Connect with us

Games

Counter Attack #3: The Rise and Fall of SEGA

Published

on

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Advertisement

Game Reviews

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ Review: Moon’s Haunted but Still Shines

‘Destiny 2: Shadowkeep’ returns to a familiar destination but Bungie is reworking Destiny with each expansion and Shadowkeep is no exception.

Published

on

Destiny 2 Shadowkeep Review

Destiny 2: Shadowkeep may be a return to a familiar destination, the Moon, but Bungie continues the trend of reworking Destiny with each new expansion, and Shadowkeep is no exception. Replete with a reworked season pass system, progression systems, customization options, sandbox re-tuning and quest interface, Shadowkeep is both a welcome iteration and extension of the existing Destiny 2 experience offering more RPG-esque player agency than Destiny has ever seen before. While the game is still haunted by some overly familiar issues, Shadowkeep is a welcome expansion and a promising start to the third year of Destiny 2.

Old Haunting Grounds

The Moon isn’t the only familiar face in Shadowkeep. Keeping with tradition, Eris Morn has returned from a long absence for another dark, lunar expansion (the first being D1′s The Dark Below when the character was first introduced) as she investigates a disturbance deep within the Moon. Quite literally haunted by the past, Eris has called upon the Guardians to assist her in finding the source of the phantoms plaguing the Moon and vanquishing “Nightmare” versions of familiar visages from the past.

All is not entirely as old players might remember. An immense hive structure, the Scarlet Keep, now overshadows previously unexplored territory on the Lunar surface. New Lost Sectors hide in the depths of the Moon, and new secrets a la the Dreadnaught or the Dreaming City lie waiting to be discovered by inquisitive players. And at the very center of the expansion an ancient, unknown threat lies in wait, an ominous foreshadowing of the trials ahead.

While the expansion does a decent job ensuring the familiar haunts don’t feel overly recycled, it’s hard to say Shadowkeep makes the most of the Moon. The campaign opens on such a high note as players storm the moon in an unexpectedly matchmade sequence before individual Fireteams independently uncover an unanticipated twist that absolutely shatters expectation. Unfortunately, the narrative quickly devolves into uninteresting fetch quests that fail to live up to the intrigue of the initial mission nor live up to the narrative heights of some of the most memorable missions the Moon previously housed including fan favorites The Sword of Crota and Lost to Light to name a few. That’s tough company to keep, and Shadowkeep fails to measure up.

Similarly, a bit of that intrigue is reintroduced in Shadowkeep‘s final mission, but, like the campaign as a whole, it’s over before the player knows it and fails to live up to the precedent set by previous, lengthier campaign conclusions. More mileage is gotten out of the narrative and destination in the post-game in the way of a new weapon farming system, a new activity known as Nightmare hunts that play like mini Strikes, and a Strike proper, but that does little to alleviate the disappointment of an overly terse campaign that reads like a teaser for what’s to come over a distinct, fleshed-out story.

A New Era, a New Season

Part of that is presumably courtesy of a shift in Bungie’s approach to content releases. While the previous expansion, Forsaken, similarly opted for procedurally released content over the course of the season, Bungie has doubled down on that strategy with Shadowkeep ensuring there’s something new to be experienced each week that players sign in. While certain activities have alway arrived post-launch including raids, dungeons, and exotic weapon pursuits, Shadowkeep and its “Season of the Undying” has seen new PvE and PvP activities launched after the expansion’s initial drop, adding to an already lengthy list of Destiny to-dos.

Central to the season is the new PvE, matchmade activity, the Vex Offensive, which pits six players against waves of Vex combatants paired and features some minor puzzle elements, all for the sake of earning a series of weapons exclusive to the mode. While the Black Garden locale of the mode is certainly eye-catching, the Offensive, with its recycled mechanics and familiar enemies, doesn’t leave much of an impression beyond that. It might pale in comparison to activities introduced in past seasons (like Warmind‘s Escalation Protocol, or last season’s Menagerie), but is intentionally terse, intended to match this new seasonal philosophy, and will be removed from the game after Season of the Undying (though the exclusive arsenal will still be available in the loot pool obtainable through undisclosed means). Like the Vex themselves, the Vex Offensive might not seem like much independently, but collectively is a piece of a greater whole challenging and rewarding players for participating within the specific season.

