Personal Information:
Name: Mike Wallis
Job: Game Producer
Sonic Games worked on: Sonic X-treme (Saturn), Sonic 3D Blast (MegaDrive & Saturn)

Interview Date: 26/09/05 - 28/09/05
Manic: Mr Wallis, Many Sonic fans would know you from you work on the canned Game 'Sonic X-treme', so that is a good place to start from. How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
Mike Wallis: Back when I joined STI in November '94, the group was already working on a "next gen" version of Sonic for the upcoming 32X platform, which was still unannounced (I believe). There were only 3 guys at the time, Chris Senn (designer/artist), Don Goddard (programmer), and Michael Kosaka (exec producer/designer). I joined STI as an associate producer, having just come from 3DO during that company's hardware days. My first task was to work on Comix Zone (Genesis) and The Ooze (Genesis). I only picked up on the workings of Sonic here and there, since I'd go to lunch with Chris and Michael occasionally. as Comix Zone was wrapped up in June-ish of 1995, I was then tasked with bringing The Ooze to market and helping Kosaka (the EP) on Sonic as the game's producer (I was promoted to producer after Comix Zone shipped). That's how I joined the Sonic X-treme project (though it wasn't called that at the time)...
yeah... Comix Zone was a nice game... can't say i have played the Ooze though... I guess the next question would be about the early days. As you said, it was planned for the 32X console. Now, there was only one Sonic related game on the system and it didn't do that well.. Why was the game moved to the saturn?
The system was designed to compete with the top-end system at the time, which was the 3DO Multiplayer. So the marketing plan was to focus on fast load times (since 3DO was CD based, it loaded slowly) and polygon performance. Virtua Fighter was a big arcade hit, so that was brought to 32X to showcase the system's 3D ability. The system sold OK, but wasn't a huge hit as it was always considered a stop-gap measure until Sega could release its own CD based system to compete with the upcoming Sony PSX. When it was realized that 32X sales weren't as strong as Sega had hoped, and even a flagship Sonic game wasn't going to boost the installed base numbers of the system, Sega management decided to phase out the 32X and focus upcoming development on the next-gen Sega platform. There was a brief time, maybe 3-4 months, prior to and just after Bernie Stolar joined Sega that the company was looking at doing a cartridge system for it's next-gen system... Nvidia, which was a small company at the time, was pitching Sega its RIVA technology which was the ability for very nice curved surfaces without a large cpu processing impact. As you know, for a polygon system to draw curved surfaces, it takes a lot of polygons to make it look round and smooth. Nvidia had the technology (nearly) figured out and was pitched it to Sega. so for a few months in there, the next Sonic game was slated to move to that hardware system... even though we didn't have any dev stations or the like... instead, we were using PC's with similar video card technology and trying to emulate the hardware instance.
That must have created a few problems when trying to port the game from PC to the saturn...It seams like Sega seams to really want this game to happen and be a bit.. Why was it canceled?
That created a lot of problems trying to go from the PC to the Saturn... let me tell you about that a bit
that would be good..
