To Launch or Not To Launch

One of the biggest surprises that came with the announcement of the Dreamcast was the huge disparity in time between the release of the system in Japan and the United States. While the Saturn will still be doing relatively well in Japan when the Dreamcast is released, Sega is in desperate need of revitalization in North America. Both the Playstation and N64 in the US have buried them and after the much-delayed release of Magic Knight Rayearth in July there will be no new games released according to Sega of America. So shouldn't it be the other way around, with the US getting the system right away and a delay in Japan while the Saturn finishes its run?

Not necessarily, because what should be and what is are rarely in alignment with each other. The launch of the Dreamcast in the US will be of vital importance to the future of Sega as both a hardware and software leader. The Saturn did very poorly in the US, which was somewhat surprising in light of the massive success of the Genesis. But when you break the facts down, the reasons for the Saturn's poor showing are obvious and the purpose of the delayed launch is made clear.

To understand fully we have to look back at the history of console success and failure in what are now the two main markets for Japanese developed consoles, the United States and Japan. It begins with the Nintendo Entertainment System and the Sega Master System. The Master System was the superior system in terms of hardware strength and graphic capabilities. But the NES achieved massive success in both Japan and the US while the Master System suffered horrible sales in both markets. This happened because of two simple facts; the NES had a tremendous advertising campaign that made Nintendo a household name, and they had the exclusive support of practically every third party software developer. Sega had to rely solely on their in-house developers and had little money focused on advertising. What they ended up with was a powerful system that had almost no games and little public awareness.

Then came the 16 bit generation and the Super Nintendo, Sega Genesis and Turbo-Graphics 16 or PC Engine from NEC. This was the period during which Sega figured out just how powerful the right ad campaign was in terms of achieving success amongst a broad spectrum of gamers. Nintendo continued their reign at the top of Japan with their first party talent and exclusive third party software from companies such as Square and Enix that dominate sales in Japan. But for the first time Nintendo felt some pressure from another company in the United States. Sega stayed right with Nintendo in and the race for dominance was neck and neck. Sega had learned from its mistakes with the Master System and came out with a massive ad campaign that made them the cool, young and hip company. They brought out their new mascot Sonic the Hedgehog and his lightning fast answer to Mario. Sega's name and new image brought them to the same recognition level as Nintendo in the US and put them on top with young adult game players. They had further expanded their in-house talent into what is now the largest and most talented in-house group for any company. They created a ton of franchise titles and produced sequel after sequel to keep fans coming back. They were also able to grab quite a few big name exclusive third party developers out from under Nintendo. Companies like Konami and Capcom were now making games for both systems and the playing ground was evening out. The Turbo Graphics 16 unfortunately went the way of the Master System. It was a great machine with some great games but neither economy was capable of supporting 3 separate systems.

Unfortunately, near the end of the Genesis' run Sega made two key mistakes with a couple of hardware add-ons. The Sega CD was a good idea and it truly improved the performance of the system. But it also split the market and Sega was again left with a system that was only supported by first and second party developers. It brought us the wonderful Lunar series, Sonic CD and many more great games but was plagued by bad FMV games from no name developers. The big developers weren't willing to risk doing a CD game when they could do one on a cartridge for 3 times the user base of the Sega CD.

Then came the 32X and the carnage to follow. The 32X was destined to fail. While the Sega CD had the support of Sega of Japan, the 32X didn't. It was Sega of America's toy and they received no support in terms of either games or money from Sega of Japan. It was too expensive, did little to improve on the core system and had almost no good games. Most of them were re-done Sega CD or Genesis games, or poorly made original games like Virtual Hamster. The 32X severely damaged Sega's reputation in the US. Players and the press condemned Sega for plaguing the market with the plastic piece of crap, and the memories of it lingered long afterwards.

On the heels of the 32X came the Saturn. Initially intended to be a 2D powerhouse, Sega altered the hardware at the last minute to allow for full 3D capabilities. They had to do this because a new competitor was entering the hardware market with a dedicated 3D console. Electronics giant Sony had put their hat into the ring with their Playstation and Sega panicked. They decided to release the system months earlier than the planned date in order to get a jump on Sony. As a result they received few extra sales because the majority had no idea that it was already out and only succeeded in angering some key retailers like Kay Bee Toys that were cut out of the early launch. Many of them later on refused to sell the Saturn system and games. Sony gained popularity quickly with 3D games that looked ten times better than Sega's even if they played worse, and an ad campaign that took Sega's cool Gen - X image and made it their own. Sega's ad campaign was very poorly thought out with "Conehead" commercials that focused more on idiotic conversations between bad actors than showing awesome looking games like Panzer Dragoon, Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter. Sony quickly stole all of Sega's thunder in the US and Nintendo was preparing a 64 - bit system to follow up the Super Nintendo. Japan was a different story and Sega flourished in their home country for the first time with original RPG's and simulator games like Sakura Taisen, unique in-house platform games like Nights, and the power of their arcade division which enjoys immense popularity in Japan.

But the real reason that I feel the Saturn did so poorly in America was not because of the 32X, the early launch, bad press, difficult hardware to program on or poor advertising, although they all played a part. The real problem was that they didn't handle the US launch differently than the Japanese launch. They treated both markets the same. They expected to ride on the popularity of the Genesis while focusing on the Japanese market where they've never had much success. They succeeded in Japan but the Genesis couldn't carry the Saturn because the franchise names that made the Genesis popular were nowhere to be found on the Saturn. Sonic the Hedgehog, Streets of Rage, Shinobi, Golden Axe, Eternal Champions, Ecco the Dolphin; games that made the Genesis what it was received poor sequels or no sequels at all on the Saturn. One of the biggest factors in carrying over the popularity of a system, especially in the US, is name recognition. Your franchise titles are extremely important and Sega forgot that. They only focused on one market and it cost them. It cost Nintendo as well. They focused more intensely on the US market with almost every franchise making an immediate return, but forgot about the two most important genres in Japan, RPG's and simulator games. And having the President of Nintendo insult the majority of the Japanese gaming public didn't help much either. N64 is doing as bad in Japan as the Saturn did in the US and vice versa.

And through all of this, Sony came out on top in a huge way. They took two completely different approaches in both markets. They brought in developers like Psygnosis, Naughty Dog, Singletrac and Park Place to launch the US system and focus on the most popular genres, action and sports games. In Japan they brought in developers to focus on RPG's and simulator games, and in the biggest coup ever they lured Square away from Nintendo to guarantee their success in Japan. By handling both markets as separate entities they were able to create success and become the clear leader in both without even having an in-house to speak of. There was no trick to it, just simple forethought and realizing that both markets are extremely different.

And this is why Sega is holding off the US launch of the Dreamcast. They have little to worry about in Japan. The Dreamcast is being released at the perfect time to pick up right where the Saturn left off. Launch games like Virtua Fighter 3 and Street Fighter 3: Second Impact will pretty much sell the system, and Sega is riding a wave of popularity in Japan that will carry over tremendously. Their in-house and arcade divisions are as strong as ever and they have the support of numerous third party companies that will focus on making games that will sell to Japanese game players.

The US is a different story. They need an incredible ad campaign to clean off their tarnished name and they need games, lots of them. They need to get back to those old franchises that made them popular