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Counter Attack #3: The Rise and Fall of SEGA

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Counter Attack is a weekly feature here on Goomba Stomp in which John Cal McCormick casts a bemused eye over the gaming news, the niggling issues plaguing the industry, important moments from gaming’s past, or whatever it is that’s annoying him this week. Today we’ll be looking at how SEGA became a major player in the video game console business, but then accidentally destroyed their own product.

Today’s console war has reached the point where a shaky cease-fire is in effect. Sony has already won the generation, a resolution that looked all but certain within mere months of the launch of both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, with Nintendo’s Wii U having already shot itself in the foot back at the barracks and gotten a medical discharge before the bombs even started dropping. The PlayStation 4 continues to handsomely outsell Microsoft’s Xbox One week on week, and it’s not a question of who’s going to sell the most consoles, but just how many units Sony will shift over their chief rival in the video game console racket by the time the dust settles.

In 2018, Sony and Microsoft – with little left to play for – exchange pleasantries and appear to be on good terms in the public eye, or certainly, as good as direct competitors can be. Every time a new Sony exclusive is released and is well received by critics, Xbox head Phil Spencer congratulates team PlayStation for the achievement on Twitter, and if Xbox One ever gets a good exclusive then maybe someone from Sony will reciprocate the gesture. Everybody’s smiling, everybody’s happy, everybody’s friends.

As far as console wars go, it’s been rather tame for a few years now. It’s not exactly ‘Nam, is it? Nobody is going to be making movies about this war, and if they do it’ll be a straight to streaming farcical comedy about how Microsoft fucked up their own console launch, probably starring Adam Sandler as Don Mattrick. But the console wars of the ’90s? They were an altogether bloodier affair, particularly during the height of the conflict between SEGA and Nintendo as each strived to be the #1 name in home console gaming, itself a relatively new industry at the time. It’s practically inconceivable today that there was a time in real life when it looked like SEGA might actually become the biggest name in gaming, but that was genuinely a possibility. That is, right up until SEGA accidentally destroyed their own console business forever. Wuh oh.

The End of Video Games

Atari were the kings of the early days of gaming. Just look at those haircuts.

In the early ’80s the emergent, booming video game industry suffered a disastrous and almost fatal crash thanks to a combination of an over-saturated market and an influx of poor quality software rushed to release. Most of the big name companies at the time were either lost in the ensuing chaos, quickly folding as they simply didn’t have enough capital in reserve to combat such a calamity, or they barely made it out with the skin of their teeth, never again rising to the prominence that they held back in the early days of the industry. Before the crash, there were two different Atari home consoles on the market, as well as Odyssey², ColecoVision, Fairchild II, devices from Mattel and Coleco that played Atari 2600 titles so you didn’t need to buy an Atari console at all to play their games, and a variety of home personal computers offering gaming experiences, like the Commodore 64 and the ZX81.

Everyone wanted a piece of the video game pie, but since it was a relatively new industry, most of the major players had no idea how to play ball yet. In 1979, a bunch of programmers jumped ship from Atari as they were unhappy that they weren’t receiving credits for any of their games, forming the first ever third party video game development studio: Activision. Yes, that one. Atari responded with a lawsuit to try and stop Activision from selling their wares to be played on Atari’s consoles, but in a landmark moment for the industry they failed to stop the fledgling video game developer, making third party game development an industry all of its own.

Soon, there were countless third party developers all making video games, all trying to capitalise on the popularity of the medium, but since most of these devs were simply trying to cash in on the popular trend – Quaker Oats had a video games division for Christ’s sake – the quality of the majority of games at the time was poor. Volume was an issue, too, as so many games were being made so quickly that there wasn’t enough space on store shelves to hold everything, resulting in major surpluses of stock. With so few good games being on the market, swallowed up by rush jobs made by inexperienced developers, consumers stopped buying games as readily, exacerbating the problem of real estate on game shop shelves. Nobody had enough money in the bank to reimburse stores for the extra, unsellable stock they were holding, and so many of these games wound up in bargain bins, never recouping their investment costs. It was, frankly, a shitshow.

It was actually cheaper for Atari to dump some of their unwanted stock in landfills than it was to store it in the hope of one day selling it.

