The Downfall of Sega, Part 2

And now part 2 of my lengthy rant. Read part 1 here.

Oh Cassini, help us!
The mention of the Sega Saturn makes me cringe. I mean, Sega finally produced a new console, and everyone wanted to love it. Hell, I owned one, and I loved it; but Sega decided to kill it for me. In 1994, Sega released the Saturn, and in 1997 they quit production of it.

Internally, the Saturn reminds me a lot of the 32x: Dual 28MHz Hitachi SH2 processors and a pair of video processing units modeled after the video processing unit in Sega’s System 24 and System 32 arcade systems. The memory included 1MB fast and 1MB slow system memory, two sets of 256KB for the framebuffer, two sets of 512KB for use of each of the video processing units, 512KB for sound sample caching, and a larger CD cache than what was in the SegaCD.

So, that doesn’t sound like a bad system, right? Well, for one, the pair of SH2s is slower than what was in the 32x, though the faster memory and faster main bus more than makes up for it; the 32x was held back by the slow memory and main bus. Main system memory in the Saturn was eight times what it was in the 32x, and could be expanded using external expansion cards (which very few games used).

Also, the sound hardware is setup using a Motorola 68k paired with a Yamaha FH1 DSP. Compared to the Genesis, the 68k and FH1 pairing is far more powerful than the Genesis’ Z80 and Yamaha YM2612, plus it can do anything the 32x and SegaCD sound hardware can do, including PCM sample playback and many channels of complex music synth and sound effects.

So, ultimately, the Saturn is sorta like if they took the 32x and SegaCD, the 3D hardware from their System32 arcade system, and a more powerful sound setup than anything seen before, and combined it all together to produce a new console.

Hardware wise, it beat the pants of Sony’s Playstation and Nintendo’s N64, but looking back at history, we know hardware does not make a successful platform. Sega failed with the Saturn in five major ways:

  • Sony gave the Software Development Kit (SDK) to all third party developers, but Sega only used it internally withholding it from all outsiders.
  • The Saturn ‘s opening day price was over US$400, vs the Playstation’s US$300.
  • The Saturn suffered from development problems the same way the 32x did, few developers knew how to efficiently use dual processors in a Slave/Master configuration (unlike modern PCs which use a symmetric multi-processing (SMP) setup).
  • Sega promised that they’d port many Japanese games to English, especially all the popular titles.
  • The substandard construction and poor support of the SegaCD and 32x bred distrust in the Sega fandom, and many people converted to Nintendo and Sony, never to look back.

But that isn’t what put the final nail in Saturn’s coffin: The then CEO of Sega of America decided to not support the Saturn, and refuse to port games here. I mean, not just unpopular ones, but any. This violated Sega’s promise to the few fans who were left that they’d bring many games here to America.

This prompted Sega of Japan to evict the CEO of SoA and install a new one that would actually follow the wishes of SoJ; however, this came too late, and the Saturn was quite dead in the American market by then, even though the Saturn was selling well in the Japanese market. At this point, Sega started work on the Sega Dreamcast, the most powerful and final console of Sega’s empire.

As the American market fell apart, this caused the cancellation of the Saturn’s installment of the Sonic series, Sonic X-treme, and they also decided not to bring Panzer Dragoon Saga to America, which is arguably one of the best games ever produced for the Saturn and one of the best games ever to hit a Sega console.

The Saturn died, and in it’s place, Sega offered the Dreamcast.

ドリームキャスト: It’s thinking
The American release of the Dreamcast was September 9th, 1999, or as the marketing put it, 9/9/99. Five years ago, in Janurary 2001, the Dreamcast marked the end of Sega as we knew it, Sega soon afterwards became just a software vendor and merged with Sammy, another well known vendor of games.

Even though the Dreamcast was Sega’s last console to be produced, it cannot be blamed for the downfall of Sega. The Dreamcast is considered Sega’s best effort to remain in the market, and a threat to Nintendo and the newcomer Sony. What really killed Sega was the failure of the 32x and the SegaCD, which in some sort of chain reaction, took the Saturn out as well.

That said, the Dreamcast did well in the market. On opening day in America, the Dreamcast sold over 225,000 machines, with 200,000 of them being pre-ordered, and over 500,000 of them being sold in the first week; Sega made $98.4 million in profit with the 9/9/99 launch. These records were held until Sony released the Playstation 2 in late 2000.