Ofer Alon, the lead programmer, was hired because he was very capable on the PC. However, when it was finally determined by Sega that they wanted the game to come out on Saturn, he couldn't get anything going on that hardware. His port was terribly slow (2-3 fps), the colors were extremely bland, and none of the levels ported over smoothly. He wrote it all for the PC, complete with windowing system and memory managers... which didn't translate to the Saturn at all. So Robert morgan, the tech director, took Alon's PC code to an outside contracting group that specialized in porting games from one platform to another that group spent a few months porting Alon's PC version onto the Saturn... they wrote the tools necessary to convert the levels, graphics, and other assets over to Saturn. After several months, they had it running and it was smooth and colorful, but not very fast... maybe 20 fps? while it would still be optimized, we didn't have any more time to optimize since Irimajiri-san, the head of Sega, was coming to visit and he wanted to see something! meanwhile, Chris Coffin, who had been the lead programmer on the 3D boss levels (you've seen the screen shots of Fang the Weasel and Metal Sonic), had been doing a kick ass job on those levels they were 60 fps, the bosses were all large, 3D models with animations, there were particle effects and even music and SFX were dropped in to complete the picture. they played very well. Chris and his team (Jason Kuo was the boss level designer) did a great job and they worked very well together. When Iri-san arrived with his group of SOJ execs, he wanted to know what STI was up to... mostly the flagship Sonic project. Robert Morgan showed what the "main game" would look like... it was running on Saturn and was OK, but not stellar. Iri-san wanted to see stellar. After the 5 minute presentation he was obviously upset. I can't remember the exact chain of events, since it all seemed to happen so quickly and we were all scared shitless of this guy but I think Iri-san chewed out Roger Hector, who was the VP of STI at the time... saying how it was a disgrace and we let him down (this through his translator). Anyway, Manny Granillo, who was the director of development and my boss, stepped in and said "we also want to show this to you. It was planned to have this technology be used for the boss levels of the game." and we put in Coffin's boss levels... fast, bright, action oriented... just like a Sonic game should be. And Iri-san smiled. After watching for a minute or two, he stood up, pointed at the screen, and said (not through his translator), "I like that. Make it all like that." and then walked out. :P There's a lot more to go over before we get to the "why was it canceled" question...
yes... i was probbly jumping a head a bit..
so after that meeting, Roger, Manny, Robert, and I met together and Roger asked Manny & I, "What would it take to get Sonic X-Treme to market?" Previously, the way STI was set up was in a matrix structure, which is a horrible way to run a game development studio. There were 3 mini-teams set up, the boss group, the main game group (Alon, Senn, Rick Wheeler, etc.) and the "glue team" which was the menu/UI team. all three groups worked supposedly independently, though they were supposed to communicate since it was essential they pass certain information back and forth among their modules. I managed the overall process.
{Quick Break}
so where was I.... (reads to catch up)
ah OK. So the matrix structure wasn't working because as producer, it was my responsibility to get the game done and to ensure all teams and parts were working together. however, in a matrix structure the actual people don't report to me... they report to their respective directors (art to Bob Steele, the art director, programmers to Robert Morgan the tech director, and designers to Manny Granillo, the development director). All of the responsibility but none of the authority. so I had some people who were slacking off, and I couldn't discipline them or take action on it because I had to get their respective director to do it... and often times they wouldn't. So things became more and more convoluted. Plus, Bob had set up an "us vs. them" mentality among the artists, so much so they hated working with some of the programmers or designers. It was a disaster.
I can guess..
After Iri-san's visit and my meeting with Roger Hector afterwards, when he asked Manny & I what we had to do to get the game out... I responded by saying we need to take a core group (those who had worked well and other essential staff), isolate them, and give me the reins. Cut out the political shit and have them all report to me. Manny agreed, and Roger finally did as well. Bob and Robert didn't agree, because they would be cut out of the loop. But the decision was made.
Due to work committed ments on Mr Wallis' part, we took a break and carry on the next day
okay.. I believe you were talking about the team structor being changed so that you have more control over things..