Atari, once the biggest name in gaming, suffered tremendously as the market they helped popularise collapsed around them, and despite their insistence that everything was going to be okay and they’d recover soon enough, some analysts were already predicting that gaming was over, little more than another ’80s fad destined to be forgotten about like the Rubik’s Cube. Atari survived, barely, but their role as market leader was over. There was about to be a new hero for the industry, one that would shape the future of gaming as we knew it, and revitalise a dying market by learning from many of the mistakes of the past rather than repeating them.

Nintendo to the Rescue

The 1983 crash of the American video game market meant that companies in the United States were less inclined to invest in the struggling industry going forward. Nintendo had released their Famicom – or NES, as we know it – in Japan during the same year that the American market collapsed, and the popularity of the system in their home country led to them making the decision to the export to the US, taking advantage of the obliterated potential competition that had almost entirely destroyed themselves. In 1985, the NES was released in America, and it would arrive in Europe a couple of years later. Analysts weren’t bullish about Nintendo’s chances of selling the NES to consumers so soon after the American industry had fallen apart, but Nintendo had other ideas.

Nintendo’s strategy with the NES was simple. They allowed third party developers to make games for their system, but only using Nintendo’s proprietary cartridges, and each publisher would only be allowed to release fewer than five games a year. This meant that publishers would have to make sure that they were making the most of their allotment. Previously the video game industry had briefly thrived – and ultimately imploded – because it was easy to throw anything at consumers hoping that something would stick through sheer volume. Nintendo flipped the script, forcing publishers to move away from frivolous shovelware and towards high quality titles, knowing that they’d only have five games per year to make all of their money back, so they’d have to choose wisely.

Nintendo artwork proudly displaying their seal of approval in the bottom right.

This system would – eventually – partly contribute to Nintendo’s undoing, but it was just what the industry needed after the glut of low quality games that led to the collapse of the American market. The NES was a console that had a robust line-up of high quality games coming both from Nintendo’s internal development studios and their third party partners, and Nintendo’s official seal of quality – a stamp present on the boxes NES games came in – became a symbol that could actually be trusted. After having their fingers burned, consumers were again ready to trust – and spend – thanks almost entirely to Nintendo, and by the end of the ’80s the Japanese company had a near monopoly on the industry, their NES having easily outsold all competitors on the market in a short space of time.

Here Comes a New Challenger

While Nintendo were reigniting Western interest in video games, another Japanese company, SEGA, decided to go after a piece of the pie for themselves. SEGA’s equivalent of the NES – the Master System – didn’t make much of a splash in their native Japan or in North America, but it did sell well in Europe, even outselling the NES there. Gaining confidence from their modest success in the West, SEGA quickly transitioned to their next home console – the Mega Drive, also known as the Genesis in America – before Nintendo would release their follow up to the NES. Mega Drive sales in Japan were sluggish, with the home market favouring Nintendo’s console, but in the West SEGA’s 16-bit games machine found considerable success.

Releasing the Mega Drive a year before the SNES proved an incredibly wise decision for SEGA, as it meant that the 16-bit SEGA console was seen as being a direct competitor to the 8-bit NES, and graphically at least, the games on the SEGA system blew away what Nintendo had on offer. It didn’t help matters that Nintendo was (and often still are) a stubbornly conservative company, one that firmly believed in making video games a family friendly entertainment medium and prohibiting any adult oriented content from appearing on their systems. While in the NES days this had amounted to little more than not allowing Maniac Mansion on the platform without substantial editing, when the ’90s rolled around and video games started becoming more violent, it meant that titles that were in the Zeitgeist like Mortal Kombat were effectively neutered on SNES.

Mortal Kombat’s signature blood was replaced by indiscriminate grey squiggles on SNES.

Nintendo’s family friendly image starkly contrasted with SEGA’s more edgy, and frankly, more ’90s marketing strategy, leading to the Mega Drive being seen by many as the cooler option. Sure, it didn’t have Mario, or Zelda, or Donkey Kong Country, but it had shit loads of blood and guts, and that whole “Nintendon’t” marketing campaign that was absolutely savage. It was rare, and it still is, for competing companies to call each other out by name during marketing, but SEGA relished it, sticking a middle finger up to Nintendo’s toys and letting players know that their gaming box had attitude. Honestly, we were all about attitude in the ’90s. That and saving the environment. I guess that’s how Captain Planet happened.