Bungie is further defining each season with the inclusion of a seasonal artifact and a season pass system. The artifact, again only available for the season, offers players an avenue for additional, limitless Power gains while also offering unlockable gameplay mods encouraging players to utilize specific classes and builds. The Oppressive Darkness mod, for example, debuffs enemies hit by void grenades, encouraging players to construct discipline-oriented, void builds. Another mod, Thunder Coil, increases the power of arc melee attacks by fifty percent, giving all new life to the Hunter’s Arcstrider subclass. Meanwhile, the season pass operates similar to that of Fortnite or any number of games and replaces the previous cosmetic only level up system of Destiny 2‘s past. From the season’s outset, any and all experience goes toward unlocking rewards from the pass including new armor, armor ornaments, exclusive weapons and exotics, and engrams. The experience requirement for each level is static, meaning progress is fair and steady throughout and never feels throttled. Both seasonal systems are fantastic new additions that reward players for playing the game while making experience gains more purposeful than any other time in Destiny‘s endgame.

New Duds to Boot

Shadowkeep also marks the debut of Armor 2.0, a new system that allows players more agency in character customization than ever before. Whereas armor previously rolled with random perks and a roll of only three stats (Mobility, Recovery, and Resilience), Armor 2.0 comes with no perks and six stats as Destiny 1‘s Intellect, Discipline, and Strength (determining the charge rates of player’s super, grenade, and melee abilities) make their triumphant return. Instead, Armor 2.0 has slots for modifiers so players can pick and choose whatever perks they want just as long as they’ve unlocked those mods. Mods are acquired from most activities, while enhanced mods (better versions of certain traditional mods) are exclusive to some of the game’s more challenging content. While the grind for mods seems excessive in the face of the rest of the game’s grind, it’s a one-time affair, some of the best mods are unlocked via the seasonal artifact, and the payoff is astounding, providing customization like never before.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Convoluting the process, unfortunately, is a messy elemental affinity system where certain mods can only be slotted into armor of a matching elemental type. Mods relating to pulse rifles, for example, are exclusive to Arc armor, so a piece perfectly rolled to a pulse-rifle-inclined player’s preference with a solar affinity won’t do them any good if they were hoping for pulse rifle perks. It was undoubtedly an intentional design decision to generate an arbitrary grind since players won’t need to chase armor with perfect perks any longer but is ultimately a mar on the face of an otherwise pretty great new system.

Axe to Grind

Speaking to the grind, Destiny has often struggled and failed to find the perfect balance of meaningful power climb and tedious grinds recycling the same old activities. Luckily, at the outset of the climb towards max power, Shadowkeep strikes a much better balance centered on beloved ritual and new and or seasonal activities. Power drops now operate on a clearly labeled, tiered system, incentivizing players to prioritize new or challenging activities for maximum gains. Ritual activities (Strikes, Crucible, and Gambit), though tier one, retain their relevance by offering multiple weekly powerful drops for match completions, vendor bounties completed, and rank progression. Previous, otherwise irrelevant avenues towards power have been retired, but this is a welcome reduction and there is no shortage of powerful drops in the climb to max power. That isn’t to say that the grind couldn’t be shorter ensuring more players can participate in endgame activities when they first arrive, but progression generally feels smoother than any time in Destiny‘s past.

