Pour One Out for the Dreamcast, Sega’s Awesome, Quirky, Gone-Too-Soon Console

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On September 9, 1999, Sega launched the Dreamcast in North America — it’s last, best hope for relevance in the console market. The console, which was intended to put Sega on a more even footing against competitors like Sony, wound up being the company’s hardware swan song. Sega never launched another console — the company’s Genesis Mini, which releases on September 19, is the first Sega-branded hardware to ship in 20 years (not counting the products Tectoy produces in the Brazilian market).

The Dreamcast is a rare example of a platform that failed despite having relatively few weaknesses or flaws relative to other consoles at the time. The N64 wasn’t as popular as Nintendo hoped because the cartridges of the day had limited storage capacity and therefore limited space for detailed textures. Despite these limits, they were also quite expensive compared with CD-based media. The previous Sega console, the Sega Saturn, was difficult to program and had been rushed out the door in an attempt to beat Sony’s PlayStation to market. The original Xbox One was less powerful than the PlayStation 4SEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce and debuted with a confused, half-baked marketing strategy that saw Microsoft attempt to launch a new game console by focusing on everything it could do besides gaming, and pour substantial resources into a camera add-on rather than the actual machine.

The Dreamcast, in contrast, was a solid piece of kit. It used a 32-bit two-way superscalar RISC CPU designed by Hitachi, the SH-4, rated for 360 MIPS and clocked at 200MHz. The CPU offered an 8KB instruction cache and 16KB data cache and interfaced with a GPU designed by NEC, the PowerVR2. While reportedly not as powerful as the 3dfx hardware that Sega had originally planned to use for the Dreamcast, the PowerVR solution was an affordable option and an effective one. The Dreamcast was designed to use off-the-shelf components to make it an easier target for developers, but the platform was ahead of its time in several respects.

Dreamcast Controller

The Dreamcast controller, with Video Memory Unit (VMU)

The Dreamcast shipped with a modem at a time when 80 percent of the US population was still using dial-up to get online. It used a GD-ROM format that could hold up to 1GB of data — not as large as DVDs, but more capacity than a typical CD-ROM offered. It offered a memory card that doubled as a miniature gaming device, the Visual Memory Unit. Sega’s overall goal with the Dreamcast was to build excitement around its products in the months before the PlayStation 2 would debut, to give it a leg up on the next-generation competition.

From the beginning, however, the console faced an uphill battle. Retailers who had been burned by short-lived Sega products like the Sega CD or 32X (not to mention the Sega Saturn) were unhappy with the company. Sega had initially intended to use hardware from 3Dfx, but when 3Dfx filed for its own IPO it revealed the Dreamcast before Sega had been prepared to make the announcement. Meanwhile, EA decided not to support the Dreamcast, despite having been a major partner on previous Saturn systems. According to a retrospective on the console, this decision was driven by a host of factors, including the specific component choices Sega made, the company’s indecision over whether to make a modem standard on the entire console range, and Sega’s hardball tactics during licensing may have killed EA’s interest in the platform. A different source in the same article, however, claims that EA walked away from Dreamcast because Sega wouldn’t give it a guaranteed exclusive on all sports’ titles for the console, given that Sega had just purchased a development studio, Visual Concepts, to build these titles.

Sony’s PS2 Marketing Blitz

The other factor that has to be factored into the Dreamcast’s demise is the absolute torrent of marketing Sony unleashed. In September 1999, all eyes were on Sony’s PlayStation 2, still over a year away. In theory, this should have opened a window for the Dreamcast to establish itself. In practice, that didn’t happen. Sony put an all-out marketing blitz behind the PlayStation 2, with its “Emotion Engine.” Sony’s reputation, by this point, was also better. The company had shipped one massive hit, the original PlayStation. Sega, in contrast, had shipped a number of half-baked, expensive flops. The Sega Saturn debacle was only part of the problem. The Sega CD and Sega 32X — both Genesis / Mega Drive add-ons — had failed to impress the market. Handheld products like the Sega Nomad had flopped.

If you were on the fence between Sega and Sony in the late 1990s, Sony looked like the safer bet. Sega’s Dreamcast enjoyed a very strong North American launch, but sales dropped off as the PS2’s launch date approached. Sony had the deep pockets to dramatically outspend Sega in terms of marketing dollars, while Sega was losing money despite brisk hardware sales. It cut Dreamcast prices to boost demand, but that meant taking a loss on the platform. While the attach rate for games was reportedly high, the install base wasn’t large enough for the company to achieve profitability this way. By the time the PS2 actually launched, Sega was hemorrhaging cash. Unable to compete with the PS2, Sega threw in the towel on hardware manufacturing altogether.