Anyway, Mega Drive sales were strong, and only got stronger once Sonic the Hedgehog arrived on the scene. Up until then, SEGA had been trying to make Alex Kidd their mascot, and I like Alex Kidd as much as the next man but a dude with a bowl hair cut playing rock, paper, scissors with people wasn’t quite as instantly appealing as what the Mario brothers were up to. Sonic, though, was perfect to be SEGA’s mascot – he was cool, he had attitude, and his game was faster and flashier than Nintendo’s marquee platformer.

The Mega Drive was outselling SNES but the seeds were planted for a heroic comeback for Nintendo. For all of the talk of the Mega Drive being a cooler console than the SNES, gaming was still very much seen as something for dorks at the time, and so being cool wasn’t necessarily a high priority for many gamers. What was a high priority was the quality of the games themselves, and this is where Nintendo was the clear winner. SNES had Super Mario World, Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: Link To The Past, and Starfox which were all acclaimed games that moved big numbers of units, as well as more niche titles that critics loved, like Final Fantasy VI and Super Metroid. Fighting games were big in the ’90s, and while the Mega Drive had the bloody version of Mortal Kombat, SNES had the definitive version of Street Fighter II since SEGA’s controller featured only three face buttons, resulting in an unwieldy control scheme that hobbled the game. And we all know Street Fighter is better than Mortal Kombat, don’t we?

The Cracks Begin To Show

Nintendo had entered into talks with Sony to produce a CD-ROM add-on for the SNES, and they were prepared to announce the joint tech on stage at the 1991 Consumer Electronics Show. Unbeknown to Sony, Nintendo had decided that they weren’t happy surrendering so much control to Sony as per the terms of the contract of their partnership, and so, and this is when it gets really silly by the way, they secretly negotiated a new deal with Philips – Sony’s rival – and announced that on stage instead. While the stories of exactly how all this came to be fall into “he said, she said” territory, it’s generally accepted that Sony had no idea that Nintendo had backed out of their deal and partnered with Philips until the moment it was announced on stage, which is absolutely mind boggling even seventeen years later. Of course, this, too, would contribute to Nintendo’s eventual undoing, but more on that later. The Nintendo and Philips joint venture – the CDi – was a bust, costing Philips over a billion dollars in losses, and resulting in the shittest Mario game ever made.

The Nintendo PlayStation. I’d give anything to see an alternate reality where this thing made it to market. Maybe Nathan Drake would be in Smash Bros. And Mario would be in PlayStation Allstars Bat

Sony had spent time and money developing CD based gaming technology that was now going to waste, and so, still stinging from their partnership turned sour with Nintendo, they went to SEGA to investigate a potential tag-team effort to tear down the House of Mario. The American branch of SEGA were interested in the idea and pitched it to the big-wigs back in Tokyo, who promptly nixed the entire thing, unimpressed with Sony’s lack of pedigree within the industry. Some within Sony and Nintendo wanted to patch things up and give their relationship another go, but it all came to nought, and without anyone left to partner with, Sony decided to use what they’d learned to make their own console, dubbed the PlayStation.

SEGA’s follow up to the Mega Drive – named the Saturn – was taking shape, and by the end of 1993 they’d almost finalised the specs of the system. But before long the proposed specs of Sony’s PlayStation became common knowledge, and SEGA started worrying that the inner workings of their Saturn wouldn’t be able to compete with Sony’s system when it came to rendering three dimensional spaces. SEGA needed to do something, and what they decided to do was to add in another processor, which would make their console more complicated to program for, but could, theoretically, give it more power.

As Nintendo concentrated on releasing a steady stream of high quality titles for the SNES while also working on their next console, SEGA decided to go another route, attempting to extract more power from their Mega Drive by releasing add-ons like the SEGA CD, and later, the 32X, both of which failed to attract consumers and effectively split the market. The idea was to give gamers a cheap gateway into the 32-bit era using the console they already had prior to the launch of the next generation of SEGA hardware, but it confused consumers, and flopped. The SNES eventually overtook the Mega Drive in sales in America thanks in large part to the high number of well received games available for the system, and the generation was lost for SEGA, despite impressive gains in market share.

