14 mai 2020

Interview Kats Sato : From SEGA of Japan to Europe



Kats Sato
Katsuhisa Sato, known as Kats Sato, is an artist who started in Japan at SEGA's headquarters before reaching a most important job at SEGA of Europe. He is the creator of the Clockwork Knight series on Saturn and played an important role during the development of Sonic 3D and Sonic R with Traveller's Tales. It's not a secret, I have a a special attachment to these titles and it's for that reason, in part, that I decided to contact this creator. As so often, I discovered a person of incredible kindness who took the time to answer my numerous questions. Besides, I'll contact him shortly to prepare something for Pix'n Love but... I think I've said too much. Kats Sato answered me just before his departure from Sumo Digital in England and he joined his native Japan after many years in Europe. I wish him a great homecoming and thank him for this fascinating interview. Enjoy your reading !


1 – Could you tell us how it all started for you? Was this career something you had always dreamed of as a child? 

I attended a session of group job interview for Japanese companies in San Francisco 6 months before graduating from the university in USA. SEGA was one of the participating companies, and honestly speaking, SEGA wasn't the company of my first choice because I wasn't a boy playing video games a lot. 

Many Japanese companies cared only about my English ability in the interview and were not interested in what I had studied at university. However, SEGA was interested in my majoring in art and described me about the video game development. This is why I chose SEGA. 

2 – How did you begin to work for SEGA? Do you remember your interview? 

In early 90's, it was very rare for SEGA to get a person studying abroad work in a development department. I was assigned to the AM division, which had the most advanced technology at the time, and worked as an artist using tools developed by Sega that I had never seen in the United States. 

The Digitizer System, here the third version, is a in-house tool that SEGA created for its graphic designers.


3 – What were your relationships with Hayao Nakayama? He is known for his strict personality but several of Japanese developers told me that he was very kind, interested in new technologies and very close to his teams. Do you remember him? 

The first time I met Mr. Nakayama properly was at the in-house game-concept presentation meeting in my first year. He was very strict, but he was relatively kind to the development creators. He was very generous to new ideas and made quick decisions, so a lot of SEGE's unique titles that everyone knows were developed in that period. 

4 – What was your role during your time in SEGA of Japan? 

For two years after joining the company, I was working as an artist in the AM1 department and drawing pictures of OutRunners, Golden Axe and other titles. During that time, I was able to submit various game ideas, and the results were recognized, and I moved to the CS department as a game designer to launch Sega Saturn. 

5 – What memories do you have of SEGA of Japan? Atmosphere, colleagues, offices… Do you remember the organization inside SEGA of Japan? Was is an open space setup? 

During my first five years in Japan, I worked very hard, stayed in a studio 20 days a month and work 16 hours a day. However, it wasn’t just me worked so hard. Most of young staffs worked very hard. 

6 – Do you remember the creation of Golden Axe and Outrunners? Could you talk about these games and their development? Did you work with Makoto Uchida and Yu Suzuki? 

I really enjoyed my work while in the AM department. My seniors only taught me the basics, and I had to find out how to do my job well by myself. Mr. Uchida was very kind to me. He accepted various suggestions from me for Golden Axe arcade game. 
When I was in Japan, I didn't work with Mr. Yu Suzuki because I was in the different department. However, I happened to know that Mr. Yu Suzuki had the same hobby of American pool (billiard) as I, and I played it with him almost every week at that time. 

7 – Now, talk about Clockwork Knight 1 & 2. If my information is right, you were game designer and character designer for these two games. Could you explain to us the beginning of the project? What memories do you have from these games? The atmosphere and the characters were so unique, and the graphics were very impressive at time. 

When Sega launched Saturn, the Sonic team was busy developing titles for Mega Drive that were popular in outside of Japan. Therefore, Sega wanted new action game for the launch and had internal competition. Clockwork Knight was my idea that gives 2D platform action with 3D gimmicks, and this idea has been approved by the top board members meeting where Mr. Nakayama and Mr. Naka were there.. 



8 – After that, you worked on one of my favorite game on SEGA Saturn: Sonic R. What were the relationships between SEGA and Traveller’s Tales? Sonic 3D, Sonic R are really great games! Could you talk about these projects? Was there some pressure on your shoulders at the time? 

If my memory is right, it was Mr. Naka who became fancy with travellers’ Tales after seeing Toy Story Mega Driver version, and Sega overseas team approached them for developing new Sonic game on Mega Drive. I was involved the project of Sonic 3D from the beginning, but all the business negotiation has been settled before I joined it. 

There were 3 level designers including Mr. Yasuhara and Mr. Iizuka involved in the project of Sonic 3D. They first drew level maps in the studio of Japan, and I gave direction of development directly at traveller’s tales. Internet and email weren't major technology at that time, so I often made expensive international calls to Japan to discuss about game design. So that the later of the project, those game designers came to the UK and stay in the hotel near Traveller’s tales for more than 2 months to finish up the project. Japanese designers created the basic game design, but I often talked with Jon Burton and decided on ideas for details in UK. Jon was really creative and help for making the game great. 

Before finishing the project of Sonic 3D, SEGA thought it would worth to keep Traveller’s Tales for the next Sonic project. So, the idea of Sonic R came quickly and decided to have a project with Travellers’ Tales continuously. John got married during this project and I personally had a good relationship with him enough to be invited to the wedding. 

