Would Upgrades Have Prolonged The Dreamcast?

Sony's recent confirmation of a new, upgraded PlayStation 4 got me thinking. The first thing it got me thinking about was how much longer my £300 PS4 will be a part of Sony's plans. I mean, I've never really had any cause for concern over the long-term future of my next-gen console of choice, even in light of the constant console-bashing that blares from my headphones whenever I listen to a 'big' gaming podcast. But now I'm wondering if my shiny, jet-powered parallelogram will be outmoded before I've even had the time to pay off the credit card I bought it with (hint: I won't). The articles I've read state that we PS4 proles have nothing to worry about, as the 'Neo' will simply be a slightly beefier system and all future PS4 software will have two modes - one for each tier of the hardware.
This kind of reminds me of the N64 Expansion Pak from Nintendo back in 1998, where 99% of the games that used it were still playable on the base unit without the extra 4MB RAM upgrade, but if you had that magical lozenge thrumming under the flap on the front of your console, you could witness the eye-watering magnificence of medium-res Nintendo graphics. Unless you were playing ISS 2000, in which case you got a flicker book version of everyone's favourite footy game.

What I'm getting at here is that Sony obviously thinks the current PS4 isn't powerful enough for what's around the corner in terms of gaming experiences. Looking at the impending PlayStation VR it's possible that they're on to something...but this isn't about the PS4. It's about the Dreamcast, and whether Sega's system could have had a longer period in the public eye if it had been upgradeable.
"The sky is the limit with Dreamcast. We've created a box that is almost infinitely expandable. As new technologies come around, we'll be able to do anything we want to it. One of Sega's big pushes at the moment is the trend of the static box. There will no longer be a box coming out of Sega that we put on a shelf and forget about. The standard 'one box for five years' model is gone."
Sega Source - Total Control magazine, April 1999

Now, I'm not for one second saying the Dreamcast actually needed to be upgraded. Even up against the PS2 it was a capable system and many games that are on both formats do look identical - if not slightly better on the Dreamcast in some cases. The notion I'm putting forward here is that if the Dreamcast had had some kind of upgrade module that had increased the RAM or the graphics or something - anything - that could have been marketed as an improvement to the base system...would it have lived longer? Would more members of the general games buying public have been swayed by an augmented system that could compete in terms of raw power or features? People who were dead set on buying a PlayStation 2 may well have looked at the Dreamcast in a different light if Sega were able to say: "look what we've got - a system that's already got a massive (original) library...and now it's more powerful than the PS2 as well!"

"Sega plan to release a number of different versions of the Dreamcast - the machine on sale in Japan now, and in September in Europe and the US, is version 1.1. Version 1.2 will be significantly different, and if we ever get as far as a version 4.1, it is likely to be a vastly superior machine."
- Total Control magazine, April 1999

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking about the 32X and the Mega CD. How those systems came out and were instantly deluged either with a load of crap games; or in the case of the 32X, a total shortage of games full stop. I'd like to put this point to you though: everyone makes mistakes. And most people learn from them and come back stronger. With the Dreamcast this was certainly the case initially. After the debacle of the Saturn, the Dreamcast came out of the gate all guns blazing and Sega barely put a foot wrong during that early period of the system's life. It was only really when Sony started gearing up the PlayStation 2 war machine that Sega flinched, and if they'd had some little add-on, maybe something as small as the modem that could have slotted on the bottom of the Dreamcast and interacted through the serial port...maybe it would have been enough for people to think there was a real fight on the cards.
Personally I think the main draw that the PlayStation 2 had over the Dreamcast was the DVD drive and the promise of graphics that were far above the standard set by Sega's console. You only had to look at those renders of the old man's face or the Gran Turismo 2000 demo and you could't help but be impressed. No-one was to know that PlayStation 2 visuals would look nothing like that when it eventually hit the store shelves, but for that brief window when the Emotion Engine was promising to bring Toy Story-quality graphics to the home, sit you down and cook your dinner for you (and do the washing up), nobody cared.

"Improvements being talked about at the moment are an increase in RAM, ISDN and DVD. Apparently, Sega already have a DVD Dreamcast prototype up and running in their Tokyo offices."
 - Total Control magazine, April 1999

Coupled with the ability to play movies, it was enough to plant seeds of doubt in many a gamer's mind. Just think though - if Sega had released upgrades for the Dreamcast like a DVD drive or a pseudo 32X type thing that promised a boost in processing power or whatever other marketing guff hipsters are paid to come up with...maybe it could have been different. Of course, we never really saw the true potential of the base hardware realised and I know about extras like the broadband adapter, the karaoke unit et al but I don't really class those as upgrades in this sense. No, I'm talking about additions that would have increased the technical ability of the console and allowed it to perform to a higher specification. With more polygons and stuff, innit.
I'm probably definitely talking utter bollocks here, but what if Sega had just brought out a 'Neo' type Dreamcast? With the innards of a NAOMI 2 and a DVD player where the GD-Rom drive was? Chuck a bit more RAM in for good measure? And one of those capture cards from inside the Coleco Chameleon. Actually on second thoughts I don't think the market would have been too happy with that, as back in 2001 the wounds from the Mega CD and 32X were still quite raw. But if Sony can have the gall to release an updated PlayStation 4 in 2016 and not give a toss, what's to say that if Sega hadn't released an upgrade module or a totally revised Dreamcast that it wouldn't have turned the format's fortunes around?
In this post I wrote recently, I published a page scan from the April 1999 issue of Total Control magazine (the excerpts are dotted around this post and the scan is above) in which Sega were reportedly working on upgrade bits and bobs for the Dreamcast. Ultimately, we now know these hardware enhancements never came, and I know other things like PlayStation backwards compatibility and a whole host of other factors need to be considered when discussing the Dreamcast's pitifully short natural lifespan. But I like to fantasise that in an alternative reality we could all be playing Dreamcast 4s now instead of waiting to trade our PlayStation 4s in for Neos. Or would they be Dreamcast Ones? Hmm...