The Dreamcast was well received, and clearly was defeating it’s competition, Nintendo’s N64 and Sony’s Playstation, but Sony in turn defeated the Dreamcast with the Playstation 2. Once again, Sega produced a superior platform (the only thing missing on the Dreamcast that the Playstation 2 did have was a DVD drive).

The Dreamcast was basically the Saturn done correctly. Powered by a 206Mhz Hitachi SH4 (which was far more powerful than the aggregate power of the Saturn’s dual SH2) with a built-in special-use computational engine; a PowerVR2 CLX2 (ie, a real 3D engine) to handle all the 3D rendering work; and a 47MHz ARM7 with a customized Yamaha DSP to do sound, the Dreamcast was very powerful.

It also had a fair bit of system memory at a total of 16MB, eight times what the Saturn had. The Dreamcast’s 8MB of video memory (2.5x of the Saturn) and 2MB of sound memory (4x of the the Saturn) wasn’t something to sneeze at either.

Sega didn’t repeat any mistakes on this one, it had a single processor that didn’t require any special (read as: convoluted) programming, it could do modern 3D processing comparable to a PC (only the XBox, Gamecube, and Playstation 3 share that distinction with the Dreamcast), and it had Sonic Adventure ready for release day. Everything went perfectly.

Yup, you heard me, I can’t say Sega did anything wrong with the Dreamcast. It even came with a built in Internet gameplay device, something no other platform before ever did, compared to the Playstation 2 that didn’t even have useful online gameplay until 2002.

The Dreamcast isn’t even really dead, even though Sega no longer produces or supports them; many third party publishers continue to produce and release games, some even sold in Japanese retail stores. Even now, Radilgy was just released for the Dreamcast (which Sega is now selling refurbished Dreamcasts for), and Under Defeat is being released real soon now.

The Dreamcast may be the most perfect console ever produced.

Ultimately, Sega failed because they tripped up on two add-on devices for the Genesis. The Genesis was a great console, the Saturn wasn’t a bad console, and the Dreamcast is one of the best consoles ever produced.

This stands as a lesson to future game companies: if your target market doesn’t trust you, or you’ve previously abused their trust, or simply if you confuse them by releasing multiple similar devices, they might find someone else to buy things from, and won’t come back to you when you figure out you’ve done wrong.

However, the Sega of the old days will always be remembered as they left their mark on video game history, and even now they still continue to produce games, and the Sonic series of games has found itself a new home on Nintendo’s Gamecube (with Sonic Riders soon to be released), Gameboy Advance (featuring the Sonic Advance series of games), and DS (with Sonic Rush).

Written by
Open Source software architect and technologist. He's just this guy, you know? Follow him him on Google+.
Published in
Transmissions from the Little Blue Marble

Published January 3rd, 2006


5 Responses

i love to play on gamecubes and on psp machines, so addicting ‘,

Great article. and i have to agree with pretty much everything.

although the ps/ps2 could be saddled with the idea that they carried gaming into the main stream market there is today, i would have to say that dreamcast did that. sega’s work with microsoft on the os for the dreamcast games and system, ultimately lead to the huge success and versatility (even that of wich microsoft didnt want) of the xbox.. Dreamcast was truely ahead of it’s time, and flawed marketing and subsiquent grippling of add-ons was what the company could not recover from in the counsel market.

I don’t know what you’re talking about with Panzer Dragoon Saga never being released in the States. It absolutely WAS released Stateside. I was there in california when it came out, as I had preordered it myself.

Cool Article! However, I have a couple of issues here:

1. The Saturn’s SH-2s had a higher clock rate than the 32Xs; plus, it also had an SH1 in there too, which the 32X lacked.

2. I’m not sure what you meant by 32X being “as powerful” as a mode 7 SNES + SuperFX game; in pretty much any possible area the 32x had significantly more power even if you only consider the greater palette available on screen. Of course, like you said, nobody really took the time/resources to learn how to properly code for the new, fledgling system.

3. You are 100% correct about DC. If not for their screwing of fans with the 32x and Saturn, DC (should) have established a good base to compete with PS2, despite Sony’s exaggerated claims of hardware power. Indeed I doubt you will find any console programmer who preferred developing a game engine on the ridiculously complex and flawed PS2 architecture (inadequate SDKs to deal with new architecture as well) over the remarkably simple and flexible Dreamcast.

Good work, though!

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