A world without Gunstar Heroes doesn’t bear thinking about. It almost happened you know. Mac Senour has been in the industry for thirty years. And in addition to having produced some of our favourite games ever, he’s also blazing a trail in mobile gaming (some of you may recognise the screenshots ;)). Adrian managed to track him down for this fascinating interview…
Mac, you’re truly a retro gaming legend. How did you get into the video game industry in the first place?
I answered a two line ad for a game programmer in 1982. The company was HES and I did the FIRST port of Shamus from the Atari 800 to the Vic-20. I say first because they published the second one done by someone else.
You are strongly rumoured to be the main man that helped get Gunstar Heroes released by SEGA. Can you explain the whole story of first seeing the game and persuading SEGA of America to release this awesome game?
It’s not a rumour, it’s fact (hooray!! – Ed). It was given to me one day by my boss Clyde Grossman. I was told that eleven other producers, which was about all of them, had played it and rejected it. I was the last hope. I played it for about two minutes and threw the controller on the ground and said, a bit too loud: “This is game of the year”. The fellow who was my direct supervisor stood up and told me to be quiet and to not say such foolish things.
I found Clyde about an hour later and said I wanted it, he thought I was nuts. And he had every reason to think that, big characters were the rage not the small characters of Gunstar Heroes. I insisted that it was a great game and I really couldn’t stop playing it.
That started a tradition, or trend with me, when I find a good game I call it a “throw down the controller” game. And it became a thing at SEGA that I was asked when asked to review a title.
It won two game of the year awards and I watched as other producers accepted the award.
What did you see in the game that your colleagues didn’t and how hard did you have to fight for the game?
I saw frantic action that was engrossing. There were such cool weapons and great things you could do. The bosses were perfectly matched and really the levelling was done so well.
Gunstar Heroes was crying out for a sequel – we eventually got one on the Game Boy Advance but why do you think it never saw another release on a SEGA console? A Saturn or Dreamcast version would have been awesome!
There was a constant fight between development and marketing at SEGA. I had few friends in marketing and the fellow that was assigned to this had a bad track record with me. He asked for some changes to Taz for the Game Gear and I refused to make the changes, so he ordered fewer copies to be made. The game went on to sell over 1.1 million units, so he had a lot of egg on his face! With his ego so bruised, anything I touched was considered bad. And sadly, that meant Gunstar Heroes took a hit. It also was under ordered which is one reason it’s currently selling for about $80 on eBay.
Clyde did a great thing for his producers, he told us to focus on making great games and leave the rest to him. But he didn’t control the marketing department so any issues they had, they created on their own. It’s been over twenty years and that marketing guy still avoids me at conventions. Childish behaviour (to say the least! – Ed).
Gunstar Heroes was the first game developed by Treasure, who went on to create many classic titles. Could you see then the huge potential they had?
Not a bit. Short answer but that’s the truth. There are so many one hit wonders that making a great game doesn’t mean there’s a future there. That’s why companies come and go so quickly.
Were there any other titles that you fought hard for to get released by SEGA apart from Gunstar Heroes?
My title was Associate Producer, so that meant I was usually assigned products. I fought for a game to be made for the CHILL RPG paper game. But my biggest fight was for a Houdini game. I floated a couple of different concepts and got the market research team to find out how well known and popular the name was.
Kids would call in with questions to the 1-800 line and ask how to get past level 5 of some game etc. The market research team would ask them questions while they were on the line. These are our hard core customers.
They asked if they had ever heard of Houdini and what does he do? To test balance, they also asked who is Mickey Mouse and what does he do?
Final score: Mickey Mouse – 96% knew him and what he does, Houdini… 97%. Houdini scored higher than Mickey Mouse (what!! – Ed). But marketing refused to back the game because, and I think I have the written memo in my files: “Because Houdini isn’t well known to our audience”. Sheer stupidity.
We’re starting to see the picture now but why do you think SEGA eventually lost a lot of its power in the video game industry and what do you think they should have done differently?
They lost it because they put two people in charge after Clyde left who were the two biggest assholes I’ve ever met in this industry. They were focused on their own careers and not on making great games. One was in charge of girl games but never produced a single successful girl’s title.
