What's in a Name?

Spanner | 20 Feb 2007 07:01
Sega! - RSS 2.0

To a significant portion of the planet's population, the name Sega quite literally means "games": It implies innovation, conjures images and feelings of high-octane entertainment, it's a beloved epoch of childhood, it is a friend, and it has been a lover. Sega is more than a company name - it's an aspect of modern history that requires no definition for those who were there.

But behind the name, and its many and passionate sentiments, there's a sadness which stems the flow of good feelings for gamers almost as quickly as they begin. There's a feeling that the company hasn't lived up to its promise. A regret that love's labor may have been lost.

Historically, the name originates from its conception as Standard Games - an importer of coin-operated amusement machines for U.S. servicemen stationed in Hawaii in the 1940s. When the company moved to Japan, it was renamed Service Games of Japan and later merged with pinball machine importer, Rosen Enterprises, to become Sega (SErvice GAmes), in the 1960s. As a company, Sega has been repeatedly bought and sold in one of those tedious financial paper trails that so easily reduce history to a boring list of dollar signs followed by six or more figures. It's not important.

What is of importance to contemporary Sega fans is something David Rosen said when he bought his company back from Gulf & Western, after the great videogame market crash of the early '80s. With his then business partner, Hayao Nakayama, at the helm of Sega of Japan and himself as CEO of Sega of America, the company publicly vowed "never to stick to one concept for too long," acknowledging that every piece of technology "has a life and a death." In principle, this policy was sound, and it was reassuring for customers to know Sega would remain committed to pushing the boundaries of videogaming. It has, however, been somewhat of a double-edged sword; pushing boundaries while simultaneously dispossessing consistency.

Whether the management took this philosophy too literally or simply used it as an excuse to circumnavigate problems, it's impossible to say. In retrospect, one thing is certainly clear - this belief has remained at the core of Sega's principles ever since, and has turned the developer into something of an industry dichotomy; pledging longevity on the one hand by establishing and supporting long-lived game franchises, embracing brevity on the other by rushing out updated hardware solutions and abandoning console systems as soon as they appear to flag in the market place.

Coupled with Sega's insistence on sending out confounding mixed messages (interest in its own products seeming to run hot and cold, and severe mood swings guiding vital marketing decisions) there's little reason to believe that many of the gargantuan problems the developer has faced (and, it must be said, thus far survived) were not entirely self-inflicted.

I still recall the first time I really took notice of Sega. While I was happily partnered to a humble ZX Spectrum - which met all my gaming needs with eight dazzling colors and a cassette tape loading system which only required minimal supervision during its 10-minute loading cycle - I happened upon an advertisement for the Sega Master System. It was in the form of a poster (I think it may have come packaged with other games, though I've no idea how I got hold of it), with a single screen shot of each available game.

It was incredible. I vaguely knew the name Sega from the arcades, but until that moment I'd no idea those games could be brought home, especially in such a picture-perfect package. You'd better believe the next time I was in the store I was on the prowl for this magic box with a waterfront arcade inside. Not that I could have afforded one anyway, but the wave of disillusionment that washed over me when I finally hunted a Master System down is still palpable today.

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