IGN takes a look at this well-loved company's fading fortunes and analyzes its chances of future success.
April 1, 2012
Forget the Sega of old. Leave aside those warm and fuzzy memories of the Master System and the Genesis and the Dreamcast and even the Saturn. It's been a decade since Sega retired from the hardware business and set out to make its way in the world as a third party publisher.
And, it has to be said, the old warrior is starting to stumble. The news that Sega is restructuring, laying off staff, killing projects and reporting dismal financial figures came as a surprise to no-one. If you imagine games publishing as a league table, Sega is nowhere near the top and, given its glittering history, way too close to the bottom for comfort.
This raises difficult questions about a much-loved brand. How much trouble is Sega really in right now?
Let's not get bogged down in financial details. It's fair to say that a lot of money has been lost, and that, as a small part of a much larger entertainment organization (Sega-Sammy), Sega's videogames division is a drain on resources.
It's more useful to look at the company's games, those it has released in recent times and those it plans to bring to us in the near future.
The Current Crisis
Last week, Sega of America president and COO Masanao Maeda said that the company would focus on Sonic as well as some of the brands it has bought in via Western acquisitions and licenses.
These include Aliens, Total War and lucrative UK sports-stat sim Football Manager. However, while Total War and Football Manager are much admired, the special sauce was already there when Sega came along and bought the studios that made those games. Just about any company could publish these games and it's difficult to pinpoint exactly how Sega has added anything useful to the mix. They have merely given Sega an outward-looking Western appeal that was a clearly-stated corporate strategy.
At the tail end of its last financial year, Sega released Creative Assembly's amazing Total War: Shogun 2 It released launch-period figures of 200,000 sales for this PC epic. Again, this is a respectable figure and it would be great to see the series moving to consoles.
It's curious that just such an idea was aired last week by the studio's boss Mike Simpson who said the game could shine on next-gen consoles. A cynic might draw the conclusion that such a statement might attract the curiosity of potential studio-buyers, should Sega wish to raise some cash.
It's illuminating to look at the various platforms where Sega plies its business. A selective examination of the last few years, leaving aside the games we've already mentioned, shows a lot of okay-to-good titles that fall under the dreaded heading of "middling". This is just the area where experts tell us the games industry is most threatened by the rise of AAA brands and of new business models. It's not that Sega hasn't sought to innovate, just that many of its gambles haven't paid off.
Xbox 360 & PlayStation 3
It's interesting that Sega's creative highlights have been in the arena of mature, violent games. One of the best games of this generation has been Platinum Games' Bayonetta, which our reviewer described as "the best action game" he had ever played. The 2009 game was stylish and balanced.
The Condemned series was also good value although the last one came out in 2008. Vanquish (2010) was a third-person shooter from Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami that scored well, but didn't sell much in the West. The company also tried something new in the RPG field with 2010's Resonance of Fate from tri-ace. Spy thriller Alpha Protocol from Obsidian (2010) promised much but only managed an IGN score of 6.3
Sega has pumped out a number of its "vintage" games to downloadable XBLA and PSN platforms, but old games have a niche interest, especially when they are as bad as, say, Altered Beast. But it's been fun to look again at some of those classics, like Ecco the Dolphin and Gunstar Heroes.
It's been fair to say that Sega has been bold in its approach to the hardcore console platforms, but too few of its titles have been bona fide hits. If you look at rivals like EA, Activision, Capcom and Ubisoft, they have stand-out annualized AAA brands. This is something that Sega conspicuously lacks, and so it relies on its past and on lackluster movie and sports games.
Back in 2009, Sega gave the Wii a really good, tough-guy shooter in the form of High Voltage's The Conduit and its sequel. But this platform has been a tough ground for all third parties as they have sought to muscle their way among powerful first-party brands. Wii owners are very particular.
Once again Sega has brought a lot of its old games to Wii, most especially Sonic rehashes, but while Wii might have been a winner for Sega, with many family-friendly brands, too many of its games have been underwhelming.
Since the Nintendo DS launch in 2004, Sega has released or announced over 70 games, according to IGN's records. Generally, these have been a mixed bag of Japan-centric titles, classic Sega franchises, casual gambits and movie-licenses, like Iron Man or the awful Incredible Hulk.
There have been highlights such as the previously-mentioned Mario & Sonic games. Remember the anime fighting Bleach games from Treasure and Phantasy Star: Zero? 2005's Puyo Pop Fever continued that puzzler's good run across a decade and a half.
With 3DS, once again Sega opted for a heavy reliance on a trusted-standard. Super Monkey Ball 3D (March 2011) brought the much-loved original into the 3D area.(Score: 7.5). Thor: God of Thunder (September 2011) was an okay movie-tine that managed a 6.0.
Sega's decision to cut-back its operations makes sense for a company that's trying to stay afloat. But if this brand wants to be around in years to come, it needs to get back to creating the kind of exciting, iconic and original titles that made it such a power in the 1990s and in the very early days of its third-party incarnation.
A Japanese company publishing games made by Western studios for Western markets is always going to struggle against local competitors. Sega needs to get back to making amazing games with amazing Japanese developers.