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Thread: The Saturn Early Launch in North America - Help Me Understand...

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    Saturn The Saturn Early Launch in North America - Help Me Understand...

    Most of you are probably familiar with Tom Kalinske's claims that the Saturn failed in North America because he was forced to do a surprise, early launch in May 1995 (although he has also claimed that waiting to launch after the PS1 would have been a bigger mistake).

    This story of how the Saturn failed has basically become the dominant story on the internet, with countless sites and youtube videos repeating it.

    Of course, if you read anything I've ever posted about the Saturn on this forum and elsewhere, you know the truth is about 1000 times as complex as this.

    Here's the question that I need your help with: What is the evidence that this surprise launch was so damaging to the Saturn?

    First, a little background:
    • The Saturn was originally going to be released on Sept 2, 1995.
    • Kalinske, due to apparent pressure from Japan, decided to also do a limited release in May.
    • 30,000 Saturn consoles were made available for a select group of retailers (Babbages, Electronics Boutique, Software Etc. and Toys 'R' Us).
    • These 30,000 Saturn consoles sold out quickly. The full-blown release of the Saturn still occurred on Sept 2.


    What did Sega hope to gain from this kind of limited early release? As this Next Generation article states, SOA was just trying to generate hype. It was more a publicity stunt for E3 than anything else. And it worked... to an extent. Unfortunately, Sony one-upped them with the whole $299 price announcement.

    But what were the negative effects of this limited release?

    We know that KB Toys refused to carry the Saturn because they were not part of the surprise launch (although they did continue to sell the Genesis and games - here's a photo from 1997).

    While undoubtedly damaging, did this ultimately impact the fate of the console? That's a tough pill to swallow.

    How about the effect of the limited release on developers? Kalinske has said they were caught off guard by this, which... affected what? I'm not sure. We already know that SOA was having big problems attracting developers before then. Is there any evidence that developers decided not to release games on the Saturn because SOA made 30,000 units available a few months early? I'm not sure that's how the business operates.

    How about the effect on consumers? Did anyone decide not to buy a Saturn because SOA sold it a few months earlier than originally stated?

    How about Sega's position against Sony? Was it weakened? How?

    I just can't help but think the whole surprise early release is completely irrelevant for the ultimate success or failure of the console. The only evidence I can see for the argument is that KB Toys bailed on the Saturn. I'd love to see some more evidence, though!

    I suspect this is really a minor point in the history of the Saturn that Kalinske has latched onto because it gives him a way out (although I'm not sure of that - he still orchestrated the particulars and made the decision to exclude KB Toys).

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    I was reading in some of the UK SEGA mag's that actually SEGA Europe was looking to go in August 1995 and that was given on the UK gaming show Gamesmaster too, but I really don't know how much truth was in that.

    I think the early launch May 1995 move was a panic by SEGA West, I really think they were caught off guard by poor sales of the 32X and it's games in the 2nd quarter, the slump in MD sales and how well SONY was getting hype and I'm sure SEGA would have known for its sources at how many people we looking to pre-order or register an interest in the PS and so just panicked, I think SEGA knew that even if they went with a September 1995 date they were going to get killed in sales, no matter how many launch games the Saturn had and thought, going early was at least a better way of getting an early userbase advantage for 3rd party support.

    But I've always wanted consoles to be launched as close as possible to the Japanese version and always hated the long wait for games and systems to come to Percy Pal and I'll be utter hypocrite to say any early by SEGA was a mistake


    I've seen plenty of systems launch at a high price, with not the best software ready for the Western launch and go on to sell millions and millions like the PS2. When one looks at the 360, its launch lineup was poor really, and if anything the Xbox One was way better and we all saw how that turned out. It's all about making people think they need or must have a system and that's what Saturn badly lacked for all its life really in the west. For me, SEGA Rally was the closest it even got in Pal land.


