Though its roots can be (and often are) disputed, it’s commonly accepted that video gaming as we know it originated from America. And despite some early Western pioneers such as Nolan Bushnell and Ralph Baer, it was the Japanese who took the vague notion of electronic entertainment and turned it into the global industry it is today.
In the early days of the gaming boom it was two companies who were fighting it out for victory in the market – Sega and Nintendo. It was the latter company that got off to the stronger start with its successful Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), though Sega fought back with great success thanks to its second-generation games console, the Mega Drive (or Genesis, as it was called in North America).
However, with the arrival and spectacular rise to power enjoyed by Sony and its PlayStation and PlayStation 2 in the ‘90s both Sega and Nintendo began to struggle in the market. Nintendo, of course, rode out the bad times and has recently masterminded a quite spectacular return to dominance with is handheld console the DS and its motion-sensing home console the Wii.
It was a very different story for Sega, however. Its Sega Saturn console, released in 1995 to rival Sony’s machine, was a big hit with core gamers but struggled to gain from the tremendous market growth being driven by the PlayStation. Cutting its losses, only three years later the company released its Dreamcast console in an effort to gain a technological edge over PlayStation and a healthy headstart over the upcoming PlayStation 2, which was not released until 2000.
The Dreamcast was a technological triumph, and was in many ways ahead of its time (an example being its integration of internet connectivity), but a combination of poor marketing, lack of third party publishing support (crucially from Electronic Arts) and mounting pressure from Sony led to Sega dropping its support of the console, and indeed dropping out of the hardware race altogether, in 2001.
Faced with the abandonment of its traditional heartland, Sega underwent a difficult transition from platform holder to software manufacturer. It was not long before the previously unthinkable happened and Sega released its first title on a Nintendo format – Chu Chu Rocket on the Game Boy Advance.
However, the troubled times continued at the company, eventually leading to parent company CSK selling off its interest in the firm. After prolonged negotiations with a number of parties, a controlling stake was eventually bought by Japanese arcade company Sammy, which had previously enjoyed great success with its Pachinko machines in Japan. An internal reorganisation followed, leading to the departure of many famous names – most notably Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the lead developer of classic Sega titles Sega Rally, Rez and Space Channel 5. However, it was the fallout of this era that lead Sega onto the path of Western licensing.
Though Sega’s most famous mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, continued to be a commercial success for the firm, Sega also realised that unless it was able to tap into the growing Western market it would continue to struggle to compete on the global stage.
A spate of development acquisitions followed, in which time Sega purchased UK game development studios Creative Assembly (of Rome: Total War fame) and Sports Interactive (developers of Football Manager). The company also teamed up with acclaimed Western developers such as Bizarre Creations (The Club), Monolith (Condemned) and Gearbox (Aliens) to bolster its software catalogue with a wide range of Western-friendly titles. It also established a brand new development outfit of its own called Sega Racing Studio, which is based in the UK.
Sega has continued to increase its third-party publishing and development relations and now lays claims to several key licences sourced from outside of the game industry. Here’s a look at some of its key licenses:
One of the most reverenced names in the cinema, the Alien brand has enjoyed mixed success in the game market. Though there have been a handful of celebrated Alien games in the past (most notably Rebellion Software’s 1994 hit Alien vs Predator for Atari’s doomed Jaguar console and Probe’s Alien 3 in 1993), but the license has been relatively inactive in the current gaming era. However, it’s obvious suitability for a modern gaming adaptation has lead many to predict great things for the licence going forwards.
Sega has kept rather quiet regarding its plans for the licence, though it is known that it has teamed up with developer Gearbox (best known for Brothers in Arms) to produce a first person shooter for next-generation games consoles. It is also collaborating with role-playing specialist Obsidian (which rose to fame with Never Winter Nights 2 and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II) for an RPG based on the licence.
THE GOLDEN COMPASS
With the first film having recently done well at the box office, and with more adaptations of Philip Pullman’s novels possibly on the way to the big screen, The Golden Compass was an obvious target for Sega.
The success of the game, which combined platforming and puzzle gameplay, has been varied, with its strong European performance outdoing its somewhat disappointing showing in North America. However, like with all movie-licensed games, sales should logically continue for some time, particularly with a high definition Blu-Ray release on the way in April 2008 sure to provide a marketing boost.
BEIJING OLYMPICS 2008
One of the most cherished licenses in the world, the Olympics have always been a firm favourite in the games market. Whilst the last Olympics title, Sony’s Athens 2004, underachieved on the whole, Sega’s multi-platform plans for its licensed effort should do well.
The big hook with Sega’s game is the ability for gamers to play against others from around the world via Microsoft’s Xbox Live network, Sony’s PlayStation network and on PC. Online gaming is becoming an increasingly important factor in the games sector – a fact Sega is wise to.
The Iron Man film, which is due out later this year, may have had a troubled beginning, but with Marvel self-financing the movie there’s reason to expect big things from Robert Downey Jr. and co.
The film began production in 2000 under the Universal banner, only to be shifted on to 20th Century Fox and New Line Cinema before being re-acquired by Marvel. Sega then announced late last year that it had struck a deal with Marvel to secure the global licensing rights to the upcoming game.
Blending Iron Man’s aerial prowess and strength with the free-roaming game genre has great potential, and whilst gaming’s history has been littered with failures on a similar theme (such as EA’s Superman Returns) Sega could well have a massive global hit on its hands.
THE INCREDIBLE HULK
Though little is known of the game as of yet, The Incredible Hulk will, like the Iron Man, be based on the movie of the same name due out later this year. Again, like the Iron Man, Marvel re-acquired the movie rights to its licence – this time after the release of Universal’s 2003 movie Hulk.
The film will deviate in style from Ang Lee’s 2003 effort, opting for a grittier take on the Hulk story. Though Sega has said next to nothing about its game, expect a similar structure to Iron Man – an open-world environment, most likely with high levels of destructibility.
The Hulk doesn’t have much in the way of gaming history. 2005 saw the release of Vivendi’s Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction. It was generally well received by critics, though did not perform well enough to warrant a sequel.
HAPPY TREE FRIENDS
Like so many modern hits, Happy Tree Friends begun its life as an independently produced online phenomenon – in this instance a flash animation. But such is its cult following that Sega last year entered into an agreement with production studio Mondo Media to produce a game based on the series for PC and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade download service.
Happy Tree Friends has enjoyed success on MTV and has sold in excess of one million DVDs worldwide. It’s also a regular chart topper in iTunes’ podcast download charts.
The game, entitled Happy Tree Friends False Alarm, is an action-puzzle title that sees players tackle obstacles in an assortment of 3D environments across ten levels.
Though perhaps not as well known as some of the higher-profile licenses seen here, Bleach has a considerable cult following amongst Eastern manga fans.
Having begun in 2001 as a regular feature in Japanese comic Weekly Shonen Jump, Bleach follows the exploits of Ichigo Kurosaki, a school student who can see ghosts. The franchise has since been adapted into an animated TV series, two feature films, a rock musical, a successful trading card game and a number of video games.
Sega will be publishing two games based on the Bleach license this year – Bleach: Shattered Blade on Wii and Bleach: The Blade of Fate on DS.