Not everything went smoothly on the project. In consideration of the development schedule, some of the requests from Japan had to be rejected, and I had a rather intense argument with Mr. Naka. As a result, I didn't put my name on in-game credits.



9 – After several years at SEGA of Japan, you became Executive Producer and Director of Product Development at SEGA Europe. Was it your decision? What was your state of mind at the time? 

No, it wasn't my decision. Before I moved to Sega Europe, Sega had already negotiated with Traveller's Tales for the development of a new Sonic game. At the same time, Sega Europe requested to send a producer who speaks both Japanese and English from SOJ, but there were only a few people who met the demand. And then, I was chosen among them. 

10 – Could you describe your role in SEGA Europe? 

As above mentioned, for the first several years at Sega Europe, I was dedicated to developing Sonic games as a producer. After the Sonic projects, I was in charge of the development of various titles related to the launch of Dreamcast as the head of Producer group. 

11 – What were the difference between SEGA of Japan and SEGA Europe? 

There was not much difference in SOE at that time, as Japanese were taking in charge under the SOJ's directions. Since Europe and North America were important markets, SEGA had actively requested title development to the development companies in Europe. There were more good development studios in Europe than in North America. 

12 – As a producer, what were your feelings during Saturn’s era and Dreamcast’s era? 

Honestly speaking, as SOE producer, we did not find Saturn very successful. In Japan, the business of Mega Drive did not succeed, so SOJ rushed to release Saturn, but to be honest, Mega Drive were still selling well in Europe at that time.
However, SEGA conducted a massive sales promotion campaign in worldwide at the launch of the Dreamcast. Everybody at SEGA ware so excited about Dreamcast launch at that time. 

13 – What were your relationships with Kazutoshi Miyake? 

Mr. Miyake was CEO of Sega Europe at that time. He used to work for a Japanese trading company, so he taught about business rather than the game development, and it was very profitable for me. 

14 – Do you remember the end of the Dreamcast? At time, it was like an earthquake for SEGA’s fans. How was the atmosphere in SEGA Europe at time? What was your position about that decision? Do you remember why SEGA decided to stop the production of the console? 

Sega has always adopted new technology. Dreamcast also introduced the concept of being able to play games with people from all over the world through Internet, but at that time it was a bit too early. In addition, we used GD-ROM technology to contain large amounts of data and prevent piracy, but a security hole was found, and a pirated game came out, and PS2 that can use DVD has appeared. Of course, those are the parts of the reasons, but producing consoles in-house involves considerable risk.
Actually, the atmosphere in SEGA Europe wasn't so bad. As you know, the development team was immediately involved in the development of PS2 compatible games, and quickly ported some Dreamcast games. So, we were quite busy after end of Dreamcast. 

15 – After a long career in Europe, you became Executive Producer for SEGA Japan. Before joining Atari, how were these last years in SEGA? What memories do you have of this period? 

I was assigned to the "Hensei Department", which organizes and manages SEGA's mid to long term title line-up. I was supporting the meetings where Mr. Sugino, Mr. Nagoshi and Mr. Naka to discuss individual titles with each development team. We discussed the internal development of Sega as well as external development titles at the meeting and decided on the title line-up. It was very fun. 

16 – Do you have amazing or funny anecdotes of your career at SEGA? Games’ creation, atmosphere, colleague, European or Japanese lifestyle… 

Celebrities

I had met several celebrities while working at SEGA. Ayrton Senna (F1 Driver), George Lucas (Film Director), John Woo (Film Director) and Michael Jackson. Senna came to Sega of Japan and talked about driving skills in front of development creators. To George Lucas, I just greeted the party and briefly introduced about Sega's business. I and several Japanese creators went to the office of John Woo and talk about potential projects. As for Michael Jackson, I was only the second year at Sega and fortunately I was appointed to introduce some arcade games at SEGA office to him. At that time, there weren't many creators who speaks English at Sega of Japan. But there were more people in Sega who met celebrities than me, for example, Mr. Naka had been invited to Michael Jackson's Neverland in USA. 


17 – During your career at SEGA, did you see some prototypes? Like Jupiter, Pluto, etc. If that’s the case, what were these consoles? 

No, as you know, it was handled by hardware department of Sega of Japan. 

18 – I don’t know If you could answer to that question, but could you talk about the relationships between SEGA of Japan and SEGA of America? In Europe and America, there are a lot of urban legends about the “fight” between SOJ and SOA. What do you think about these stories? 

To be honest, SOE and SOA had not been able to cooperate in business well with each other. SOA had their big market of north America, but they could not control well their business of internal and external development of products.



19 – Can you give us your feeling about your experience at SEGA? 

I think that the current system of SEGA has changed, but when I was there, there was a system that respected the opinions of creators. Therefore, there were projects that each team proceeded secretly, and the creators had a free development environment where they could try various things. Currently, the cost of developing console titles is rising that you may feel "wasting" to develop in the same way as before. However, the "waste" was very fun for us creators. 

20 – Nowadays, you work at Sumo Digital as Development Director. What are your feelings about the actual videogames industry? 

With the rise of Free to Play mobile games, the business model for games has changed. I think this will greatly affect console games in the future. In order to respond to the diversification of user needs, games must be developed with constant attention to the marketability of the Internet. 

Thanks to Kats Sato for taking the time to answer my interview

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