Conversely, content flow might overwhelm casual and even dedicated players as there’s simply too much to do and grind for players tight on time. Bungie now considers Destiny and MMO with proper RPG mechanics, and, in terms of time commitment, that really shows with Shadowkeep. On a certain week, a player might have an accomplished week in-game after sinking only three to five hours into the game. Other weeks the game seems to demand closer to the ten to twenty-hour range. One week, for example, saw the release of the new dungeon, a new Crucible game mode, an exotic quest, a new public event, and the start of the Festival of the Lost, a limited time, Halloween event. That’s simply too much, feels like poor pacing, and favors streamers, Destiny content creators, and hardcore players for whom Destiny is their exclusive hobby, a burgeoning theme with Season of the Undying. While it’s certainly exciting that there’s always something to do in D2, it doesn’t seem true to the game’s roots as a hybrid, a shooter with MMO elements, that could be taken at a more casual pace but still offered an engaging endgame for the dedicated audience. Now, there’s only an endgame with no end in sight.

A Better Destiny Awaits

That’s not necessarily a bad thing for players who want to pay a minimal price for seemingly unending content, and in that regard, Shadowkeep is a steal. A sensational new raid (minus some finicky new mechanics), a foreboding dungeon, an immense new arsenal to grind for, and a better tuned PvP and PvE sandbox in which to enjoy them mean Shadowkeep will keep Guardians’ attention the whole season long and is an excellent proof of concept for the seasonal structure going forward. If Bungie can keep this pace up, year three of Destiny 2 could easily be the best year in franchise history. As a general caution though, Destiny 2 now clearly caters to the hardcore, requires MMO levels of commitment, and is best enjoyed with a regular group; casual, time-restricted, and solo players beware. It might not be the best single expansion release in franchise history (that’s still a toss-up between The Taken King and Forsaken), but, beginning with Destiny 2: Shadowkeep, the third year of D2 is the closest the tumultuous title has ever come to Bungie’s ambitious vision for the shared-world shooter and the game fans have been waiting for these past five years.

Continue Reading

Games

What Are Some of the Switch’s Best Indie Devs Making?

Published

on

switch

The Nintendo Switch has quickly become the preferred platform for some of the most talented indie studios in the industry. Its pick-up-and-play form factor and Nintendo’s concerted effort to court smaller developers this generation (complete with indie-specific Directs) has resulted in a library that’s positively flourished.

Despite the eShop falling victim to some of the discoverability and shovelware issues that long plagued Steam, there have been some real standouts over the years. Since video games take quite a while to produce, there’s often speculation as to what some of the premier developers have been working on. Let’s take a look at four of the most recognized indie studios on the platform and have some fun trying to figure out what they might be up to.


Sidebar Games

It’s hard to believe that 2017’s Golf Story was Sidebar Games’ first project as a studio. The two-man team from down under balanced a delightful dose of Australian-tinged humor with clear callbacks to the Mario sports games of old to deliver one of the best Switch exclusives in 2017, bar none.

Unlike the other studios on this list, Sidebar has been extremely silent on development progress; we can only glean bits and pieces from the few interviews they’ve done. We know the game has been in development for roughly two years and that Sidebar was still in active development as of March 2019 when they put out the call for a pixel artist for their next project. There’s also a fair chance that the new game will either be Switch-exclusive or target Switch first, seeing as how Golf Story is still one of the Switch’s top 10 best-selling indie games to date as of Spring 2019. If exclusivity worked so well the first time, why not try it again?

What Can We Expect?

Whatever Sidebar is working on, it’s almost guaranteed to be single-player and story-focused. One half of the dev team, Andrew, has gone on record multiple times saying that he’s “very partial to story modes.” This also players into one of their strengths; though there was a great time to be had with Golf Story’s golf, it was all elevated by the game’s ridiculous-yet-lovable characters and wacky situational humor.

Since the team has already deconfirmed a sequel as their next project, there’s really not much to go on. While I’d personally love them to tackle something Mario Tennis-inspired next, there’s a good chance they’ll avoid sports altogether. As long as the wit found in Golf Story is alive and well, though, their core audience is sure to be interested.


Fabraz

Despite being incredibly simple from a visual standpoint, the deceivingly charming Slime-San is still one of the best platformers to come out in recent memory. The game’s striking three-color art style isn’t just unique, but it’s also ingrained into the platforming mechanics in inventive ways. Beyond having a look all its own and a stiff challenge for players who wanted it, however, Fabraz went the extra mile to build a fun cast of characters and even a hub world to explore outside of the main game. It was a pleasant surprise from a relatively unknown developer at the time.

