Sega fans have plenty to be salty about. These days, announcing yourself as a Sega fanboy/girl will, in all probability, see people laugh into their sleeve rather than wind up for all-out console warfare. Sega fandom seems to be based mostly on nostalgia at this point. The Tokyo-based company was a wildly creative force in their days as a platform holder, yet they’ve managed to squander a decades-deep treasure trove of intellectual property that would leave anyone in the industry envious.
It’s fair to say Sega have struggled a bit since going software-only. Spreading their titles out over a number of platforms in the immediate aftermath certainly didn’t help, fragmenting their fanbase in the process. Though they actually brought a lot to the table throughout the seventh generation, their success usually came from publishing quality content from other sources, like Platinum’s Mad World, Bayonetta, and Vanquish. Despite pushing hard into the mobile space in recent years, they’ve still managed to put out quality software, though it’s often from their western studios like The Creative Assembly and Sports Interactive. What fans really want to see is more in-house developed content, both announced and, perhaps more crucially, localised. Indeed, it’s been a tough ride for western fans of the company. Though Sega has seen critical success with the likes of Valkyria Chronicles and Yakuza, both franchises have faced issues breaking into the international market (to say nothing of those still waiting for Phantasy Star Online II). More often than not, when we do get a new title in a classically-Sega series, it’s dreck like Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric. Fans have simply lost patience with the company.
All of which makes it kind of exciting to hear Sega Sammy CEO Haruki Satomi say that the company wants to do better, both at home and away. Apparently, they’ve been learning from the way Shin Megami Tensei developer Atlus works, having purchased them in 2013. Satomi told Famitsu (courtesy of Siliconera), “As far as the Western market goes, we learned a lot from Atlus. If we can make a title with proper quality, I believe there’s a good chance for it to do well even in the West for players that like to play Japanese games.”
This may seem something of a no-brainer – put out good games and people will buy them, right? – but I can see why it wouldn’t be quite as simple as that for a large company like Sega. Atlus puts out quality games, but they are fairly niche titles, and their presentation reflects that. Their games aren’t extravagant graphical powerhouses, but this also means they aren’t subject to massive, bloated AAA budgets – they know what kind of game they want to make, and crucially, the audience that will buy it, and then budget for and create the game accordingly. Sega, as a whole, is a far larger concern, and it would surely want its games to sell to a wider userbase. However, learning from Atlus, along with finding and defining its audience, is undoubtedly a good first step.
Moreover, Sega has a history, as a former console developer, of making quality games, only to see them sit on shelves and fail to shift consoles. In such circumstances, it’s kind of easy to understand how they could have decided that focusing on quality was no longer a winning strategy, leading them to focus on other areas and perhaps pushing games out the door whether they’re ready or not. In his interview with Famitsu, Satomi specifically calls out a renewed focus on quality, rather than ship dates. “I’ve been talking to the employees about how we should start putting serious consideration into quality from this point on. Especially in North America and Europe, where it’s always been more of a focus on schedules, I believe that if we can’t maintain quality, it would be better to not release anything at all.”
The juiciest morsel from the interview, though? Answering a question about whether or not Sega have any high quality titles for release this year, Satomi offers the news that they may have something to show at this year’s Tokyo Game Show in September: “Since we’re seriously considering quality,” said Satomi, “I can’t make that promise for the time being, but I believe we will announce something for home console at Tokyo Game Show.”
Speculation over what this could be has been running rampant in the days since; just what could this TGS announcement be? Some fans have been going especially crazy with it, suggesting that Sega are months away from launching the Dreamcast II, and while I’m sure these people have their tongues lodged firmly in their cheeks, I have to admit that I am unreasonably excited by this interview. Maybe it’s an aftereffect of the knowledge that Shenmue III is actually happening, but I’m genuinely enthusiastic about Sega for the first time in God knows how long. I have to wonder if that Kickstarter has had an impact on Sega, and given them the kick up the backside they needed to take a look at themselves and realise things could be much, much better; Shenmue has a damn good chance of finishing up as the most successful video game Kickstarter ever, and with that still fresh in people’s minds, TGS would be an excellent time for Sega to reintroduce themselves.
OK, the Dreamcast II is a pipe dream, so let’s talk about something marginally less impossible: what I’d like to see is a return to the glory days of Sega’s development teams. I want the AM departments to mean something to gamers again, I want to see labels like Overworks, Smilebit, and Team Andromeda come back. I want to see the triumphant return of classic IPs like the fantastical Panzer Dragoon, the ridiculously cool Jet Set Radio, the funky oddities like Space Channel 5, or the beautiful one-offs like Skies of Arcadia – some of my favourite games of all time. Hell, at this point I’d be incredibly happy to get some more of the HD remakes the company were putting out just a few years ago, when rumours swirled that both Skies and Shenmue were on the to-do list. As a fan, I just want Sega to be relevant again, and I want a chance to play new games in those series that meant (and still mean) so much to me, or at least see a return of that rampant, crazed sense of creativity that led to so many new ideas back in their platform holder days – I never knew I wanted to skate with my gang through Shibuya tagging graffiti, be an unhinged cabby in San Francisco, or a jetpack-toting future firefighter until Sega showed me that I did.
But that’s probably asking for way too much too soon, right? So maybe the best idea would be to first give us back some of those older games we’ve been missing for years. With Shenmue back in the headlines, the time is ripe – more so than it’s ever been – for HD remasters of the first two games to hit modern platforms and maybe create a whole new generation of fans before the crowdfunded new game hits. Then follow that up with HD remasters of Skies of Arcadia, Jet Set Radio Future, and maybe give us some more Saturn stuff like Panzer Zwei and the awesome Fighters Megamix. Sure, that’s playing to that sense of nostalgia that perhaps isn’t too healthy a focus for a company looking for a way forward, but maybe Sega need to remind us why they were so great before they ask us to trust in the future. Besides, we’re talking about a company with a wealth of quality content locked up in the vault that they’re absolutely crazy for not capitalising on sooner. They should be using that legacy as a foundation to build upon – remind us why they were great, then show us they still can be. And hey, maybe after that they can try and entice pioneers like Yu Suzuki, Yuji Naka, Tetsuya Mizuguchi and Yukio Futatsugi back into the fold, the visionary creators of some of the most timeless, inventive games in the history of the medium. And then, y’know, give them all their teams back with their proper names, wink wink, nudge nudge.
Of course, I’m probably getting way, way ahead of myself here (that Shenmue III excitement-hangover is a long one); but if Sega have truly learned from Atlus, and really intends to identify its audience and then give them what they want (which shouldn’t be too difficult, considering many of us have been shouting at them about it for a fair while now), then hopefully the company can see success, and fans can rediscover why we used to love their games so much. If it takes a while, so be it; Satomi speaks of valuing quality over scheduling, so let’s see them stick to that.
But when it comes down to it, whatever we see unveiled at TGS, I just hope it’s good. I really want Sega’s output to excite me again, and Satomi seems to understand that, too: “Sega in the ‘90s was known for its ‘brand’, but after that, we’ve lost trust, and we were left with nothing but ‘reputation’. For this reason, we’d like to win back the customers’ trust, and become a ‘brand’, once again.”
I want that too. I want those blue skies black.