Buyers line up for Dreamcast

Game fans swarm for Dreamcast's US debut -- a good sign for ailing Sega.

Braving rain and an impressive lightning storm, more than 700 people lined up at Software Etc. in San Jose, California, Wednesday night, waiting for Sega of America's next-generation Dreamcast game machine to go on sale at the stroke of midnight.

"It's the best system I have ever seen," said Ryan Ontiveros, a 15-year-old high school sophomore, who headed the line of mostly male gamers. While Ontiveros owns a powerful PC, he said that Dreamcast's blend of top-notch graphics and ability to play with others over the Internet sealed the deal for him. "I just want it. It's so cool." Ontiveros showed his dedication by camping out since 7 p.m. the night before -- something that he didn't even do for "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace", he said.

Sega officials were pleased at the crowd they had managed to draw. The "excitement is almost the same as in Japan", said Toshihiro Kezuka, chief operating officer and vice chairman of Sega of America. The Dreamcast is the latest competitor to Sony's four-year-old PlayStation, boasting a 128-bit graphics system and Internet connectivity for only an aggressively priced $199 (£123).

Last year's launch of the system in Japan had been spoiled by Sega's inability to supply enough units, said Kezuka. This time, more than 450,000 Dreamcast systems had been shipped to stores throughout the US to satisfy initial demand. "We expect this to be the biggest 24-hour period the store has ever seen," said Mat Kuwitzky, manager of the Software Etc. store that hosted the event.

More than 400 stores stayed open nationwide to sell Dreamcast systems early Thursday morning, but Kuwitzky's store was one of four that had Sega representatives and Hollywood stars there to celebrate. The Japanese subsidiary reported more than 300,000 systems had been pre-ordered before the launch; the San Jose Software Etc. store had chalked up slightly more than 1000 orders.

To customers lined up outside, the Dreamcast meant cool games at the right price. "Even if it is no good, it is worth the money," said Jeff Williams, a student at nearby West Valley Community College. "I can easily get $200 worth out of the machine in the next year." Williams intended to pick up Sega's NFL 2K game for his new Dreamcast, and hoped a version of Bass Fishing would be developed for the machine soon.

Mike Vera, a physics graduate student at the University of California at Santa Cruz, agreed that Sega's price was right. "There's a whole year before PlayStation 2 comes out," he said. "This is here and it's cheap enough." Vera had the dubious honour of being last in line, at around 11:30 p.m. As the line started to creep ahead at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, the grad student had another four hours or so to wait.

For ailing Sega, the first-night turnout was good news. With 18 games to be on the shelves on Thursday, and another 20 or so to come out by Christmas, the company hopes to keep up its momentum. "For one year, we are not competing with anyone," said Sega's Kezuka, stressing the advantage gained by having its next-generation machine out before rivals Sony and Nintendo.

That lead, and Sega's near-flawless execution in marketing and supplying the game machine, garnered praised from one partner. "They have done everything they can do, and done it right," said Mike Fischer, director of marketing for Namco Hometek, developer of the game Soul Calibur, which has grabbed rave reviews.

"The key factor now is how Sega continues to perform. This is definitely a positive sign."

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