The sales disparity between the NES and the Master System had been huge, with Nintendo selling over 60 million of their NES through to consumers, and SEGA managing a paltry 13 million for Master System, but console sales of the SNES and Mega Drive were much closer – 49 million and nearly 30 million respectively. SEGA had taken a massive chunk of market share from Nintendo, and they needed to capitalise on that.

Gaming Grows Up

SEGA of Japan was extremely concerned that their Saturn console was going to be overshadowed and ultimately beaten in sales by a brand new, exciting video game console that would surely be a huge hit. Yes, that’s right, the Atari Jaguar. No, they weren’t worried about PlayStation, and why would they be, because Sony had never even made a games console before, and they knew nothing about software development. Atari, though, they were the real threat.

Sony’s marketing for PlayStation was unlike anything seen in gaming before, demonstrated here by this ad for Wipeout, featuring a couple of bloody young adults, and absolutely no footage of Wipeout.

While SEGA was preparing for how their Saturn could combat the Jaguar, Sony was plotting a coup right in front of the entire industry’s eyes. Their strategy was incredibly savvy, and would ultimately revolutionise the games industry in ways not seen since the release of the NES. Gamers had grown up. Those who’d been playing the first Zelda game on NES as children would be teenagers by the mid-nineties, but Nintendo was still trying to appeal to kids, treating video games more like toys than as a serious entertainment medium in its formative years. Sony recognised that and saw a huge, untapped demographic – namely everyone who’d ever been a gamer but had aged out of the current target audience for most games on the market.

The biggest issue that Sony faced was the public perception of video games – that they were for children and nerds with no social skills. They had to rectify that, and so they set out on a huge marketing campaign that included sponsorship deals with cool venues and young adult celebrities, as well as creating striking advertisements that rarely featured children at all, often relying on shocking imagery, and portraying video games as something to be enjoyed by grown ups having a few drinks on a Saturday night. They also made incredibly shrewd deals with third party publishers in order to secure a strong line-up of games would be available for their first console, and rightly believing that three dimensional games were the future, the PlayStation was built with that future in mind.

That Time SEGA Accidentally Destroyed Their Own Console Business

Saturn and PlayStation were launched in Japan within months of each other in late 1994, and while Saturn was doing well and initially selling better than the Sony console, PlayStation was doing much better than many people expected, and rapidly catching up. SEGA of Japan was concerned about how well PlayStation was being received, and knowing that both Saturn and the new Sony console were due to launch in America in Fall of ’95, they were worried that they might lose some of their American audience to Sony since PlayStation was now seen as the cool brand in gaming.

SEGA of Japan knew they needed to do something to combat Sony’s PlayStation in the States, and if they could just quash that threat, then by the time Nintendo’s next console arrived they’d already be the new market leader. Drastic times call for drastic measures. And so at E3 in 1995, SEGA of America CEO Tom Kalinske, under orders from the Tokyo branch, took to the stage to announce that the SEGA Saturn wouldn’t be released in Fall as originally announced, but it was already on store shelves as he spoke, ready to be picked up for $399. Surprise announcements at E3 are part and parcel of the event, but surprise launching an entire console? The plan was that if they could get out before PlayStation by five months, and market the console as an adult games system, SEGA could beat Sony at their own game and have a stranglehold on the market before PlayStation had chance to make a dent.

Of course, it didn’t go as quite well as they’d hoped. SEGA was so committed to the surprise announcement that only a handful of retailers were allocated consoles, which promptly pissed off all of the ones that weren’t, and some of them even pulled SEGA products from their shelves as a result. Developers were similarly in the dark about the new release date for Saturn, and so all of their launch titles were being prepared for a Fall release, meaning that when Saturn arrived it had only six games, all of which were published by SEGA, and precious little else on the horizon until later in the year. These were problems for SEGA, to be sure, but perhaps they could have been weathered had it not been for Sony’s surprise announcement at the very same E3.

