Sega and Sonic the Hedgehog. Two household names that are now synonymous with one another. After all these years, the infamous blue hedgehog is still the face of Sega, and seeing major releases across all platforms.
With the success of The Console Wars novel and Netlfix's High Score documentary, Sega's humble beginnings and its storied rise to fame in the 1990s are more popular now than ever. So, let’s take a dive together into the history of a little known branch under the big Sega tree: the Sega Technical Institute!
Sega Technical Institute (STI) was the United States-based powerhouse working from within Sega from 1991 to 1996. During that time, they created games like Kid Chameleon, Sonic 2, Comix Zone (and much, much more) from their location in Redwood City, California.
So, how did this relatively short-lived studio end up working on Sega's main IP and then-newly established, hedgehog mascot?
*Shimmers into memory*
A young Mark Cerny posing for a promo about 1984's Marble Madness.
Having already made his debut at Atari and created Marble Madness at the young age of 18, Mark Cerny had made a name for himself by the time he was approached by Sega. The company wanted him to work for them under the Sega of Japan banner. The Master System was just about to be released to the public and the company saw potential in Cerny and his design experience. And so, Cerny made the move to Tokyo, Japan.
To Cerny’s surprise, the working culture at Sega of Japan could not have been any more different to what he was used to from his previous experience with Atari. Unable to shake off the culture shock, Cerny returned to America to work under Sega of America.
Soon after Cerny’s return to America, and following the release of Sonic the Hedgehog, a number of Sega of Japan employees and former colleagues of Cerny (most notably Yuji Naka and Hirokazu Yasuhara, who are known for their work on games such as Altered Beast & the Phantasy Star series prior to working on Sonic the Hedgehog), left Sega of Japan due to internal problems and differences. Hearing about the newly available talent from Japan, Cerny sought to connect his former colleagues with Sega of America’s leadership.
He proposed the creation of a brand new studio which would focus more on western audiences, and operate under the American branch of Sega in Redwood City, California.
Cerny's proposition was approved by Michael Katz, Sega of America’s then-president, as well as Shinobu Toyoda, who was at that time the Executive Vice President and COO of Sega of America. Born from Mark Cerny's unique vision and desire to work outside the corporate norm, Sega Technical Institute (STI) was founded in 1991 under Cerny’s lead.
“STI was a very unique place, full of amazing talent. It was borne by Sega and Mark Cerny to establish a game incubator in the US, where Japanese developers could collaborate with American engineers and creative talent, to make globally-compelling games."—Peter Morawiec, former STI Designer and creator of Comix Zone
Due to Visa complications, the newly acquired Japanese talent were delayed in their arrival to America. Because of this, the first three STI releases (Dick Tracy, Kid Chameleon, Greendog: The Beached Surfer Dude) were developed solely by the American team. After the Japanese team arrived, both teams were finally able to work together in order to create the monolithic sequel to Sonic the Hedgehog: Sonic the Hedgehog 2.
In 1992, Cerny left STI to join Crystal Dynamics (Tomb Raider, Gex). Today, he is best known as the president of Universal Interactive Studio and for his work as the Lead System Architect for both the PS4 & PS5.
Roger Hector strongly believed in dissolving tension within the studio. Instead of designated teams working exclusively on their assigned projects, he allowed and encouraged everyone to collaborate on a number of different game projects.
Additionally, there were no dress codes—not even official office hours. Only a select few Sega executives even had access to the STI offices.
"We generally don't watch over them from the standpoint of you know, making sure that they come in in the morning at a certain time or something like that. They are allowed a great deal of personal freedom during the day. They can kinda come and go from the office when they feel like it."—Roger Hector Vice president and general manager of STI
Yuji Naka's Sonic the Hedgehog catapulted the Genesis to superstardom.
While Sonic the Hedgehog 2 went on to become an amazingly well-received successor to the original game, the culture shock and language barrier once again created a clash between the Japanese and American talent within STI. After the release of Sonic 2, the studio split in two—the Japanese team, and the American team—a change that kept persistent until its eventual closing in 1996.
Despite its internal struggles, STI created and worked on some of the Sega Genesis’ most beloved titles: the Sonic the Hedgehog series, Kid Chameleon, Comix Zone, and many more. Today, it is still beloved by both fans and former employees.
I remember feeling extremely lucky and privileged every day I pulled up to STI's parking lot. As a young immigrant, coming to the Bay Area to work with these legendary game makers was beyond inspiring to me, so I'm extremely fond and nostalgic of that entire period."—Peter Morawiec, former STI Designer and creator of Comix ZoneTake a look for yourself and further dive into Sega, complete with 90s vibes and cheesy effects:
In my opinion, STI is the perfect example of what can happen if the focus is fully on the talent and what an amazing team of designers can do if you give them creative freedom. Not only was Sega Technical Institute a brand new studio with barely any oversight from executives, but they were trusted with Sega’s most popular IP. The result? Software that put Sega's foot into the “console wars” doorway, and a team that was finally able to compete with Nintendo.
Additionally, STI further pushed for international games and studios to not only collaborate with western developers, designers and other studios, but to also appeal to western audiences and take influences from western culture. Games like Comix Zone are a great example of this idea in practice.
Bridging that geographical gap of talent, influences, ethics, and inspiration brought us some of our most beloved games and series. It's possible the modern gaming world would not look the same without early pioneers like Sega Technical Institute pushing for ideological change within the industry.
Games developed by Sega Technical Institute:
- Dick Tracy (1991)
- Kid Chameleon (1992)
- Greendog: the beached surfer dude! (1992)
- Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (1992)
- Sonic Spinball (1993)
- Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (1994)
- Sonic & Knuckles (1994)
- Comix Zone (1995)
- The Ooze (1995)
- Die Hard Arcade (1996)