Development devolved into politics rather than making great games and we have to thank those two people for that. Their entire careers were based on making others look bad rather than making great games. I can’t say they lost focus, because they never focused on games in the first place.
Tomb Raider is another iconic game you were involved in. How proud are you that you helped establish one of the first true iconic female video game characters in Lara Croft?
Let’s set the record straight here. I did ONE thing for Tomb Raider, I made sure my boss didn’t kill it. All the design, production etc was done by other people. My boss wanted to kill the game because: “It’s a girl character and we make games for boys”. I lied to him and told him that I had sent the forms to stop production for the US market. I filled them out, and never sent them in (thank goodness for that! – Ed).
I’ll also say that at the first start I said: “I think it’s a B, B+ title, depends on the level designs”. So I had no idea it would be that big.
You have worked for SEGA, Atari, EA and many other top video game companies. What was it like working for these true gaming giants and was there one place of work you most enjoyed?
I loved the early days at SEGA. I really enjoyed my boss once I became a producer. I really felt comfortable making suggestions. I was employee #63. We had a contest once, for a trip to Germany, to come up with something to compete with Nintendo’s 1-900 trivia phone line. I suggested “Stump SEGA”. Customers would call up and ask our game service guys trivia questions. If we couldn’t answer, they got a code to unlock things in games or t-shirts or whatever.
The idea was rejected by my group, they went with a copy of exactly what Nintendo was doing. Which is what the other nine teams also did, so no one won the grand prize. Oh well. I still like that, “Stump SEGA”.
When I went to Atari, I was given a 20th Anniversary jacket. I was walking down a hallway and some guy stopped me and told me I didn’t deserve to wear the jacket because I wasn’t around when they were delivering arcade games in his pickup truck. Cracked me up.
You’ve truly come across some characters in your career! With thirty years’ experience in the video game industry can you tell us which game you are most proud to have worked on?
I can’t pick one. Gunstar because it was so much fun on a console. Majesty on the PC because again other companies had rejected it. World’s Hardest Game for the iPhone because it cost little to make and sold over 1.4 million copies.
Funny story about World’s Hardest Game (WHG):
I was at MTV where I was the only guy doing mobile at Addicting Games. At first no one wanted anything to do with mobile because they had done one game for $75K that didn’t do well or even earn that money back. They hired me and gave me the remaining budget with no expectations. I did two games, WHG and iPark It with the money. Those two were the top sellers and then suddenly EVERYONE wanted in on mobile.
I was called into a conference room and I saw the head of marketing and my boss talking to the head guy from Nickelodeon in NYC. All their faces were cast down and looked sad. I found out later that the head guy had been literally screaming at them over the bad reviews of WHG.
I sat down, and this guy looked at me and pointed to the reviews on the big TV in the room and said: “Do you have anything to say about these negative comments?”
I read about four or five of the reviews on screen and said: “You’re welcome. Are we meeting to discuss a bonus for me?”
The Nickelodeon guy looked at me like I was crazy: “Why would you get a bonus for reviews like this?”
Me: “Because this game isn’t supposed to make you happy, it’s supposed to frustrate you. When you lose, you’re supposed to be mad as hell. If you didn’t get comments like these, I should be fired”.
No bonus but he was my friend for a while.
Was there ever one game you saw that never got released but you believed would of been a huge success?
Tons, I mentioned one here, the Houdini game. I’ll never understand why Ripcord games sold Majesty to Microprose. Ripcord needed a cash cow and turned down 1.7 million units sold for a maps CD for a tank game that sold 19K units. I was fired from there because I said Majesty would outsell everything else they were making which was counter to my new bosses’ thoughts.
What projects are you currently working on?
I’m out of video games (noooooooooooooooo!! – Ed). I run www.gamerustlers.com now along with a review site for Kickstarter games, the Game Rustler RoundUp. I enjoy board games because I’m the boss. I don’t have to listen to someone telling me that a game where the player throws a zombie head into a basketball hoop: “Has a lot of depth”. Or hearing how after twenty-three iOS titles, “You haven’t done much”.
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character who would you choose and why?
Lara Croft of course, for the street cred.
That’s another drinks request sent to Miss Croft then… 🙂 Thanks for your time Mac, all of us thank you for your sterling efforts over the years – all the best for your future endeavours!
Readers – please check out the Game Rustlers site here.