    I don't think SEGA could have matched or better SONY, even if they had a more powerful system or 20 games at launch. SONY was ready to lose tons on the PS to get into people's homes and unlike SEGA or Nintendo, was the 3rd party friend with development tools and low part development fee's (though it did increase big time after the PS sold millions) The worst part in it all was Nintendo were there for the taking and if we just had SEGA all behind and only for the Saturn I remain convinced SEGA could have beat NCL/Nintendo

    I blame the 32X myself and can't for the life of me ever work out why SEGA never went with the original plan for the Saturn and Jupiter projects. In fact I would have probably bought a Jupiter version of Die Hard Arcade for no loading over a Saturn version.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gryson View Post
    How about the effect on consumers? Did anyone decide not to buy a Saturn because SOA sold it a few months earlier than originally stated?
    I've sold consoles to people in the US who were re-discovering the Saturn today cause they never got one as a kid, due to their parents getting fed up of Sega releasing and dropping new systems almost every year. It's just an anecdote but I've heard it from multiple different people.

    Quote Originally Posted by Gryson View Post
    I suspect this is really a minor point in the history of the Saturn that Kalinske has latched onto because it gives him a way out (although I'm not sure of that - he still orchestrated the particulars and made the decision to exclude KB Toys).
    If he was indeed pressured into it then he may have had to set up all the deals and logistics in a hurry (while also making sure they have localized games to release), so I find it very plausible that it was simply not possible to set up everything in one or two months. Remember in the 90s you couldn't just do all of this through the internet, so just negotiating a deal may have involved a lot of travelling to every part of the country. Maybe he chose not to include some stores for that reason, they didn't have time to set up logistics, or they did not have enough units to set up a meaningful deal, or they had better relationships with some stores and prioritized them.
    Back then, shelf presence mattered a lot, if a major store chain did not carry your hardware, then it did not sell as good. Commodore was in a similar situation, they decided to sell the C64 in retail stores instead of specialized computer stores, and quickly outsold all competitors. I recall reading that part of the job the SOA execs had were bringing the Sega consoles to all retailers who did not carry them, back in the beginning of the 1990s when the Genesis and Master System were both struggling. Successfully setting up those deals involved convincing the stores that it was worth stocking their units, because they sold as good or better than the Nintendos they took away shelf space from. Getting those deals done was what made the Genesis sell good, once they had hit games like Sonic.

    All of this is just speculation and anecdotes though.
    - did the early launch alienate consumers? It sounds like it did, but we don't know as to what extent.
    - did it hurt the Saturn that stores did not carry the console? It definitely did, but we don't know to what extent.
    - did the early launch alienate developers? They were already alienated by the weak 3d hardware, and the 32x and the Sega CD being dropped. I think it was Naughty Dog who called it as Sega being busy shooting themselves in the foot. Sony offering far better hardware and licensing deals did not help Sega either.
    - did this affect the ultimate success or failure of the console? It did, but it wasn't what axed them. They had a strong 1996 year (relatively), but practically disappeared from the market right after that. This was due to a lot of factors. Internal leadership and policy changes, not having funds to ramp up the expensive production, rumours of a Saturn 2 (the 3dfx powered Black Belt) making the news, poor and very little marketing, not enough games, and so on. Let's just say that the early launch did not help their position.

    But I feel that these are all things we have re-threaded a thousand times already. I don't see the point in discussing this unless we get some new interviews about what happened. And by now, many of the key people are not alive any more to interview.

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    Quote Originally Posted by zyrobs View Post
    I've sold consoles to people in the US who were re-discovering the Saturn today cause they never got one as a kid, due to their parents getting fed up of Sega releasing and dropping new systems almost every year. It's just an anecdote but I've heard it from multiple different people.
    That doesn't have anything to do with the limited release, does it? I doubt most 'regular' people would even know about it. How would Sega releasing 30,000 Saturns in May cause parents to not buy a Saturn for their child in September?

