Dreamcast to 'doorstop' PlayStation

Sega's Dreamcast is ready to rule the console roost. But what about when PlayStation 2 and Dolphin arrive?

On Thursday at 12:01 a.m. PT, struggling game console maker Sega of America -- whose mascot is the electric blue hedgehog -- will kick off its next-generation console system, the Dreamcast.

Despite being written off by many industry watchers, Sega seems to be doing everything right this time around. "So far, it's looking like a strong launch," said Eric Lempel, project director for the entertainment market watcher NPD Group. "They have a lot of first-rate titles, and the purchase price $199 (£121.35) is a lot easier to swallow than previous (game console) launches."

Five years ago, the video game giant launched its Saturn system -- a system fated to become the example of what not to do in the video game industry. The Saturn had a astronomical price tag of $399 and had graphics far less impressive than its chief rival, the Sony PlayStation, which hit the market only four months later.

This time it's different. Sega has at least a one-year lead on its rivals, Sony and Nintendo and the release of their next-generation systems, the PlayStation 2 and the Dolphin, respectively. In addition, the company has garnered a strong show of consumer support with more than 300,000 pre-ordered systems and a strong show of developer support with 18 games expected to be on shelves at launch. "We are building momentum from the get-go," said Charles Bellfield, director of marketing communications at Sega of America. "Just at the beginning, our pre-orders have exceeded any other game platform."

The Dreamcast system has a 128-bit graphics engine and a 56Kbps modem for Internet access and multiplayer gaming. The initial price has been set at $199, the lowest for any game system at launch. Sega will hold rallies at stores in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Las Vegas and San Jose, California, from 10 p.m. PT Wednesday night.

At least one analyst still thinks Sega has its work cut out for it.

Gary Gabelhouse, president and chief analyst for game market watcher Fairfield Research in the US expects Sega's momentum to flag. According to studies done by Fairfield, out of a potential market of 15 million consumers willing to buy a next-generation system, only 1.1 million expect to buy a Dreamcast. "Sony and Nintendo's next-generation systems have the majority of the attention," Gabelhouse said. "Way in the back is Dreamcast. There are a lot of people holding back." Neither Sony nor Nintendo expects to release its systems in the United States until late in 2000.

Sony hopes to quash any burgeoning demand as well. The Japanese consumer-electronics giant upped the ante at the end of August, announcing a $150m campaign to keep consumers playing on the PlayStation. In addition, Sony intends to announce, on 13 September, details of its next-generation console system, including the introductory price.

Yet, Sega's Bellfield dismissed the marketing manoeuvre and took a shot at Sega's rivals. "The advertising is great, if you want to go and get a obsolete system for $99," he said. "After Dreamcast, the PlayStation will only be good for a doorstop."