Image credit: TheDreamcastJunkyard, which has additional screenshots of comparisons between PS2 and Dreamcast visuals in Ferrari F355 Challenge, for the curious.

Compare Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 games today, and it’s clear that the gap between them wasn’t as large as Sony wanted it to seem. Sega Retro notes:

Compared to the rival PlayStation 2, the Dreamcast is more effective at textures, anti-aliasing, and image quality, while the PS2 is more effective at polygon geometry, physics, particles, and lighting. The PS2 has a more powerful CPU geometry engine, higher translucent fillrate, and more main RAM (32 MB, compared to Dreamcast’s 16 MB), while the DC has more VRAM (8 MB, compared to PS2’s 4 MB), higher opaque fillrate, and more GPU hardware features, with CLX2 capabilities like tiled rendering, super-sample anti-aliasing, Dot3 normal mapping, order-independent transparency, and texture compression, which the PS2’s GPU lacks.

Today, the Dreamcast is remembered for the uniqueness of its game library. In addition to absolutely stunning arcade ports like Soul Calibur, the Dreamcast had Phantasy Star Online, which was the first online console MMORPG. Games like Shenmue are considered to be progenitors of the open-world approach favored by long-running series like Grand Theft Auto (which itself began life as a top-down game, not a 3D, open-world, third-person title). Games like the cel-shaded Jet Set Radio and Crazy Taxi established the Dreamcast at a platform willing to take chances with game design. Titles like Skies of Arcadia offered players the chance to be sky pirates. Games like Seaman were… really weird.

Really, really weird.

Sometimes, the issues that sink a console are technical. Sometimes, the hardware is fine and it’s everything else that goes wrong. Here’s to one of the short-lived champions of a bygone age — and a more daring era in gaming, when developers and AAA publishers took more chances with quirky titles than they do today.

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EA Receives Guinness World Record for Most Downvoted Comment in History

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The Guinness Book of World Records has given EA a prestigious award in its annals of history. A sharp-eyed Redditor noticed the award, given to the video game publisher for one of its initial responses to the Star Wars Battlefront II loot crate controversy.

Redditor Amsha posted the following image, taken from the latest version of the book:


The original comment in question is reprinted below:

The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.

As for cost, we selected initial values based upon data from the Open Beta and other adjustments made to milestone rewards before launch. Among other things, we’re looking at average per-player credit earn rates on a daily basis, and we’ll be making constant adjustments to ensure that players have challenges that are compelling, rewarding, and of course attainable via gameplay.

We appreciate the candid feedback, and the passion the community has put forth around the current topics here on Reddit, our forums and across numerous social media outlets.

Our team will continue to make changes and monitor community feedback and update everyone as soon and as often as we can.

On its face, this comment doesn’t deserve to have 667,821 downvotes (the next-most downvoted comment on Reddit, to give this some scale, has just 88,892 downvotes). A little context is in order.

This comment was dropped in a thread where players were expressing unhappiness about the amount of time it was going to take to unlock heroes in Star Wars Battlefront II. Players who had bought the Deluxe Edition of the game were angry that certain core heroes like Darth Vader were going to be locked by default and require a long grind to purchase. Players calculated that it could take up to 40 hours of play to unlock a single hero under EA’s proposed loot crate system.

Battlefront II’s loot crate system was infamously bad. Players earned currency at a snail’s pace and virtually all game advancement was tied to loot crates. The contents of loot crates, however, were entirely random. There was no way to spend time in a specific game mode to unlock features, weapons, or abilities — you might spend 12 hours playing in one mode and earn rewards for a class you didn’t use or a game mode you didn’t play. EA’s defense of this system as “providing heroes with a sense of pride and accomplishment” was seen as a slap in the face to the community and a laughable insult to its intelligence.

They weren’t wrong. EA tried to hold the line on these decisions until Disney executives forced the company to pull the loot crate system just hours before launch. Now, the entire event — and EA’s worst-in-class loot box system — are recorded for posterity.

Hopefully, the executives in question get complementary copies of the tome. They could keep them on their desks as a reminder of what happens when greed and hubris overpower good game design. The reason I’m willing to frame the issue so bluntly is specifically that the entirely randomized nature of the loot crate system EA was poised to implement was obviously terrible to anyone who spent even a few minutes contemplating the question. Making your loot random and tying all loot into a loot crate mechanism is a terrible way to reward players. Most games tie at least some rewards directly to the core gameplay loot because players like to be rewarded for content they are running as opposed to receiving rewards that may have nothing to do with the parts of the gameSEEAMAZON_ET_135 See Amazon ET commerce they enjoy playing.