Fabraz has been anything but complacent since Slime-san’s launch. The studio released two free content expansions, ported the game to other consoles, and even got into the publishing business. No matter their other ventures, however, the team has made sure to tease their next project every so often since the start of 2019.

What Can We Expect?

Fabraz speculated that their new game was already roughly 60% complete at the start of October. Since it only began production in December of 2018, it’s safe to assume that the next game will be relatively small in scope. It’s also likely that Fabraz’s next outing won’t be “Slime-san 2,” since the original game received such heavy content additions months after release (including an expansion literally titled “Sheeple’s Sequel.” The team certainly knows how to make magic from very limited resources, so it’ll be interesting to see what they can do with a bit more of a budget, a new art style, and tons more experience.


Game Atelier/FDG Entertainment

It feels like Monster Boy and the Cursed Kingdom came out of nowhere. The team at FDG Entertainment had published indie darling Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King just the year prior and the console port of Oceanhorn before that, but there wasn’t much talk about FDG’s capabilities as a developer. As it turns out, however, Game Atelier’s choice to bring them on as a co-developer was the best thing that could’ve possibly happened to Monster Boy. Five long years of development later and fans were treated to one of the best platformers in recent memory.

Though it launched on all consoles, Monster Boy famously sold eight times more on Switch than PS4 and Xbox One combined, reminiscent of the sales of Blossom Tales on Switch. Needless to say, FDG’s next title will be targeted squarely as the Nintendo community. But what could that next project be?

What Can We Expect?

A Monster Boy sequel. FDG recently celebrated their collaboration with Game Atelier on Twitter and announced that they’re collaborating once more. The commercial and critical success of Monster Boy can only lead one to believe they’re hard at work on a follow-up together. Thankfully, with such a solid base to work off of now, this one shouldn’t take nearly as long to release.


Chucklefish

Chucklefish has garnered a great deal of respect in the indie community as both a developer (Starbound, WarGroove) and frequent publisher (Stardew Valley, Timespinner, the upcoming Eastward, and others). Their eagerness to bring so many of their top-notch titles to Switch has made them one of–if not the–most lauded indie studios on the platform. If it’s coming from Chucklefish, there’s a good chance it’ll be of the highest quality.

What Can We Expect?

Witchbrook! Chucklefish announced the game way back in 2017 and instantly had both Harry Potter and Little Witch Academia fans foaming at the mouth. It’s a magical school simulation/RPG where players will attend class, learn spells, make friends, date, and work towards graduation. The company’s CEO and lead designer, Finn, has been incredibly open about the game’s development from the beginning. In fact, he made the ever-changing Witchbrook design document public in August of 2019 to give some insight into the game design and planning process.

Since there’s already so much we know about where the game’s going, this is going to be used as more of a “Hopes for Witchbrook” section. To keep it short, let’s focus on two of the game’s most make-or-break elements: dating and world-building.

Dating

One of the things many RPGs struggle with is making dating feel meaningful after the relationship starts. People love romancing in Stardew Valley, but the experience itself is really rather shallow; bring characters their favorite items, talk to them daily, experience a few touching cutscenes and voila! All that’s left is to put a ring on it and have a baby.

My hope is that in Witchbrook, the real fun starts after the relationship begins. Being able to have lunch together, go to festivals, celebrate anniversaries, plan outings, and even introduce them to the player’s in-game friends would go a long way in making the relationship feel more than a ribbon to be crossed.

World-Building

When someone asks the seminal question “What fictional world would you love to live in?” the world of Harry Potter almost always tops to list (right next to Pokémon, that is). It isn’t just because of magic itself or the emotional ties people have to the cast, but more so because of the immense amounts of personality and lore J.K. Rowling infused into the world. From the dark history of Hogwarts to the vast array of magical beasts to the establishment of Quidditch, there is a whole movie and video game series that has been created based on mere slices of the Harry Potter universe.

