Last week, Sega announced it was going to bring a selection of its back catalogue to mobile - and possibly beyond - with Sega Forever, a service that would allow people to play classic games for free. It was almost too good to be true, and it turns out it kind of was - the emulation was found to be sub-par, with Digital Foundry's John Linneman warning players away from the games. They weren't the only issues present, with owners of older versions of the games experiencing new problems while developers Libretro - who are behind RetroArch, an emulator that's widely held to be superior to the one powering Sega Forever - revealing it had walked away from a deal. With this in mind, we spoke to Sega Networks' chief marketing officer Mike Evans - a key figure behind Sega Forever - to see what the future holds for the service.
So, Sega Forever. I guess it's safe to say the launch hasn't been as smooth as you might have anticipated.
Mike Evans: The launch itself has been really positive - if you look at the vast majority of feedback it's been strong, if you look at ratings on the app store from consumers there's definitely some very good sentiment as well. Is there room for improvement like anything? Yeah there is. It's a very ambitious project, and it's taken a long time to get to this point. The beauty with what we have with mobile is that it's an ongoing programme. And we've got lots of things planned as we go through, and we're going to keep on working on that quality. For the vast majority of our fans it's solid, but the specialist guys who are looking for the absolute epitome of quality, we're going to keep improving for those guys.
You say it's been positive, but I'm looking at the top reviews - I know they're not gospel and are prone to hyperbole - but one of the top ones on the App Store for Altered Beast says 'Sega Forever is a massive joke'. You look at Phantasy Star as well - 'this needs to take massive steps with the emulation' - these aren't specialist guys, these are the top reviews on the App and Android store.
Mike Evans: We need to look at the larger trends on reviews as well, so rather than spot-checking one to represent the overall feel, we've been actively listening to all the reviews and trying to figure out if there is an area that we need to address. Phantasy Star is the title where we need to have the most work, if we're honest, we had a couple of challenges with Sonic out of the gate with users not being able to disable ads, we submitted an update yesterday and that fixed it. We've actively been going back to individual consumers one on one to address those issues. We want them to have the best experience possible.
One of the big questions people are asking is why their expensive, very powerful devices cannot run games which used to run absolutely perfectly on a machine which had 72k of RAM.
Mike Evans: It's difficult - a lot of the devices can run it fine, from the testing that we did. Within mobile there's a lot of fragmentation, if you look at all the different OSs, all the different devices - with mobile, as you go live, you get some feedback which you can't get within a sandbox environment. What we're doing is taking that and continue working on it, and try and get every instance of every OS in advance. Our soft launch wasn't as long as it could have been maybe for some of the other apps, but this is a different campaign in that sense. What you're seeing is the tip of the iceberg, and now we've got some really good updates coming out soon which will address some of the challenges of the d-pad, some of the shading as well that we're looking at how to improve. It's just the start of things.
I played two of the games today and I had issues with stuttering and audio issues - a lot of people are asking why we used to have versions of these games that used to run perfectly on mobile back as long as 2009, why is it that these ones aren't working.
Mike Evans: It's difficult to comment on the individual case because of fragmentation, all I can say is it's a small proportion. Without knowing the channels the game was run on previously it's difficult for me to make that comparison. Like I said, it's something we're working on.
There's also the question mark about Unity - it's renowned for being cheap and easy but not necessarily giving you the best results. Why did you go with Unity?
Mike Evans: What we wanted to do is bring these games to the largest audience possible, and that's one of the things that mobile does - many people, especially in developing countries, don't have access to high-end PCs or Macs or other things, so mobile's the sole way they engage with it. We looked at a number of different things, and what we decided was Unity allowed us that broadness and we could piggyback a lot of the updates as well. We use Unity not just on these games but on a portfolio basis across many of Sega's apps. It enables us to broaden it - mobile's the start of what we're doing and we're focussed on getting that right, but it opens up other commercial opportunities for us with Apple TVs, desktops and the Switch as well.
On that note, I'm sure you've seen the comments from RetroArch, who said that they were working on the project early on and there was some sort of disagreement. What's your response to those comments?
Mike Evans: Yeah, so at the time I was unaware of it early on. One of the developers we're using, a company called GoGames, they'd been in talks with Libretro on the RetroArch emulator. That particular emulator is under a GPL, a general public licence. From a Sega perspective, we can't bundle GPL software with Sega proprietary games, because we lose certain rights within the games - it's a corporate policy for us. If we'd have known those conversations were going on we couldn't have acted on it anyway. That said, where we are with the Genesis and the Mega Drive we have a proprietary emulator that was used on the DS and Steam as well, and we've spent a lot of time working on that until the quality is solid as well. That's the kind of history behind it, and we're very much about working with the community - we have been working on the Master System for some time - and we're in touch with the community trying to figure out, like we've done with Christian Whitehead, can we actively work with them.
