knew it'd be a hit. And, well, I did get a bonus!

In all I feel like the Dreamcast was Sega's attempt to appeal to a broader audience. It may not have been as "cool" as the Genesis, but after hearing that the Wii may have been inspired by Samba De Amigo (in fact, I got an email from Iwata after its release), I think the Dreamcast was ahead of its time.

Once the Dreamcast ended, I started my own studio, Studio Okanotion Co., Ltd, to continue designing characters and other things in my own way.

 


Space Channel 5.

Yumiko Miyabe - Art director of Space Channel 5, director of Space Channel 5 part 2 (and character design for the upcoming Space Channel 5 VR)

When I heard in-house that the name of the game console would be "Dreamcast," it sounded enigmatic to me. The word "Dreamcast" didn't have an image reminiscent of a conventional game console. It made me feel the company's spirit to challenge a new field, going beyond the conventional. 

When I was working on Space Channel 5 and in order to make it, we moved the development studio from Haneda, where the headquarters was at that time, to Shibuya, the center of Tokyo. We felt like we could understand the feeling of the era at a glance when we stood in the middle of Shibuya's big crossing. That may be a simplistic idea, but everyone took our roles seriously, and we felt we had momentum, like we would never look back. 

Yumiko Miyabe (right) and Morolian designer Mayumi Moro at TGS 1999. Miyabe is working on Space Channel 5 VR now!

All of us Sega employees were aware that we were super geeks. We knew Sega's dedicated fanbase would follow us no matter what we did, but we were challenging a new concept - why are our games not as popular with the general public? That’s when, though it sounds funny now, a "general studies" group was established by some employees. I was in there! It was a small group... There were many other groups that discussed various new things, and everyone belonged to somewhere. Our mission was to figure out: 'What do you think are interesting for ordinary people? What do you think is cool now? What can you do to make high school girls play Sega games?' We discussed all these things with a serious face. In other words, we were struggling to emerge from the traditional 'Sega' shell, and everyone was excited that this was the chance to do it. 

Since the producer of Space Channel 5 was an unconventional person, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, there are a lot of interesting stories from that era. He took the staff around the world with the belief that creators could only make what they experienced. But we mostly went to the USA. Looking back, as a side note, I think Sega's 'cool' came from the United States. I was actually motivated to join Sega as a university student in Japan as a result of seeing and listening to the American version of Sonic and its cool stories as a culture. 

Space Channel 5 billboard on Shibuya Station in 1999, right by the team's office.

Anyway, the moment the Dreamcast launched I was fully into development so I don't remember that much. I didn't know if it was summer or winter, all I knew was my desk. But I do remember that several people got up onto their desks and pumped their fists in the air!

Strangely, since a new version of Space Channel 5 (Space Channel 5 VR) is coming out this year, it doesn't even feel like 20 years have passed. But the economy has gotten worse, so even if you develop a game, I don't think we can say, "Let's make a new thing even if outside the project's budget!" like you could back then. Recently I met an old Sega fan who told me that SEGA’s games gave them a dream to work toward at the time. Can current game companies give dreams to those who are spending their youth? We must show them that the creators of our generation who know the brightness of the time can put their dreams and bright feelings into new games. 

 

Phantasy Star Online. Popular at colleges with LAN connections.

Anonymous "Samurai Developer" - Sonic Adventure, Phantasy Star Online, etc

For me, the Dreamcast was a much easier platform to develop for than previous ones. Previous hardware required a lot of trial and error and special tricks to get the desired visuals. But with the Dreamcast we could create high quality visuals just by using just the default functions.

When the development teams split up into individual units, each began to build its own studio culture. In Sonic Team for example, we were always thinking about global aspects of our games. People often say Sega was ahead of the times, and when I consider those days I think that might be true.

On the other hand, back then it was normal for developers to do all their own QA. So an artist might spend half a year testing their games after their work was finished - I remember complaining that I didn't know whether I was an artist or a debugger. But the good thing was Sonic Team games made tons of money, so I collected my bonuses!

But making games felt so easy then, and the performance was good. There was a lot of talk about how network games would become mainstream in the future, so it felt pretty amazing to be on the leading edge of that. The infrastructure was still weak at the time, so we weren't really sure how far it could go. And I guess the fact that Phantasy Star Online came out during the final phase of Dreamcast software development shows that it took some time for developers to figure it out.

Looking back 20 years, there's a feeling that it was a bit early to push a machine aimed toward online games. I remember the excitement of that era, using Telehodai (flat-rate call service in Japan) to connect and play in a peaceful online environment. It's great to think that the goals I aimed for are being used now.