EA hasn’t stopped trying to argue that its conduct in these events was blameless; the company took substantial heat earlier this year for describing its game mechanisms as ‘Quite ethical surprise mechanics.’ Thus far, neither the public nor legislators investigating whether loot boxes are equivalent to gambling have been willing to buy what the company is selling.

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Apex Legends Developer Enrages Reddit By Accurately Describing How Toxic Gamers Ruin Community Relations

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Over the weekend, Apex Legends developer Drew McCoy took to Reddit to apologize for the various ways in which a recent in-game event (the Iron Crown event) had “missed the mark.” According to McCoy, the structure of the event broke previous promises that Respawn, the game’s developer, had made regarding how loot would be distributed. Specifically, the company has promised that Apex Packs (loot crates) would not be the only way to get loot. Apparently, Iron Crown event skins were initially distributed solely through these loot crates. The original point of McCoy’s post was to inform the community that the Legendary skins available during the Iron Crown event will also be sold in the store for Apex Coins.

That’s what the point of the thread was supposed to be. The entire discussion has since been derailed by outraged over comments that McCoy made about the gamer community.

We’ve said it before, but we will not engage with temper tantrums, and personal attacks or virtriolic threads are completely unacceptable. We took a look in the mirror this week (lol – thanks for all the attacks guys) and decided we hadn’t met up obligations and are making changes because we believe in our approach.

I’ve been in the industry long enough to remember when players weren’t complete ass-hats to developers and it was pretty neat. I forged a bunch of long lasting relationships from back then. Would be awesome to get back there, and not engaging with toxic people or asking “how high” when a mob screams “jump” is hopefully a start.

Redditor Daviss2 penned one of the thoughtful missives Reddit is known for in response to this, writing:

Oh.. Well I guess you can also remember when developers weren’t money grabbing fucks that scammed their players too… anything from you in the future can die as quickly as its released IMO. And fuck anyone that’s saying this is better, like take there dick out your mouth and have some respect for yourself. Yes iv gone over the top and I can blame the whiskey all I like but iv gone from thinking oh shit these devs care to yep just as bad as ea’s reputation. You had no choice but to answer “risky” comments so get the fuck off your high horse.

McCoy responded to this by saying he’d “found the dick” he was talking about earlier, in reference to another thread about people being dicks to developers. This resulted in further outrage. Last night, the CEO of Respawn apologized to Apex Legend fans over the developer’s comments.

The Gaming Community Has Become Increasingly Toxic

McCoy’s comments regarding toxicity are not unusual or unwarranted. Game developers have openly acknowledged that one reason they are wary of engaging with the wider gaming public is due to rampant toxicity and poor behavior from gamers. If you pay any attention at all to the gaming community, it’s easy to see why they would.

One trend in gaming is “review bombing,” in which thousands of people downvote a game to punish its creators for changes they don’t like. While the tactic has been used for years, it’s become increasingly popular. Valve has made various changes to its review policies (back in 2017 and earlier this year) as a result. The famously hands-off company has begun removing the impact of “off-topic” review bombs because gamers have begun targeting titles for issues that have absolutely nothing to do with the game itself.

When the tiny indie game developer Glumberland announced it was moving its title, Ooblets, to the Epic Game Store — a move that would guarantee the studio’s studios continued survival and allow it to build more games — it was met with an absolute torrent of abuse. Glumberland is a two-person studio with a small fanbase. When they told their community, the news went viral online and in Discord, leading to an avalanche of attacks from people who had never seen or heard of their game. Ooblets Co-developer Ben Wasser provided a disturbing image to show what he and his wife received.

Wasser writes:

There’s a strange relationship a segment of the gaming community has with game developers. I think their extreme passion for games has made them perceive the people who provide those games as some sort of mystical “other”, an outgroup that’s held to a whole set of weird expectations. These folks believe they hold the magic power of the wallet over developers who should cower before them and capitulate to any of their demands. You can see this evidenced by the massive number of angry people threatening to pirate our game in retaliation to any perceived slight.