What's your opinion on this subject? Let us know in the comments or on Facebook/Twitter.


Anonymous said...

It's an interesting prospect, but I personally think that the gains from the updated PS4 are literally going to be performance and that is it. It'll help with the VR aspect too, but ultimately if the game is running the beefier hardware, the optimisations required to run the game on the base hardware (dynamic resolution scaling, reduced visual effects ect...) will just be disabled or reduced.

I think the DVD addon might have helped, but it wouldn't have been profitable for Sega in the slightest and it would have just drained resources even more quickly. Sega had the fight, just not the money to continue, that for me (and piracy) is the sole reason Sega ultimately had to stop hardware. It's a story all to similar in this industry but it's a crying shame it happened to such a popular (and huge) company.

doceggfan said...

It wouldn't have worked during the Dreamcast's era, especially with the mega cd and 32x too close in the rear view mirror, but if they tried it, and through the lens of modern retrospection, it would have again demonstrated how far ahead of their time Sega was thinking with the Dreamcast.

Didn't Sega of Europe bundle the Dreamcast with a free DVD player in the lead up to the PS2's launch? I don't think it made much difference, so an integrated DVD add-on probably wouldn't have fared much better.

Tom Charnock said...

Yeah, they did a deal where you got a Dreamcast and a DVD player together in a bundle. I remember seeing the offer advertised in a shop at the time and the one thing that sticks in my mind is how big the DVD player box looked next to the Dreamcast box!

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

I think sega had a reason for not going to DVDs. They say that the reason was for both the games and hardware being to expensive on a dvd. But me i think it was sega's way of trying to save them selfs. Look back on sega's add on's Sega cd(Mega cd) sega 32x(Mega 32x) and the saturn vcd card if that counts. Sure the sega cd (Mega cd) is the add on with the most sales but still not that many bought and same with 32x and the vcd. Sega at the time didn't want to dare them selfs using a potential failure dvds were still new technology at the time. Were still talking about a company at the time had only 100s of millions of dollars not even a billion to a company its bad.To be honest GD roms were a good amount of storage to put on. Everyone else used cd roms plus with capabilities like mpegsofec and adx sound and that when used it could been close to what DVD capabilities.

pcwzrd13 said...

It's an interesting idea for sure but I personally think it would have had the opposite effect and shortened its lifespan. I've always considered Sega's tattered reputation, because of the 32x and Saturn, to be the number one cause of the Dreamcast's "death". As others have already said, an upgraded Dreamcast would have just resurrected bad memories for consumers and created a feeling that Sega was screwing them over yet again. Not only that, but it would have caused Sega to lose more money and ultimately make the decision of discontinuing the console even earlier. That's my take on it anyway. Great article Tom!

fanat said...

IMHO the lack of DVD video, the lack of a unified sega network/online strategy, and the name itself "Dreamcast" are all reasons for why it failed. Dreamcast isn't catchy / smooth enough for a household name. Playstation kind of smooths off the tongue, PS2 is even better. Xbox is pracitcally perefect in that sense.

fanat said...

As for addons, I'll agree with pcwzrd13, they would've failed. IMO it should've gone with a dvd drive from the start. Later they could've released a dongle like the Xbox, which would've covered the DVD licensing fees.

DCGX said...

fanat - I completely disagree. The name 'Dreamcast' is entirely catchy, smooth and memorable. I still hate the name 'Xbox' (and I do know why it was/is called that).

If we're playing "what ifs," instead of an add-on, and like the PS4K, SEGA could've released a new Dreamcast model. Same on the outside (or slightly changed), but with a DVD drive instead of the GD drive (yes, switch games to DVDs maybe rig it to read GD-ROMs so older games can be played on new systems) and include more RAM (maybe a quiet fan too lol). Just about everything else internally was up-to-snuff with the PS2.

I realize this would alienate early adopters, but the trade-off could've been more people buying the system going forward. My theory would be that third party companies would've been more likely to have multiplatform games on the DC as well. So we're in a place where people buy the Dreamcast for first party games, but unlike Nintendo, may get the best third party experience with games (like the Xbox).

Plus, let's face it, early adopters probably would buy the updated system anyway (How many times has Nintendo sold their case the same system over and over). SEGA could've done a trade-in deal as well, like trade-in a DC-GD for $100 towards a DC-DVD.

SEGA likely didn't have the money to make any changes, even in reality during the DC's run, but they could've leveraged some assets or restructured in bankruptcy (assuming SEGA Japan got their heads out of their asses and hadn't merged with Sammy). If their projections for units sold based on the new model were high enough, they likely could've taken on debt to fund the push.

And even if they went bankrupt and weren't able to restructure, their properties would've been sold off and arguably wouldn't have been worse for wear given what SEGA has produced since the DC era.

Unknown said...

a naomi 2 upgrade might have been a bit soon or far fletched but simply adding a dvd drive would have done so much for them so much