Sega is relaunching its 1000 game retro back catalogue on mobile devices for free. The long-sighted and wide-reaching initiative is called Sega Forever. Today we'll see five initial launches, including the original Sonic the Hedgehog title, with a new game rolling out roughly every two weeks thereafter.
Now, retro gaming has been around so long that it's almost retro itself. Nintendo's launch of its hugely sought-after NES Mini added a new fervour to the sector; though limited stock for that device restricted it to the most dedicated of fans. By comparison Sega describes its approach as 'democratic' and is aiming to reach as wide an audience as possible with its apps.
MCV talks to Mike Evans, chief marketing officer at Sega Networks and the man leading the new initiative. He opens by saying: "The vision behind the project is to change the way the world plays, rediscovers and shares classic gaming content." And his ambitions for Sega Forever go way beyond first-party, free-to-play, mobile games - though that's where it all begins.
The new service spans every Sega console, even the often-forgotten SG-1000
FREEDOM TO PLAY
"What we're doing is bringing two decades worth of classic gaming content, for free, back to mobile. Everything as far back as the SG-1000, through the Master System, Mega Drive, Game Gear, Saturn and Dreamcast." Evans tell us.
'Free' is of course a highly contentious term when it comes to apps, but Sega's plan to monetise its content is both transparent and straightforward, as Evans explains.
"We've spent a long time figuring out how to put the right ad model into this. we've not put any ads into the game experience, just around the game experience, in the wrapper, and they're not intrusive. Then there's a single in-app purchase that disables adverts. Ad-free it's a $1.99, it doesn't matter the console era, so whether it's Dreamcast or SG-1000 the idea is simplicity, so consumers understand that proposition."
"When you click on play, at that point an ad would fire, which is a skippable ad, the user can choose whether to watch or close it - like a pre-roll [on YouTube]. The user plays game, as many time as they like, and then when the user saves the game there's a video ad you watch and then you can save."
"You can play these games offline, on a plane for instance, but if you want to save offline then you'll need to have an [internet] connection, or you'll need to purchase the game."
Mike Evans is persuasively enthusiastic about the potential of the new service
Now Sega has had both both standalone apps and collections of retro titles on the App Store and Google Play before, so what's really changed? Well all the apps will now be free, ad-supported, and all the games have their own separate apps - with Sega Forever acting as an umbrella brand and service across them all.
"We had a lot of success with the Ultimate Sega Collection, but each time we were prescribing which games went in there. And then you go 'I like some of these, some of these are OK, but I don't like this', as we've decided what you play. Here, you decided what you want to play, you set up your own folder, and it changes the way it works."
That means the user just downloads the apps they want, creating their own personalised collection of games on their device.
Evans shows us Mega Drive classic Revenge of Shinobi running on his phone. "We've integrated some really nice extra features which didn't initially exist in the games, so high scores and leaderboards, [which are] socially competitive - ideal for mobile. We've taken a lot of time getting the look and feel right, so you can see the pixelation and the Sega font, we've taken blue and gold as the key colours.
Phantasy Star II is a launch title, along with the original Sonic, Comix Zone, Kid Chameleon and Altered Beast - which makes for a Mega Drive dominated launch line-up
"Why are we launching this as single apps? First of all, it's the idea you can create your own folder [of games]. Also, one app can get very, very large, particularly when you're dealing with Dreamcast titles as well," says Evans.
"The other thing is a network play, so by launching apps individually, I'm able to [better] manipulate the charts, in order to drive traffic and create some visibility. There's then more chance I can go to Apple or Google and say 'Hey, it's Space Harrier's anniversary, it's the anniversary of Dreamcast, can we do a Dreamcast collection.' The branding of each different app will be related to the console era too, so if you have a single app, how do you do the branding?"
By launching apps individually, I'm able to [better] manipulate the charts, in order to drive traffic and create some visibility.
Mike Evans, Sega
The apps may be separate but they also share certain key features, which allows Sega to cross promote new games across the service.
"Externally we have the community, we've hired a couple of people to come onboard from the community to work with us, and so we have this ongoing piece there, then we have cross-promo, so when you launch a game, an interstitial runs, and on Android I can run push notifications too, though Apple won't allow that.
"Then we have a Segazine, which is basically a community feed, so we can promote high scores and events. We've found that people don't want to necessarily endorse you on social media by following, so instead on here they can watch what's going on, they can be part of it, they can follow it but they don't necessarily have to endorse it. It's contextual to the game, or it's across the board, it's another good way to cross promote."
Comix Zone, a launch title, is a bit of an oddity but it's remembered fondly by many Sega fans
RF ADAPTOR - NOT REQUIRED
Playing classic games on a mobile device is a great way to reach lots of people, but onscreen controls aren't always the best way to play. Thankfully, Evans has plans in this area too.
"What we're trying to do is use devices people already have. But imagine if you can send the game up into your Apple TV, Android TV or Chromecast. And the latency is good, it's definitely acceptable to play these games, we've done lots of testing. Everything will work, bluetooth controllers as well, so if you want a d-pad and that console like experience, you've got it.
