IGN rant blaming gamers for loss of innovation

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Editorial: You Failed SEGA - IGN

Editorial: You Failed SEGA
But you can avenge the death of Jet Set Radio.
by Levi Buchanan
February 23, 2009 - When planning last week's Where Did Sonic Go Wrong? feature, I asked fellow IGN editors about their take on Sonic's trajectory. Hilary Goldstein, editor-in-chief of IGN Xbox, linked Sonic's fortunes directly to SEGA's: "The real problem is that for many years, SEGA invested considerable resources into games that were critical hits but financial failures. SEGA chose to break up the teams that made Jet Set Radio, Panzer Dragoon Orta and Gunvalkyrie -- three of the best SEGA titles of the past generation -- and focus on products that made cash."

Remember that for a moment.

There is something deliciously rich about reading message board rants and blog missives that excoriate publishing giants like Activision and Electronic Arts for pushing a steady stream of sequels and franchise expansions into the marketplace. Gamers act as if they abhor such practices, but sales figures say something quite different. Last holiday season, EA released the innovative first-person free-runner Mirror's Edge as part of their stated effort to focus more on original, non-annual games. Guess how Mirror's Edge sold? It didn't even reach the top 20 in November, it's first month of release, typically the window where games make their biggest splash.

Nice moves, guys.

Is Mirror's Edge a perfect game? No. But it was an intense effort from EA to respond to concerns that videogames were turning into soulless commodities. Instead of rewarding EA's risk-taking, we all said "more please" to Call of Duty: World at War. That's not a slam against World at War, because it is a fine World War II shooter. But how many World War II shooters do we really need to play? Your dollars just told these publishers that you value refinements over revolutions.

But this is hardly a new phenomenon. The duplicitous nature of gamers once laid low an entire hardware maker by not supporting what they are now publicly demanding: SEGA.

On September 9, 1999, SEGA released the Dreamcast in North America. The console was the culmination of four years of listening to complaints about the Saturn and responding with a feature set that met almost all of them. It wasn't just the addition of a modem for online play and the ease of programming to encourage greater third-party support, though, that made the Dreamcast such a special machine. The Dreamcast was SEGA's love letter to gamers that wanted fresh concepts and ideas.

The majority of gamers stamped it with "return to sender."

Samba!Sony's promises of "Toy Story" graphics for the PlayStation 2 (still waiting) blunted the Dreamcast's momentum and eventually forced SEGA into pulling the plug before it pulled the whole company under with it. The embrace of the PS2 is not a negative. The effect of the PS2's success on the videogame industry -- heck, the entire entertainment industry -- cannot be undersold.

But SEGA was trying to do something very clever with Dreamcast software like Samba de Amigo, Space Channel 5, ChuChu Rocket!, and Jet Grind Radio. Why did gamers largely turn their backs on this stuff? And does anybody see the crazy irony behind the lamentation of an over-reliance on franchises when great games like this now exist in the rear view mirror?

It wasn't always like this. There was a time in this industry when SEGA reigned supreme. SEGA's development studios were arcade kings due to such blistering hits like Space Harrier and After Burner. Their rule was extended by monsters like Daytona USA, Virtua Cop, and Virtua Fighter.

That success was not replicated at home right away. The Master System was a flea on the rear-end of Nintendo's elephant. Nevermind the amazing games for the Master System like the Phantasy Star and Alex Kidd in Miracle World. The NES cleaned the Master System's clock. The Genesis, on the other hand, was a big hit and ran neck and neck with the Super NES for sometime. Factors contributing to that success are legion, from Sonic the Hedgehog to the emergence of Madden. The accurate recreations of arcade hits like Altered Beast sure didn't hurt either. SEGA was starting to really show its chops with innovative home games during the Genesis' halcyon days, from ToeJam & Earl to Ecco the Dolphin. And SEGA was rewarded for those efforts.

Not so much with the Saturn, but that was a disaster of SEGA's own making. Two of SEGA's greatest achievements appeared on the Saturn -- Panzer Dragoon and NiGHTS -- but the console was so mishandled and mismanaged that you cannot fairly blame gamers for letting the Saturn wither on the shelf

But not the Dreamcast. And definitely not the first wave of SEGA's post-hardware games. After an initial outpouring of success with the Dreamcast, SEGA threw hardcore gamers a real party with such incredible new games like Jet Grind Radio and Samba de Amigo, as well as excellent arcade ports such as SEGA Rally and House of the Dead 2. The original Dreamcast titles were fresh ideas we had not seen before, especially something like Jet Grind Radio, which pioneered an entirely new art style for games that is still used today. How did we thank SEGA? By stepping over Shenmue on the way to pre-order SSX.

Remember the quote from Hilary that opened this editorial: "The real problem is that for many years, SEGA invested considerable resources into games that were critical hits but financial failures. SEGA chose to break up the teams that made Jet Set Radio, Panzer Dragoon Orta and Gunvalkyrie -- three of the best SEGA titles of the past generation -- and focus on products that made cash."

Hilary is dead right. SEGA did not see the death of the Dreamcast as a reason to stop weaving its magic and immediately set about crafting its unique brand of games for the surviving machines like the Xbox. But sales of those games certainly told them otherwise. We weren't interested no matter what system they appeared on. Take your flying dragon action game and stuff it up Sonic's cakehole. That gorgeous rocket-skating game with a bleeding edge soundtrack? Eat it. We're playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skateboarding 4! And then we're going to have the cojones to complain a few years later that -- boo hoo -- EA just keeps annualizing Need for Speed. (Side note: Those of you that ignored EA's Shox are jerks.)

I bring this up now specifically because of the economic climate. In 2001, there was an assumption that videogames were recession-proof. After the last six months of heartbreaking stories about studio closures, we know that's not true.

At DICE 2009, EA CEO John Riccitiello's stated his belief that the recession was a "blessing" for the industry. It would shake out C-level players that made C-level games. He also said EA would continue to invest in new ideas with games like Dante's Inferno and Dragon Age. Good on them. If they are great games, then the ball is definitely in our court.

The shrinking amount of discretionary dollars to spend on videogames puts us at a critical crossroads. They way we spend them right now could have very long-reaching effects on the games of the next ten years.

I implore you to consider the legacy of SEGA's business-driven abandonment of games like Jet Set Radio Future. The tanking of the Dreamcast cannot be avenged, but nor should it be forgotten. So, think about the ghost of Panzer Dragoon before you put down that copy of Dead Space and pick up the latest Guitar Hero. And before you curse Activision for ditching games like Brutal Legend, look down and make sure you don't have the blood of Gunvalkyrie on your hands. Because if you do, you lack the righteousness needed to rail against that decision.

Spend smartly. Spend like the possibility of a new Jet Set Radio depends on it.
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