    Back then, shelf presence mattered a lot, if a major store chain did not carry your hardware, then it did not sell as good. Commodore was in a similar situation, they decided to sell the C64 in retail stores instead of specialized computer stores, and quickly outsold all competitors. I recall reading that part of the job the SOA execs had were bringing the Sega consoles to all retailers who did not carry them, back in the beginning of the 1990s when the Genesis and Master System were both struggling. Successfully setting up those deals involved convincing the stores that it was worth stocking their units, because they sold as good or better than the Nintendos they took away shelf space from. Getting those deals done was what made the Genesis sell good, once they had hit games like Sonic.
    We're talking a single retailer, though. And, conversely, the big four retailers got favorable treatment, so it boosted their relationship with SOA. I don't see any way that someone could argue the Saturn failed in North America because KB Toys did not carry it.

    I don't follow your speculation here:

    - did the early launch alienate consumers? It sounds like it did, but we don't know as to what extent.
    How so? I really can't imagine how. Please explain the logic, even if there isn't any evidence.

    - did it hurt the Saturn that stores did not carry the console? It definitely did, but we don't know to what extent.
    Just KB Toys - there's no evidence that other retailers didn't carry it. Wal-Mart carried it, the big four game stores carried it.

    But I feel that these are all things we have re-threaded a thousand times already. I don't see the point in discussing this unless we get some new interviews about what happened. And by now, many of the key people are not alive any more to interview.
    These points need addressing for the simple fact that there is no evidence.

    All of this comes from a single person. As far as I know, nobody else has made the claim.

    What's happened is that Kalinske made the statement, and then everyone has found ways to justify it, without ever questioning it. For example, a big part of Kalinske's claim is that the early release harmed SOA's relationship with developers. What developers?

    I truly believe that SOA cooked up the idea as a harmless way to generate some hype and promote the Saturn. They never thought there would be negative consequences - why should there be? The console was ready to go in limited numbers, stores were eager for it, consumers wanted it. Give them a taste. The unexpected problem came with KB Toys. We can agree that was a problem, but I think it grew in Kalinske's mind and over time has come to be the reason the Saturn failed, but that's just over-simplification to the extreme. I should also point out that, as far as I know, the only specific detail Kalinske has ever given has been the KB Toys example. Everything else is vague.

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    For developer insights you might want to listen to some of Pandamonium's interviews he's done with developers working on Saturn launch titles. Some of them knew of the surprise launch as early as I think February? Others didn't know until after it happened. But either way they all say it added a lot of pressure on them to get their games out as soon as possible. So some of them were released unfinished, or missed the launch window entirely coming out around the time of the original planned launch instead. So I'd say that definitely had an impact on the perception of the Saturn's library at the time, as well as an impact on what working with Sega was like for developers. And that's not even getting into the mess that was the complete lack of dev kits and translated manuals, libraries, etc. from Sega of America.






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    I was about to buy a 3DO but I got a Ssturn instead because of the early launch.

    I already had bunch of Saturn games by the time the Playstation finally arrived.

    I don't know how history would have been different with a later kaunch date, but I was very happy with the software available before the PSX launch.

    As a hardcore gamer who plays everything, I didn't have an interest in sacrificing money that could buy Saturn games to buy my own Playstation until a year after the Playstation launch.
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    I would say deep down SOA/SOE were just utterly convinced the 32X would outsell anything and that they would release the Sega Saturn in small numbers knowing full well the die hard's would be more than happy just to have the Hardware; They don't really care about a number of games ready on launch or the launch price, while the 32X would beat SONY and Nintendo and keep all the masses happy.
    SEGA just didn't factor anything else in.