"Later down the line, because around 95% of these games are in Unity, with that I can take these to other platforms and do a dedicated TV component as well, Android TV, Facebook, PD desktop, or even something like the Switch," Evans says, revealing the huge possible scope for the new brand.
"The next thing I'm sorting is multiplayer, first of all just local multiplayer, which we can accomplish by Wi-Fi, we're looking at Bluetooth, but probably Wi-Fi. That's going to follow not too far afterwards."
We diverge from the business chat for a minute to ask a couple of key questions, key to us anyway. Will we see direct arcade conversions and is Panzer Dragoon Saga coming?
"When it comes to the arcade boards, it's not where I'm starting, I'd love to see some of that, but I think that would probably be more of a focus as we extend what we're doing and down the line, with an Apple TV proposition and a subscription model, some of the more long tail niche content, we can put on there as well," he replies, bringing up the possibility of yet further financial models for the service.
Evans would also love to see Panzer Dragoon Saga on the service, but getting Saturn and Dreamcast titles running does require a full port, as emulation on a mobile phone just isn't up to scratch yet.
"I spent some time in Japan, and visited the teams that work on the Saturn and the Dreamcast, some of the original guys are still there." We suggest that some must have made a pained expression when you turned up and started asking about the Saturn's architecture, even after all these years.
"It's incredibly complex, we looked at emulating that stuff, there are people who have emulated it online, but the challenge we had was that you have translucent pixels and emulation automates the rendering for this stuff, we thought we could get to about 85% quality but for Sega we need to push it a bit higher. We have an ongoing R&D project to see if it's something we can do, [but] for now we're going to pick off some top titles and do some ports," he later adds: "Going forward it's what makes commercial sense, what do the community want, how does the project unfold."
Bringing all of Sega's catalogue together under a single brand is a great idea, though arguably well overdue
HAPPY FOREVER AFTER
Sega Forever is just the foundations though for a far bigger mobile play by Sega, which Evans describes via three key pillars.
"What we have is the first model, which is to create an audience for what we're doing, so we'll monetise off that immediately from the ads. After a bit of time we'll really start to understand the audience, and the relative strength of the IPs in terms of downloads, but also we're running surveys in the games themselves," explains Evans, showing that building an audience and data on what that audience wants is just as important as monetising the apps immediately.
"Then the second pillar of the business is creating game experiences that have strong affinity, once we've got decent cross promotion. The reason is that user acquisition is a big challenge in mobile, and everything has reliance on it and we will as well. If we can take a certain number of users from this and readily cross promote them to another game, then we have a way to really start to control that value chain. It creates multiple points of entry, rather than a single point of entry, it's all these doors and I can optimize each one," explains Evans.
"If you are licensing a brand, say you're licensing a marvel brand, and lots of people are licensing brands in the mobile space, and it's quite expensive to pay the MG [Minimum Guarantee payments] and revenue share.
If we can take a certain number of users from this and readily cross promote them to another game, then we have a way to really start to control that value chain
Mike Evans, Sega
"Sega has a lot of very good brands, so we don't have to pay for a brand, if you do have to pay [then] you're going to target the top grossing. So how can we use these brands to try and create a bluer ocean space, and my theory is, don't just compete in the same way as everyone else in the top-grossing space, try and find an area you can dominate.
"I spent a lot of time thinking 'if I was an indie dev and not at Sega, what would I be doing now?' In some ways the mobile bubble has been a great nine years but it's kind of reached a bit of a peak. We're looking to make experiences that have a strong cross-promotional effect, that looks for genres where there's low brand penetration, enough return for Sega, build a decent base as well, and operate on a slightly different business model.
"The third and final pillar is top grossing. I haven't forgotten it, but I don't want to have many, many bets on all different places, I want to focus, take some of learnings from the [initial] audience and build some experiences for that audience as well, hopefully cross-promote some people in and then do some user acquisition."
Sega isn't just using its back catalogue to make revenue then, but neither is it a Trojan horse to pull consumers into something more profitable. Instead each pillar supports the next, being both profitable in itself but also allowing the company to leverage further experiences off the base it builds.
NEVER ENDING STORY?
Evans is obviously excited by the launch of a project that's been over a year in the making: "For us it's a big celebration of Sega, and [the] guys who have created some amazing content, as well as a celebration of nostalgia, which is bigger than Sega.
"There's going to be people who are very core, but now they can play it on the move. Then you've got people who have grown up with it but aren't 'gamers', who would love to play this content but don't want to play £4.99 for it, so this model democratises what we're doing."
"I hope it proves Sega is thinking differently and thinking about how we can take content to where our consumers are and grow the brands as well. We've got lots of ideas and there's lots of scope to expand what we're doing, both [thanks to] the business model we have and the middleware of Unity we're using."
It's certainly a persuasive argument and should Sega's IP prove to be strong enough, then Sega Forever could really be around forever, or at least the twenty-odd years it would take the company to get through those 1000 first party releases.