Issue: Volume: 22 Issue: 12 (December 1999)

Game Wars

When Sega of America announced its Dreamcast gaming console this past spring, the whole industry was abuzz with excitement. Promising a built-in 56k modem, ultra-realistic 3D graphics at 60 frames per second, and a host of innovative new features, Dreamcast was poised to storm a market that hadn't seen a new-generation console since 1996, when Nintendo of America launched its venerable Nintendo 64.

Dreamcast-which began shipping in September for $199-has lived up to the anticipation surrounding it. Christened the "Product to Watch" in 1999 by Business Week and the Los Angeles Times, Dreamcast features an ad vanced 128-bit architecture that Sega says gives it 15 times the power of the Sony Play Station, 10 times the power of the Nin tendo 64, and four times the graph ics processing power of the fastest Pen tium II pro cessor. Furthermore, Dream cast is built atop a 200mhz Hitachi SH-4 CPU and utilizes the NEC PowerVR 2DC 3D graphics chip, reportedly the most powerful 3D technology developed to date for a console system.
In the newly raging battle of the consoles, Sega entered the ring first with its Dreamcast, which features a new 128-bit architecture that gives it far more power than current platforms.

But while Dreamcast clearly occupies the throne in the kingdom of video-game consoles today, its reign could be short-lived. With the next-generation Play Sta tion2 game console, scheduled to ship in Japan next spring and in North America next fall, Sony Computer Entertainment is promising a faster CPU and a more advanced graphics chipset than those in Dreamcast. And not far behind Sony is Nintendo of America, which has an nounced plans to ship by Christmas 2000 its next-generation console, code-named Dolphin, that will reportedly be faster and more powerful than PlayStation2.

Such competition among these three leading console vendors may prove vexing to consumers trying to decide if they should purchase a Dreamcast system now so that they can get state-of-the-art performance today, or if they should hold out to see what Sony and Nintendo have to offer down the road. But for the video-game industry in general, it's great news.

"The video-game market for PCs and consoles was just north of $6 billion in the US and Canada in 1998," reports Edward Williams, senior vice president and re search analyst at Gerard Klauer Mattison, a New York City-based firm that has been covering this space for several years. "In fact, in 1999," he maintains, "video-game sales will generate more revenue at the retail level than movies will generate at the box office."
Published and developed for the Sega Dreamcast by Midway, Ready 2 Rumble puts users in the boxing ring. As one of 16 eccentric boxers (each with a unique personality and boxing style), users can clobber opponents with an unlimited number of punch combinat

According to Williams, the video-game mar ket has been growing at a healthy 20% to 30% per year for the last several years, and con soles, whichhavebecome increasinglypopular duringthattime,occupy about two-thirds of this market. Driving the growth, he says, are salesofPlayStations, Nintendo 64s, and, recently, Dreamcasts.

Indeed, although PlayStation2 and Dol phin may create some tough competition for Sega in the coming months, news of these forthcoming video-game "superconsoles" hasn't thwarted demand for Dream cast. In the weeks leading up to the system's launch, retailers were logging an average of 2000 presell orders per day for Dreamcast. By the end of August, retailers had presold a whopping 300,000 systems in North America, reportedly shattering the previous North America presell rec ord of 100,000 held by PlayStation, when it debuted here in 1995.

Sales figures since Dreamcast's Sept. 9 launch date are just as astounding. "We were expecting to sell about 400,000 units in the first month, 1 million units by the end of the calendar year, and 1.5 million units by the end of March," reports Charles Bellfield, director of marketing communications for Sega of America (San Francisco). "But in just 13 days we sold 514,000 units in North America alone, and we expect to sell more than 1 mil lion units by Thanksgiving. So we're far surpassing our expectations."
Dreamcast's development-friendly environment enabled Midway to port over NBA Showtime (originally developed as an arcade game) in time for the console's launch.

What is it about Dreamcast that has cash registers working overtime? A number of technological innovations, claims Sega. For in stance, the system's Pow er VR 2DC graph ics engine boasts a peak performanceofmore than 3 million polygons per second, providing the fastest, most sophisticated 3D graphics available on a video-game console today. This compares to the current PlayStation performance peak of 360 polygons per second, for instance.