Naturally, it’d be silly to expect Chucklefish to achieve as much depth in an indie project as one of the most successful authors of all time did over the course of seven books, but there’s still plenty of potential. Since the game will primarily take place at the school, exploring why the school was created and how it’s changed over the years could be quite interesting. Then there’s how different populations of the world at large feel about magic, how various magical species play a part, the favorite magic-imbued pastimes of students in the world of Witchbrook, and so on. The key will be to infuse magic into every element of the world (and gameplay) as naturally as possible. And after reading through the extensive design doc, I’ve no doubt Chucklefish will be able to pull it off.


The indie scene on the Switch is thriving more than ever. New talented developers are making the platform their home every day, and those who’ve already proved themselves are hard at work on their next premium experience. The next wave of releases from these studios can’t come soon enough.

Continue Reading

Games

‘Death Stranding’: And Now for Something Completely Different

Published

on

Death Stranding Slow Connectivity

Video gaming as a medium has often been perceived as little more than a toy. Even with Nintendo pushing the NES as a part of the home and more than just a toy– a strategy they’d adopt again for the Wii– there are still many who see games as toys, rather than an expression of an art form. It makes perfect sense, though. If there’s one thing modern video game culture has pushed front and center this past decade, it’s instant satisfaction. As big-budget games embrace homogeneity, the medium’s priorities have shifted from capitalizing on its inherent interactivity to making sure gamers are never bored with their $60 toy. Reggie Fils-Aime famously said “If it’s not fun, why bother?” for a reason, but when every big-budget game is paced the same, structured the same, and plays the same, where’s the fun to be found? 

About Death Stranding…

It’s far too early to even assume what kind of impact Death Stranding will have on the medium & industry (if any), but as one of the last big budgets games to release in 2019, Hideo Kojima’s first crack at the “strand game genre” is a nice note to cap the decade off on– one that serves as an almost necessary palette cleanser as the medium heads into the 2020s. Death Stranding offers audiences a chance to breathe, to look at themselves in the mirror, and to reconnect. Not just with the world and others, but with a medium built on interactivity. 

Hideo Kojima is often criticized for his cutscene ratio, to the point where it’s not unusual to see critics suggest he just make a film, but the fact of the matter is that most games do need a story. Not just that, video games have the potential to present a story better than any other medium. Readers and viewers can place themselves in the shoes of their protagonists, but a game makes the player become the protagonist. How we control our characters, how we play, how we interact with a virtual world– all this is a reflection of ourselves, one that only the gaming medium can offer. 

Not that it often does, at least not meaningfully. Modern developers are afraid to lose consumer interest, and the increasing shift towards the “games as a service” model has ensured that gameplay loops are simple to pick up, simple to get into, and simple to stay into. Games are something to be played with– toys. And there’s immense value in that. Video games can be a fantastic way to reduce stress & clear one’s thoughts regardless of how they’re designed, but such an approach means that the average gamer is going to be accustomed to gameplay loops that are structurally derivative of one another. 

On the flip side, there are the games that prioritize narrative too much, or simply devalue their own gameplay with extraneous content. From Hideo Kojima’s own gameography, this is a mistake he clearly made with Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Even from this decade, it can be argued that what little importance Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain placed on the story ended up hurting it in the long run because it distracted from the core gameplay loop. There’s a reason so many developers follow similar game structures and build off similar foundations: they’re reliable, they get the job done, and it does result in great games. Both The Last of Us and God of War (2018) are clear examples of how mechanically homogenous & predictable games have gradually become this past decade, but they’re still great games.

Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time.

Death Stranding is most comparable to Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and perhaps The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, but really only on the most surface of levels. Death Stranding has AAA backing, but it has the creativity and ingenuity of a modern indie. While AAA developers have lined up for uniformity, the indie half of the medium has arguably never been better. Those who grew up alongside video games are now developing their own, calling back to and even evolving forgotten genres. All the while, AAA games only move closer to the Disneyfication of movie production– hit all the key demographics, make it “accessible” for everyone, and make sure there are no real ideals or beliefs. No need to upset potential consumers, right? 