We’ve been told nonstop throughout this about how we must treat “consumers” or “potential customers” a certain way. I understand the relationship people think they might be owed when they exchange money for goods or services, but the people using the terms consumers and potential customers here are doing so specifically because we’ve never actually sold them anything and don’t owe them anything at all. And if they choose to not buy the game when it’s released, that’s totally fine with us.

Whenever I’ve mentioned that we, as random people happening to be making a game, don’t owe these other random people anything, they become absolutely enraged. Some of the most apparently incendiary screenshots of things I’ve said are all along these lines. (Emphasis added).

In Wasser’s case, people stormed the company’s Discord and attempted to frame the developer as having made a variety of anti-Semitic messages because they were angry that he’d made a decision about where to distribute a video game in a manner that prioritized the continued survival of his tiny, indie studio.

One of the standard ways that this kind of situation gets swept under the rug is with an “oh, well, it’s because of EA,” or “oh, well, it’s because of loot crates.” It isn’t because of either of these things. Nor is it because of social issues or political commentary, unless you think review-bombing Shadow of the Tomb Raider for going on sale too quickly was part of someone’s agenda. When gamers thought they’d seen a change to Spider-Man’s graphics engine, they went nuts with conspiracy theories and attacks until the senior graphics engineer for the company had to step in to discuss the change. Even then I saw people claiming that the game had been dumbed down.

Should McCoy have gotten angry? Objectively speaking, no. It would’ve been better to get up from the keyboard and take a walk rather than be lured into losing his temper. But reading through the thread, you can get a sense for how the conversation evolved. What appears to have frustrated McCoy — and this is strictly my interpretation — is the repeated insistence that the Apex Legends dev team built the Iron Crown event as a deliberate attempt to shake down the Apex Legends playerbase. McCoy provided some data to back up his arguments for why items were priced the way they were, leading to exchanges like this (all are relevant):

Message one.

Message Two.

This is a perfect example of how people can wind up talking past each other. McCoy’s points about the degree to which Apex Legends is or is not monetized may well be 100 percent accurate. The average cost of making a game at a AAA studio is assumed to be $10,000 per person per month according to Jason Schreier, who literally wrote a book on the topic. Very few gamers understand much about the economics of making games — but McCoy is supposedly bullshitting based on a GameInformer article about another company’s estimate of Apex Legends’ gross earnings. Gamers claim to want data, but when data is provided, that data is “bullshit” unless it conforms to said gamers’ preconceived notions of what it should look like.

At the same time, however, McCoy doesn’t answer one of the persistent complaints that Apex Legends’ players raise — namely, the fact that they are forced to buy Apex Coins using currency conversion schemes that obviously leave them with unspent worthless “cash.” This is a deliberate trick that companies have long used to force you to give them more money. Gamers aren’t wrong to perceive this as being consumer-hostile. But it’s probably not the kind of decision that people like McCoy have any say over. People get frustrated on both sides of the conversation. I think Wasser’s assessment of the “strange relationship” he refers to is accurate. Players see themselves as being at the mercy of developers, while the dev team may feel abused and ignored by a toxic minority of players. I’m speaking broadly to the situation because these toxic community issues are far larger than any specific incident, including this one and both “sides” — developers and players — are unhappy with the end result.

I’ve written a great deal of coverage on loot boxes and EA, none of it complimentary. I both understand why many of these mechanics anger players and agree with avoiding titles that implement predatory loot systems. But there’s also no arguing that gaming has become a deeply toxic community in some respects. McCoy’s repeated attempts to provide context around how pricing decisions are made are dismissed as bullshitting. Small wonder developers dislike providing data.

It would be easier to dismiss the growth of toxicity in gaming if the problem was confined to the internet. Unfortunately, it isn’t. Swatting someone — which is to say, sending the police to someone’s house by declaring that there’s an armed gunman inside with hostages — has literally gotten a person murdered. That didn’t stop someone from swatting 16-year-old Fortnite champion Kyle Giersdorf last week. The anger is everywhere. It’s not just directed at EA, or at “political” titles, or at loot crates. Far too many people these days view their own anger as intrinsic justification for whatever terrible thing they want to say or do online, regardless of the harm they cause.

These people — the “ass-hats” and “dicks” as Drew McCoy calls them — have always been a minority of total gamers. They’re still a minority of gamers today. The problem is, they’re increasingly good at ruining the fun for everybody else.

