We were having the office debate to end all office debates.
Granted, debates are fairly typical, most occurring over who moved whoever’s cheese, what Accounting thinks about Accounts Payable’s new stationery or which team has a better chance of winning what game; perhaps who’ll be the next to die on Lost. This, however, was no ordinary office debate, nor any ordinary office. This was TechTV, bastion of nerd television and repository of all that was holy in the world of emergent technology media. The debate: PlayStation 2 or Dreamcast?
Sides were chosen, technical specifications examined, large words tossed around, marketing double-talk scoffed at, discarded and redistributed as “accepted fact.” It was an all-out nerd war. Wide swaths of work weeks were leveled in favor of poring over every last detail to be dredged out of the gaming press and all of the evidence was tried in the court of nerd.
The PS2 had beefier tech specs, a faster processor and the ability to wrangle almost twice as many polygons, making for far more detailed graphics. The Dreamcast however, through some programming voodoo, looked better. The lines were smoother, colors slightly brighter; it couldn’t bench as much, but it had legs. It also had internet connectivity out of the box and a long list of launch titles. The scales, in other words, were fairly well balanced however you looked at it.
Besides, the Dreamcast had an obvious, irrefutable advantage: It was currently available. The PS2 wasn’t due for another month and would be hard to find on store shelves, we all knew, for the remainder of the year. Meanwhile the Dreamcast, which had launched the previous fall, was readily available, as were over 100 games for it. And here’s another kick in Sony’s shins: It was cheaper, too. About half of what the PS2 would cost at launch. And yet, the numbers didn’t lie: The PS2 was a powerful machine. Or would be, when it came out.
In the end, after weighing all possible pros and cons (real and imaginary) all that was left were personal allegiances. Most of the office, raised on PlayStation, remained loyal to Sony’s second effort and praised the machine as, not only a true next-gen game console, but a cheap DVD player to boot; leaving only a stalwart few to wave the Dreamcast flag, pointing crooked fingers at the Sega name, harbinger of awesomeness from the days of yore. And by “few,” I mean me. After weeks of debate, it had come down to the entire Screensavers staff versus me, with one undecided. That undecided was Leo, our fearless leader, and the only one whose vote actually mattered.
Leo had a nose for nerdity, a taste for tech and an ear to the ground of what really mattered in the dork dimension. When Leo liked a product, everyone liked that product, not just because we were kissing his ass (although that was often the case) but usually because he was right; the stuff he liked, he liked for good reasons, and they were usually reasons we could all get behind. Reasons like “this doesn’t suck,” or “it’s utterly awesome,” and more than just our office listened when he talked about tech. His prowess was the foundation upon which the whole of our empire was built. Leo was, in a word, TechTV, and if he went on the air saying something rocked his world, it wouldn’t be long before that something was rocking the worlds of everyone who watched our show. Needless to say, a lot was riding on his decision, and with the fate of our console gaming lives – nay, the console gaming lives of our entire viewing audience – in the balance, the stakes were incredibly high.
I made my case, the other side made theirs. Leo remained undecided. Then I played my trump card. I left the office, walked across the street to Toys-R-Us, dropped just over $200 (less than the price of the PS2) and returned carrying a retail Dreamcast and two games, Sonic Adventure and Jet Grind Radio, arguably the best games available at the time. My plan was simple: I’d walk back in, hijack an editing terminal, display the awesomeness that was Sega’s next-gen console, let Leo soak in its awesome sauce for a bit, then hit him with the clincher: He could take it home. No big, I’d grab another. But if he wanted a PS2, he’d have to wait until Christmas, or more likely, the following spring. Bing, bam, boom. Point, winner. It couldn’t possibly go wrong.
It went wrong. While I was gone, the rest of the team had pulled out the big guns. They snagged a review model of the PS2 from the product lab, sat Leo in a chair in the conference room and popped in the DVD of The Matrix. Then, as he watched bits of granite flying around in slow motion, while gun-toting uber geeks wearing black leather jackets shot up the joint, they hit him with their clincher: He was watching the movie on the cheapest DVD player in existence. Oh, and it also played games. Bing, bam, boom. Point, winner. By the time I returned, purchases in hand, it was all over. I’d lost, and so had Sega. (It’s hard to argue with the bank lobby scene.)
I clutched my Dreamcast to my chest and nursed a single, salty tear as the rest of the office slowly turned their backs on Sega and their wonderful little machine. This would be a scene repeated the world over.
A month later, when the PS2 finally launched, the Dreamcast had ironically become harder to find. Shipments had slowed, and stocks were slow to be replenished. It was as if the orders weren’t even being placed, much less filled. A few months later, the games, too, began to slide into oblivion, and the Dreamcast sections at every local store dwindled away to nothing. In 1999, Sega had launched with the best machine and the most high-quality games anyone had ever seen. They had a well-supported platform which was easy to program for and offered an abundance of after-market options and services. They had, in other words, a first-rate game console, launched perfectly and supported flawlessly. Nothing, so it seemed, could go wrong. And yet it did. Sony beat them just by showing up to the party, and by the time Sega pulled the plug, only 10 million Dreamcasts had been manufactured, an estimated half of which still sat in warehouses and on store shelves.
At first glance, it doesn’t make any sense, and considering only the machine, its capability and wide appeal, it doesn’t. But the problems with Sega’s machine were legion, and most had nothing to do with the Dreamcast at all.
