Interview: Charles Bellfield (2001) by GameWeek

From Sega Retro

This is an unaltered copy of an interview, for use as a primary source on Sega Retro. Please do not edit the contents below.
Language: English
Original source: GameWeek 1 2 3 4
By Jim Loftus and Bryan Intihar

Charismatic as ever, Sega of America's VP of marketing and communications, Charles Bellfield, was gracious enough to carve us a day from Toy Fair 2001 to discuss all things Sega. From the admission of defeat in the hardware wars and resulting shockwaves inside the company to the truth behind the fabled "DC Xbox chip," Bellfield unleashed a refreshing candor all his own.

 

THE HAMMER FALLS

GameWEEK.com: So what happened, Charles?

Charles Bellfield: As far as software sales are concerned, last year we had an 8 to 1 tie ratio with Dreamcast; a better tie ratio than any platform's ever had in its first full year.

GW: It's just that there wasn't enough of that "1."

CB: Exactly. If we had gotten to the hardware numbers we wanted to be at, we wouldn't have this problem and we'd be profitable today. But we didn't, and we can't continue hoping to get there.

GW: The burn rate is enormous, isn't it?

CB: It's just huge. And also, I think the financial community were wanting to make this decision. If we wanted to raise capital, they were demanding we do this. But saying that, consumers today are going to benefit. We've lowered Dreamcast to $99, we've lowered our most recent round of software to $39, we've got more software at $19.95 than ever before, and a continued commitment from us to the platform for the next 12-18 months. As long as it's viable to publish, we'll do it. You know, we're giving third-parties a whole new licensing contract and we're dramatically reducing the cost for them, the risk for them. It's to their benefit! Take a look over there. (points to running demo of Sonic Adventure 2 across the room) Sonic Team USA did this. Now you look at this and you tell me anything on PS2 looks any better. Now I will admit to owning a PS2 but there is nothing on PS2 that can come anywhere near this.

GW: We would have to agree. Things didn't turn out the way Sony had promised with their initial tech demos. The Emotion Engine…

CB: Yes, the Emotion Engine. Well if that's their Emotion Engine then everybody is either depressed, sulking, moody or grumpy. Horrible emotions! (everyone laughs) It just goes to show that specs don't matter, it's all about how the developers utilize the technology they have. Going back to what went wrong with Dreamcast: the price was right. The marketing was—although you guys criticize us for lack of TV—was essentially there. Availability was there, too. So what happened?

GW: Hey, we asked you! You know, I've had a gut feeling that with Dreamcast it's been a case of too many "wacky desserts"—stuff like Seaman, Space Channel 5, and Samba—and not enough "meat and potatoes." For instance, there wasn't a single decent Dreamcast RPG for more than a year. You have to serve the meat and potatoes before the deserts. Your thoughts?

CB: Certainly. We thought that Jet Grind would be meat and potatoes, but it wasn't. The press coverage was perfect but the game just hasn't lived up to expectations. Going forward with the meat and potatoes we have sports games, platform games, stuff like Crazy Taxi 2 and others. But I will tell you now, the quirky stuff will continue. And you know why? Because that's what we're good at. But don't worry, we'll be getting the meat and potatoes into as many platforms as possible. 

GW: Were there issues with funding? Did Sega of Japan provide Sega of America with enough money to pull it off, from a marketing standpoint at least?

CB: (hesitates slightly) Well. If we had more marketing funds I'm sure we would have been able to advertise more. Let me ask you: how much of a difference do you think that would have made? It's a good question but I don't have the answer.

GW: You have to wonder. Most of the people we know who actively play games—industry guys and regular Joe Shmoes—have mentioned to us that they didn't see a whole lot of TV. It was always "Play-Stay-Shown!" Obviously, Sony's got deep pockets—that goes without saying—but it would have been nice to see more television.

CB: Right. I have to say, though, at one point we wondered, "what are consumers thinking, what does Sega have to do… give the thing away?!"

