Assuming all goes as planned, today is the day that the game NHL 2K2 is released for the Sega Dreamcast. The reason this is significant, besides the fact that it’s the first hockey game for the Dreamcast in two years and the first attempt by seasoned sports developer Visual Concepts, is the last game to be released for the Dreamcast, officially signifying the end of this console’s life, as well as the last game Sega will make for one of their own systems. At just under 2.5 years, I’m not sure if the Dreamcast outlasted the Sega Saturn, the previous Sega console (which also met with a shortened life span).

Sega was one of a handful of companies to dare to enter the console market in the late 1980’s to go head to head with Nintendo, the then 900 lb. Gorilla of the industry. Despite being technologically superior to the NES, the Sega Master System ultimately stood no chance to the market leader, mostly a result of Nintendo’s then Draconian licensing policies (developers signed to Nintendo were not allowed to develop for other consoles). The fact that Sega was able to survive to try again based on their own properties is a testament to how strong a first party developer they were – people still clamor for a proper sequel to Phantasy Star, a game which started on the SMS.

Sega decided the way to get a leg up on the market was to be the technological front runner. To this end they developed the Sega Genesis, a 16-bit console (the NES and SMS were 8-bit) and brought it to market over a full year before Nintendo’s entry. Though the term “Genesis” implied it was first to market, it wasn’t – NEC’s Turbo Graphix 16 beat it to market. The Genesis beat out the TG16 due in no small part to the strength of their game Sonic the Hedgehog, featuring a signature character to rival Nintendo’s Mario. The real strength of the Genesis, however, was its sports titles. Electronic Arts’ EA Sports label cut its teeth on the Genesis and to this day people revel in their hockey titles.

Genesis held its own with the Super Nintendo (Nintendo’s 16-bit console), maintaining between 60 and 70 percent of the market until 1993 when Nintendo unveiled the show stopping Donkey Kong Country. At the end of the day, Nintendo had 53% of the 16-bit market, with the SNES selling like hotcakes after DKC‘s release. However it is arguable whether or not they “won” the race, since at the end of the 8-bit race they owned over 90% of the market. To some the fact that Sega was able to make such a dent in the market was victory enough.

Part of the reason the Genesis started to falter was due to what would become known as the cardinal sin in the console market place – they segmented the user base through critical perhiperials. As an example, when a light gun is released for a console, any game written to use that gun exclusively as a controller is limited to the number of people who have the gun, and not all of those people will buy it. Therefore developers are reluctant to make any gun games, since they may meet with low sales, and consumers don’t want to buy the light gun, since few games are written for it – a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts. Sega released an add-on called the SegaCD, to add CD-ROM capabilites to the Genesis. Most of the games on it were merely ports of their cartridge cousins, with redbook audio music tracks. Full motion video was limited to the 32 colors the Genesis could push, so any live action video looked like someone spilled coffee on it, and since it was at the dawn of CD technology, its 1X speed led to unacceptable load times. Then Sega decided to release the 32X, a device which would allow for 32-bit games. It saw a flurry of titles, but ultimately suffered due to developer tenacity on what was on the horizon.

The horizon saw the dawn on 32-bit dedicated consoles from Sega and Nintendo. Nintendo decided to spin the same card that Sega had pulled on them and upgrade the specs of their system to 64-bits (a fire which was hosed a bit by the annoucement of the 64-bit Atari Jaguar). Word came down the pipeline that consumer electronics company Sony was readying their own 32-bit console, but since NEC was also a consumer electronics company, this announcement brought about more doom proclimations than worry.

In early 1995 Sega, Sony and Nintendo were all slated to unveil new consoles in September. Sega got nervous and decided to unveil their console in May instead. With the exception of skeptical journalists and four major retailers, the system’s unveiling was a surprise to everyone, including developers. Since the technology was so new the system debuted at $400+, putting it out of the reach of most. Many didn’t have the motivation to buy it – it’s not like today when people save for months to buy an XBox, no one knew the Saturn was coming so soon. Also, since the developers were not let in on the secret, few games were available at launch, with the ones coming over the summer being buggy rush jobs.

