I had the pleasure to talk with artist Craig Stitt, he worked on the art department with software houses like Sega Technical Institute and Insomniac Games and designed characters ranging from Sonic the Hedgehog to Spyro the Dragon. In this interview we went over several of the titles he worked on, from Sonic 2 to Ratchet & Clank along with other infamous cancelled projects, plus some of his personal stories and insights. There is, honestly, a lot more to Craig’s career than what we’ve talked about and published but this is a main focus on his time spent with Sega and Insomniac.
Starting at Sega and Kid Chameleon
Hello Craig! I would like to start with a question about your background, were you a gamer before starting your career at Sega?
I spent a lot of time in arcades back in the 70’s (Space Invader, Asteroids, BattleZone, PacMan), but I didn’t have a home system. So after I got called for my Sega interview, I called a buddy and borrowed his NES and played a LOT of games the next few days! I also played a lot of D&D and other table top games (Risk, Diplomacy, Axis & Allies).
Batting for the opposite side then! So, how did it happen that you started your career at Sega?
I had been working at a company called Genigraphics doing computer graphics. It was mostly business graphics, pie charts and bullet point texts charts for meetings… REALLY boring stuff, but once in a while there was some art involved. One day there was an ad in the newspaper that read “WANTED: Video game designers and artists, no experience necessary.” I know I clipped and kept that, but I can’t find it now. I applied for both the designer and art position. I got a call days later from Mark Cerny, met him and he hired me as an artist. That was in 1990.
Mark Cerny is certainly a gifted game designer, what were his plans for the team?
He wanted to build a team of people from outside the industry so he could train them to make games the way he wanted to. Back then, the STI office was a tiny little place in San Jose and they were just finishing up Dick Tracy when I started. The first game I worked on was Kid Chameleon. If I remember right I did the animation for the Rhino, while the first level art I ever did was for the snowy/rocky mountain levels, I think. One of the goals for Kid Chameleon was to make it the LONGEST game on the Genesis (measured by the number of screens). Something around 1800 ‘screens’ long.
Well, I’ve played it recently and I’m pretty sure they succeeded! What else can you remember of your work on Kid Chameleon?
I did 5 costumes for the game: Iron Knight, Red Stealth, Berserker, Juggernaut, and Skycutter. I also did a bunch of the enemies, I remember Red Stealth being a pain to animate. Just not enough pixels and a lot of complicated shapes to deal with. I remember working on stuff on the Digitizers, then meeting and comparing styles so we could lock down a single look/style so everyone’s work was cohesive. But I was very happy with how the game came out in the end. Mark Cerny had this very cool little instant camera that took ‘photos’ and printed them out on little strips of paper. We used it to take photos of ourselves to help us with various animations (it is in the third photo – ed’s note). An anecdote I’ve told previously is when it first came out, I went to a local game store to ‘see it on the shelf’. There was a kid there playing it on one of the kiosks. He was literally banging against a wall, trying to jump over it. I watched for a moment, saw he wasn’t getting anywhere, so I leaned forward and told him how to get past. He looked at me, said ‘What do you know about games” and went back to beating his head against the wall. Little did he know who I was and that the level he was on was one I had done the art for. His loss!
Working for STI
His loss for sure! The rooster at STI was definitely impressive, a lot of designers and programmers that will go on working on titles like Diablo 2 or Shenmue.
Oh definitely! One of those guys was Stieg Englund and I remember a funny story about him. Anytime we would go out for lunch and someone would ask Stieg his name, he would say ‘Bill’ or ‘Tom’ or something.
I asked him why and he said it was MUCH easier than trying to explain/spell his name. He was also a MASTER at figuring out lyrics to songs that had unintelligible lyrics!
Well he was onto something, since I believe I also spelled his name wrong a couple of times in the final draft of the article! Anyway, after Kid Chameleon, you got to work on Sonic 2, If I remember correctly.