In addition, while the PlayStation and Nintendo 64 have 64-bit processors, Dream cast is powered by the new Hitachi SH-4 128-bit processor, which provides hard ware-based lighting and other special effects, including fog, smoke, translucency, and transparency. The processor also enabled Sega to evolve the system's level of "intelligence," says Bellfield. It provides ad vanced collision detection, he says, so that computer-generated characters in a football game, for instance, respond and fall based on how they're hit. The system can detect exactly where and how hard the character is hit on the body, and from there it can determine the result-the character may fall, or he may just stumble.

Besides graphics performance, also setting Dreamcast apart from itscom pe ti tion to day is its 56k mo dem,which makes Dream cast the first console to enter the mar ket withInternet capabilities. "One ofthemost importantfeatures of next-generation consoles is their Internet capabilities, which will create entirely new uses for the console platform," says Kevin Hause, manager of Con sumer Devices research at International Data Corp. (Fra ming ham, MA).
By incorporating a 56k modem into the Dreamcast machine, Sega is the first console vendor to offer users full Internet capabilities through their televisions.

With the modem, users get through their television set full Internet functionality, including chat, e-mail, and browsing. This capability is made available through the Sega Dreamcast Network, an on-line gaming portal accessible through Dreamcast. Also, says Williams, "with Dream cast's built-in 56k modem, it's now technically feasible to use a console to play on-line games."

The Sega Dreamcast Network will begin offering real-time networked gaming through several first- and third-party game titles early next year. AT&T WorldNet Service will provide Internet service for Dreamcast, while SegaSoft Networks, creators of the Heat.Net on-line PC gaming community, will provide the technology and infrastructure behind the Sega Dreamcast Network. Sega also plans to establish a network partnership in Europe (with British Telecom) as well as in Japan.

Another innovation in the Dream cast system is the fact that it is the first console to offer hand-held gaming, a feat accomplished through its Visual Memory Unit (VMU). Available separately for $24.99, the VMU is a 128k memory card with a built-in monochrome LCD screen that plugs into the Dreamcast control pad. When used with the Sega Dream cast Net work, the VMU enables players to down load saved games. The device is also designedasa game-enhancing pe riph eral: Using the LCD screen on the VMU, users can call sports plays without their opponents knowing what they are doing, as well as view vital information that usually appears on the television screen. Some first- and third-party games that utilize the VMU include Sonic Adventure (Sega), Sega Sports NFL 2K (Sega), Ready 2 Rumble Boxing (Mid way), and TrickStyle (Acclaim).

Although the technological innovations behind Dreamcast are certainly compelling, a game console is virtually useless unless you have games to run on it. "The main thing game developers were asking us to do was to make this machine easy to write games for," says Sega of America's Bellfield.

According to Bellfield, one of the reasons Dreamcast's predecessor, the Sega Sa turn, was not a commercial success in the US was the fact that it was a dual-processor system, which developers found very difficult to write for. "When you're dealing with dual processors, you have to write your code specifically with the understanding of what each of those processors is good at," explains Brian Lowe, a pro ducer at Midway Home En ter tainment (San Diego), which develops games for the Dreamcast, Play Station, and Nin ten do 64 consoles, among other platforms. "A lot of that code is micro code, in the As sem bly programming lan guage. Not a lot of programmers have that ability; they write in C." Launched in 1995, the 32-bit Sega Saturn was discontinued 18 months ago, with only 1.1 million units sold.

The Dreamcast is far easier to develop games for, says Midway programmer Joe Barnes. "It's a single-processor system, plus Sega has provided good support tools, including compilers and debuggers, as well as very robust code to work with."

"In addition, most game development is done on a high-end PC, and Sega has made it easy to port games over from that development platform to Dreamcast," adds Midway's Lowe. "That makes for a really good game-development environment, which is critical for a manufacturer trying to launch a new game console."

Indeed, having a good set of launch titles is a significant part of a successful console introduction. Although Dreamcast does not ship with any games, 22 titles were available for the console as of the first week of October, for an average price of $39 to $49. And Sega expects between 40 and 50 games to be available for Dreamcast by Christmas.