By September Sega had sold 70,000 units. However by that point Nintendo had delayed the Nintendo 64 to April (later September) and unveiled the Virtual Boy instead. Consequently when Sony unveiled their PlayStation it sold 100,000 units in the first weekend. The Saturn never recovered. In late 1997 Sega called it quits on the Saturn in the U.S., with the last trickle of titles happening in the following year, though it did continue until 1999 in Japan.

Sega instantly started spinning Dural, the code name for their Saturn follow-up. It was named the Katana and Sega started to hype it. Later they announced a partnership with Microsoft. Microsoft would port Windows CE, a version of Windows to run on non-x86 platforms, to the system, now named Dreamcast. This instantly caused a stir, since there was a fear now that the system would become the butt of shovelware Windows ports, something which Sega insisted would not be the case. Sega was attempting to replicate the strategy which worked for the Genesis but failed with the Saturn – to beat the others to market. They had the advantages of a strong and large launch library and a $199 launch price. However, more ominous concerns in the form of the forthcoming PlayStation 2 and the future consoles from Nintendo and former partner Microsoft were on the horizon.

They were able to sign every major developer to develop for the Dreamcast, with two exceptions – Electronic Arts and Square. Square was under exclusive contract to Sony (they had been exclusive to Nintendo prior to the Nintendo 64) and their Final Fantasy series of games had become something of a religion in Japan. More upsetting was EA. Debate continues on whether the Genesis made EA who they were or whether EA made the Genesis what it was, but in any event by this point in time EA’s EA Sports line was wildly popular, to the point where it was believed that a console could not survive without them. Whether EA was on the take from Sony to stay off of Dreamcast or whether EA decided developing for too many consoles (and therefore running a constant risk of having unsold product) was not a viable plan, EA decided to not develop for the Dreamcast, though they commmited to the then-unnamed consoles from Microsoft and Nintendo and even continued to release Nintendo 64 titles. EA’s president went on to state that without them Dreamcast was doomed.

Sega sold 400,000 Dreamcast units on the launch date, and went on to sell 1.5 million units faster than they expected. One of the titles on launch was NFL 2K, which in the opinion of many was hands down the best football game ever made in terms of graphics and gameplay. It was developed by second party developer Visual Concepts, who went on to make the NBA 2K series and though they did not make NHK 2K they are the ones responsible for NHL 2K2, the aforementioned last game for the Dreamcast. EA went on to hold out for the release of the PlayStation 2, but when production problems limited that console’s run to 500,000 units during the Christmas 2000 season, EA posted a huge loss.

One of the advantages of the Dreamcast was its use of a media called GD-ROM, Gigabyte discs. Unreadable and uncopyable by CD-ROM drives, they afforded the developer more space than a CD-ROM, less space than a DVD, and a guarantee that it was uncopyable, and it was – until someone copied one. Sega also developed a format called MIL-CD so that makers of music CD’s could add enhanced Dreamcast content if they wanted to. However, once reverse engineered and coupled with the knowledge on how to download the contents of a GD-ROM to a PC, it opened up the door for piracy. Unlike other consoles, which needed hardware changes to make copied games work, Dreamcast piracy was open to anyone with a fast Internet connection and a CD-burner. A later Dreamcast revision removed the MIL-CD format but it was too late.

Not too long after the 1.5 million mark was hit, sales leveled off and game sales slumped. Many people held off on buying a Dreamcast to get a PlayStation 2. Developers started to cancel projects or move them to other consoles. Sega looked at the dire prospects of having three major competitors and decided that they could either go out of business trying to compete or leave the hardware market early and become a developer. Much to the chagrin of the Dreamcast supporters, they decided in early 2001 to pull the plug on the Dreamcast. They announced support for another year, but several developers decided to cancel any remaining projects they had left. Sega themselves decided to place the RPG Sequel Shenmue II on the XBox in the U.S. The last trickle of titles was scheduled for March 2002, but this month’s NHL 2K2 will be the end.

Ironically, Sega looks to go from the underdog in the hardware war to the top 3rd party software developer, ousting current leader EA. EA issued a statement downplaying the shift, but their attempts to kill off Sega largely backfired, resulting in a strong competitor. Today Sega is developing for all major consoles, including the PlayStation 2, GameCube, XBox and Game Boy Advance.

Though it is sad that Sega couldn’t hang in the console market today, and that there is now a huge barrier to a largely commercial market, it’s better to not lose Sega as a developer.