What if Sega never left the console business?
The year is 2001 and Sega is in trouble. Their last few consoles and peripherals didn’t do well. The Sega CD and 32X split the fanbase of the Sega Genesis and its follow-up, the Saturn, was overshadowed by the Playstation and N64. Although their latest console, the Dreamcast, has a large and devoted fanbase it’s not enough to compete with the Playstation 2’s higher specs and cheap price point. With Microsoft getting ready to enter the ring with the Xbox, Sega sees the writing on the wall and pulls out of the console business for good.
But what if they didn’t? What if, by some random miracle, the Dreamcast didn’t fail? What if Sega managed to compete with Sony and Nintendo and went on to create more consoles for every gaming generation leading up to the present day? How would things change?
Any sci-fi fan knows that small changes in the past can greatly change the future, and this is no exception.
Microsoft Never Enters the Ring
The console world has never been big enough to support more than three major consoles for good reason. Each new console splits the gaming market into smaller bits. Smaller markets mean less money to make and less money means less of a chance to turn a profit.
Game developers also suffer in a console saturated market. If they plan on making a multi-console game the price of development increases for each console. If they plan on releasing on a single console then, once again, their audience is split by the competition.
We’ve already seen what multi-console saturation can do to the gaming market. A flooded console market caused the great video game crash of 1983. The only way the market stays stable is if the number of competing consoles stays small. Any time a fourth console enters the competition one of the consoles has to die. In 2001 it was Sega’s Dreamcast that was sacrificed on the altar of market stability.
But in our alternate timeline, Sega never pulls out of the race. This means some other console needs to die. Historically, it’s always the newest console that ends up on the chopping block. Microsoft sold fewer Xboxes than Sony sold Playstation 2s, and while they outsold Nintendo’s Gamecube, Nintendo has proven than nothing will take them out of the console game. Microsoft also settled into the same “cool and edgy” niche that Sega had occupied since the days of the Genesis, so if anyone was going to lose sales from Sega’s success it was going to be Microsoft.
The success of the Dreamcast means the Xbox never happens. Instead of introducing new consoles, Microsoft would focus their efforts on the PC gaming market. This would have its own consequences. For example, the Windows Store may have been created earlier, giving Steam major competition and splitting the PC marketplace.
Microsoft was also a key player in shifting consoles from game playing devices to quality of life devices. Nowadays consoles have everything from internet browsers to Netflix. Without Microsoft’s presence, game consoles may have remained nothing more than game consoles for a longer time. That being said, Sony and even Sega themselves were experimenting with giving consoles multimedia capabilities even in the early 2000s, so the shift would have happened eventually.
Sega Pioneers Online Gaming
With Microsoft out of the console game the history of consoles on the internet changes dramatically. Microsoft’s Xbox Live was one of the first mainstream console internet services and games like Halo 2 were what made it explode into popularity. With Microsoft out of the game someone would have to step forward and fill that void and, believe it or not, that someone would be Sega.
Sega had already dabbled in online gaming with “the Sega Channel.” They even already had an online gaming hit on the Dreamcast: Phantasy Star Online. Sony and Nintendo tried to produce online games in that era, but every attempt was a flop. If Sega stuck around, Phantasy Star Online would have only gotten bigger, and later Dreamcast games would go online, following in its foosteps.
This would vastly change the face of the online gaming world. In our timeline, online gaming evolved in response to the success of the online shooter. Games like Halo and Call of Duty shaped the online gaming world as we know it. You may notice that both of these titles found success on the Xbox.
If Sega’s Phantasy Star Online pioneered online gaming then the online world wouldn’t be evolved around the shooter. It would evolve around the RPG.
What does this mean for online gaming and gaming in general? When World of Warcraft released in 2004, it might have gotten a console release. Major RPG franchises would have begun looking for ways to include online components into their traditionally single-player games. Online console play wouldn’t be a place for short matches but instead long narrative campaigns. We might have even seen online capabilities leak into other single-player genres like the ever popular action game.
This also means that we would have seen features that aided RPG play evolve quicker. That means earlier adoption of voice chat and friends lists. It may even mean earlier development of online stores, if MMOs with a monthly subscription became the norm.
And shooters? Shooters wouldn’t have exploded nearly as hard as they did in our timeline. With Halo never becoming a massive success and Xbox Live never supporting online multiplayer, console shooters would remain a niche genre. They would focus on single-player and local multiplayer rather than online play. Its possible most shooters wouldn’t see a console release at all. It would be far more likely that the shooter would remain one of those genres that you could only do well on the PC.
Eventually we would reach our current point in time where nearly every game has some sort of online component, but the world of online would look quite different. It’s entirely possible that the biggest online games of all time would be RPGs. If that’s the case then e-sports probably wouldn’t be as big as it is now. E-sports exploded together with mainstream accessibility to competitive online games. Without a major shooter or other competitive game leading the online revolution, we might still have 10-20 years to wait until people started taking e-sports seriously.
