“The best time at Sega Europe was at the launch of the Dreamcast”

As part of further research for my possible book Dreamcast Worlds (fund it here or it can’t happen), I recently interviewed Tom Szirtes about his time at Sega Europe. He was working in product R&D during the Dreamcast era, and paints an image of a tech playground where innovation was king and anything was possible. Here are some extracts:

“My job was initially to support developers who were writing games for Sega platforms, Sega Saturn and then later Dreamcast, but I was also developing all sorts of really odd bits. I worked on developing the network – you know, Dreamcast was connected to the network so you could find other games to play and compare high scores, and I wrote that bit. I did the Dream On demo disc, so I put all the game demos in one thing and packaged it onto Dreamcast Magazine. I worked on some games, mostly for the Saturn – I did some work on Sonic 3D – and then the last thing I did was I worked on a title called Planet Ring, which used voice over IP.

Planet Ring was a weird game.

Sega released a microphone peripheral for the Dreamcast, and there was I think only one game that it was used for – a talking fish, Bassman – it was a very strange game, you talked and interacted with this fish. Other than that I don’t think there were any game, so when they launched this peripheral in Europe they thought, let’s bundle a set of games to go with it.”

“I was actually the first person in Europe to ever use a Dreamcast.

When it first came in, there was me and my engineer, and they said alright, we’ve got a new console coming in, you can’t show it to anyone else in the company. They just locked us in a room for about four months, and we just played around on the new Dreamcast, developing stuff.

I think [the directions to develop products] must have come down from a director level. We had a marketing department but, to be honest, marketing at Sega in those days was very much more post-development marketing, the traditional idea of marketing as opposed to marketing these days tends to be very involved in product generation. Now when you talk about marketing you’re thinking about what kind of products should we build, but then I think it was much more developer-push. So some guy would have some technical idea and then you would push it that way as opposed to getting someone right at the beginning say ‘how can we sell this?’

So anyway, that [instruction to develop on the Dreamcast] came, and they brought across two Japanese staff from Sega Japan, there was a coder and an artist, and they said right, go and create something. So we sat and designed this thing.”

“It was a collection of mini-games, they all had to use the microphone in some interesting way.

How do you use a microphone in a game?

One was a maze game where one person has to navigate through a maze, but they can only see their immediate surrounding area, and then the other player can see the whole view of the maze, and they had to direct the one player to get to the end, avoiding the monsters and stuff like that. It’s quite intense because the guy playing can’t see the monsters and the other guy is going ‘Oh no, quick turn left!’”

“There were four games, and they were hooked into [the network], and you had this little man, he’d walk around into each room.

It was the first version of multiplayer online social gaming;

you’d sit down and you’d see that other players were sitting down, this was all online, and you could see that you were all in the game together. It’s stuff you take for granted now but back then there was no broadband, no Zynga, nothing like that so it was quite interesting for the time.”

“We used to call it the University of Sega

because you got to play with a lot of stuff and there wasn’t really – well there was pressure at certain points, the time when I came under pressure were when I was working directly on development projects Sega was shipping – but most of the time, when I was doing technical support work, it was fairly self-organising, quite relaxed”

“Sega Europe was small compared to Japan and America. So, the majority of R&D work went on in Japan, I know that America had one or two. Europe, we were the smallest of those territories. I can’t remember the exact size I think we were like six, maybe more people, ten people possible at its peak, so it’s not a large thing to organise. We weren’t making games, apart from the one I mentioned before, Planet Ring. So, we were mostly support functions and developing our own libraries, so it was quite interesting, we just ended up doing everything.

The fascinating thing about that job

is, I got involved in lots of stuff you know, at the beginning I was just answering calls and trying to answer the developers and then I’d be saying, ‘oh we’ve got this project coming in, can you build this demo system’ and then next thing I’d be flying off to some country to talk to a prospective publisher about how great Dreamcast is and you’ve gotta publish to it. I’d be the technical person and I’d go along with my director to try and talk, close a deal.”

“It was a very Japan-centric organisation

at that time. They like to keep control, I think; Japanese like to deal with Japanese, and there was kind of, maybe a slight distrust of the overseas arms. I know they battled with Sega America and, Sega America had a lot more freedom than we did obviously because they’re bigger and more independent.”

“The best time to be at Sega was at the launch of the Dreamcast,

because they had lots of money then – well they didn’t have lots of money but they spent lots of money to try and promote this. So we got to go on lots of trips, to try and get developers and publishers to use the Dreamcast, then there was the launch parties that I had to go to, then there’s the trade shows, etc. etc. So, it was an amazing time to be at at Sega because there was always stuff going on and you were you’re involved in a new product. I mean Dreamcast was a great product, you know, so we were genuinely excited.

We genuinely believed in the Dreamcast,

because we knew that it was a great thing. I got to work on cutting edge technologies that no-one else had access to. It was an absolutely amazing job for about three years or something like that. Then of course once they very quickly realised that they’re not going to be able to make a success of it, they just ran out of money I guess to promote it, and at that stage it was kind of cut cut cut.”

“After Dreamcast was finished, they basically closed all developments in Europe,

so they sacked everyone technical. Apart from me, the director said ‘oh I want you to stay on, ‘cus we need someone’, gave me the biggest pay rise I’d ever had in my life, and said ‘right, please stay on’. I was just like ‘okay fine that’s fine’, so I sat there, and I basically had nothing to do. Well I did have a few things but basically, because Dreamcast was gone really all I was doing was trying to acquire development kits for Nintendo, because you know at that point Sega had gone to being multi-platform. I was trying to contact Nintendo and Sony and I don’t know who else by that point, and trying to get their development kits, costing them and trying to find out a bit. I mean it could’ve been quite interesting but I was kind of there in a vacuum. I could’ve just done nothing all day pretty much, and I decided well this isn’t really very motivating or good for my career, so I decided to leave”

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