Yes, indeed, I don’t remember how much time was between the two, or if we worked on any other concepts. I think it was a pretty quick transition, because they knew that the schedule for Sonic 2 was going to be very tight in order to get it out by Christmas of 1992. It was very exciting to be able to have the chance to work on a Sonic game. I consider myself VERY VERY fortunate to actually have my art make into the finished game.
I also pitched my own idea for Sonic’s buddy. He would have been tough with the shell, but vunerable, needing Sonic’s help, if he got flipped on his back. Also would’ve helped Sonic out by being able to ‘fly’ if pushed up to speed. Then Sonic would jump up and ride on his back over lava, spikes etc etc.
But how come Sega decided to make an American team work on the sequel of their most famous title that had been developed by a Japanese team?
It’s not so much that SEGA wanted STI do to do the sequel, they just didn’t have much choice. SEGA didn’t expect Sonic 1 to blow up like it did. By the time they realized they needed a sequel, one of the lead designers, Hirokazu Yasuhara, was already in the US working at STI and Yugi Naka (Sonic the Hedehog’s main designer and his “official” creator -ed’s note) had quit, saying he would never work for SEGA again. This is when Mark Cerny stepped in. He was friends with Naka and convinced him to come to the US and work on Sonic 2. Mark told him he would be working at STI, which was part of but still separate from SEGA. It is also my understanding that they gave him a LARGE sum of money to come back. So with the lead designer and lead programmer in the US, Sonic 2 was made here, then Sonic 3 with an all Japanese team especially requested by Naka as a condition to work on another sequel.
Going Tilt: Sonic Spinball
You also worked on Sonic Spinball, designing the Toxic Caves, how was the development for that game? It was the first Sonic “spinoff” if I remember correctly, so a bit of a gamble.
Spinball was definitely a lot of fun. Toxic Zone was supposed to be the second level, but the first entry level ended up being cut. If I remember right, Brenda Ross did the art for the level that ended up on the cutting floor and she was pissed (she had just come off Sonic 2 where all her art was cut). I had to make several changes to the art to make it work as the first level of the game, it ended up being a lot more work than just changing the palettes from green to blue!
You’ve mentioned several times, while we talked and in your posts, about several cancelled projects. What did you work on?
I think STI had more failed games then games that shipped. By failed I mean games that went into full production for months and months then were finally canned. It’s one of the reasons I left. I consider myself VERY VERY lucky that most of my work was actually published and shipped.
Astropede is the one project I hold dear to my heart. It got as far as the first level being playable and it was supposed to tie into Robotnik and the Sonic Universe. Without going into too much detail (just in case this ever gets made in some form), Zip, the protagonist, was actually one of Dr. Robotnik’s creations. The story and goals of the game were to be similar to those in the 1966 movie “Fantastic Voyage”, with Zip fighting to save a life by cleaning up and collectiong ‘Choas Dust’ that had infected a particular evil doctor.
I pitched the original concept to SEGA on September 21, 1993, where gave the go ahead to create a ‘first playable’ Then on November 22, 1993, with the first playable done, pitched the revised game with it no longer being in the Sonic Universe. Unfortunately after several months of development it was canceled due to a number of different things.
You’ve also talked about Treasure Tails and recently shown some screenshots for the first time ever.
Ah yes, SEGA of America had asked STI for a Tails game, with a team that was going to be mostly if not all American. It was going to be an isometric platform puzzle/adventure game. I was the only artist and worked on it from Dec 1992 – April 1993. Tails Treasure was planned to be a short/simple game because SEGA wanted it for the next Christmas. I’m still looking over my notes to see who all worked on it and how long it lasted and who was programming and the game design. The game was ‘postponed’ because the those of us working on it were needed on other projects. I went on to Sonic Spinball. I mocked up these few static screens for Bill Dunn to use in his presentation.
So I gather Sonic 2 was sort of the pinnacle of your experience at Sega?