GW: You pretty much tried that with the SegaNet rebate…

CB: Yes, we tried that and it obviously wasn't communicated effectively.
We all take responsibility for our actions here. We went to [Sega of Japan] and they said "yes, we can sit here and blame everybody under the sun and make excuses but we're not going to do that." You know it's not a cliché, it's not a cop-out; what we're saying is that we cannot compete at this game. And we did everything possible up until the end of December to see whether Dreamcast was still viable. It was a hard decision to make but at the end of the day, it was the right one.

GW: When was the final decision handed down?

CB: When we came back from Christmas there was a market review that let us see where we were at in sales. The decision was made within three weeks. The decision to do this was all about getting it done, getting everything in place. We will move all hardware stock through retail by the end of this calendar year and about a hundred new Dreamcast titles globally this year. Dreamcast is still a viable platform.

GW: We found it ironic that the day Sega announced it was pulling out of the hardware market was the same day Phantasy Star Online went on sale. A consumer says to themselves "hey, wait a minute, I'm going to the store to buy this great game and now they're telling me they're done with the hardware, what's up with that?!"

CB: I know. In the end though, we need to pay the bills. Now we look at other opportunities. Sega Master System games on cell phones will be a reality this year. Genesis content on PDAs and Game Boy Advance… that's going to happen. You know, it would be so easy for us to become the biggest publisher on Game Boy Advance. Literally overnight. Then there are the Saturn games for the PSX market. We've got a great selection of franchises and licenses for us to bring over at a $19.95 price-point.

GW: When will you ship the Saturn-to-PlayStation ports?

CB: Summertime.

GW: Specific titles?

CB: We can't announce them until April.

GW: Announcing Virtua Fighter 4 as an exclusive PS2 title must have been a hard pill to swallow.

CB: You're right. This has not been easy. We would not have done this unless we saw a way to make profit.

GW: Is Sega's role in the coin-op industry at risk? Are you still pursuing the arcade market?

CB: Heh, I've seen the rumors that we're looking to get out of the arcade. Naomi 2 is there but other platforms are there for us to take advantage of that will help us avoid the hardware manufacturing burden.

GW: So what exactly does that translate into?

CB: It means that we are utilizing other technologies for our machines. We are still manufacturing the machines, the cabinets, and the controls. And we are still focusing on locations such as GameWorks.


OPTIONS

GW: Have there been actual offers to buy the company?

CB: If I were EA, I'd be looking at us. I'm not saying that's the case, just making a point. We've had lots of offers recently. I've suddenly gone from this "ugly duckling" to a "beautiful swan." (everyone laughs) We've had it both ways, really; we've had companies saying "we want to buy you" and others that have said "oh, please buy us." These are big developers, or publishers as it were, but I want your readers to understand the potential of what Sega could become down the road.

GW: Let me get right to it: was there any truth to the reports Nintendo was looking to buy?

CB: (long pause) Yeah. So were Microsoft, so were Sony.

GW: Can you expand on that?

CB: Sure. The truth is, if we didn't think we would be successful with our new strategy, something might have happened. In 2000, we were the sixth largest publisher in North America. That was with a 2-3 million Dreamcast install base. Imagine the potential for us when we get to PSX, GameCube, Xbox, and Game Boy Advance. There's only one way for us to go and that's up. That's the reality of it.

GW: Theoretically, Sega could be a difference maker in the upcoming console wars, depending on what franchises are delivered to each particular platform. Any thoughts?

CB: Let me turn the tables a bit. What do you know about GameCube?

GW: You probably know a lot more than we do; Nintendo is the most quiet company we've ever dealt with. It's scary.

CB: Four words: don't write off Nintendo. A lot of companies have, but Nintendo's got a five billion dollar war chest and a lot of great, original franchises.

GW: Yes, they have the one key ingredient that Sega has: content. They really are self-sufficient.

CB: Agreed.

GW: Charles, can you confirm or deny the existence of this so-called "top-secret RPG" being worked on by Sega and Nintendo?

CB: (long pause) I'm trying to recall… Tetsu Kayama talked about a number of things last week and I would normally refer back to what he said, but... Let's put it this way: whatever he said, the answer is "yes."

