Dreamcast and Playstation 2: Leaps and Bounds

Here are two theories about why the SEGA Dreamcast failed. The first of which is wholly inaccurate. Yes, the Dreamcast’s GD-ROM format (basically CDs with custom headers) was prone to piracy, but so is the Nintendo DS (more so, thanks to a combination of today’s easy file dissemination, broadband penetration, and the DS’s relative small files sizes, none of which really applied to the Dreamcast back in the early 2000s) and it’s the biggest success of this generation.

What I take the most umbrage with, however, is both of their claims that the Playstation 2 was “leaps and bounds” more “advanced” than the Dreamcast. This is a dubious statement worth contesting. The Playstation 2 did have the benefit of using the DVD format giving it higher capacity, but when arguments about which is more advanced occur about videogame systems they always revolve around graphical processing. Hertz and flops and poly counts are often referenced. Those number-based pissing matches miss the point. They reduce complicated pieces of architecture, the developer talent that utilizes them, the quality of the dev tools, familiarity with the system, etc, into non-factors. There’s more to making content than the number of transistors.

Gran Turismo 4 is a suitably impressive looking Playstation 2 game, often trumped as a show-piece example of the system’s graphical prowess. The important thing to remember in its case is that its release came four years after the Dreamcast’s demise. The Dreamcast never survived into that late-generation mature period, when a system is best utilized. We will never know what the Dreamcast was truly capable of. So why did it fail?

It’s hard to say. Any number of factors can be cited: SEGA’s reputation; the lack of EA support; finances; timing; marketing; DVD adoption; piracy; the stars. Ultimately, as simple as it is, it failed because it lost money.

Anything is a good excuse as long as it’s not the question of “who was more advanced?” If you look at the history of videogame consoles — and this generation proves it as much as others — the most “advanced” system was often not the most successful. In fact, it tends to be the opposite. So can we please, in 2009, finally abandon this trope and focus on good design and content and stop thinking of videogame consoles as mindless brute force muscle?

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