Sega's Saturn struggles laid bare
"We are killing Sony."
Welcome back to Multicore for Wednesday, July 5th.
I hope all who celebrate had a great 4th of July. I figured I’d save this issue for later, since it's been a predictably quiet week. I was all the more grateful for the timely drop of a completely unprecedented treasure trove of information on the Sega Saturn.
A 272-page PDF titled SegaFY1997BrandReview_US was uploaded to the Sega Retro wiki over the weekend. It's of unknown provenance, but I don't see any red flags to make me doubt the authenticity. Far from the slick presentation slides you'd expect from such a document today, this is made up of shoddily scanned printouts, often annotated by hand. It includes confidential sales data and emails from former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske, who has often spoken about his time at the company.
The Saturn was Sega's 32-bit console that succeeded the Mega Drive/Genesis and competed with the Sony PlayStation. Sega stunned the gaming world, not to mention its important retail partners, by announcing at E3 1995 that the new system would be available immediately for $400 in the US. Sony famously outflanked Sega the same week by announcing that the PlayStation would cost $300 months later, and this document captures some of the fallout from the dramatic launch period.
Here’s an email from Kalinske on a visit to Japan in March 1996 where he witnessed that Sega was "killing Sony":
It is one thing to hear/read about how well we are doing in Japan vs. Sony, it's another to personally witness it. I just visited 10 retail stores in Tokyo (most in Akihabara); it's now spring break so the crowds of teens/college kids are huge. We are killing Sony. In every store, Saturn hardware is sold out and there are stacks of Playstation. The retailers commented they can't compare the true sales rate because Saturn sells out before they can measure accurately. Our interactive displays are better, our software displays and stocking far superior. It is not unusual to see 40-50 copies of Panzer [Dragoon] Zwei or Virtua Fighter 2 stocked in even small stores and they are selling fast. I wish I could get all our staff, sales people, retailers, analysts, media, etc. to see and understand what's happening in Japan; they would then understand why we will win here in the US eventually.
How do we show that at E3?
Narrator: Sega did not win in the US eventually. Or in Japan.
It is true, though, that the Saturn sold pretty well in Japan at first. Sony was a huge domestic brand, of course, but it was new to the gaming industry and its success was far from assured early on.
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