After the buzz following the recent announcement of his book, we thought it would be a good idea to get a Ken Horowitz interview.
We asked Ken the questions we’re dying to know about the content of his book, along with addressing a concern an online commenter raised. Let’s get right to it.
Sega Scream: From what you’ve announced so far, it seems your book will strongly focus on the games developed at Sega of America. I don’t recall such an approach being used for a video game history book previously. What inspired you to take it?
Horowitz: I’ve always been interested in how games are made, the “behind the scenes” aspects of gaming history. I like to know what challenges had to be overcome, what technologies and techniques had to be developed. There’s a real human element behind the creation of every game, a lot of sleepless nights and stress, that most people don’t know about, and I like to hear developers tell those stories. It gives me a greater appreciation for the games themselves.
Everyone will want to know if their favorite Sega games are featured in the book! What are some of the bigger games explored?
Overall, the book covers around 40 games in detail, including many that have never been explored before. My book examines the makings of popular games like Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin, Tomcat Alley, both Genesis X-Men games, and Bug!. I spoke with multiple people for each title, in some cases up to half a dozen individuals, to get as comprehensive a history as possible.
Your book will be published the same year that the documentary for Blake Harris’ Console Wars is expected to be released. Console Wars features a largely subjective take on the video game industry during the early 90s, with Tom Kalinske of Sega of America featuring prominently. Was this intentional? Was the creation of this book inspired by Console Wars’ reception? Obviously, another large difference is that Harris’ book featured mostly marketing and sales alumni, and not much in the way of hardware and software development.
Harris’s book tells a story that needed to be told, as Sega’s rise and battle with Nintendo is an important part of history, but it doesn’t tell the whole story (to be expected, since the book is already around 500 pages!). I’ve actually been planning my book for some time, and I would likely have had to discuss both the marketing and development aspects of Sega’s history – not an easy feat for a single book. The release of Console Wars let me focus solely on the development side of things, which I think worked out for the best.
My book doesn’t feature a particular person more prominently than others, since it covers Sega’s history from 1986-2001. There are a few people, like former Senior VP of Product Development Ken Balthaser and Producer Ed Annunziata, who appear in several chapters due to their positions and involvement with different titles under development. I try to keep marketing discussion to a minimum, since that has already been discussed in detail in Console Wars, and I didn’t want to retread over what’s already been discussed. I wanted to focus on the parts of Sega’s history that have never been told before.
An online commenter on our article concerning the announcement of your book wondered if the book will feature a negative stance on Sega of Japan. Will relations between the regional offices be addressed? Will SoJ be featured at all?
It’s impossible to tell Sega’s story without discussing Japan, but there isn’t any “Japan bashing” or anything of the sort. Again, the focus is on SOA’s development history, and while Japan does figure into that, I tried to be as objective as possible when discussing the relationship between the two branches. I’m not taking sides.
I find the issue of “SOA vs. SOJ” to be problematic because you only really have one side of the story. While I have zero reason to believe that there’s some wild conspiracy among dozens of former SOA people to make Japan look bad 20 years after the fact, I would like to hear the whole story. The issue is that Japanese personalities don’t really do in-depth interviews, and when they do they don’t reveal much (just read about the problems Harris had when he interviewed Hayao Nakayama). I would love, LOVE to do a similar book on Sega of Japan, but the question is: would they let me?
Will the book discuss the working environment at Sega of America? Many former developers who worked at companies such as Atari have discussed at length many interesting stories of their time there.
The work environment at Sega of America is discussed, as are the environments of each independent developer SOA contracted, all told from the people who were there. There are lots of great stories from people at all levels within Sega, from its presidents down to even testers, and most haven’t been shared before.
You interviewed roughly 100 former Sega of America alumni for the book. Do any specific individuals stand out for their contributions to the book?
Well, that 100 number includes both Sega people and independent developers. Just about everyone was really great about the project and helped in any way they could, but some went above and beyond. Ken Balthaser, Tony Van, and Mike Latham of Sega were instrumental in helping me locate people and getting timelines straight, and I really have to thank them and everyone else I spoke to for answering all my questions (often on several occasions) and even providing images.
You also mentioned independent game developers being used as a source. What developers will this include? Did you tap, say, Victor Ireland?
I spoke to people from former development companies like BlueSky Software, HeadGames, Novotrade (Appaloosa Int.), Realtime Associates, Westwood Studios, and others. The book focuses solely on games published by Sega of America. No, Victor Ireland wasn’t involved (another book, perhaps?).
The currently announced plans are for a physical paperback edition of the book. Will the book be made available in digital forms?
Nothing’s been cemented yet, but I’m pretty sure a digital version will be available. I sincerely hope so, as that’s a sector of the market that’s increasingly important. Once I have those details from the publisher, I’ll announce them.
After years of researching and writing about Sega, I’m sure you’ve learned a great deal previously. In working on this book, what was one of the things you discovered that really surprised you? Are there discussions of any previously unknown or relatively obscure projects?
Working on this book has shown me two things, both of which I knew about but not completely. First, it illustrated just how complex the game-making process used to be. We talk about huge development teams and budgets today, but think about what it was like to have a French or British team working on a game while its producer was in San Francisco! No emails or Skype, just a LOT of mailing things back and forth through FedEx and tons of phone calls.
The second thing I learned was just how small the video game industry used to be in terms of actual people in game development. Many crossed paths several times at other companies before working at Sega, and this level of familiarity between them helped a lot when it came to trust and confidence in getting the job done. On the other hand, it also forced producers and other leaders to take risks on people who were unknown. This led to many having long-lasting relationships that still exist to this day. Many of those who worked at Sega of America back in the ‘90s are still in contact with each other and are friends. It’s a personal aspect of the business that I think has been lost a bit.
What are some of your personal favorite Sega games?
Wow, there are so many! If we’re talking Sega of America titles, then I’d have to mention Spider-Man vs. the Kingpin on the Genesis, which I absolutely love. I’m also a huge fan of ToeJam and Earl. If we’re including Japanese-developed titles, than Castle of Illusion is my all-time favorite (it had American producers!), but I also love Kung Fu Kid and Golvellius on the Master System and the Panzer Dragoon series. I really can’t name them all! Sega has so many franchises that are worth bringing back…
We’d like to thank Ken for his time and answering all of the questions we asked! The book is sounding like a fantastic resource!
The tentatively titled Achieving the Next Level: The History of American Sega Games is due for release sometime later in 2016.
You can read Ken’s writing over at Sega-16.com.