The US launch of Sega Genesis on August 14, 1989 probably did not seem like a huge deal outside the video game industry. The machine was launched in Japan the year before under a different name – Mega Drive – and with a couple of decent arcade conversions, Space Harrier II and Super Thunder Blade, but not much in the way of fanfare. Nintendo completely dominated the gaming industry at the time with a 95% share of the console sector and most of the largest Japanese developers locked inside exclusive deals to make games for its NES and upcoming SNES consoles. Mega Drive did OK in Japan, but it was a small fry – a cult machine.
But David Rosen, who co-founded Sega after serving with the U.S. Air Force in Japan during the Korean War, was determined to make a real event of the console's launch in its home country. The first gaming machine with a 16-bit processor and with the splendor of beautiful, colorful visuals, excellent sound and enough power to handle accurate arcade conversions, it had all the credentials for a hit. All he had to do was get American players to recognize it. So he relocated Genesis – a name he thought was cool and symbolized Sega's rebirth – and then he started building.
At the time, Sega of America was basically a trading post item; 30 employees in a small office that handles distribution and modest marketing budgets. To take things a step, Rosen brought in Michael Katz as CEO, a combative exec with years of experience at blue-chip companies such as Colgate and Proctor & Gamble, as well as a stint at former console maker Coleco. Katz immediately challenged the courteous business practices of her bosses in Sega of Japan by funding a television and print advertising campaign aimed at bringing down Nintendo and its picturesque, family-oriented consoles. This was just the way he had always done things.
"In my first week at Coleco, I was asked to approve an ad for a game that was a direct competitor to Mattel's Football," he explains. “It was a wonderful ad, two guys dressed up as football players, one as Coleco Electronic Quarterback and one as Mattel Football. The two guys boast throughout the commercial, with the Coleco guy opposing everything the Mattel guy says. It was the first direct competitive commercial in the gaming industry. But it was nothing new to me. "
So Katz went after Nintendo with the advertising slogan "Genesis does what Nintendon does not" and suddenly Sega got a new image as the industry's bad boy. "I knew that for every marketing dollar I had, Nintendo had 10," says the then marketing director Al Nilsen, who joined Sega of America, as there were only three other people on the team. “You didn't play video games when you played Nintendo. Sega was an afterthought. We couldn’t follow their core audience: kids. Peter Main, their head of marketing basically said, just get six to 12 year olds, that's all we need.
“So I looked at what we had, which Nintendo didn't, and that was our arcade heritage. Golden Ax, Space Harrier – these were Sega classics, and the Genesis system was the first console to bring home the arcade experience. I looked at who was playing in the arcades – and it was back in the day when they were on every street corner – and it wasn't six to 12-year-old boys, it was teens and young adults. They went there, because that's where the best games were. And that's also where the girls were. I said, & # 39; This is my market & # 39; ".
So Sega went straight for teens with aggressive, rock music-driven, jump-cut TV ads, initially produced by the slick PR and advertising agency Bozell, and later by Goodby, Berlin & Silverstein, who masterminded "Welcome to the next level" TV commercials and would continue with the famous "Got Milk" campaign.
But Katz knew that if Genesis were to truly reign in the United States, something else was needed: fame endorsement. This became another important focus. "When I came to Sega, we needed hot licensed software with names that consumers would recognize," he says. “If we could get it, we would be able to compete with Nintendo. So I said, let's go for personalities. Let's go for the hottest athlete in the US – that was Joe Montana – then we would expand it into boxing and everything else. “The final result was Joe Montana Football from Electronic Arts, a big hit that created more followers. "We didn't realize we were competing with Nintendo for Montana," says Katz. "We knocked them out with a few hundred thousand dollars and after that I discovered that I had bid against [Nintendo of America chairman] Howard Lincoln. It was gratifying – it signaled that we were starting to gain traction. "
Sega of America's willingness to bring US developers to the console was also critical to the success of Genesis. There was an understanding that they would not beat Super Nintendo with arcade conversions alone – they needed local talent. So they turned to US studies like Accolade, Spectrum Holobyte and of course Electronic Arts to support the console.
"Sega always wanted to do a good job of bringing their arcade games over, but the overall product range was narrow," said EA founder Trip Hawkins. “The 16-bit market was new and many developers had come to understand how much more they could do with it. We really pushed the envelope and explored genres that others weren't really willing to try at the time – sports simulations were the most pervasive example, but then there was real innovation. Populous invented a new genre. "
Not only did Sega Genesis make games cool, it changed how consoles were marketed and expanded the scope of console game development beyond Japanese power centers such as Nintendo, Capcom, Konami and Taito. There was an easily combative relationship between Sega of Japan and Sega of America, and this led to a richly creative period of development, culminating with the arrival of Sonic the Hedgehog, a Japanese character infused with the bombastic qualities of 1990 & # 39; American pop culture.
Genesis, launched in the U.S. more than a year before the Super Nintendo system, came out of nowhere to become the largest selling machine in the country. We look back now and it seems that Sega had an early confidence in his vision, but as is often the case in the gaming industry, it flew.
"I was just trying to establish a toehold for Genesis in the US," says Nilsen. “I didn't have the software to be an ambitious machine – I launched with five titles! In 1990 I had maybe 30 titles and some third party games. If you asked me in 1989, & # 39; Does Sega Want the # 1 Sales Console in America? & # 39; It never even came to my mind. However, I shouldn't say that, because when I was out with potential partners, that's exactly what I told them. Did I think so? None."
• This article was based on interviews conducted during the study of the book Sega Mega Drive: The Collected Works, published by Read-Only Memory.