Last time here on The Bit Wars, I took a look back at the initial launch of the Sega Dreamcast — a system that many of us will never forget, and with good reason! The Sega Dreamcast was simply an innovative little machine that offered gamers so many great moments, such as: enormously entertaining multiplayer experiences with new entries into the sports gaming world (2K), a memory card that we could interact with, and finally, the pièce de résistance… ONLINE F*@#ING GAMING!
While the Dreamcast was not the first home console to be graced with the beauty of the internets, it was by far the first real online gaming system. The U.S. systems came bundled with a 56k modem which allowed gamers to gain access to the internet AND connect to Sega’s online servers, SegaNet for a monthly fee (around $20 a month). Sega was smart in the fact that they tried to lock gamers into an 18 month contract with SegaNet, but with your commitment to the SegaNet online services, you were eligible for a rebate that covered the entire cost of the Dreamcast. Also, to top-off that already great offer, Sega threw in a keyboard to make online browsing/gaming even easier.
I wish I had a video camera when I first connected to a game of NFL 2K via the Dreamcast, I can guarantee that my reactions would have been priceless, as were most of our reactions back then. We were playing with faceless people with whom we had never met, and kicking their can all over the place (alright… I was the one getting the beatdown probably). This truly was a revolutionary moment in gaming — especially because if you weren’t accustomed to online gaming on a home computer, this was the first time you were experiencing this type of gameplay. This was a new age in gaming. This was a time that we can look back on and remember fondly if only for the notion that most of us were playing against our peers and not having to deal with the annoyance/humiliation we can experience today when we play against 11 year-old kids on XBL and PSN.
Do you guys remember Phantasy Star Online?!
Sorry, I got sidetracked while writing this article because I started thinking about how awesome it was to play an online RPG back then. Plus, if anyone is interested in playing PSO, there is still a small group of individuals that play online with their Dreamcasts. How you ask? Well obviously the SegaNet servers are out of commission these days, but with the loyalty to their beloved Dreamcasts, individuals have set-up personal servers that gamers can connect to with their systems.
>> But enough reminiscing about online gaming, let’s talk about the quirky little VMU (Virtual Memory Unit).
One part saved game storage, one part pseudo mini-game device, the VMU was ahead of its time when the Dreamcast launched in the late 90’s. The main function of the device was of course saving your game files, but the truly unique aspect of the VMU was the screen that was coupled with a D-pad and A/B buttons; this allowed you to be able to play certain mini-games as a companion to the main game you were playing on your Dreamcast. While most developers used the functionality of the VMU as nothing more than mere logo and character displays, there were some games that made a legitimate attempt at adding so much more to the game experience through the VMU.
The main VMU mini-game experience that many of us probably share is Chao Adventure, the companion piece to Sonic Adventure. In Chao Adventure, you “train” your Chao to become faster and stronger, and you can play this on your VMU when you transfer a Chao from the Chao Garden in Sonic Adventure. You can then transfer your Chao back into Sonic Adventure after you’re done playing Chao Adventure on your VMU.
>> But enough reminiscing about the cool little VMU, let’s talk about Sega’s exit from the hardware market and the demise of the Dreamcast merely two years after launch.
To be honest, it still hurts. It’s kind of like when you’re super close (read: in love) with a girl at school, and then she’s like, “I’m leaving school, but I’m still going to be constantly around in some form to remind you of what could have been.”
I’m not bitter about the whole Dreamcast situation… I understand what had to be done at Sega HQ. The switch that was made from being a hardware developer with in-house software development teams, to Sega being strictly a software developer for multiple platforms was a good business manuever. The Dreamcast did do extremely well compared to Sega’s previous effort, the Saturn, but they still could not ignore the shadow that was looming over them.
Sony’s Playstation 2.
There are a few factors that led to the demise of the Dreamcast in essentially its infancy.
First, we have the fact that the Dreamcast used GD-roms instead of a DVD-rom format. GD-roms are CD based and they have a storage capacity of 1.2GB, whereas DVD-roms have a capacity of about 4.7GB for a single-layer DVD (roughly 8.5GB for a dual-layer single-sided DVD). When the Dreamcast launched, it simply was not economically feasible to incorporate a DVD format. Sony saw this as an opportunity and jumped on incorporating a DVD drive into the PS2 to one-up Sega, and everyone wanted a DVD player at this point.
Second, we have to take into account the rampant piracy that was becoming a huuuuge thorn in Sega’s side in the late 90’s. It was incredibly easy for individuals to simply take the game image and post it online, and then have someone download said game image and burn it to a CD-r. The Dreamcast does read burnt CDs, so piracy became a huge and important factor (IMO at least) in Sega deciding to exit from the hardware market to focus on developing software for other platforms that have more security measures intact to thwart piracy.
Lastly, Sega probably felt like they could not compete with the Playstation 2. I assume that because of the last two factors, coupled with the enormous amount of control that Sony had over the minds of gamers with the whole “Emotion Engine” angle, Sega saw something that I wish they didn’t: that simply developing software for multiple platforms could drive their profit margin up considerably. Sega is a business after all, and they were just trying to make sure that the company was in the right position to become a mainstay in the video game world.
With that being said, let’s all hope for the Dreamcast 2 someday, somehow! 😀
If any of you want to leave comments below talking about your past experiences, favorite games on the Dreamcast, or anything at all about Sega’s last console, I’d be more than happy to join in the conversation!