The System Wars

Well, the new machines are coming and once again Sega is leading the way. How will the other big name companies parry Sega's thrust? Has Sega finally pushed the hardware so far ahead of the standard with its new partners NEC and Microsoft that system specifications will be a moot point this time around? If so, it will be an entirely different ballgame in which the most furious battles are fought on the developmental level rather than the managerial level. If companies cannot create a system that is significantly superior to the Dreamcast they will be forced to fight a war with games. 3rd party developers will be the key pawns in this new game of chess and the term, "exclusive" will be the new catch phrase and we will hear it ad-nauseum in advertising and interviews.

Now we all know what Sega's Dreamcast can do and what Sega plans to make of that power. The DC can push so many polygons that technology will not have advanced far enough by the time the newer systems come out to allow them to have a superior graphical appearance. Jumping from 3 million to 6 million polygons is not as big of a leap as the jump from 300,000 to 3 million. The games simply wouldn't look that much different. In order to match Sega's price point of around $200 the other companies will have to try and match Sega's graphical power and win the war through games. So with this in mind let's take a look at the possible responses to the DC and what might happen when these machines are released.

The first system that will play on this new field and that we know the most about is VM Labs Project X. While it exists in nearly the same time frame as the DC it has the least potential to make any noise. In fact, the only noise it may make is a horrific scream, as it dies a quick and painful death. The first and biggest strike against this console is the fact that it is a North American developed console. Not since the Colecovision has an American made console enjoyed any kind of success. Since the NES made its mark the consoles have been the domain of Japan based companies. The main reason for this is that the best console game developers are based in Japan and it makes little sense for them to develop games solely for a foreign console. So Project X will for the most part have to rely on North American based developers. There really aren't that many that are even worth mentioning and the best will primarily develop games for the established companies.

But you might say, "What about all those PC developers?" Yes, the best North American game makers primarily develop for the PC. If Project X could tap into that market it would have a chance. But Project X's graphics engine is based primarily on voxels, a kind of three-dimensional sprite that allows for very complex models with low processing strain. PC developers are firmly entrenched in the use of polygon based graphics and with the market for 3D accelerator cards I don't see the PC industry making a switch over to the use of voxels as a primary source of graphics. A few developers are making use of voxels to get around the need for 3D cards, but they are definitely in the minority. Games like Blade Runner use voxels for character models and allow you to play the game on a machine with no 3D card. But the models are very pixilated and don't move nearly as smooth as polygons. Voxels may be something that becomes popular later on but for now they only serve to alienate the majority of the PC development community as well as many big name console developers that are caught up in the polygon revolution.

The final strike against Project X will be price point. The system will have a DVD drive and that alone will make the system cost more than the Dreamcast. While you will be able to watch DVD movies on it, you might be better off with a dedicated high speed DVD player. All of these factors add up to big problems for Project X. And for a system that is supposed to be out rather soon, I have seen almost no marketing push for the system in any magazines or on the Internet. It's almost as if the makers of it don't really care about the fate of the system.

Next we have Sony and their second foray into the console wars which everyone wants to call the PSX-2. So until a better name comes along we'll call it that. Sony and their Playstation are currently the clear leader in every market and are feeling no pain. If the announcement of the DC has shaken them up they don't seem to be showing it. All we've really heard from them is that they plan to support the Playstation fully for at least two more years placing their next system's release almost a year behind the DC's domestic launch. This is a huge gap considering the leap in performance the DC has. Developers won't want to make an inferior port of a game to the Playstation when a DC port is sitting right next to it and making it look terrible. In fact, the difference in technology is so huge that a port of a DC game to the Playstation would require an almost complete re-programming of the game engine. It would be like making two games for the profits of only one. Whether Sony can afford to wait will depend on how the DC hits the market. If it hits as big as I suspect it will in Japan Sony's timeframe for a new system will likely be pushed up quite a bit. I also expect Sony to begin a massive marketing blitz with PSX-2 specs being released on the day before or the same day as the DC's Japanese launch. They will want to take as much of Sega's thunder away as possible while convincing buyers to wait for their superior machine.

And what will this superior machine have to make it so superior? Probably more hype than actual hardware superiority but that comes with the territory. At the rate the technology is advancing and the problems of cost Sony will not be able to make a graphically superior system based on polygons. They might be able to push it to 5 or 6 million per second but that won't really seem like much visually. Sony's president Ken Kutaragi has recently been talking about the PSX-2 using an entirely new form of computer graphics rather than polygons. Possibly voxels or something else we don't know about. Maybe I should have talked with Aika before writing this but I'm not really concerned about what they may be using. I'm more concerned with the consequences of such a radical format change. I already mentioned the drawbacks of voxels and developers with the Project-X. The same problems will have to be dealt with by Sony as they may effectively cut off the entire PC community as well as many prominent console developers like Square that have turned almost completely to polygon graphics.