Yeah it was. If Astropede had been completed I think it would have surpassed my personal ‘high’ at SEGA. I pitched it to SEGA after finishing up Sonic Spinball. I also pitched another game idea to them that was a magic combat game. I’m trying to figure out and find out if there’s any details about it floating around…
After Astropede went nowhere, you stuck around to work on both The Ooze and Comix Zone before finally leaving STI. How was the work on those two titles?
Memories around that time are a bit more foggy, I remember working on ‘the Ooze’ main character, which was really just a whole bunch of 8×8 pixel tiles the programmers could use to make it ooze around. I also did some of the level art, but I can’t remember which ones I worked on. I was actually surprised when The Ooze was finished and shipped given how many better games where never finished. If I remember right, it started out as a proof of concept for an idea Mark Cerny had. It shipped just as I was leaving SEGA.
On Comix Zone my work was pretty limited: all I did was clean up and colorize some of the animations. Not particularly fun nor creative, I would say. Although I also did the colorization of the cover art, the base art done by Peter Morawiec, who was also the designer of the game.
I wonder why Sega decided to go with two “adult” games, instead of sticking to what STI was best in, which were 2D platform titles as both Spinball and Sonic 2 demonstrated.
Everyone was excited about the new style of Comix Zone. There was probably the fear of getting ‘stuck’ or being accused of doing the same thing over and over. I think the biggest problem at STI was we had several producers come and go. When a new producer would come in they wanted to push and pursue their ideas and not necessarily the ideas of the producers before them.
Almost a “political” problem I would say.
Definitely a political problem, which is something that sucks at navigating through.
What was the spark for you to finally decide to leave Sega, what with Astropede being cancelled and all the other cancellations?
Things at STI started to shift downward when Mark Cerny left and Roger Hector took over as CEO. Shortly after Astropede was canned I had finally had enough and called Mark because I had heard he was starting a new group and I always really enjoyed working with him and wanted to do so again.
Craig Stitt video resume 1990-1995
Going over to Insomniac
His invitation was the spark you needed to leave Sega behind.
Indeed. At that time Mark was a producer for a new video game division at Universal Studios. He was working with Naughty Dog and Insomniac Games (although they were called Extreme Games at the time). Insomniac was just the three guys who started the company and they were working on their first game and they needed an artist. The problem was that I was in San Jose and had a son who was 6 at the time, and they were in Los Angeles. Mark suggested that I work with them for 3 months (enough time for them to finish Disruptor) and they would pay for me to fly back each weekend to spend time with my son. I figured I could ‘commute’ from SJ to LA every week for three months.
It was a pretty interesting offer, then!
Indeed, that three months turned into almost 10 years! With me flying between SJ and LA nearly every weekend. Oh… at the end of those first three months Ted Price (CEO of Insomiac) asked if I wanted to actually join the team instead of just being a contractor. So I was Insomniac’s first real ’employee’. I figure I flew 350,000 miles and spent 36 days sitting in a SWA 737.
Talk about a frequent flyer… What was the first game you worked on at insomniac?
Distruptor was my first with Insomniac (as well as their first game). The three guys who started the studio were all very very talented, but, as I mentioned, none of them had ever made a game before. To be honest, I doubt very much I would have ever submitted my portfolio to them, except Mark Cerny had faith in them and that was more than enough for me.
Ironically, you as an artist had anyway way more experience than the programmers!
Well yes. Coming out of SEGA I had worked on 5 games, 2 of which were million sellers…
How was working at Insomniac compared to SEGA?