Some of these games were originally developed for other platforms and ported to Dream cast. For instance, Midway's NBA Showtime: NBA on NBC was developed earlier this year by Midway's Chicago division as an arcade game. Created using a variety of tools, including Alias|Wavefront's (Toronto) PowerAnimator as well as proprietary technology, NBA Showtime was animated using an optical motion-capture system. "We captured a performer dribbling and doing behind-the-back moves, slam dunks, and so on," says Lowe. They then used that motion data to drive the movements of the CG characters. In addition to moving realistically, the characters in NBA Showtime also look like their real-world counterparts. To accomplish the effect, Midway artists texture-mapped photos of actual NBA players onto the heads of the CG characters.

While some games are straightforward ports, others are revamped versions of existing games developed for other platforms. Ubi Soft Entertainment's (Montreal) Speed Devils is based on Speed Busters, a racing game created originally for the PC. "For Speed Devils, we changed all the textures, added some animations to make some of the tracks more interesting, and further modified the existing seven tracks to create a total of 13," explains Alexandre Thabet, a project manager at Ubi Soft. To create the game, Ubi Soft used proprietary tools, as well as 3D Studio Max 2.5 from Discreet (Montreal) for modeling and animation, and Adobe Systems' (San Jose, CA) Photoshop 5 for texture creation.

Although a majority of the games available to date for Dreamcast are ports or revamped versions of existing games, some were created expressly for Dream cast, such as Sega Sports NFL 2K. De veloped by Visual Concepts, Inc., which Sega acquired earlier this year, NFL 2K features more than 1500 moves, including tackles and two-player wrap tackles, accomplished by capturing the movements of more than 20 athletes and stuntmen.
After some revisions and enhancements to its PC-based Speed Busters racing game, Ubi Soft recently released the title as Speed Devils for the Dreamcast.

Other novel features include on-field play calling, play calling on the Dreamcast controller using the Dreamcast VMU, 12 hours of audio commentary, and incredible graphic detail. "You can see the breath coming out of players' noses when they're supposed to be playing in Green Bay on a cold day," enthuses Sega's Bellfield. Consoles weren't powerful enough before to support techniques such as fogging, which was used to create this effect, he says.

To add further realism to the game, Sega enlisted the help of actual NFL coaches to make sure each play looks accurate. In addition, individual 3D player models were used to differentiate NFL player positions, and game play reflects real-life physics, with linemen moving more slowly than wide receivers, for instance. The game is further optimized to take advantage of Dreamcast's in telligence capabilities. For instance, when the game player tackles the tight end, the character doesn't just fall over. He responds to the direction and force of the tackle, and even stumbles if the game player's aim falls short. Also, the game creates a new game-play situation on every play, so if the player tries to run the same play repeatedly, the system will learn his moves and use them to beat him.

While it's clear that Dreamcast is the current leader in the video-game console arena, both Sony and Nintendo are feverishly working to develop next-generation systems whose features will reportedly surpass those of Dreamcast.

Although Sony has been tight-lipped about its PlayStation2, the company has divulged some information. For instance, the system is scheduled to launch in Japan on March 4, 2000, for a price of 39,800 yen (about $375) and in North America sometime next fall (the US price was unavailable at press time). The PlayStation2 hardware package will include the PlayStation2 computer entertainment system, as well as a new Dual Shock2 analog controller boasting a storage capacity of 8mb of data and a data transfer rate up to 250 times faster than PlayStation's current memory card. "In addition, the PlayStation2 will support both the audio CD and DVD video formats, and the hardware has a CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drive," says Kaz Hirai, Sony president and chief operating officer.

Sony adds that the PlayStation2's performance will come from a unique, Sony-developed architecture based on a number of custom chips. For instance, the console's CPU, which runs at nearly 300mhz, is based on Sony's 128-bit Emotion Engine chip, which incorporates two 64-bit integer units with a 128-bit SIMD multimedia command unit, two independent floating-point vector calculation units, an MPEG 2 decoder circuit, and high-performance DMA controllers. According to Sony, the combined performance of the CPU will permit complicated physical calculations, NURBS curved-surface generation, and 3D geometric transformations that are difficult to perform in real time, even with high-speed PC CPUs. "The combined processing performance of our Emotion Engine chip exceeds 6.2 billion floating-point operations," states Phil Harrison, vice president of research and development and third-party relations at Sony.