    Much like how the top brass at XBox thought that Kinect was going to win over anything with the Xbox One and just couldn't see what a train wreck it was going to become and much like with the 32X The 1st few month's sales of the One was pretty good, but fans weren't quite the mugs SEGA West and XBox thought they were.
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    Quote Originally Posted by zyrobs View Post
    I've sold consoles to people in the US who were re-discovering the Saturn today cause they never got one as a kid, due to their parents getting fed up of Sega releasing and dropping new systems almost every year. It's just an anecdote but I've heard it from multiple different people.
    It wasn't just parents. I had the same reaction as did several of my friends. The perception was that Sega wasn't interested in supporting its own hardware and expected consumers to constantly buy new systems. In early 1995 they were still promoting the Sega CD and 32X... then out of nowhere here's yet another system, for the low price of $400? At first glance I thought the Saturn was merely a consolidation of the Genesis, CD and 32X into one unit. That seemed reasonable considering the timing and seeing a cart slot next to a CD ROM drive. Then upon finding out it was totally incompatible I started wondering if the Saturn was part of a transition to yet another system that might launch in a year or two. At that point it's not even the price tag that's the problem, it's the concern that you might be buying a product that will be obsolete very quickly.

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    Quote Originally Posted by axel View Post
    It wasn't just parents. I had the same reaction as did several of my friends. The perception was that Sega wasn't interested in supporting its own hardware and expected consumers to constantly buy new systems.

    That's being a little unfair I feel. I mean the Mega Drive did come out in 1988 or 89 in the USA, The Mega CD in 1991 or 92 in the USA.
    I agree the 32X was an add-on too much, but it was hardly like SEGA dropped the Mega Drive or Mega CD straight away. I think by the end of the Saturn, SEGA was getting a little bad rep that it was leaving it's consumes high and dry towards the end of the system life, but I was never under any illusion that the Saturn wasn't anything other than a direct successor to the Mega Drive and after 6 years that was more than enough time to bring out your follow up system.

    It was pure madness the number of systems SEGA was looking to support. I've always said all support for the MD should have been dropped in 1994 and SEGA just focused on the Saturn and the Arcade.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Team Andromeda View Post
    That's being a little unfair I feel. I mean the Mega Drive did come out in 1988 or 89 in the USA, The Mega CD in 1991 or 92 in the USA.
    I agree the 32X was an add-on too much, but it was hardly like SEGA dropped the Mega Drive or Mega CD straight away. I think by the end of the Saturn, SEGA was getting a little bad rep that it was leaving it's consumes high and dry towards the end of the system life, but I was never under any illusion that the Saturn wasn't anything other than a direct successor to the Mega Drive and after 6 years that was more than enough time to bring out your follow up system.

    It was pure madness the number of systems SEGA was looking to support. I've always said all support for the MD should have been dropped in 1994 and SEGA just focused on the Saturn and the Arcade.
    It probably is unfair, but without the benefit of the Internet to know what was going on I had no idea what Sega was planning or if they had a plan at all. All I had was their advertising - first they tell me the Genesis is better than the SNES because you can always upgrade with the Mega CD or 32X, then that was replaced with the Saturn ads that looked like a drug trip.

    I don't know how an average consumer could look at all that and think "wow, I better rush to be an early adopter of this new console that I know almost nothing about and that has very few games". I think most people, if they were interested in Saturn at all, wanted to take a cautionary approach and see how it does in the market first. If it had come out of the gate with a strong line-up of games I think it could have been different. But it didn't. Then six months go by, now the PSX is out and getting rave reviews, it's like it was a no-win situation whether Saturn came out in May or September.

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    Quote Originally Posted by axel View Post
    It probably is unfair, but without the benefit of the Internet to know what was going on I had no idea what Sega was planning or if they had a plan at all. All I had was their advertising - first they tell me the Genesis is better than the SNES because you can always upgrade with the Mega CD or 32X, then that was replaced with the Saturn ads that looked like a drug trip.
    But in the 1990's you had the written press and also TV shows in the UK and I'm sure it was the case in the USA. I got why SEGA looked to bring out the Mega CD, given the huge buzz of CD tech and also how much more storage it gave you and how much easier it was for manufacturing costs. It was just more of a mistake that SEGA never looked to make a All In one model (like the Duo) and make that the standard 16 bit SEGA unit

    I thought the USA Saturn Press ad was horrendous, You had a lady that looked like she had aids and a silly thing on her head with some prat dancing around like a complete jerk, thankfully the European press add was so much better and even had a really nice replica of the Daytona USA car. I seem to remember it even being shown in UK cinemas too.
    Speaking of Daytona..

