Beep21, the online heir to the classic Japanese magazine Beep! Has published an extensive and priceless interview with Hideki Sato, the father of most Sega consoles, including SG1000, Master System, Mega Drive, Saturn and Dreamcast, plus one of the company’s presidents (2001-2003). Access is paid (and in Japanese), but a group of fans in the Sega-16 forums They have translated a very significant part of the development of Saturn, the turbulent process of creating the 32-bit and providing new information that is exciting for those interested in the history of video games. Some of this information was already known from a past and extensive interview collected in the form of a book about the life in Sega of the engineer, but here new ideas are contributed such as the possibility of having taken a drastically different path.
“I regret not having based it on the Model 1”
Perhaps one of the biggest new revelations of the interview was to know that there was an idea on the table to base Saturn on the Model 1 recreational board, on which the company began to dominate the 3D board in arcades with aesthetically groundbreaking proposals such as Virtua Fighter, Star Wars o Virtua Racing. That idea would have meant a clear commitment to 3D for the new platform and could have put it in another position with respect to Playstation, a machine oriented without complexes to the polygons that would end up imposing in the industry.
From the advantageous vantage point that looking to the past gives us knowing what is going to happen, the architecture of Saturn has always been identified as one of its main problems. It was a capable machine, but it took a lot more time and effort for the developer to achieve optimal results compared to the Playstation, a problem that is also associated with a initial lack of tools and documentation. Sato recounts the reasoning for that decision: “being honest, at first, I wasn’t thinking about Saturn’s 3D capabilities Not at all. This was partially my fault, but also, the developers at Sega had no 3D development skills. They had all grown up in an environment of 2D sprites and scenarios, and the only developers who had real experience with 3D were Yu Suzuki and AM2 with the Virtua series. The only one who had shown interest in the recreational polygon license plate proposals was Suzuki. All the other developers wanted to continue developing using the same systems they were used to. “
“What was he doing special to Yu Suzuki at that time? He graduated in mathematics from the university. More than electronics, you have to be good at math to work in 3D. That was why Yu Suzuki was ahead of the rest when it came to creating 3D polygonal games. So the situation at Sega was that developers would have to study the fundamentals in math and geometry from scratch. Even the designers would have to. I studied our development teams and my conclusion was that it was impossible for them to make 3D games. There were 1000 developers in the development division at Sega, Saturn was going to launch in 1994, but software development would have to start in 1993, perhaps 1992 in some cases. They couldn’t make 3D. However, Playstation fully embraced polygons. “
“We are in problems”
As Sato argues, Sony had no problem thinking about their software development teams, because they didn’t have any, so they adopted a philosophy of total commitment to 3D. When in 1993 they learned the specifications of the future Playstation, they realized the problem that was coming to them. The original Saturn was designed for 2D and was equipped with a main CPU SH-2 provided by Hitachi, with the objective of being able to deploy between 4000 and 5000 sprites and to be able to move rotate between four and five planes. But suddenly the objective had changed to the management of polygons, much more demanding in terms of processing, and the only solution was to equip a second SH-2 chip to work in cascade with the first and thus boost the computational capacity of the machine. “Hitachi was delighted, of course, for every Saturn they sold two chips,” he adds.
It was a last minute solution but it brought with it a considerable delay When it comes to producing documentation and development tools: “Internally at first only a small portion of the teams at Sega could make sense of the machine and produce something on it. For third party companies it was impossible. AM2 managed to accelerate to launch a graphics library but that could not be called a development kit as such. Surely it would take an outside company a whole week to get Saturn to show something on the screen. “
Sega and Sony could have worked together
The long-time Sega engineer also shares that there were conversations at the highest level for Sony and Sega to work together. The president of Sega at the time, Isao Okawa, had a very good relationship with Norio Ohga, the president of Sony. Following Sony’s fiasco with Nintendo in the wake of the CD-ROM, both companies engaged in conversations to do something together with a common goal set in the Kyoto company. Both companies were Tokyoites and there was interaction and contacts between their managers and engineers. But finally there was no agreement; Sega was concerned about the role of its developers with a polygon-centric machine and Kutaragi did not care in the least, he was completely convinced that the future was 3D from the beginning.
Hideki Sato shares that as a result, he and Kutaragi started going out to dinner together a few times a year, something they continue to do today. So they took advantage of those moments to forget their positions in their respective companies and speak frankly, but in a friendly way. “Kutaragi is the same age as me and has a very direct way of speaking, so he always said interesting things (laughs). It also said things like: Hideki-chan, your company’s hardware business model can’t match ours, Why don’t you throw in the towel?”. This was already told in the book-interview commented at the beginning, when Kutaragi explained to Sato that while they bought the components of his console from different companies, Sony had its own in-house production, limiting losses. Sega lost so much money with each Saturn sold that they had to limit production to try to stop the bleeding, but that in turn made it less attractive to third-party companies and less competitive in the face of its rivals; a spiral of misfortune that would lead to its early end.
Aside from this important historical fact about the motivations for the architecture of Saturn, and its consequences, Sato also shares some curiosities about the development of the machine. Work began on her before the Mega CD release (December 1991) and worked in parallel on two assumptions: a machine with cartridges and another with CD. since there were doubts in Sega about the price of CD-ROMs although in the end it would end up imposing itself as the most reasonable option. He also says that “Saturn” was the code name of the project from the beginning and that when it came to looking for a final name, none of them finished convincing after calling it that for so long, so they stayed with it.
Megadrive’s father ends up wondering what would have happened if they had used the Model 1 as the basis for Saturn: “I can’t help but think if it hadn’t been better to force the change, get rid of our past development resources and start all over again.” One question left for himthe great “what ifs …” of history of our environment.