Additional system specs include 32mb of direct RAMBUS DRAM, "the fastest available in the market today," according to Harrison, and an impressive new graphics chip called the Graphics Synthesizer. Interestingly, it's rumored that PlayStation2 will be a dual-processor system; however, Sony has not provided data to substantiate that information.

Needless to say, the details Sony has revealed have people talking. "I've seen a demonstration of the PlayStation2, and it's definitely an extremely impressive machine," comments Gerard Klauer Mattison's Williams. "From what I've seen, the PlayStation2 will have better graphics than Dreamcast." What's more, he says, Sony has revealed that the PlayStation2 will be backward compatible with the original PlayStation console, thus legitimizing consumers' investment in their existing PlayStation software libraries. Dream cast, on the other hand, is not backward compatible with past Sega consoles. "So, theoretically, PlayStation2 will launch with a library in excess of 600 titles," Williams says. However, those titles will run exactly the way they do on the current PlayStation, so players won't see a difference in terms of graphics or speed.

Although Sony could not state definitively how many new titles will be available at launch, the company did say that it is aware that more than 128 titles were in development as of October. Along those lines, it also released information on its new software development tool kit, claiming that it offers several significant improvements over the development environment for the original PlayStation.

For instance, the original PlayStation tools were supplied in the form of a PC extension board that required a PC or workstation. Connecting the PC or workstation to a network added further complexity to the development process. In contrast, the Play Station2 development tools combine two separate operational modes in one unit: regular PlayStation programming/debugging mode and a new workstation mode. In the new mode, the tools can be used as a Linux-based workstation, enabling developers to create graphics in the PlayStation2 development environment that were previously possible only on a separate workstation. When the development tools are employed with an Ethernet network connection, the result is reportedly a seamless development environment. According to Harrison, Sony has begun delivering development systems to third-party software development partners in North America.
The Dreamcast processor provides advanced collision detection, so CG characters, like this Ready 2 Rumble boxer, respond based on how and where they're hit.

Sega's Dreamcast will also face some tough competition from Nintendo, which has announced plans to ship its new Dolphin system for the holiday 2000 season. Because it does not plan to ship product for at least another year, Nintendo isn't releasing many details. However, the company did claim that Dolphin, which will also be a 128-bit system, will feature a graphics chip that will far exceed the capabilities of the Play Station2. ArtX (Palo Alto, CA), a company headed up by Dr. Wei Yen, who is primarily responsible for the Nintendo 64 graphics chip, is developing the new chip.

Dolphin will be powered by a 400mhz CPU based on a processor called Gekko, being developed by IBM. Also, Mat su shita will develop, manufacture, and supply Nintendo with a DVD disk drive for incorporation into the Dolphin hardware unit (the software medium will be DVD, manufactured by Matsushita). In addition, Dol phin's technology will be integrated into various Mat su shita- or Pan a sonic-branded DVD consumer electronic products, en abling users to play movies and music as well as Dol phin games pub lished by Nintendo and Nin ten do's third-party publishers.

Despitethe rumblings Sony andNin tendo have been making re garding the superior power and graphics of their next-generation systems, Sega's Dreamcast is nonetheless an impressive machine. "Dreamcast is far superior to anything that's out there now, and I think it will sell extremely well," comments Williams.

Exactly how well is difficult to say. But the moment of truth may come as early as March. As a general rule of thumb, Williams says, a console must achieve an installed base of 8 million units in North America within 18 to 24 months from launch if it is to be a viable platform for developers to publish games on. "If PlayStation2 has an extremely successful launch in Japan in March, publishers may start allocating their resources to that platform instead of to Dreamcast," he says. Without new and compelling content, it may be difficult for Dreamcast's installed base to reach 8 million in that timeframe, he adds. At press time, Electronic Arts-arguably the industry's largest game developer-still had not announced support for Dreamcast. (Currently, EA supports the PlayStation and Nintendo 64.)

Analyst predictions aside, Dreamcast is the state-of-the-art today in terms of game consoles. The multifunctional machine is more powerful than any game console ever created, the graphics are rich and realistic, and at $199 the price is surprisingly affordable. As such, Dreamcast will more than likely put a smile on the faces of hundreds of thousands of avid gamers this holiday season.

Freelancer Audrey Doyle is a Computer Graphics World contributing editor and former editor-in-chief of Digital Magic. Based in Boston, she can be reached at