Console and PC Lineups Would Vary Greatly
In our timeline there isn’t a whole lot of boundary between consoles. The Nintendo Switch is doing its own thing and each console has its own first party exclusives, but every third party AAA release can be played on the PS4, the Xbox One, or the PC. In a world where Sega was still a leading console developer, this wouldn’t be the case.
Sega prided itself on being everything that Nintendo wasn’t. Even well into the Dreamcast days, Sega marketed itself on console exclusives and attitude. There’s no reason to believe that they would change their tune if they survived until the current day.
This would give us an environment with three consoles made by Sony, Nintendo, and Sega, each with wildly different specs and each sporting a hugely different gaming library. These wildly varying specs would make it harder for multi-platform games to come to the PC, which would make PC gaming less mainstream.
Holding back PC gaming means that indie gaming would also be held back. That means no Braid (which had its first big release on the Xbox 360), no Undertale (which was PC exclusive for some time), no Cuphead, Super Meat Boy, or Bastion. If any of these games were made, they certainly wouldn’t see the same mainstream success that they did today since they would be locked away in corners of the PC gaming world that simply didn’t get public notice.
This world of console exclusives would make gaming harder for people with low incomes. The console wars would be far fiercer than they are today. Lower income gamers would only be able to afford one console if any, and since console libraries would be so different, the gaming community would have even fiercer debates about whether or not God of War or the new 3D Streets of Rage was the superior game.
IP Boundaries Never Break
When Sega decided to pull out of the console business they made a decision that stunned us all. They were going to keep making games and their beloved mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog, would make his way to Nintendo platforms. The walls between these two rivals were broken down, which was mind blowing for many gamers at the time.
Sonic started popping up all sorts of places. He was a guest character in Smash. He and Mario went to the Olympics together. This was the very beginning of this new crossover era that we are currently living in. I’m not saying Sega’s fall was the only factor. After all, we saw Dante from Devil May Cry make his way into Shin Megami Tensei: Nocture. It’s just that the very idea of Sonic being on a Nintendo platform opened up the floodgates for future crossover ideas.
In a world where Sega never fell, Sonic never found his way to Nintendo platforms, and companies would be more wary about letting their iconic characters cross over into other products. This is partially because the gaming landscape would still be defined by mascots. Not only would the Sonic and Mario rivalry be alive but Sony probably would have invested more money into Crash Bandicoot or whatever mascot they wanted to represent them. The identity of a mascot is wrapped up in it being an exclusive IP. The chances of these characters crossing over to another property would be slim at best.
This sort of behavior would set the standard for game development. We likely wouldn’t see as many crossover fighting games. Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle would have never happened. Danganronpa’s Monokuma wouldn’t be a guest boss in Attack on Titan. Exactly three people understood what I was referencing in that final example, but I guarantee you that those three people would be very sad in this alternate timeline.
Arcades Might Not Have Died
Here’s an interesting consequence. Sega, believe it or not, is still a leading arcade developer. Many arcade games still run on Sega hardware. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft don’t really have their hands in the arcade business anymore, which contributed somewhat to the arcade’s fall. While arcades were already starting to decline during the era of the Dreamcast, it’s possible that Sega’s success could have saved them.
If Sega was making money on their console sales, they could have funneled some of that income into their arcade business. If Sega became a household name due to their ongoing success in the console market, then this popularity may have transferred over into the arcade world as well. This would have increased demand for Sega arcade cabinets and possibly kept the focus of arcades on games of skill rather than games of chance. It’s entirely possible that we could have had amazing multi-story VR arcades here in America much as they currently have in Japan, if Sega was still a major contender in the console wars.
The Sega Holiday Season
And what sort of games would top the charts in a world where Sega was still a console maker? Well this 2017 holiday season, gamers would be able to look forward to Sonic Generations 2, a continued celebration of Sonic’s history featuring modern day boost levels and oldschool 2D side-scrolling levels. The catch this time around? Both levels would sometime shift into 16-bit graphics and mechanics, similar to how Mario can sometimes go 2D in Super Mario Odyssey.
With a new Fire Emblem for the Nintendo Switch on the horizon, Sega would compete with its own tactical game series, Shining Force. While they departed from the formula in the past to make a couple action and fighting games, a brand new strategy title would be slated for a 2018 release. It is likely that they would have a new Valkyria Chronicles release a year or two afterward.
After a fantastic showing on their last handheld console, Sega continues to compete with the 3DS by releasing its hard-hitting lineup of handheld games. A sequel to Sands of Destruction is slated for a 2018 release, and this holiday season we would see a new Monkey Ball with built in tilt controls.
And of course, Sega would have their own title for the new fighting game relevance, the latest installment of Fighting Vipers, though it still kind of pales in comparison to other more well-known fighting games.
Of course, we don’t live in that timeline and the last thing Sega had to give us was Sonic Forces.
Would it be worth it, though? If you could travel back in time and make Sega succeed, would you want to live in that timeline? Is a few more years of edgy attitude worth pushing back e-sports and PC gaming? Would you prefer an online world populated with RPGs instead of shooters?
Let us know what timeline you’d like to live in, in the comments.