It was completely different. Partly because it was a small team (in the beginning). It was also much better run. At SEGA you got used to 30-40% of your work ending up cut. At Insomniac almost nothing went to waste. Simply because they were better and setting realistic goals and if something was going to go over some limit or not have time to finish, it was identified early enough to not waste too much energy/time on it. Also the office politics at Insomniac were almost nil, at least in the early years
After Disruptor, which didn’t really sell that well, of course Spyro was released…
I did the actual textures for Spyro and the character was designed by Charles Zembillas. I’ve always had a fondness for dragons, they’re really among my favorite mythological animals! Some may already know this, but Spyro wasn’t always purple, he started out green. But very quickly we realized that he would be spending a lot of time running around on green grass, and there were several other ‘mascot’ type games that had green reptilian characters (Gex, Croc, and I’d swear there was at least one more). So I put together a video tape of Spyro in a rainbow of colors. Unfortunately the front of the tape was taped over for another test, so his original ‘green’ is lost. I loved him in the dark red and in black, but the red tended to blow out on the old TVs and when black, all the detail was lost. But actually, for that game my primary job was building the 3D environments. I also did all the ‘sky boxes’. On Spyro 2 and 3, once the team got bigger, I was also Art Director.
Ratchet and Clank
After the Spyro trilogy was done with, you worked on Ratchet and Clank…
Indeed, on the Ratchet and Clank games I was lead artist/art director as well as creating a lot of the environments and all the skies. Of all the games I’ve worked on, the first R&C actually came together smoother then any other!
You’ve mentioned, though, a shift in the environment at Insomniac, what with the responsibility and the bigger games you were working on.
Sadly yes. I was being asked to do more and more managerial type work. Also as the company got bigger more ‘office politics’ started to appear. For the first several years almost no one left Insomniac (a few were fired) but no one left because there was no place better they could go. When I started there was just the four of us. In the beginning as they grew it was still a great place to work. Everybody knew everybody and everybody had a say in what we were doing. But soon it got to where I would see someone and not know their name, but I at least knew what department they were in. Then it go to the point that I would see people, not know their name or what they did. When I left there were about 175 people and I had 15-20 people that I oversaw. It still was better than SEGA had been, but I stayed too long.
What happened then?
I should have left after RC1 or 2… My biggest mistake was thinking of Insomniac as ‘family’, when in fact I was just an employee. The VAST majority of my time at Insomniac was wonderful, as good as it gets. But things change. The first several years at Insomniac were great. It’s always stressful making games with the tight deadlines and long hours, but it was an incredible place to work at. Unfortunately the last couple years I was at Insomniac something shifted. It used to feel like I was working ‘with’ them (people and the company) but it slowly changed over to working ‘for’ them. That difference was huge for me.
In the end, the environment changing and all these years at STI were weighing you down.
I had a nervous breakdown. I thought if I took a few months off I would be okay and would get back to making games, but that never happened. I’d been fighting anxiety attacks most of my life, but something during the last couple years at Insomniac made it even more and more difficult to function, much less be creative. Shortly after finishing the fourth Ratchet & Clank game, I finally crashed. At that time I was Art Director and oversaw a sizable group of artists. Insomniac had started work on the PS2 game, Resistance, and it was my job to learn the new software and teach it to the artists under me. I learned the new software, taught my team, but when I sat down to work myself… nothing.
I guess that meant being unable to function as an employee or working under pressure?
Yes, in the end Insomniac asked that I resign. I thought that if I took a few months off I would be able to pull things together, I always had in the past. Unfortunately as the months went by it became clear something was different this time. In the years after leaving the industry I looked into starting a couple small businesses, that were not video game related, but my anxiety always got the better of me and they never went anywhere.
Fortunately I have a good friend who worked at KIdspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena, California, I’ve been with the Museum almost four years now. Mostly I just play with the kids, sing songs to a room of 3 year olds and make dragons out of clay. It’s a lot of fun, but I still deal with anxiety attacks on a regular basis. It doesn’t matter how simple or how complex the task might be, it’s a daily struggle.
So… what am I hoping someone might take away from this? Remember that a job is just that, a job. No matter how incredible it may be, it’s a job and the company you work is not family.
I especially would like to thank Craig for his time and for the art he contributed, most of which had never been published before.