This is Sega Test is a documentary on Sega’s internal testing department that’s gone viral. I got the opportunity to chat with Director John Jansen and found that he knew a lot more about Sega of America than I had originally anticipated.
Jansen has been a little surprised by the video’s reception. Amusingly, he hadn’t thought of uploading the film to share on the internet until someone asked. Jansen had received a request from a listener of his film podcast the week prior who wanted to see it. “So I dug up the old VHS tape and uploaded it, thinking that maybe a few hundred people would watch it. Well, I was correct… for about an hour. The snowball just continued to roll.”
“So I uploaded it, thinking that maybe a few hundred people would watch it.”
The original Vimeo upload on his Green Mill Filmworks account has been watched over 100,000 times in the last week, and my mirror of it on Youtube has been seen over 12,000 times in addition. My notifications going off at all hours of the day tell me that it’s still being shared and seen by more people every hour. Jansen said he’s been flooded with people contacting him due to the documentary surfacing.
This is Sega Test is far from Jansen’s only interaction with Sega, though. He was actually an employee for six years.
First Day at Sega of America in 1991
Jansen originally started working for Sega of America in Customer Support in 1991.
“On my first day, I was seated next to Jeronimo Barrera and was so impressed that no matter what game question came in over the phone, he could answer it — without ever opening the Sega Game Tip Book. I learned that he was the one who actually wrote the game tips, playing through each game and providing detailed instructions.
Jeronimo later went on to a successful producing career at Rockstar Games. It was an exciting time at Sega with so many interesting and creative people working there.”
Here’s a fun fact: Barrera has a writing credit in the Sega Genesis Secrets – Secrets of the Games series of books alongside Russel Dimaria and Zach Meston.
Making Films for Sega of America
It was during his time as a Customer Service Representative that he got his start making films for Sega.
“I did a training video for Sega Customer Service in 1992 for $200 that caught the attention of Kalinske and others in Product Development. I was promoted to Product Development as a Tester in 1993, where I also shot a lot of motion capture footage and edited various promo videos and marketing materials. At that time, there wasn’t any internal video production at the company. Everything was contracted out.”
It was the initial Customer Support training video made on a frugal budget that lead to Jansen’s This is Sega Test.
“Since I had already made a training video for Customer Support in 1992, I was able to convince the Test Department to make this one in 1995 for $500 (to cover rental costs of editing equipment). I was also working as a tester at the time and would film scenes on breaks and company events. We had fun and our tongues firmly in cheek while making it, hence the This is Spinal Tap nods. The editing equipment used was a Sony EVO-9700 dual 8mm linear editing deck, which I rented for five days. With this deck, you could lay down a music track and cut frame accurate visuals on top, while also using the other audio track for voice-over. Most of the editing time was spent rewinding and fast-forwarding across ten 8mm tapes, searching for clips. It was assembled together one shot and one cut at a time. Since there was no script, it was more of less created as I went along and it definitely wears the scars of that approach. But the final product was useful enough for tester training.
“During this time, the test department was growing to over 200 hundred testers working night and day shifts. So we made this “trainumentary” to show new recruits on their first day and hopefully help them better understand what testing at Sega was all about. We would get all sorts of really good game players who would be surprised to discover they had a test plan to follow or had to play the same level all day long. But this was the “Sega University” time in the Test Department, with a lot of talent floating through the hallways.”
What Made Sega Special
When I brought up the fact that Sega had more recently discontinued it’s decades-old customer service line 1-800-USA-SEGA and showed him my article on the fact, he was sad to hear it.
“These things are what made Sega cool and different at the time.”
“Since Consumer Service is where I started, this is special to me. The free tip hotline, the gameplay tips mailed to you and the free Sega Visions magazine. These things are what made Sega cool and different at the time. Being a gameplay counselor allowed you to speak first hand with Sega gamers and keep up to date with customer likes and concerns. I can still remember how Al Nilsen would hold a meeting every week with CS — just to learn what was going on and what people were talking about. The top guy in Sega marketing and he knew how important CS was.
“Additionally, CEO Tom Kalinske would hold a monthly breakfast with employees from different departments who were invited to talk about what was going on in their part of the company. When Nilsen and Kalinske left Sega, it was never really the same.”
That change lead to ignored valuable feedback from CS and Test that could have saved Sega some grief.
“When Nilsen and Kalinske left Sega [of America], it was never really the same.”
Sega Provided a Great Opportunity
Jansen doesn’t look on his time at Sega negatively, though.
“There was genuine excitement working at Sega and watching it grow from a small to large company very quickly. Sad to see it fall, but to be a fly on the wall during those years was very educational. Sega took good care of their employees, with one of the best health-care plans, matching 401K, a bonus check every year and lots of free swag to wear and play with. The concept of having a job as a video game tester was still so new and fresh. The fact it offered a path to working in the industry was worth putting up with all the hours and boring gameplay. If you ever needed extra cash, working overtime on the weekend shift was usually available.”
“Many co-workers went on to have long careers in the industry as game designers and producers. When I working at Sony 3rd Party Test, one day a sports game came in with Tracy Johnson listed as producer. I could still remember the days when we would carpool together and he would talk about the type of games he would like to produce someday. And he did, thanks to his time at Sega University.”
Johnson had actually moved on to being a Producer while still working at Sega of America. He has Producer credits for Sega Saturn and Dreamcast games, including the well-received NBA 2K.
Jansen was clearly an invested employee of Sega during his time there. What caused his separation from the company?
“I was part of the massive layoffs in May 1997. A few months later, I was working for Sony PlayStation in 3rd Party Test. After performing the duties of Technical Coordinator for several years, I got out of videogames in 2002 and have been working as a contract filmmaker since.”
The layoffs came in response to the rapid drop of support for the Sega Genesis, 32X, Game Gear, and Saturn (as of Bernie Stolar’s 1997 E3 “The Saturn is not our future” speech just a month prior). Sega of America has suddenly started losing money after spending most of the decade growing. The funding to keep a fully staffed branch of the company until the Dreamcast launched just wasn’t there and very few products would need testing until 2 years later.
When Jansen moved to Sony after being laid off from Sega of America, he was one of many that made the migration. A source of mine from Sony stated that a lot of former SoA talent ended up being hired by Sony, who had been trying to bring them on since earlier in the decade.
Returning to the Subject of Sega
Jansen’s now considering revisiting his archives of footage from his time at Sega and producing a new documentary.
“The excitement generated for this training video confirms to me that the idea I had to create an updated version of the doc, with new interviews combined with the old, may in fact have an audience. I have hours of vintage footage and interviews from 1992-1996 . Seems like twenty years was just the right amount of time to make this fresh and interesting again.”
We look forward to whatever Jansen brings to the table and will not only be keeping tabs on it, but keeping in touch as well!
More on Director John Jansen
John Jansen worked at Sega from 1991-1997, then as a Technical Coordinator at Sony PlayStation from 1997-2002. His IMDB credits list three feature films as writer-director, including mainly ETC. a film about the weekend Kurt Cobain died and Pink Floyd The Wall Redux, an updated adaptation of the Pink Floyd album.
You can find his film work at his Green Mill Filmworks site.