It rained on Sega's parade -- literally. As 400 to 500 people gathered Wednesday night at Software Etc. to celebrate the midnight launch of Sega's new Dreamcast game console, a rare thunderstorm with spectacular displays of lightning descended on the Bay Area. It was like an ominous warning of the chaos to come.
And it was chaos. The good news was that more people than expected turned out to buy Dreamcasts. The mood was festive, with Verne Troyer, better known as Mini-Me from "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," and Donna D'Errico of "Baywatch" dressing up the atmosphere. (It's amazing how small Troyer really is -- his head came up just past my knee.)
The bad news was that Software Etc. and Sega made a mess of the much-hyped affair, part of Sega's $100 million marketing campaign for the Dreamcast. This in turn called into question Sega's ability to pull off the turnaround it desperately needs.
At the San Jose event -- one of the four simultaneous U.S. midnight launches scheduled also in Atlanta, Las Vegas and Minneapolis -- the Software Etc. staff was only beginning a dry run of checkout procedures 30 minutes before the doors opened. The stressed retail staff grumbled that Sega should have "warned them" or better prepared them for the event. Sega P.R. had to relinquish control of the actual store opening to Software Etc. staff.
While hundreds waited in the rain, Dreamcast buyers were admitted 10 at a time. Most customers had pre-ordered to guarantee they could get a Dreamcast on 9/9/99 -- launch day. Still, runners had to fetch the consoles and the specific games ordered before buyers could approach the handful of cash registers. Actually getting a Dreamcast could have taken all night. When I left at about 12:30 a.m., only the first 20 or so Dreamcasts had been sold. With several hundred people in line and four people working the registers, it looked like slow going.
It was a frustrating kickoff for the latest-generation console, widely recognized as Sega's last hope in its losing market-share battle with Nintendo and Sony's Play Station. After it disappointed gamers with its last console, the Saturn, the company that once dominated the gaming scene with 60 percent of the market now claims an embarrassing 1 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Dreamcast launch came on the heels of the recent ouster of Bernard Stolar, CEO of Sega of America, and disappointing Dreamcast sales in Japan. It was a critical test of Sega's ability to recast itself. Sega must reassure consumers and observers that it has a winning product and a competent team. The scene in San Jose seemed to demonstrate that the company has yet to pull itself together.
For diehard fans, though, none of this mattered. "Sega's gonna survive on the quality of its games, not on its CEO," said fan Henderson Stansbury. Two teenagers camped out all night to be first in line, and a pair of brothers turned up at 9 a.m. Wednesday to make sure they were among the first in the door. Others waited hours in the rain, protecting themselves with trash bags and newly acquired T-shirts.
Rene Fromholditreu, who had pre-ordered his Dreamcast online only to find his order mysteriously canceled, turned up anyway, hoping to buy a console after all the preorders were filled. "It's great," he said of the system. "That's why I'm waiting to buy one."
"That just shows how dedicated our consumers are to this product," said Sega spokeswoman Jennifer Walker, casting an eye toward the drenched, patient fans. Perhaps. The system is good; the games are good -- and most everyone in the gaming industry agrees that a three-way run between Sony, Nintendo, and Sega is the best thing for gamers. But no one wants to see the fans get soaked. It just makes you wish Sega could get its act together.