yes. Roger Hector agreed to take the core group of developers and isolate them away from the rest of STI. We moved to the old STI location, in the 275 Shoreline Dr. building (I think, or it was the 255 building... can't remember) and we had a crew of artists, animators, programmers, and designers. This was all voluntary--because it was presented to us by management that we were expected to work long hours and sacrifice our personal lives in order to pull this off. In return, we'd get a nice cash bonus as well as the undying praise of management. Wwe brought on a contract programmer to help. He wasn't much help, unfortunately, because he didn't know Saturn programming and the programming he did know was rather shallow. We ended up letting him go a few months into the project. Yasuhara and Jason Kuo were handling the design and level layout, Mark Kupper was the tools engineer resonsible for using their level designs and porting them into the engine on the Saturn. Chris Coffin was now the lead programmer of the whole project. We had one of the Jade Gully levels up and running, though the gameplay was very rudimentry and not polished so it didn't really feel right... but it played fast and smooth in Coffin's code. Anyway, long story short, we had this isolated team working long hours to make this project happen. breakfast, lunch and dinner was brought in for the team. Coffin even moved out of his apartment and into the office during this time (the restrooms had showers). The guy was a human dynamo. he worked probably 16-18 hours a day, sleeping in the office. Eventually, however, he worked so hard that he became sick... walking pneumonia and when he collapsed I remember him telling me, "I can't continue." At that moment, what slim chance we had to get this project out by Christmas was gone so I told Bernie Stolar, the new head of SOA, that X-treme was over and wasn't going to make Christmas. oh let me back up... back when we first started this team together, Stolar came to me and asked what it would take to get the project finished by Christmas... after meeting with my team, we decided that the recently shipped Nights engine would help tremendously. They already had the tools and main engine code. We could use that, create our own assets, and tune it for the gameplay we wanted for X-treme. Stolar said he'd get it for us... and we received some tools and code shortly after. After spending some 2 weeks evaluating and familiarizing ourselves with the tech, we were told (maybe by Stolar or Granillo, I can't remember), that we weren't getting the rest and that we couldn't use what we had--Naka forbid it. so we wasted even more development time going down that road. :S
Yeah.. alot of work and it had to turn out bad... Which leads into my next question really. If the game was completed, do you think it would have lived up to all the hype it got?
To answer your question, yes I'm sure it would have. We were not anywhere near close to the polish phase of the game where the majority of the finishing touches are put on the product. I'm confident we could have achieved a great game, and we made it that far.
Good to hear.. Soo many things this days don't live up to all the hype. Next question is What was the state of the game when it was canceled. You have commented that did not have the finishing touches but how much was done?
It was still very early... the boss levels were the most polished, since Coffin had done a lot of the coding on those previously. Those were maybe 70-75% complete. We needed assets for a few of the bosses (Robotnik, etc.) but had Metal Sonic and Fang already working. The main game, however, was very early... maybe 10% of the levels were finished and only basic coding. No menu system or UI was in either. We had a lot of the assets created though, but we hadn't implemented them yet.
yeah, i believe most, it not all of the badnik and Sonic's sprites were completed? this can be found on the net for download... yet i have noticed that the sonic was did not seam complete...
Most of the Sonic assets were completed
Okay. We have said about Fang, Metal Sonic, Robotnik and of course, Sonic. But what over characters were planned to be in this game?
Sonic's love interest, Princess Tiara. Not as a playable, but more as a story character
yes, Tiara Bobowski i believe was the name... what was the story about her? and indeed, the game as a whole?
I only remember the basics, which was that her father, Professor bobowski, was kidnapped and Tiara sought out Sonic's help to rescue him
going back a bit to the state of the game. I can't quite remember the year but i believe it was around the time that X-treme was canned, but Sega issued an Album called 'Virtual Sonic'. This was meant to be music inspired by Sonic. The composer was a guy called 'Howard Drossin'. half the tracks are remixs, but there are a few new ones. It has been hinted that these might be From X-treme. Would you know anything about this?
Howard Drossin was the music and sound effects director at SOA, so he was probably working on audio for X-treme that, when the project was canceled, was moved to a music CD release so as to not go to waste
Makes sense. Do you remember much about what the levels were? i have a level list here, Grassy Hills, Jade Gully, Red Sands, Crystal Frost and Galaxy Fortress. Can you give a bit of information on these levels? Probbly a quick Description or even the order (if that was even worked out or you can remember..)
I can't, no... They were basically just as you'd interpret them... rolling hills, desert sands, a forest of crystals, and an in-space space station type level (stars in the background, etc.)
yeah, okay... it does bring up another question, if you can remember anything.. There is a couple of storyboards where are meant to be from Sonic X-treme which has Red Sands writen on it, but also Giza Speedway.. Do you know about that?