    I still say that did untold damage to the Saturn brand. If Daytona USA had a port as good and close as Saturn SEGA Rally was. I think it wouldn't have mattered ,if that was the only game on the Saturn for the whole 1995, it would have sold tons in the west
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    Could SEGA not just set up a deal where retailers that request a demo unit would be given a unit months in advance, to display in the store rather than 30k random Saturns? Maybe they could have also worked out a deal for some trusted publications to have a demo unit for preview months in advance to launch. By demo I just mean it's in the kiosk but just a disc playing videos of SEGA hyping up the Saturn plus a couple of videos on launch games. Then as they got closer to the actual launch then put in game demo discs.


    I already mentioned in another topic you're only saving the Saturn by using different hardware entirely, BC with Genesis and maybe SCD. 32X never happened and a better price plus a Sonic game on launch. (Sonic CD canned in favor of it being a Saturn launch title) and while the reality was different. Could not lending demo units to retails in advance be a better solution than Saturnday?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Team Andromeda View Post
    But in the 1990's you had the written press and also TV shows in the UK and I'm sure it was the case in the USA. I got why SEGA looked to bring out the Mega CD, given the huge buzz of CD tech and also how much more storage it gave you and how much easier it was for manufacturing costs. It was just more of a mistake that SEGA never looked to make a All In one model (like the Duo) and make that the standard 16 bit SEGA unit

    I thought the USA Saturn Press ad was horrendous, You had a lady that looked like she had aids and a silly thing on her head with some prat dancing around like a complete jerk, thankfully the European press add was so much better and even had a really nice replica of the Daytona USA car. I seem to remember it even being shown in UK cinemas too.
    Speaking of Daytona..

    I still say that did untold damage to the Saturn brand. If Daytona USA had a port as good and close as Saturn SEGA Rally was. I think it wouldn't have mattered ,if that was the only game on the Saturn for the whole 1995, it would have sold tons in the west
    I think we must have been reading different sources. First I heard of the Saturn was early '94, around the time Sonic 3 came out. There was speculation that it would be a partnership with Microsoft, with Sega doing the hardware and Microsoft making the OS. Then a few months later, spring '94, I started hearing about the 32X as a way for Sega to "buy time" for the Saturn. At the time I didn't realize the Saturn was only months away from launching in Japan, it sounded like it was still a long way off in development. At one point there was a rumor the Saturn would be a 64-bit machine launching in 1996, after the Nintendo Ultra 64.

    Then in fall '94 it was like several things happened at once - first I find out the Saturn is about to launch in Japan, then everyone's talking about Sony's upcoming console, then the 32X launches to lukewarm reviews, meanwhile PC gaming is taking off and people are already talking about how computers could replace game consoles. Early 1995 things continue to change rapidly, first the Saturn is advertised as launching in September, the 32X is already seen as a disappointment, the N64 is delayed and then out of nowhere the Saturn launches in May.

    Somebody should do a documentary about this time period, the industry was changing very fast and so it didn't make a lot of sense to rush out and buy the latest system until things settled down. My point is, from the point of view of the consumer things were far from clear.

    Quote Originally Posted by Leynos View Post
    Could SEGA not just set up a deal where retailers that request a demo unit would be given a unit months in advance, to display in the store rather than 30k random Saturns? Maybe they could have also worked out a deal for some trusted publications to have a demo unit for preview months in advance to launch. By demo I just mean it's in the kiosk but just a disc playing videos of SEGA hyping up the Saturn plus a couple of videos on launch games. Then as they got closer to the actual launch then put in game demo discs.


    I already mentioned in another topic you're only saving the Saturn by using different hardware entirely, BC with Genesis and maybe SCD. 32X never happened and a better price plus a Sonic game on launch. (Sonic CD canned in favor of it being a Saturn launch title) and while the reality was different. Could not lending demo units to retails in advance be a better solution than Saturnday?
    Agreed they needed a different hardware strategy to make any of this work, the confusing launch was just the icing on the cake.