People at E3 hadn’t even been to bed yet, still reeling from the announcement that the Saturn would be launching early in the States, when Sony of America’s Steve Race walked on stage during Sony’s conference to make a brief statement. Brief, was perhaps understating it. In the most important mic drop moment in E3 history, and Sony’s most savage conference beat down until E3 2013, Steve Race simply said, “$299” and walked off the stage like a rock star to the sounds of rapturous applause. SEGA’s new console might be launching early, but Sony’s would be $100 cheaper. Without a robust line-up of games to lure consumers in, and with a bunch of retailers boycotting their products, and at a much higher price point, SEGA was sunk.

Within two days of PlayStation’s launch in the US it had outsold the Saturn despite the SEGA console having been on the market for five months. Whatever SEGA’s initial intentions, their plan had backfired spectacularly, and they’d unwittingly started a series of events that would destroy their own console business.

The Aftermath

The new generation was still in the early days, and continued interest in the Mega Drive meant that SEGA still had the biggest market share in the United States over Nintendo and Sony. But factors both in and out of SEGA’s control would spell doom for the Saturn, and hand Sony the throne without much of a fight.

Nintendo was taking forever to get their follow up to the SNES to market, and that, along with their decision to stick with cartridges as the storage medium for what would ultimately become their N64 turned off a number of developers who once partnered with Nintendo. The biggest, and by far the most important of these, was Squaresoft who had previously developed their niche Final Fantasy series exclusively for Nintendo consoles, but partnered with PlayStation for the upcoming Final Fantasy VII. The release of Final Fantasy VII in Japan increased PlayStation sales dramatically, and impressive word of mouth, savvy marketing, and strong critical reception made FFVII a surprise smash hit in the West. Now considered one of the greatest and most important games of all time, it can’t be overstated just how much Final Fantasy VII helped Sony to establish PlayStation as a serious brand in the video game industry.

Final Fantasy VII’s marketing focused mainly on the – for the time – revolutionary graphics during cut-scenes, and not so much on the turn based JRPG combat.

SEGA meanwhile had nothing but problems. The first truly 3D Sonic game was in development hell. The popularity of Sonic the Hedgehog could, conceivably, have been responsible for altering the course of the console war, but we’d never find out because in 1997, Sonic X-Treme was cancelled, and the carcass of the game was pulled apart, revamped, and rebuilt, later appearing on SEGA’s next console, the Dreamcast, as Sonic Adventure. With a lack of high profile titles available for Saturn, and struggling sales compared to Sony’s PlayStation, SEGA announced that the Saturn would be discontinued in America in 1998, with the aforementioned Dreamcast slated to replace it later that year.

When all was said and done, SEGA Saturn sold just under 10 million units worldwide, becoming a massive commercial failure for the console manufacturer, and forcing SEGA to cut around 25% of their workers.

By the time that Dreamcast launched in late ’98, PlayStation was marching ahead of both the N64 and Saturn in sales, ultimately becoming the first games console ever to breach the 100 million units sold barrier. Because of the success of PlayStation, excitement for the PlayStation 2 was high, but Dreamcast still managed to have a strong launch. However, as Sony ramped up marketing for their upcoming PS2, interest in the Dreamcast steadily declined, support stagnated, and the writing was on the wall. It didn’t help that EA and Squaresoft both publicly announced that they wouldn’t support the system, dealing a huge blow to SEGA as they were two of the biggest third party publishers in the business at the time.

Sales of the Dreamcast in Japan were weak, and in the States they’d dropped significantly as gamers were desperate to get their hands on the next PlayStation console. The PS2 had been hyped to a ridiculous degree by Sony, including rumors that it was comparable to a supercomputer that could control guided missiles, and was so powerful that it could allow users to “jack into the Matrix.” Honestly, that last one was an actual quote from Ken Kutaragi.

Dreamcast might sound like the name of a Scandinavian power metal band, but it had a number of futuristic features, including a screen in the controller, and the ability to connect to the internet.

