Betamax to Blu-ray: Most famous format wars
Sega versus Sony versus Nintendo
In no arena have formats lived and died by the bloody sword of progress as they have in the video game industry.
In the early 1980s in the UK, eight-bit home computers such as the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and BBC Micro did battle in the first of many intense format wars. The battle between the latter pair was even dramatised by the BBC in its one-off drama Micro Men (2009), but in truth the Beeb’s computer literacy drive was always in the shadow of the 64 and Britain’s very own Speccy.
Both released in 1982, the C64 and Spectrum were phenomena, pure and simple. Worldwide, the C64 was the king, selling an immense 30 million units during its lifetime. Back in Blighty, though, Sir Clive Sinclair’s ZX Spectrum held the whip hand, helped by the fact that at £175 it was less than half the price of the £399 C64 at launch.
There are no reliable figures for Spectrum sales but Sinclair’s annual turnover peaked at £102 million in 1985 – you do the math. What made the Spectrum and C64 huge was the massive range of top games available for them – the BBC Micro had just a handful of old-school arcade ports and the legendary space-trading game Elite, and was saddled with the dreaded reputation of being “educational”.
But if the war between the eight-bit computers was bloody, the conflict between the gaming consoles that ran through the 80s and 90s was positively Shakespearean. By the early 90s, Sega was king of the video games realm. The eight-bit console war had seen Nintendo’s NES beat its Master System, but with the move up to 16-bit, Sega’s Mega Drive – Genesis in the US – was arguably ahead in terms of sales and certainly ahead in terms of coolness and number of games, with titles such as Sonic, Streets of Rage and Road Rash.
But just as two armies of ants may appear to be in the midst of a massive war until a kid comes along and starts stamping on both sides indiscriminately, Nintendo and particularly Sega were about to have their nest kicked over by Sony. It might all have been so different, though. Sega could still be taking on the Xbox 360 and the Wii had it not been for a cruel act of betrayal.
Sony enters the game
Back in the latter days of the SNES, Nintendo decided it wanted a powerful CD-ROM add on, a bit like the Mega-CD on Sega’s Mega Drive. Nintendo brought in Sony as a partner on the add-on, which was to be called… the PlayStation.
Sony proudly announced the next step in the company’s history at CES in 1991. Delighted to have gained a foothold in the games industry, Sony’s celebrations continued into the Vegas dawn but almost before their heads had cleared, they were out on their ear. A day after the announcement Nintendo ditched Sony for Philips following a row over profit sharing.
Sony got mad. Then it got even, with company president Noria Ohga famously telling his charges “We will never withdraw from this business. Keep going.” Nintendo had created a rival that would haunt its consoles forever but, more tellingly, was far too big for Sega to fight.
Many at Sony still play down the effects of Nintendo’s betrayal, asserting that Sony would have entered the games market with or without Judas Mario. Mike Haigh, who heads up the development team at PlayStation UK after joining in 1993, says that as soon as video games began to cross over into the mainstream, they became Sony’s turf.
“This was an area that Sony needed to be in,” said Haigh, who helped to develop some of the PlayStation’s earliest titles. “Because it felt that territory belonged to them in many ways. It had the music, it had the movies, it had the hardware and this was a natural step for a company. Yes there were a few things that happened, that have been inflated over time, but I don’t think they were that significant. I believe it was always Sony’s plan to create its own console and the decision was a good one.”
Despite this, PlayStation was still a hard sell for Sony veterans, who felt games consoles were just toys for kids. Common ground was eventually found with the integration of a CD player, “at a time,” says Haigh, “when no-one had a CD player. There was a definite and deliberate pattern. The PS2 helped DVD into the mainstream and Blu-ray has the PS3 to thank for its success.”
Sega hits the power off button
Back in 1994, the original PlayStation changed the landscape almost instantly. Sega’s 32-bit Saturn floundered and Sega dropped to third place in the market and despite being the first to offer online play, the 64-bit Dreamcast couldn’t arrest the slide. EA Sports dropped the console following its losses on the Saturn, meaning no FIFA, no Madden and no NBA. They were all on PlayStation and Sega was the proverbial one-legged man in an arse-kicking contest.
According to veteran games developer Don Daglow, Sega fell on its own sword rather than throwing in the towel. “Sega divided its creative juices at a crucial time, and it cost them,” Daglow told T3. “When the time came to think of a follow-up to the Dreamcast, they had teams working on a series of games console devices. They dissipated their energies and Sony swept the table.
“Sega knew exactly what was wrong and how to fix it. They’d learned a lot of great lessons from the Dreamcast and might have been able to counterattack, but they just didn’t have the resources to pursue their ideas. They’d spent millions on ideas, but in a business where billions are now required to make a serious run at a console war, Sega didn’t have it.”
Sega hung up its console-making boots in 2001 and, after failed merger talks with Microsoft, set upon a lonely road as a third-party software developer.
“One of the hardest things in life for those who have been on top, and are no longer on top, is to ally with other people,” says Daglow. “Sometimes in order to regroup, you have to take three steps back, and it’s not easy to do.”