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Death Stranding was backed by Sony and developed by a massive development team, but Hideo Kojima’s direction is far more in-line with the modern indie scene than that of his AAA cohorts. Death Stranding is one of the slowest AAA titles to release in quite a long time. It’s slow to start, slow to pick up, and even the core gameplay loop is slow. It takes hours before players get their first vehicle, and even longer before they finally get a weapon. Death Stranding saves its actual core gameplay loop for so late in the experience that it’s not unreasonable to suggest the game sees an entire genre shift halfway through. But that’s missing the point. Death Stranding’s “genre shift” is only going to feel so for those who don’t want to engage with the first half’s crawl– those who just want to play with a toy. 

Of course, just wanting something simple and immediately engaging to play is fair enough. For working adults with limited time to play a game, in particular, but not every game is going to resonate with everyone, even if a game like Death Stranding is designed for anyone. Death Stranding seems inaccessible & foreign in a generation where every big genre release plays like the last, but between a myriad of difficulty options and an online system designed to make the player’s life easier– one that works & works well– Death Stranding takes the medium’s interactivity to its next logical step: connectivity. Real connectivity, though. A connection that goes beyond playing against or with someone for a few minutes. 

In Death Stranding, players can leave a tangible mark on, and in, the world. Players can build structures for others, share with others, and just do something as simple as “liking” others. Those opening hours are incredibly valuable as– without the means to kill or fight back– players are forced to interact with the game world on a deeper level beyond combat. Death Stranding takes its time developing its gameplay loop, drip-feeding weapons, and concepts. Even the online component opens itself slowly, forcing players to understand what it means to be alone before they can forge real connections– with the world, others, or themselves. 

This is what Hideo Kojima understands better than the majority of modern AAA developers: games can connect a feeling directly to the player. Death Stranding’s best moments (as any should be) stem from gameplay. Kojima’s storytelling is engaging as ever, but it exists to bolster the gameplay– as does the slow pacing, as does the aggressive enemy AI, as does locking out weapons for hours on end– everything in Death Stranding is ultimately in service of connecting players to Sam in a way that feels genuinely meaningful. Through Sam, audiences can observe an America that’s in ruins, but one that society is rebuilding.

As Sam reconnects America, opportunities arise to finish bridges for others, leave supplies in remote areas, or just warn of dangers ahead. It’s very Dark Souls-esque in nature, but with a gameplay loop that minimizes traditional action, Death Stranding is the rare AAA game that’s bold enough to embrace the medium and everything it represents, for better or worse. A video game interacts with an audience in a way that books and film can’t. Controlling an avatar is an intimate act and reflects us better than most might realize. Death Stranding recognizes this fact, turns its back on modern gaming mainstays, and attempts to reconnect the medium together. 

Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

AAA gaming and the indie scene shouldn’t be divided. A gameplay loop doesn’t need instant satisfaction to be engaging. Story and gameplay shouldn’t feel disconnected. Standard online multiplayer can be more rewarding when PvP elements are tossed to the wayside or even just outright ignored. Death Stranding resembles the average AAA title in many respects, but it allows itself to be eclectic, off-putting, & sincerely unfiltered– in regards to politics, human nature, video games themselves. Only time will tell if “strand games” will take off, but keep in mind that the stealth genre didn’t exist when the hit “action” game Metal Gear released for the MSX2 in 1987. As Death Stranding makes abundantly clear, everything changes with time. 

The 2010s have not been a bad decade for the medium, far from it. The past ten years have seen truly legendary consoles and games come out of the woodwork, but it’s impossible to deny the shift that occurred (and had been occurring) in AAA game development– one that’s driven the medium far away from meaningful interactivity, where flavor of the month games long to be played for all eternity, like Toy Story-esque monstrosities given form. Death Stranding is a slow game, but the longer path walked only presents an opportunity to reconnect oneself to the heart of gaming: interactivity. 

Continue Reading

Trending