 


Shenmue. It took a while to finish.

Takeshi Hirai - Lead system programmer of Shenmue

I started out at Sega in Osaka. Before I came to Sega, I released about one game per year. But then through a string of slumps and bad luck, after I joined sega I couldn't release a game for about three years. During that time I got an invite to join a project in Tokyo that was scheduled to only take another half year. I was starving to death to actually release something, so I joined up immediately.

There were about 20 project engineers, and 20 support engineers. So with this team we could release the game in six months, it seemed. With all these engineers, we needed to decide who would lead. A general election was held, far before AKB48 ever did it. And I was chosen because of my deep experience with low layer development, graphical development, and consumer development, so suddenly I became a leader of 40 people.

And of course since this project was Shenmue, it actually took another three and a half years to develop, not six months. My goal was to release a game, that was all. And yet because of this I didn't release a game for seven years. I was hungry.

My big fear was that the game would just continue to be in development for way too long. Nostradamus's prophecy said the world would end in 1999. I was determined to release a game before the end of the world. I wanted to release in 1999 no matter what! The year 2000 is too dangerous!

I managed to desperately program so that it could be released before 2000. Thanks to the efforts and hard work of the staff, we managed to release on December 29, 1999. I made it before 2000. But humanity still hasn't been destroyed...

Hirai today. Humanity is still going... so far...

Up until that point, Sega had only released black hardware. It felt like something was wrong when I saw this white box. Sega partnered with Yamaha to make the gd-rom, which had 1GB capacity. It was amazing capacity at the time, but even so, Shenmue was three discs, plus one more, so four discs... If it were a DVD we could've fit it on one disc. Then on March 4, 2000, one day before my birthday, the PS2 was released, with its DVD-Rom. You could watch The Matrix on it. I was jealous, but what can you do. I felt the future of multimedia that day.

The reason the Dreamcast was so popular both within Sega and with other companies was ease of development. We're in the heyday of C# now, but it was all C/C++ back then, and the approach to the hardware was comparatively easy to use. Transparency for example was no longer a software operation, you just punched it through. It was easy to make visuals, easy to make sound. Performance was good, and you could have the hardware and middleware talk to each other with much less interference, develop specifications, then code it all together. 

For the PS2, the structure was such that programmable shaders had to be written and optimized by yourself. It reminded me of the 32X era. But the Dreamcast was a treasure box that made games easy to make. It's easier to make games in the present era of course, but it was groundbreaking at the time.

This isn't just about the Dreamcast, but really that late 90s to early 2000s era. I could just create something if I thought it was interesting, in those days. There wasn't as much content saturation, and people's digital hobbies weren't as diverse. Before the internet became overwhelmingly popular, people wanted new experience, the 'search culture' didn't exist yet. In that era creators could easily feel that making something that sells means to creating something totally new. 

Our dev kits took some time to settle on a final chip configuration, and there weren't enough of them to provide to everyone on the relatively large Shenmue team. I was developing the game with early-stage hardware for a long time. The final spec of the Dreamcast was still a theoretical value to us - and in fact we expected it to have three times the performance, during the development stage!

When we got the final specs we were a bit disappointed, but we figured it would happen. Then we saw assets placed onto the map, and of course the map was three times slower. I was told to get the speed up to 30 FPS. So I spend my days optimizing. Somebody looking at me from the outside at that time might think "this is a guy who can only speed things up."

We had to incorporate a lot of smart technology with various approaches across many months to get the game locked at 30 fps. Even if it's a different era now, please don't ask your programmers to increase speed by a factor of three. Even now I can talk for a straight week with my friends about the tough times working on that stuff. But it's all stuff I can't say in front of the media.

The white box.

I'm grateful to the Dreamcast for sending out so many quality games into the world. I loved all the games of that era, there were so many new and interesting ideas. And if there had been no Dreamcast I might have retired without ever making another game!

Up until the Dreamcast it felt like you were always fighting against limitations, be it capacity, performance, or quality before creating a game. The Dreamcast was the strongest hardware at that point with which to create games. 

That era before total content saturation, I once again have that feeling that we could just pursue things that were interesting. Nowadays, games tend to hold a carrot on a stick in front of you. I'm representing a developer called Neilo now, and we want to create things that players intrinsically want to play and continue. That feeling of ours exists because there was a piece of hardware called the Dreamcast. We try to continue in its spirit.

 


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