Now that the Saturn has been all but abandoned by third parties in
the U.S., it's easy to see what went wrong with the Saturn. It was not one
major mistake by Sega of America, but a combination of mistakes that
added up. We will then see if, base on what Sega is doing now, it's going
to repeat the same mistakes or be as successful with the Katana as it was
with the Genesis.
The first mistake was actually done by Sega of Japan, Sega of
America's parent company. When they designed the Saturn, they thought
the play mechanics of video games were going to stay the way they have
been in the past; that is, 2D games would predominate. That's why the
Saturn was not really designed to handle 3D games. Only at the last
minute, when they saw what Sony was up to with the PlayStation, they
decided to add another Hitachi chip so it could handle 3D better. In the
end, the Saturn could do decent 3D, but at a price: it was more difficult to
program it than in the PlayStation.
This is exactly the next problem the Saturn had: it was difficult to
program compared to the PlayStation. Since it was so easy to program 3D
games with lots of lighting effects on Sony's machine, game developers
always preferred it, so they made more games for it. Sure, the Saturn
could make decent 3D too, but since it required more effort from the
developers, many of them didn't bother.
The Saturn's surprise launch also turned out to be very harmful to
Sega. First of all, customers and developers were not expecting it, so
they couldn't plan either their purchases or their development cycles,
respectively. On the other hand, people knew about the PlayStation launch
for months, so they were excited about it. This surprise move also pissed
many retailers who were kept out of Sega's launch, like Kay Bee Toys, who
then proceeded to refuse to carry the Saturn ever since.
Related to the surprise launch was the fact that only a few titles (4
or 5) were available for the Saturn at the time it was released. The
PlayStation, on the other hand, had about 15, which made customers
perceive it as a better value.
The Saturn's relatively high price at launch (I say relatively because
the $400 of the Saturn was nothing compared with the $700 of the 3DO)
also hurt them a lot. It's true that this price included a fair amount of
internal RAM that let most gamers save their games without buying any
additional memory, but most customers didn't see that. They just saw the
$300 price tag. By the time they saw they couldn't save, they already
"forgot" that the total cost was starting to add up.
Another mistake from Sega, which I believe was actually its biggest
one, was that Sega underestimated its new rival. Sega thought that since
Sony was a newcomer to the video game business, it could not compete
with them, since they have 15 + years of experience making video games.
Sony, however, having more money than Sega, "convinced" many of the
best developers into making games for their system, with either a small
or permanent window of exclusivity. Sony's existing reputation for
quality products didn't hurt either.
All this snowballed into most people thinking the PlayStation was
cooler than the Saturn, which meant buying more machines and more
games for the system, which in turn meant more developers and retail
stores supporting it. The rest is history.
Looking at what Sega is doing now with the Katana, we see that Sega
is avoiding most (not all) of its past mistakes. First of all, they are
taking 3D gameplay into consideration. The PowerVR chipset, by NEC, that
will be used
for the Katana will be able to process 1 million polygons per second, with
all options (light effects, gourad shading, shadows, etc.) enabled. This is
a whole lot better than any current video game system.
Because of the NEC chipset, and because of Sega's alliance with
Microsoft (Microsoft will supply one of the Katana's operating systems;
Sega will make another one), the next Sega system will be easy to
program. Furthermore, it will be easy for developers to release the same
game on PCs with the new PowerVR board, the Katana, and the arcades
(since they will all use the same chipset, with slightly different
configurations), therefore, encouraging them to use that particular
Furthermore, if there is anything the Katana will NOT have is a
surprise launch. Rumors about the system have already been on the
Internet and on video game magazines for months. Furthermore, Sega has
already "preannounced" that it will be launched in the United States and
Europe on September 1999. So people are already excited about it.
Bernie Stellar, Sega of America's president, has also "preannounced"
that up to 15 games will be available for the Katana at launch, and that 30
to 40 more games will be available a few months afterwards. That's a
good start, and could build a good momentum.
Sega now knows that they have to price its new system right in
order for it to succeed. That's why they are shooting for a price of $200
to $250 at launch, which is reasonable.
There are only two details which, in my opinion, have not changed
for Sega. First, Sega always insists on being the first one to release a
new system. This is actually giving its competitors the opportunity to
release, a few months later, a new system more technologically advanced
than Sega's own. This didn't seem to hurt Sega much in the 16-bit era, but
definitely hurt them against Sony and Nintendo. Another aspect is that,
try as it may, Sega does not have as much money as Nintendo or Sony, so it
cannot spend as much money in advertisement as either. Some things
In the end, it seems like Sega's Katana will be more supported by
developers, retailers, and customers, although you never know until you
see the results. I am cautiously optimistic that Sega will be able to play
by the new rules of the industry and be more successful than in the past.
Information for this editorial was taken from Next Generation's March
1998 issue and web site.