So rather than alienate most of the 3rd part developers that they've relied on so heavily, I suspect they'll stick with a polygonal format. Then there's DVD to consider. It would be easy for Sony to mass manufacture DVD drives but the costs would still be too high. They wouldn't be able to match Sega's prices even if they don't release the system until the year 2000 as DVD drives haven't really become widely accepted to allow the costs of manufacture to drop. So they will also likely go with a similar 1-gigabyte CD format like Sega is using. So this leaves the two systems on pretty even grounds technologically. Sony might boost their RAM to 32 or 64 Megs but that won't make as profound a difference overall.

So where does this leave Sony? They are up against Sega's incredible in-house development teams as well as a system that will be much easier to develop on in the DC due to the Windows CE operating system. Sega will have many PC developers behind them and quick and flawless ports of their games. Sony s going to have to rely on the power of their name and their pocketbook. The Playstation name carries a lot of weight amongst casual gamers. Because of Sony's incredible marketing most people associate the Playstation with the best in the business. The Saturn's fall domestically gave them many exclusive titles and pushed the machine's success far beyond any expectations. With their shaky in-house development they will once again have to rely on 3rd parties and will have to make some very sweet deals to get exclusive titles when companies can make more money by releasing on more than one system. The Playstation has been a key source of revenue for Sony and they won't give up the ship easily. They will throw tons of money back into the new machine in the hopes of reaping similar rewards.

We know almost no hard facts about Sony's next system but Sony didn't reach the point they are at through blind luck. The new system will be marketed brilliantly and will definitely give Sega its most fierce competition. To think that Sega has it all wrapped up with the DC is a bit premature. Sega will have to counter Sony every step of the way and never let their guard down. They have to stay on good grounds with every developer and make the best developers eager to make games for the DC. I hear people often say that Sony shouldn't be in this industry, that they aren't gamers and don't play fair. I say that's ridiculous and I'm glad Sony came along. They finally woke Sega and Nintendo up to the potential of this industry. Sega is now listening to what we want. We have an awesome new Sonic game coming and Phantasy Star 5 just received a 100 million yen development budget. If the PSX hadn't come along we wouldn't be having this fierce competition with companies pushing each other to higher levels of excellence and customer service. Sony has changed the industry and I think it's for the better. Sega is smarter and much more dedicated because of it and the DC will be an awesome system because of it. There's nothing wrong with healthy competition.

As for Nintendo, I really don't know where they're going. The N64 is barely 2 years old and will be outdated by the end of this year. The 64DD has been delayed again and will probably never be released. The N64 is going strong in North America though and will enjoy a brief time at the top while Sega and Sony make their transitions. Then they will likely consider a new system sometime after the year 2000. It will most likely not be cartridge based but probably have a built in re-writeable disk drive. There will probably be a rather large window between the Japanese and US release, as their situation in Japan is much direr. With the DC's release they will quickly fall back into third and will need to be competitive. They will also likely be caught in the technology trap of not being able to advance beyond the DC significantly and will have to once again rely on Shigeru Miyamoto's skills and his name to carry them back up. At least this time they won't alienate almost every 3rd party developer with their format choice.

Now before everyone gets pissed off at some of the things I've said and writes me some mean e-mail, let me say something about "system" wars. And that is that the systems don't matter, and that really will mean something this time around. The systems will be on even ground and the war will be fought with the games. And that is a war with only one winner and we are that winner. We reap the benefits as companies do everything to make the games on their system the very best they can be. To push the technology to its limits and push gameplay to new frontiers. We can't lose unless we refuse to look past the name on the box. What system we own doesn't matter as long as we love the games on them. I will own a Dreamcast because I know that I will love the games on it. I can't wait to play Sonic Adventure and Sega Rally 2. I'll own a DC because it will have the games I want to play on it. I have no loyalty toward Sega as a company. I gave that up long ago because it cost me. I never owned an SNES because of my loyalty to Sega and I regret that because I missed out on some great games. I won't let that happen again. I own a Saturn and a Playstation and with the release of Zelda this Christmas I will likely own an N64. I will own them because I want to play those games, not because Sega or Sony or Nintendo made the system that plays the games. I don't know if I'll own a Project X or a PSX 2. I don't know what games will be on those systems, but if there are games I want to play, I'll get them. System wars are silly, but game wars will be a wonderful sight to behold.