Vaguely, but couldn't give you any specific details unfortunately
That's fine. Now, alot of things seamed to say that X-treme had alot of 'new' Features in it. One appears to be some kind of Key hole style to the screen. What was this style about? it did seam little it would be a little hard to get to grips with..
Are you talking about the "reflex lens"? The visual look?
yes, that would be it i think
There then followed some Technical Troubles so the Interview was carryed on the Next Day
When we were moving to a more 3D game, where you could run sonic into and out of the screen (as well as the traditional left/right) it was determined that the view when running into/out of the screen was too restrictive and sonic would be hit by enemies far too often as the player didn't have enough reaction time to get away so Chris Seen and Ofer Alon came up with the "fisheye" view, which is akin to looking through the peep-hole on your front door. It gave a curved aspect from the corners, which gave you more time to react to things closeby. We obviously couldn't call it the fisheye view, so came up with a catchy name for it, the "Reflex Lens". :P
Okay. Some of this was coverd earlier but i would like to ask a bit more, You have said about Fang and Metal Sonic. Since there were 4 levels i take it that there were two other bosses plan.. You have also commented on Robotnik (of course), Can you remember any of the other boss characters? There has been a reported image by Chris Senn of a New Style Metal Sonic, maybe concept art?
I'm not sure of a new metal sonic... it could have been more of the traditional metal sonic with a more "cutting edge" look. We didn't want to have to re-invent a lot of new characters, because the Sonic universe was pretty robust and we could use all of it. I know there was Fang... and metal sonic, and Robotnik... but to tell you the truth it's been so long I can't remember. We probably had these planned out too. If you could get in touch with Chris Senn or Rick Wheeler (the level designer), or even Jason Kuo (currently a producer at SOA), they might know. :S
Okay.. That's probbly about it for Sonic X-treme. When the Project was finally canned, i believe you went to do the Saturn Version of Sonic 3D? Can you give a little information about how that came to be?
After X-treme was officially cancelled, Bernie Stolar and Manny Granillo told me they had been working on a "backup" plan, in case X-treme didn't make it. They wanted me to take over and get Sonic 3D Blast ported from the Genesis (I was the producer for that version as well) and enhance it for the Saturn. This would be a difficult job, because the programming was done at Traveller's tales in the UK, the art and bonus rounds were being done in Japan @ SOJ, and the enhancements/design in the US at SOA. Managing teams spread out like that, not to mention the different timezones, would be quite a difficult chore, but it all worked out. I loved working with everyone involved on that project, and we brought out Sonic 3D Blast from beginning to end in 7 weeks! And the programming team had never programmed for the Saturn before!
You commented about being the producer of Sonic 3D MegaDrive (Genesis) version. Sonic 3D is often thought as the worst Sonic game of the time. Did you have any problems working on that project?
Worst Sonic game? :O
bite your tongue!
^_^; i never fully understood why the worst but it doesn't seam to be a big fan favoutie am afaird..
As you know, at the time all developers were touting "3D 3D 3D" in all their games... PSX and N64 and Saturn were all out, and those systems could do 3D much more effectively than the Genesis. Sega wanted to do something with Sonic that was 3D, but it still had to be able to run on the Genesis, due to the HUGE installed base (we couldn't abandon them) so came up with a more 3D playing field for Sonic, where he could run in any direction including up and down. The flickies were actually thrown in at the last minute, to give something for the player to keep track of and "rescue" instead of just the regular rings. I'm not sure where the flicky idea came from, but I think it was out of SOJ. :P But to answer your question, no, I didn't have any problems with the development of Sonic3D Blast on Genesis... it actually went very smoothly. Probably a testament to the experienced groups I was working with more than anything else (Traveller's Tales, key people at SOA, and SOJ)
That's kinda good. About the Flickys, they have been a long part of Sonic history (the little blue bird has always been called Flicky, and there was even a game called flicky with the same style bird), but this was the first time it was used as a name of a race of birds...
hehe yes. I think the whole name of the game is actually Sonic 3D Blast: Flicky Isle or something... the true, "official" name
Yes. It seams good that you were able to not only do the Megadrive version but get called back to do the saturn port. Did you have anything to do with the PC version? it seamed like a Mix of the Megadrive one with the Saturn one (bits from both games)...
