Come to think of it…

I know it will sound contradictory but it just dawned on me from a different perspective that Sega actually does not need a new console, after watching the big 3 tussling it out in the current generation console war.

In a previous article, I was speaking out of nostalgia but I learnt it the hard way, not more than once, that speaking from the heart is simply not as good as speaking from the mind. Of course, all of us Genesis / Mega Drive owners were, and probably are still inordinately proud of our console for its top-notch games library and its hard-fought console war with the Super Nintendo. Then we have the usual trip down memory lane – the Saturn bombed; the Dreamcast was swept aside by the sleek Playstation 2. We all know those stories and I think that deep down, we all want Sega to emerge stronger from these episodes, their customer loyalty being dubious as it were notwithstanding. Despite this, I think that Sega has begun its own phase of awakening after their announcement that the Dreamcast console support was to be discontinued after 2001 and I think that there’s a near impossibility of them ever releasing a new console.

(a) I’m relating all of these based on the current generation of video game consoles. The big 3 are major corporations in their own field – Microsoft; Sony and Nintendo are miles ahead of Sega in terms of revenue and other cash to splash on its marketing strategies and implementation as well as slashing costs or having their own modified business model of the razor and blades approach. Sony’s Playstation 3 is reportedly making a loss with every console sold and that the much-hyped console would be projected to make its first profit by early 2009. Sega was also reportedly losing money with every Dreamcast sold and the aggravation of the financial situation was made complete when support for the console was completely dropped in 2001. Only Sony, with its blazing success dating from the Playstation 2’s glories can afford to adopt this business approach.

(b) And why would Sega be duking out with its old rival, Nintendo? When I first saw the game title ‘Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games‘, I thought that the world is going crazier by the minute but reality is stranger than fiction. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Sega happily allowed its 16-bit classics to make another nostalgic entry via the Wii’s Virtual Console. During the 16-bit console war, this would be blasphemy. Sonic making fat jokes on the plumber was fun for a long time and I can’t think of any better irony to hammer it home to the Nintendo goliath. But there you go, they are friends for now. If Nintendo makes money, Sega makes even more by selling more games published by them. Nice lil’ circle of love.

(c) Finally, Microsoft’s X-Box 360. No, as all the examples above, Sega doesn’t have the financial muscle to fight anyone of the 3 head-on. Microsoft’s gaming division could allegedly lose US$ 4 billion and still sustain support for the impressive console. Their watered-down price can only be good for consumers and their long-time fans but seriously bad for business. Sega would have wound-up a damn long time ago if they ever dare approach this scale.

(d) As the demand for more realistic eye candy and raw processing power comes into play, the little bits and pieces which make up the components of a console would be pricey. 16-bit technicalities may be serious stuff back in those days but the console prices back then, while rather steep are nowhere approaching the current rates for which the consoles are sold for.

(e) Ok, so Nintendo opted to design a console without the necessity to clash as a titan and yet able to fight like one – they banked on its games. Notice a trend here? People play games for fun, and Nintendo wants to make this the watchword of its potential fanbase. Not powerful enough graphics, no problem – Nintendo knows, like all other console manufacturers that selling games matter more than the number of consoles it sold for.

Remember the Sega 32-X? You can read all over the net that it initially sold well but later consigned to the bargain bins. It’s the games which would sell, not the hardware. The 32-X was often touted to prolong the life of the Genesis and I felt sure, at hindsight, that it probably would. However, playing Sega’s 32-X games on an emulator revealed for me the harsh reality. I wanted to like ‘Knuckles Chaotix’ and in fairness, it was a fresh approach to the Sonic series. But the 32-X was banking on the graphics and the amount of polygons it could generate (I’m speaking from the viewpoint of the era when polygon graphics were considered beautiful). ‘Knuckles Chaotix’ could have easily been replicated on the good ol’ Genesis with little detraction and compromise except for the lovely soundtrack (the 32-X had superior sound, it seems). I’m also aware that the special stages took advantage of the hardware power available to the ‘black mushroom’ but Sonic 3’s special stages also had delectable visuals on stock Genesis. Why would anyone then purchase a 32-X as an add-on and then play near Genesis – capable standards? Consoles can only promise so much but its games would make or break it. Sega, for now, wisely stuck to game publishing for its own survival.

(f) Too little enthusiasm for a new console. For a company to step out of the line in 2001 and expect to make a comeback in this generation is unthinkable. I felt old talking to 18-year olds and that age group but you have to admit that they are the age group which any company in the video game business would love to target. Working adults need time for, well, work and then some time for romance and probably a little time for professional development through further studies and other manner. Too little time to be devoting to playing the consoles – so the logical age group would be the one just fresh into college or high school. Now, as I was saying – 18-year olds now don’t recognize Sega anymore! Mega Drive? What the hell was that? Saturn? <huh> Dreamcast? Err…maybe…

Let’s face it – we’re all brand-conscious. Back in 2001 in Malaysia, college students on high average own Nokia phones of the 8210 and the 8250 models. They rule and are cool to own. Now? Well, it’s up to you. Some swear by Samsung and I’d prefer Motorola. So, Sega is nowhere as great as the big 3 above. Yes, they were in the video game market for as long as memory serves for me but they only reaped their cash cow with the Genesis / Mega Drive. Their pinnacle was already long gone and now, painful as it may be, they have to pick up the pieces and move on. In this fickle world of brand-consciousness, the most established one should be poised to bend backwards and absorb crippling, financial blows to the groin. Even the most hard-core Sega fans I’ve met spoke fondly of the Mega Drive days and not its aftermath. Sure, there may be the optimism that Sega may try to make a comeback but consoles have just gotten too expensive these days. Our wait and see approach would surely sink them.

Now, I read with joy that Sega is re-establishing itself as a dedicated games publisher. The ‘Football Manager’ series is the best football management sim there is, the ‘Medieval II:Total War’ and its upcoming title ‘Empire:Total War’ are critically-acclaimed titles. Sega also probed the PC retro gaming market by releasing a healthy series of games for the ‘Replaygem’ label – they’re affordable and every bit as good an emulation as the machines they were supposed to be released for.

I think the corporate world is not about merely accepting defeat or maintaining a lead at the top of the chasing pack. It’s about restructuring and revamping systems which don’t work and implement new ones. Simple logic, is it? Thanks to Sega for showing the way. It’s quite sad that we may not get to see another console painted in Sega’s colours but still, you never know.        


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