GW: You know, Peter Main had the same suspicious grin when I asked him this question two and a half months ago…

CB: Did he really? Yes. (another long pause) We've got a great content line ahead. (smiles)

GW: Was there any truth at all to the whole "DC chip in the Xbox" thing?

CB: None whatsoever. I don't even know whether it would have been capable. Xbox is so much more powerful than Dreamcast, I don't know why anyone would want that.

GW: Hey, how about that controller?

CB: I think they've made the right decisions over there. (everyone laughs)

GW: But what's up with that bubble thing?

CB: Yes, what's that for? (everyone laughs)

PSO: THE SEQUEL

GW: The price drop to $99... has it had an effect on hardware sales?

CB: Oh, it's quadrupled, depending on the retailer. Wal-Mart has been tripling sales. Best Buy has doubled their sales. I think we've got 2.2 million hardware units left to sell and they will be sold without a problem. We'll support it until the hardware is sold-through. We're still supporting with games because the games are viable and they're all in development. Games like Sonic Adventure 2, Crazy Taxi 2, Shenmue II… those are all coming, that has not changed. With the "pay stuff," the set-top box model, we're also looking at episodic versions of new games that will allow for easily downloadable content through the network. Sega's focusing on getting out of any hardware risk. That doesn't mean we won't be in the hardware market, it means we won't have the risk. The idea is that if we can give that risk to other companies, other partners, then we can just stick with the content. We're a software company, a game company. We can't afford to compete with the likes of Sony and Microsoft, we just don't have the money for it. If there's a choice of investing in Naka's team to double it from 70 to 140 people, or trying to pursue another hardware goal, what are you going to do?

GW: The right thing, of course.

CB: The future of this industry is going to be about online games, period. Far Nation will be the first massively multi-player persistent world RPG on a console. Will it be on Dreamcast or on another platform? That decision has yet to be made.

GW: What about an add-on disc or a sequel to Phantasy Star Online (PSO)?

CB: We have one slated.

GW: (pause) You do…

CB: There will be a PSO 2.

GW: For Dreamcast…

CB: Yes, for Dreamcast.

GW: You lit up a few bulbs here. Are you talking about an expansion disc or a true sequel?

CB: It will be a new game. We are definitely planning to keep the Phantasy Star Online franchise continuing, absolutely. For the record, we sold 75,000 copies of PSO on the first day.

GW: What's going to happen with SegaNet?

CB: It will be going muti-platform as well. Here's something I thought was interesting: I was told this morning by Jupiter that Sony of Japan have expressed a desire to incorporate SegaNet technology into PS2, which is news to me.

 

THE REALLY "NOT SO BIG" SHOW

GW: What can we expect from you at E3 this year?

CB: This year we have a smaller role. We're not exhibiting the same style as we did last year. For us, last year was all about…

GW: Girls in short plastic skirts?

CB: (laughs) I have my software lineup sheet here and I am looking at 59 titles slated for the next fiscal year across all platforms, thirty of which are Dreamcast specific. We will release 17 third-party titles in the next two months. April will be amazing with Floigan Brothers, 18-Wheeler and Outrigger and in May we have Ooga Booga, Alien Front Online and a little game called Crazy Taxi 2. (rolls actual in-game footage) Some of the new features include new characters and multiple fares.

GW: A lot of people want to know: will an online multiplayer mode be featured in Crazy Taxi 2?

CB: No, not in Crazy Taxi 2.

GW: Is there a Panzer Dragoon sequel on that sheet anywhere?

CB: We don't have a Panzer Dragoon port slated for PS One, I can tell you that.

GW: What's the status of Headhunter?

CB: They just recorded the soundtrack last week at Abbey Road in London with a full orchestra.

GW: Does Headhunter utilize the Shenmue engine?

CB: No, it does not.

GW: Tentative street date?

CB: (suspicious delay as Charles confers with Access Communications' Jenny Majalca) Uh, we can't talk about that yet.

GW: (eyeing the classified software lineup sheet in Charles' hands) You know... we could take you, Charles!!