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    Honestly I don't think Saturn's hardware is as big of an issue as people make it out to be. The weakest point of the thing is VDP1 and it's not even that bad. I think what hurt the most was Sega of America focusing on 32X and not being prepared to launch the Saturn as a result. I think if you just get rid of 32X entirely, move it's games to Saturn or Sega CD/Genesis depending on the best fit, things could have been better.

    I don't think backwards compatibility really works for Sega's 32-bit system. Trying to work it in just makes a more complicated mess than we already have with the Saturn, and if you try basing the system around some newer 68k based CPU, you end up with something either ridiculously expensive, or even more underpowered. I think the best bet for Genesis/CD compatibility in Saturn would have been to eventually release an adapter for the cart slot or MPEG slot that had the Genesis and Sega CD hardware in it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by axel View Post
    I think we must have been reading different sources. First I heard of the Saturn was early '94, around the time Sonic 3 came out. There was speculation that it would be a partnership with Microsoft, with Sega doing the hardware and Microsoft making the OS. Then a few months later, spring '94, I started hearing about the 32X as a way for Sega to "buy time" for the Saturn. At the time I didn't realize the Saturn was only months away from launching in Japan, it sounded like it was still a long way off in development. At one point there was a rumor the Saturn would be a 64-bit machine launching in 1996, after the Nintendo Ultra 64.

    Then in fall '94 it was like several things happened at once - first I find out the Saturn is about to launch in Japan, then everyone's talking about Sony's upcoming console, then the 32X launches to lukewarm reviews, meanwhile PC gaming is taking off and people are already talking about how computers could replace game consoles. Early 1995 things continue to change rapidly, first the Saturn is advertised as launching in September, the 32X is already seen as a disappointment, the N64 is delayed and then out of nowhere the Saturn launches in May.
    .
    At the time I used to have SEGA Pro, SEGA Force, Advanced MegaDrive Gaming, Mean Machines, EDGE, MeanMachines SEGA, MEGA, Sega Magazine and those were every month without fail. Saturn coverage started in 1993 with Mean Machines SEGA doing an exclusive report and then in early 1994 all the mags were buzzing with all the latest Saturn talk. After EDGE 9 June 1994, I don't think anyone could have been in any doubt the Saturn was coming to Japan for the Fall of 1994 and if you did doubt it, the June 1994 Japanese Toyko Game Show made it so clear, it was coming and you better start saving That show was widely covered by the gaming press because it was't just SEGA bring out new Hardware, SONY, NEC and SNK were all getting ready to launch new systems in the fall of 1994 too. It actually was a great time and I used to look forward to each new mag every month.

    Yeah, I remember the press talk of Saturn having MS make its OS, how the video chips would be changed, how at one stage it was even meant to have voice control and so on. I didn't like SOJ's silly move to say it was a 64 Bit system due to twin SH-2, but I guess it was a bit of simple PR and a simple counter. SOJ even kept the 64 Bit tag, in the game flyer with the launch Saturn ( I still have it )






    Agreed they needed a different hardware strategy
    Who else was around to make hardware for SEGA? and that could would have put a system back by years. Too much is also made of BC too, did anyone care that the Snes never offered BC? and I doubt it was what held back sales of the N64, never mind I doubt many really used the Mega Drive BC . SEGA needed to make a clean break, but it still felt it could milk and win a 32bit war, with an Add-on to a 16-Bit system, I was always more in favour of the Jupiter plan. No one would then be left behind and development kits and developer tools/resources could be shared (unlike the 32X)



    Speaking of that mind, that is one area Sega America/Europe called right and did a lot of good for the Saturn development costs to developers, by looking to dump the programmer box that SOJ supplied and used its Cart Devbox with Cross Products official development kit, which meant you could use a production Saturn. To SN system's credit, they did that months before anyone with their Psy-Q system.
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