When PS2 launched in 2000 it quickly became a hit despite a frankly rubbish launch line-up of games, and by the end of the year, the situation looked dire for SEGA. Sony ran out of PS2s to sell, which briefly gave SEGA cause to be optimistic, but in reality people just waited for PlayStations to become available rather than buying a Dreamcast instead. SEGA had hoped to shift 5 million Dreamcasts before 2001, but had only managed 3 million sales, and while aggressive price-cuts had helped sell the console it was at a much-reduced profit margin. SEGA had expected to turn a profit by September of 2000, but had actually lost $163 million in the six month period leading up to that. Internal projections said that SEGA were on course to lose even more money by year end, and then those projections were doubled when their perilous financial situation became more clear. At the end of the financial year in March 2001, SEGA reported losses of over $400 million.

Dreamcast was being battered in sales, and with a new Nintendo console on the horizon, and Microsoft about to join the console business, too, the sharks could smell blood. Some at SEGA HQ were openly advocating that the company abandon hardware manufacturing altogether and concentrate on making games only as a matter of survival, including their president, Isao Okawa, as well as future head of EA and current CEO of Liverpool FC, Peter Moore, who worked for SEGA of America at the time. SEGA simply couldn’t absorb another enormous loss after the failure of the Saturn, and with even the most optimistic projections for Dreamcast looking fairly dire, something needed to be done.

In March of 2001, a mere eighteen months after launching in America, SEGA discontinued the Dreamcast following disappointing sales, and left console manufacturing entirely in order to focus on software only. With Dreamcast dead, Sony’s PlayStation 2 was the only sixth generation console on the market for over six months, racking up impressive sales before Nintendo’s GameCube and Microsoft’s Xbox even hit the shelves. Despite being the weakest console in the sixth generation following the discontinuation of the Dreamcast, the PS2’s built in DVD player, attractive price, and increasingly robust games line-up won over gamers, and the console ultimately went on to become the best selling console of all time at over 150 million units sold – more than double GameCube, Xbox, and Dreamcast combined. Dreamcast, for it’s part, sold less than 10 million units altogether.

Today, Sony are still market leaders in the video game industry, commanding an impressive lead over their competition. PlayStation 4 is the most popular video game console in the world, looking to be well on track to be one of only four consoles – the third by Sony – to sell over 100 million units. Nintendo console sales declined with each successive generation until their Wii became a cultural phenomenon in the late 2000s. Their follow up – the Wii U – crashed and burned upon release, but their current console – Switch – is proving very successful. Microsoft joined the console wars months after SEGA surrendered, and while their first console – the Xbox – struggled to make much of an impact, their follow up – the Xbox 360 – proved surprisingly popular in the States. Their current console – the Xbox One – is languishing in sales, having never recovered from a botched launch.

Last week, seventeen years after abandoning hardware, SEGA released a collection of fifty of their Mega Drive games for a budget price on Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft consoles. The SEGA of today has found renewed success as a publisher of popular series’ like Yakuza, Bayonetta, Football Manager, Total War, Hatsune Miku, and Valkyria Chronicles. As I was playing the SEGA Mega Drive Classics collection – titles like Streets of Rage, Toejam and Earl, and Sonic the Hedgehog 2 –  I couldn’t help but reminisce. I couldn’t help but look back on their time as a console manufacturer and just how close SEGA once were to the top, and how gaming could be very different today if they’d just done one or two things differently.

Feel free to leave a comment about this week’s Counter Attack in the comments section below. And if you want to see more from Counter Attack, check out #1 Remembering The Xbox One Reveal, or #2 E3’s Ten Most Embarrassing Moments.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Ecneralc

    June 22, 2018 at 11:00 am

    Donkey Kong Country didn’t arrive till late November 1994. It would be by then that Nintendo managed to level the playing field against SEGA, and things only got antsy for SEGA by 1995.
    Nintendo kept rolling out exclusives you couldn’t play on anything else.
    Killer Instinct being one game to mention.

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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xo19

Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

xo19

Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

xo19

The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

xo19

Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

xo19

Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

xo19

Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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Games

‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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garden story

Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together

Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.

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Death Stranding

Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.

While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death. 

Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.

Death Stranding

This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s. 

Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.

The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.

Death Stranding

The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .

In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.

Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope

One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community. 

Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.

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