The Dreamcast, like any good dream, was over too quickly. Before we could taste all of the delights it had to offer and all see all of its wonders, we were unceremoniously jolted awake by the cold grip of reality. In less than two years the first system of its generation, the first with HD support and the first with a built in modem was lost to the hard truths of business.
Fingers have been pointed for years at the reason behind the Dreamcast’s demise: EA’s refusal to work with Sega or develop games for the system; the PS2’s sheer domination of the market for that entire generation of consoles; and Dreamcast’s lack of a DVD player is also a favorite. Whatever shortcoming or outside factor may have spelled doom for the Dreamcast, the important thing is how disappointed we all were to see it go. But what if it hadn’t gone anywhere?
What if the Dreamcast had continued to ride the high it had begun on September 9, 1999? Indeed, no other console to this day has seen such an impressive launch, with not only strong launch titles, but little to no hardware problems. Though many different issues have been cited for the Dreamcast’s downfall, no single factor can be blamed. Only the perfect storm could have resulted in a staying success of the Dreamcast, and instead of this, Sega faced adversity at every turn. We take a guess at what would have happened had Dreamcast not just burned hot, but long as well.
EA develops Dreamcast games – doubles the console’s marketing budget
In 1997, Sega was suffering. The company’s last few attempts to create an innovative console had fallen flat with the 32X, Sega CD and Saturn. Both consumers and developers were wary of Sega as their reputation was in the toilet. Many were asking whether or not Sega’s relatively brief foray into the hardware business should remain just that; brief. But Sega of Japan wasn’t beaten just yet. They were still committed to changing how video games were played; with a unique controller/memory card and, most importantly, a built-in modem. However, none of this mattered to EA, who ultimately gave Sega a snub that would ring disaster for the fledgling console.
Strangely enough, EA found much of its early success on all of Sega’s systems following the Genesis. But when word of the Dreamcast came down problems began almost immediately. News that Sega executives couldn’t decide whether or not to include a modem made planning difficult for the big developer. Further, after a snafu was blown out of proportion with the Dreamcast’s planned graphics chip developer, Sega chose an unknown company to make their chips. A rumor floating around EA claimed that the new chipmaker was made by a Sega exec’s country club crony.
After a lackluster performance from nearly all of Sega’s previous consoles, EA developers were understandably cautious of diving headlong into the Dreamcast, and EA execs agreed with them. In an effort to guarantee at least some stability in their investment, EA demanded to be the sole developer of sports games on the upcoming system. Sega balked, but didn’t give in. This was the last straw for EA and no effort on the part of Sega could get them to reconsider. In an instant Sega lost the support of one of the biggest developers in the world; all well before launch date.
So let’s say that things between Sega and EA didn’t end in stalemate. Back in 1997 when 3Dfx, the planned graphics chip maker, leaked the news of a new Sega console, Sega takes a step back and approaches the situation with a cool head. Using the leak as free publicity, Sega launches a guerilla marketing campaign to spread rumors and misinformation which drums up interest in the unknown console. More importantly, Sega continues to use 3Dfx for their graphics chip, which is far easier for developers to work with than a new, unknown chip.
With the excitement generated from a curious public, Sega gets to work to lock down exactly what they want from their new product. They begin to approach developers with gusto presenting a console that not only features the impressive 3Dfx graphics chip, but a built-in modem in every system. This peaks EA’s interest and even their desire to have uncontested sports games as launch titles is not enough to keep them away. The popular Madden goes head to head with the far superior NFL 2K series, which results in a healthy competition that sees sports games as a whole make leaps and bounds.
What EA really brings to the table, however, is marketing money. Whereas Sega saw a serious lack of marketing dollars, EA uses their deep pockets drum up support not only for their own games, but for the Dreamcast as well. Instead of Sega being forced to prop up its own games like Sonic Adventure with money they didn’t have, EA’s myriad commercials featuring the orange spiral sell tens of thousands more consoles. Lacking Microsoft of Sony’s budget, Sega was never really able to sustain a failing console for very long, but with a company as big as EA behind them, they now stand a much better chance.
Sega tosses in a DVD player – delivers blow to PS2 in Japan
Even with EA’s backing, the Dreamcast was doomed to failure from the beginning because Sega failed to recognize the importance of a revolutionary new technology – the DVD. Sony’s PS2 announcement in March 1999 was deviously timed to cut off Dreamcast at the knees as it implored PlayStation faithful to wait just six more months for a more powerful console. Knowing that it came with a DVD player was enough to draw many away from the now seemingly weaker Dreamcast; six months before its debut. The importance of a DVD player was surprising even to Sony and the PS2 became not only the most popular console in Japan, but also the most popular (and cheapest) DVD player.
Rewind to 1997, when the first DVD was released in early March. As Sega execs toss console ideas back and forth, one of them insists on including a DVD player with the system. Although this makes the Dreamcast itself larger and more expensive, he argues it will pay off, as using a DVD reader will also benefit games. Convincing the company to back such a new technology is an uphill battle, but as time passes and DVDs gain popularity, it becomes clear it is the right decision.
Sony’s March 1999 announcement receives a much more muted reception as the Dreamcast has already marched out its DVD player. The console’s price rises from $199 to $249 to pay for the new hardware, but this does nothing to stem the tide of frantic buyers on 9/9/99. New DVD stores begin to pop up in Tokyo and instead of using sub-par Toshiba DVD players; they display their movies on the far superior Dreamcast, which is lauded as the best DVD player on the market.
Manufacturing delays during the PlayStation 2’s launch give Dreamcast even longer to establish itself as a cheap and practical DVD player. Oh and a console too. All of Sony’s marketing dollars count for naught versus a console that has become the premier DVD player in both Japan and America. Dreamcast has given itself staying power and even when the PS2’s obvious superiority begins to manifest, enough Dreamcasts are sitting in living rooms to guarantee that developers don’t ignore it when considering making a game. Regardless, Sony and Microsoft’s seemingly endless money has caught up to them, and at this point, Sega is no longer an active participant in the console war. Rather they have made enough money to hunker down and begin work on a next generation console; now with sharper teeth, sharper eyes, and two giants to slay.
The Dreamcast 2 – Oh. My. God.
Sega developers have learned from their mistakes and have realized why the Dreamcast stagnated in 2002; unable to successfully compete with the Xbox and PS2. They needed more power. And more buttons. And an extra analog stick. Lacking the ability to strafe and look around while shooting a gun, throwing a grenade and turning on a flashlight, the original Dreamcast begins to see a significant downturn in 2002, but holds strong due to its DVD player and niche games. Even Halo fans find themselves being dragged back to Space Channel 5 after the LAN parties end.
True to form, Sega gets to work to beat the Xbox 2 and PS3 to the punch. Being the first console with HD support (up to 480p) the Dreamcast 2 aims for the moon and produces a 1080i console in late 2004, a full year before Xbox 360 and two years before the PlayStation 3. With a redesigned controller that only improves on the beloved original, HD support, launch titles to wow even the most skeptical, and a rabid fan following, the Dreamcast 2 solidifies Sega’s slightly wobbly position in the hardware game. And somewhere in Utah, one lonely games journalist finally puts down the bottle.
What do you think? What is the Dreamcast had manage to pull this off? Where do you think we would be today?
Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.