For one thing, Sega launched an online-capable machine and attendant internet service at exactly the worst possible time. It was the first of its kind, and in a vacuum, that would have mattered. Around the turn of the century, however, the internet was a volatile place to be doing business, especially as a service provider. Internet use and online play were catching on in a big way, but so was broadband. Sega’s inclusion of a 56k modem in the Dreamcast rendered it obsolete off the shelf, forcing users to upgrade the machine with a pricey broadband adapter or live with a less-than-fast dial-up connection. This created a wide disparity in connectivity speeds to the SegaNet online arena, punishing players who stuck with the onboard 56k, which was most of them, and introduced a measure of confusion to what was really the most intuitive and easy to install internet service going. Still, early reviews of both the SegaNet service and the games playable on it were largely … well, glowing.
“If this is where Dreamcast gaming is headed, sign me up, Sega,” IGN said of the first-ever online-playable console sports game, NFL2k1. “Stellar, stellar job, people.”
NFL2k1 would be followed (mere months before the Dreamcast production lines were closed for good) by another first: the first ever console MMOG, Phantasy Star Online, developed by Sega’s stars, Sonic Team. PSO reviewers praised innovative features like the chat lobby, group-based questing, cooperative play and deathmatch, features PC gamers had come to take for granted, but which had to date never before been seen on a console.
“Will it be something that we can build, where our competitors are so far behind in the learning experience of game design online… ?” Peter Moore, then President of Sega of America, asked IGN in December of 2000. “Absolutely, and when broadband comes, it’ll be a breeze for us. If broadband ever comes.”
Little did he know it was already knocking on his door. In fact, in retrospect, it appears that Peter Moore knew very little about the state of gaming in 2000, or the future of his own company’s console. Perhaps he and Sega were simply looking too far ahead.
Microsoft has a problem because MSN still relies on the internet. If you’re going to try to go out and get involved in a high-twitch type of gaming, unless they do something different … sometimes it’ll be good, and sometimes it won’t work at all for them.
We’ve gone out with SegaNet and built up the server hubs – they’re fond downstairs of saying that they own everything from the cables to the service to the electricity – because with online play, you’ve got to be able to create an environment that is less variable. There is nothing worse than inconsistency when playing online.
In 2000, Peter Moore was already thinking about the future of the internet, and a few years later, at Microsoft, he would help make it a reality
Moore’s 2000 interview with IGN continues:
We are fully committed to the Dreamcast. The Dreamcast sold more units in its first four days than Saturn sold in its first year. There’s no comparison there. And after the dust settles on this holiday, the Dreamcast will be at a very critical mass that will continue to be attractive to third parties. That said, I know we will lose some third parties. … Yes, it’s been a transitional period all around for Sega, but the thought that once this Christmas is over that Sega will suddenly disappear out into the crowd … Nope. Nothing would be further from the truth. Too many great Dreamcast games are in development for Christmas 2001 to ignore – this platform will keep growing and growing.
A month later, Sega would announce that production of the Dreamcast would discontinue; they had decided to exit the hardware business. The game, as they say, was over. Nick Gibson, Senior Internet and Games Analyst at Durlacher Research Ltd. suggests why:
Hardware manufacturers have a symbiotic relationship with game publishers which leaves them with the catch-22 problem of needing to convince publishers to commit resources to developing high quality titles for a platform whose growth is entirely dependent on the release of high quality titles. … Thus Sega, weakened both financially but more importantly in the eyes of the games market by the failure of Saturn, 32X and MegaCD, launched Dreamcast with few expecting it to seriously challenge its principal rival Sony in the longer run. With little serious support from publishers as a result, the self-fulfilling prophecy of its demise as a retail product was more or less complete before it started.
In other words, it’s the games, stupid.
Sega, sensing a weakness in the market for their Saturn console, which they had originally counted on to see them through a five-year cycle, pulled the plug in favor of an advanced launch timetable for the Dreamcast. The third-party developers, annoyed at having thrown resources behind a now-defunct console, were reluctant to commit again to Sega’s new platform, costing the company the support of the third-party developers they needed to ensure the Dreamcast’s success. No third-party games, no publisher support, no audience. Cause, effect, close the doors and turn out the lights. Had Sega been less skittish over Saturn’s long-term prospects, or developers more bullish on the Dreamcast’s, maybe they’d still be in the game. But they weren’t, and that’s that. Sega now makes games, end of story. What happens when you throw a perfect console launch and no one shows? Dreamcast.
TechTV shared office space with a few of Sega of America’s divisions, notably, Dreamcast. In the spring of 2001, they closed their doors and moved out, shedding inventory in an inter-office fire sale. I cleaned up. It was the most Dreamcast merchandise I’d seen in one place since buying the damn thing, and the most I’d see ever again. I carried my treasures home and played them over and over. They were great games: Jet Grind Radio, Sonic Adventure, Ecco the Dolphin, Crazy Taxi, Shenmue, Seaman, Soul Calibur, etc. Sega had never failed as a game designer, and their machine felt like it was made for their games. The games that actually made it to shelves, however, were only half the story. Half-Life, Max Payne, Tropico … the list of games slated for 2001 release on the Dreamcast reads almost exactly like the list of games I ended up purchasing and playing on my PC. Between the PC and the Dreamcast, I weathered the first few years of the new millennium, never once sparing a thought for Sony, Microsoft or Nintendo. But it didn’t last.
Eventually, I caved and bought an Xbox and let the Dreamcast go in some tumultuous breakup or another. I never did drink the Kool Aid and buy a PS2. Not for a long time anyway. Not until it came with a plastic guitar. Personal allegiances run deep, after all, and although I (and Sega) lost that round, I couldn’t admit it. Couldn’t concede. Then again, as has been well established, prophecy has never been one of my strengths. Nor has forgiveness.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.