At the time, Sega Entertainment (the group responsible for doing the PC versions of all games) would basically get us to deliver code and assets (art, etc.) of our games to their groups who were handling the ports to the PC. The only involvement I had was basically just reviewing what had been done to ensure the quality was up to par and that they kept true to the original product. When I was doing the PC version of NBA Action '98, I did much more than that and actually "produced" the PC version as well as the Saturn version, since it was done as much more than just a typical port.
More then just a typical port? can you go into a bit more detail? (am not big on Sports games)
Meaning that we actually coded specific parts of it for the PC, rather than just porting saturn code over, which might have made the PC version slower, or have other "negative" effects... this way, by coding areas specifically for the PC, would could keep it playing smooth and clean (such as our collision detection). AI was another area that would could take advantage of on the PC, by dedicating the PC's stronger CPU cycles to the computer player's strategy.
yeah.. much better then some of Nintendo's newer PC ports of old games.. they are pretty much just an emulator and a game rom...
As you time as a game producer and in other roles too, Can you give maybe a quick list of some Companys you have worked for and some of the games you have done?
I started with Electronic Arts in customer service. Then did QA on same games as the original Madden Football and original NHL Hockey. Road Rash, and Bard's Tale III. I was promoted to assistant producer and handled products like Starflight (Amiga), Starflight (Genesis), Swords of Twilight (Amiga), and some others. I went to 3DO after they just started (was employee #65) because they were doing some great things with the new hardware system. I was an assistant producer there and shipped Killing Time, an FPS with video streaming technology. From there I moved to Sega. With Sega, I shipped Comix Zone, The Ooze, Sonic 3D Blast (Gen/Sat), Decathlete, Sega Rally promo disc, NBA Action '98 (pc/Sat). hmm... I think I might be leaving one out. :P then went to GT interactive for a few years, then Simon & Schuster Interactive where I shipped 2 games based on the Star Trek DS9 license: The Fallen and Dominion Wars, Real War (an RTS), and my baby, EVE Online the MMOG that is still going strong today. Was at Eidos for a year and shipped Get on Da Mic and Backyard Wrestling 2 and most recently at Turbine as the senior producer for Lord of the Rings Online. whew! :)
Seam to keep busy. I was going to ask what's your favouite project to date but i think the comment about EVE online answered that.. Can you give a bit of information on why that game is your favouite?
Mostly because I signed that project to a publishing deal, I negotiated the contract and royalty rates, and I directly lead the project development by moving to Iceland to work on-site with the development team there. We were working insane hours--all of us. Probably 14-16 hour days 7 days a week for the last 7 months to get the game out the door. To see EVE as successful as it is today gives me a great feeling.
yeah.. it's a good feeling when something you worked on does well.. But has there been any games you thought were pretty good but didn't turn out that well at all?
Probably Deep Space Nine: Dominion Wars. That game could have been so awesome, but we had to rush it out due to the upcoming expiration of the Star Trek license. As a result, we didn't have time to get the movement working as we had hoped (it was still OK, but we wanted it much better), and we never got the networking/multiplayer to truly kick ass, which would have made that game huge
yeah... getting a good network play working on a game can really do it alot of good.. Is there Any message you want to give to the Sonic fans of the world?
I love all the interest in Sonic X-treme. If I ever find/dig up all my notes and information on the project, I'll be sure to pass it along to everyone! :D
That's good. Well, Thank you for this interview and i think we all hope you do well in your furture projects.
anytime. Feel free to contact me anytime. :)
I might hold you to that ^_^
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