The Sega Dreamcast, "It’s Thinking" About the Future

When Sega released its final video game system, the Dreamcast, the initial promotional campaign was based on the tagline “it’s thinking.” It didn’t work.  Personally, I thought it implied there would be some sort of advanced computing in there to make the artificial intelligence of games much more dynamic.  In truth, it was just stupid advertising-ese.

In hindsight, however, the tagline takes on a new meaning.  The system (rather, its designers) was thinking … but their mindset was far ahead of where console gaming was at the time.

  • It was the first home console with built-in online functionality.  Previous game systems (notably Sega’s own Genesis with the “Sega Channel” or the Super Nintendo and Genesis with the third-party XBand modem) were capable of online gaming thanks to attachments, and contemporary (for the time) systems also required first-person attachments to access the internet.  As a result, online gaming never really took off for consoles until the the XBOX 360 launched with its focus on the XBOX Live service.
  • It had a focus on online gaming.  Because game developers could assume customers had the capability of gaming online they were able to build games with a focus on non-local multi-player gaming.  Titles such as Outrigger, Phantasy Star Online, and Alien Front Online focused on the multi-player functionality to the detriment of the single-player experience, similar to many current gaming franchises (especially first-person shooters.)
  • It had downloadable content (DLC). Again, foretelling a major component of the current generation of gaming’s business models, the Dreamcast was the first console to really feature the ability to add to games with material downloaded from the internet.  From extra quests to Phantasy Star Online to additional songs in Samba de Amigo, there were plenty of reasons to take your game online to see what was available.  Of course, this was before gaming companies realized that DLC was a goldmine, so all of this material was free.

But what got me thinking about the Dreamcast recently?  It was the recent E3, with Nintendo’s continued promotion of the Wii U and the coverage it garnered.   Some video gaming blogs talked excitedly about the possibility of playing console games on a screen that was separate from the main display, as well as the ability to play a portion of the game on the portable device and have it affect the main game.  You see, the Dreamcast already experimented with these ideas.

  • The Visual Memory Unit (VMU) attachment. The Dreamcast required a separate device to save game data.  This was common practice at the time (although the first XBOX had a built-in hard drive.)  Unlike the PS2 and Gamecube’s memory cards, however, the memory unit plugged into the controller and doubled as a separate screen (don’t get too excited, it was a single-color LCD with 48 x 32 resolution.)  There weren’t a lot of games that made use of this feature during gaming, although football games allowed players to pick their plays using the second screen so that you could keep it a secret from your competitors.  There were, however, several games that allowed you to download minigames to the VMU–which was playable outside of the controller thanks to a watch battery–and play them away from the main console.  Often, activity in the minigames would have some impact on the main game once you sycned them back together.

Poor Sega, they were pioneers in console development … unfortunately they were using strategies that were going to win the console war six years in the future.  

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