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Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo Will Require Loot Box Drop Rate Disclosures

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Loot boxes have been controversial since they were introduced. That controversy was turbo-charged back in 2017, when EA and DICE decided to make the entire economy of Star Wars Battlegrounds II entirely dependent on randomized loot box drops and insanely long grinds. That particular shameful cash grab may have exploded in the company’s face like the Death Star over Endor, but it kicked off an investigation into how loot boxes work across the globe. The FTC held a workshop on gaming loot boxes on Wednesday, August 7, to discuss issues surrounding this method of dispensing in-game loot. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo announced a new initiative at said workshop — one that will require all games published on their platforms to disclose the chance of receiving rewards.

Polygon reports that Michael Warnecke, the ESA’s (Entertainment Software Association) chief counsel of tech policy, made the announcement at the workshop today.

I’m pleased to announce this morning that Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony have indicated to ESA a commitment to new platform policies with respect to the use of paid loot boxes in games that are developed for their platforms. Specifically, this would apply to new games and game updates that add loot box features, and it would require the disclosure of the relative rarity or probabilities of obtaining randomized virtual items in games that are available on their platforms.

Publishers have similarly rallied to state they’ll support the initiative, including Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco, Bethesda, Bungie, EA, Take-Two Interactive, Ubisoft, Warner Bros., and Wizards of the Coast. All of these announcements and statements, however, apply to consoles — not PCs. Valve updated DOTA 2 to show loot box disclosure data last year, but it hasn’t made disclosing this information mandatory for games on its platform. Neither have smaller game stores like Epic or GoG, at least not yet.


Use the First National Bank, Luke!

The goal is to roll this program out in 2020, but no timeline has been published. The goal seems to be to head off any effort at government regulation, similarly to how the ESRB was formed to avoid regulation of video game content. But simply publishing the chances of earning a reward may not be enough to head off accusations that loot boxes are gambling, and it may not be as clear-cut as a ratings system, either.

Here’s a simple example of what I mean. While reasonable people may differ about what constitutes acceptable nudity, a game either contains or does not contain naked humans. If you have a 5 percent chance of getting an “Epic” quality loot drop from a loot box, is that a chance to get any epic item, or the chance that you’ll get an epic item you don’t already have? If you earn a loot box in a specific game mode, will the loot be related to that game mode? Are people spending an in-game currency to win cosmetic items, or are they paying real money for random gear rolls that will impact their in-game performance? Are these percentages communicated in-game, when players are on the loot box purchase screen, or are they hidden in an old blog post that’s buried four links deep off the game’s main page? Does the game allow you to earn the currency with which you buy loot boxes in-game at a reasonable rate, or does it dispense it like pre-haunting Scrooge handing out Bob Crachit’s salary? Are the loot boxes being marketed aggressively to children as part of a children’s game, or are they in a title intended for adults who presumably understand something about the reality of credit card purchases? Are the items you win from loot boxes resellable on a market for real money, or are they locked to your specific character?

Readers and experts broadly agree that how these issues are handled has an impact on whether or not loot boxes cross the line between outright gambling versus an entertainment mechanism. A game with cosmetic loot box items that awards a modest number of crates through gameplay with the option to buy more is acceptable to a lot of people. A game like Battlefront II’s original incarnation (the actual game today has an entirely different and more standard loot distribution system) chained in-game performance entirely to random loot crates. The internet’s response? Convulsive rage. And while the internet’s rage spasms have a definite problematic side, gamers weren’t wrong to feel as if EA was planning to take advantage of them. It absolutely was.

Responses like this may take the wind from proposals to regulate loot boxes, at least in the United States, but just publishing statistics on your chances of getting a particular drop won’t answer the larger question of whether loot boxes constitute gambling or not. Honestly, I think that’s because the answer is “It depends.” In some cases, loot crates are basically an optional way to achieve a particular look. In others, they’ve been critical to succeeding in the title. It’s hard to argue that combining pay-to-win mechanics with randomized drops you pay real money to get isn’t very close to gambling, especially if the rare contents of the loot box can be sold for a substantial amount of real money in a market. At that point, a new digital hat is basically the equivalent of a Pick 5 card. Applying a rating to a video game is also a somewhat subjective endeavor, but it’s at least a subjective endeavor with some objective standards around concepts like nudity and foul language, which either do or do not exist in a game.

The question of whether loot crates constitute gambling and, if so, under which circumstances, will need to be fleshed out in greater detail — and hopefully we’ll see Valve, Epic, GoG, and other distributors take the same stance on mandatory chance disclosures. The fact that EA attempted to defend its loot box mechanism as “quite ethical surprise mechanics” earlier this year doesn’t make us optimistic that the video game industry actually understands how much players loathe these kinds of systems.

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