Sega Breaks the Saturn Pad

The Saturn wasn't just one mistake on Sega's part -- it was a colossal, multipartite disaster that took place over a number of years and offered a cornucopia of delicious errors and mini-disasters. One of the saddest (and most amusing) was the company's decision to replace the Japanese division's perfectly comfortable and well-designed control pad with a totally different variant in the U.S. The svelte Japanese pad was replaced with a chunkier and more substantial edition which was colored black to match the U.S. unit (the Japanese Saturn was gray).


A funny thing happened to me on the way from Japan...
Rumors put the reason for the change as focus grouping, the same wonderful process that gave us those large plastic cases for Sega CD and Saturn games that are so prone to shattering in the slightest breeze, and modern game history's second controller debacle: the original Xbox pad. In attempting to address the perceived needs of the U.S. market, Sega took a pad that had been lauded by gamers as one of the best ever and needlessly replaced it. What U.S. gamers got when they tore into their brand-new systems was bulkier, with an oddly shaped directional pad. Unsurprisingly, the American controller's designers ignored the only big problem with the original Japanese Saturn controller, that the L and R buttons were unresponsive. The U.S. ones were even worse.

At least there's a happy ending. A few months after the American launch, Sega put the Japanese pad on sale at Toys 'R Us. Shortly after that, it became standard equipment in the U.S., and the needlessly redesigned monstrosity was discontinued.

ferricide: Ugh. I was so excited for the Saturn's U.S. release that I ran to Electronics Boutique the day before the surprise launch to reserve my unit -- at a cost of over $400 after taxes, up front. The next day, I got it home and played it for about two days before desperation forced me into mail ordering a gray import pad for an additional $40 from a shady retailer in the back of Game Fan.

What a relief! Panzer Dragoon no longer required me to wrap my hands around a lumpy and misshapen mess. The worst part was definitely the directional pad. It was clearly designed to look cool, with functionality a very secondary concern. Street Fighter Alpha with that thing I'd rather not think about it. I have decent-sized hands, and the import pad wasn't small at all, leading me to wonder why they bothered in the first place.

Ben: In 1993 Sega released the 6-button controller for its Genesis system, which I consider to be the most comfortable gamepad yet made. The Japanese Saturn pad was an evolution of that; a lesser pad, definitely, but still in the upper echelon of console controllers. Why mess with near perfection? Because you're dumb, I suppose. I guess this is one reason that I'm glad I got the PlayStation first. The PlayStation's D-pad, thumb killing as it was, was at least not as downright stupid as the inexplicably puffy American Saturn pad.

Thankfully, Sega learned something of a lesson, with the American Dreamcast controller actually making some improvements over the fragile Japanese original. Still, it's clear that the company's controller design peaked in 1993, because it's been a slow downhill slide since.



Valve's PowerPlay Initiative

In January of 2000, Valve Software, makers of Half-Life, announced that it was teaming up with networking giant Cisco Systems to "revolutionize Internet gaming" with an amazing new technology called PowerPlay. A whole bunch of developers, Epic Games, BioWare, Red Storm, Relic, Ritual, Shiny, Volition, and Ensemble among them, immediately signed up, pledging allegiance to this incredible breakthrough to how games would be played online.

What exactly was PowerPlay? Valve's Gabe Newell explained at the time that, "PowerPlay is an industry effort to identify ways to make the Internet a better platform for entertainment," and more specifically, "a set of protocols and deployment standards." He went on to say that, "initially with PowerPlay 1.0 the focus will be on quality of service (i.e. making playing on the Internet feel like playing on a LAN), but over time PowerPlay 2.0 will address functionality as well."


The PowerPlay logo shipped six months late, but soon became a popular wall tag in Half-Life.
So, in short, PowerPlay was supposed to make playing on the Internet -- even on a dial-up connection -- just as good as playing on a local area network. Gabe went on to boast that, "we had people on a LAN playing [TFC] against someone with a 1000 ping, and it was playable," and that PowerPlay dial-up service would begin in Q1 2000.

Yes, PowerPlay was a truly magical thing that would eliminate lag forever, instantly banish all cheaters to a Scottish gulag, do your taxes, and boost your sex life to stratospheric new heights. It's no wonder so many different companies supported it! Oh wait, PowerPlay was never released, and all traces of its existence were swept under a huge rug. Why?

You'll note that id Software is absent from the list of companies that endorsed PowerPlay. id Lead Programmer John Carmack explained his reasoning for not jumping on the PowerPlay bandwagon shortly after PowerPlay's official announcement went live:
"I had a long talk with a couple people from Valve about the PowerPlay initiative, but they couldn't give me enough specific technical details for me to endorse it. I'm all for improvements in networking infrastructure, but at this point, there isn't anything actually there, just an intention to improve gaming. They need to tell me SPECIFICALLY what I am supposed to be endorsing. At some point, bits have to go into packets and routers need to make decisions on them. Changes at that level is what I want to hear about, not strategic company relationships."
Mr. Carmack was ultimately right: PowerPlay's "revolution" turned out to be little more than some dubious technology backed by a heaping helping of outrageous hype.

Fragmaster: Thanks to Archive.org, you can see the old PowerPlay website. "Enabling the Future of Entertainment on the Internet," indeed!

I'm sure they had good intentions, but PowerPlay proves to me that Valve (and most other game developers, for that matter) should concentrate on making games, not trying to change how the Internet works or attempting to break into show business (see Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, or better yet, don't), or otherwise getting distracted by activities that don't involve making games.

I'm a huge fan of Valve -- given that I run a little site called PlanetHalfLife -- but it's failed projects like PowerPlay and a consistent track record of being way off on release date predictions that make me worry about Half-Life 2 missing its promised September 30th release date. Screw this PowerPlay nonsense, just give us Half-Life 2 on time, please. Thanks!

Warrior: The PowerPlay initiative started around the time I started at GameSpy. We followed it from the start because it was a very cool idea. I mean, the guys who came up with this created Half-Life, one of the best first-person shooters of all time, so they had to have a clue, right? Well, I started to get the idea that this wasn't going to fly when I contacted them on the year anniversary of the announcement and got no response. Same with year two. Ah, well. I guess they were just building up Steam. We'll soon see if that's a lot of hot air, too.

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