After posting my essay on my proposed "Sega Phoenix" video game system, which combines Genesis, Saturn, and Dreamcast into one unit (plus some improvements), I posted it on my Gamasutra blog. William Johnson offered his insights on the idea:
Why would Sega need to release a system to rerelease their old games. They've been more recently flooding Steam and the iOS App Store with their old school titles, and they've already released quite a few on WiiWare, and there were the Sonic Mega Collection on the XB360, and PS3. I don't understand how having their own system would make this any better or easier.
Also, judging by how much money Sony and Microsoft have lost this generation, I can't possibly understand how it would be a good idea to enter a market where you are pretty much guarantied to loose money. Sega really hasn't even been doing very well financially. So I'm pretty sure they don't have the capital to do something like this.
What I think might make more sense is if Sega could bring back the arcade scene. That is where they use to do really well. But I really don't know if the arcade scene can ever make a come back in the states.
Well, in addition to playing the classic games, there would also be new games. For example, did you know there is a thriving indie scene for the Dreamcast? There have also been a couple of excellent RPGs for the Genesis.
You bring up a very good point - why bother when these games are available as digital downloads? This is the first question investors would ask before writing any checks. I think a Sega "Phoenix" would have several advantages. First, there is something tangible to having physical media, when everything is becoming a digital "service" that you, the consumer will never own. I have a number of downloaded games on my iPhone, and Virtual Console games on my Wii. I also have all the major retro system emulators on my PC. Access is not an issue. And yet, I still prefer to play my Sega games on the actual system, connected to a television. It just feels better. It's an emotional appeal, I know.
Second, as I suggested, there would be NEW games created, and I would fully embrace the indie scene. That's a source of new inspiration, and this industry badly needs new blood. This also provides an outlet for developers who cannot afford the money to create AAA titles, or wish to create something outside of the "cinematic gun game" paradigm.
Third, cost. It shouldn't cost you anywhere near $50 million to create a Dreamcast or Genesis game. Development costs will be far more sensible and far more sane. The system will also force designers to create video GAMES, and not "cinematic experiences." In other words, it's a different scene and a different market.
Fourth, and I know that this is another silly emotional appeal, but "greatest hits" packages suck. All of them. Whenever I see a "greatest hits" CD or video game release, my brain just goes, "Cheap, cheap!" This is not to say that I don't appreciate the many retro game compilations on the modern systems, I enjoy them very much. But, once again, I find myself going back to the original DC or Saturn or Genesis version. I'd rather listen to one of Miles Davis' albums than just his Greatest Hits CD.
Fifth, Sega's "greatest hits" discs have only scratched the surface, and hundreds of titles have been overlooked. There's little incentive to pick anything beyond the biggest hits, because, well, it's a greatest hits package. This leaves out countless titles that are excellent and deserve a fair chance.
The Japanese Saturn is the best example of this. There are so many fantastic game titles from Japan that were never released in the West, it's astounding ("Don't give in to wonder," sayeth the bard McKenna).
The biggest challenge for retro video games is licensing, and that is a serious hurdle. There's no doubt about it. And it's very unfortunate, because it means either losing many classic games (NES Batman, for example), or cutting out music from the disc (Crazy Taxi, or Tony Hawk). As the video game medium matures, this will become more important as an issue, so it needs to be addressed. One cannot have an art form without a history, and you cannot build a medium on instantly-disposable throwaways. Such is the path to extinction.
With digital downloads or greatest hits releases, there isn't much incentive to deal with these issues. Perhaps with the investment of a hardware platform, there will be more pressure to resolve these issues and make them work. And let us not forget that the Sega Phoenix would NOT be competing directly with Microsoft, Sony or Nintendo. EA could release John Madden Football '92 (the one with the killer ambulance) without fear of cannibalizing sales of this year's Madden.
I believe that you can make money on a business venture like the Sega Phoenix. I think there's money to be made, and a sizable market to be tapped. There are "lapsed gamers" who quit playing video games years ago. There are "non gamers" who have rarely, if ever, picked up a controller. And there are families who want to play together, child and parent alike. If you offer a product of sufficient quality, and if you offer it at a low enough price, and if you can appeal to these markets, you can have a success.
Video games are now old enough where these generational issues are emerging. To expand the game market, you need to expand your audience. Here is an audience that is being neglected, and will continue to be neglected (Sony and Microsoft's next machines will be multi-media set-top boxes, not games systems exclusively). And remember the mantra - People Love Video Games.
This idea can work. The Sega Phoenix can make money. It can appeal to this market.
Thanks a lot for reading, William. You make a lot of excellent points and you were very inspiring. I appreciate your insights.
P.S. I should also point out Sega's current financial situation. They're struggling, and they're probably headed for extinction, along with most of Japan's video game industry. But that's another reason for releasing the Sega Phoenix. You've got terminal cancer and you're going to die, anyway. Might as well go out fighting with one last, heroic gamble. The Sega of old were big-time gamblers, which is what made them Great. And they haven't been Great since the Dreamcast died.