They also said that there was a dispute about how they'd be credited. Do you have any comment on that?
Mike Evans: From my side, from the Sega, side, we always give full recognition. Again, it's not something we've been involved in, but if it was, if we're featuring someone's tech in the game then they'd get accreditation for that. Like we did with Christian Whitehead - if you see that, what he's done with the Retro Engine, Sonic boots up, the Sega logo plays and then it's Christian Whitehead, he's really a member of the Sega family in that sense.
Speaking personally as a Sega fan, it saddens me when a once great company releases stuff in this state. There's a patchy track record - M2's work on the 3DS [with Sega Classics] have been incredible, the best of their kind - then you see stuff like this, and I think it's fair to say it's been shoddy. I've played them on a variety of devices and the experience hasn't been good at all, and it's a shame to see once great games treated like this. Do you see why Sega's reputation isn't what it once was when stuff like this happens?
Mike Evans: I think that whilst we're continually working to improve on quality - we have to understand the context of mobile in that sense - if you look at the vast majority there's a lot of very delighted fans out there. We're going to continue to improve, the core is very important to us as well, and make those changes so we're happy and they're happy.
Is Sega Forever more of a cash grab than trying to preserve Sega's past?
Mike Evans: No. This is a passion project for us - it links into the corporate statement of reviving the brands as well, it's really something that's going to be done on an amazing scale. If you look at this project it's not a high-yielding project for Sega, it provides enough cash to make it viable but it's about getting the IP to the fans and allow them to rediscover it.
And in terms of curation - the first five games weren't a particularly imaginative selection of games. Will there be more curios coming further down the line?
Mike Evans: I'd welcome your feedback on why you don't think it wasn't a great line-up. I'd love to know more.
Altered Beast, to start with, isn't a great game, a lot of these have been available before. There's such a wide range of Sega games, and to see the same games doled out again and again and again is a bit disappointing.
Mike Evans: We spent a long time internally trying to figure out the best launch line-up - some of it's based on historical context. And that's important to the core as well - Altered Beast, it's a title a lot of people love, a lot of people grew up with, and it was the original title that shipped with the Genesis in 1989. And then we tried to tie it with things like Phantasy Star 2 which is a little more core, Sonic which is obviously a little more mass-market. The whole notion of what we're doing with this project is that typically Sega will give you the Ultimate Mega Drive collection - Sega will prescribe 10 titles. For many of you, you'll love three of them, the rest either they're new or you haven't played them before. What we're doing here is every couple of weeks you'll see new titles coming out, and the idea is that a user can choose which titles mean something to them. We're starting with the Genesis, because it's the most successful platform - it's a good place to introduce the mainstream audience to what we're doing. That said, I'm very cognisant of getting some fan wins in there as well - I'm actively looking at Segagaga as a title which will be a great thing, there are other titles I'd love to see like Panzer Dragoon. They're the things that take a bit more time, but what we've got to do is get the quality right as well, and that's important. We're going to keep working and the selection is about what we hear back from the fans, what we hear from the market and what we hear about the quality.
Okay, that's a good answer. Something's happened like this before with PlaySega, if you cast your mind back that far. That kind of petered out. What makes this different?
Mike Evans: I worked on PlaySega, back in the day - it was a great project. This is very different - first of all, PlaySega wasn't really featuring a lot of Sega content. Games were recreated, it had a business model that was very, very different - it was a paid model with tokens, as opposed to a free model. If you think about online, a lot of the content is available in different forms, some good, some bad, some illegal. It was very difficult for that to compete on a price/cost basis. I'd love to see, now we're in Unity, bringing this across to desktop as well. You see this in how Miniclip works - the idea for me, eventually, is allow consumers to choose.
When it comes to emulation, a lot of people go to some of the less legally viable ones because the quality of the official ones just isn't there.
Mike Evans: Yeah, I think that's one of the inspirations for me - there's some amazing emulators out there in the community. The unfortunate thing is sometimes that's marred by spyware, by viruses, so where a more casual fan is trying to get involved with that content, a lot of the time they're concerned because they don't understand how to work the emulators. What we're trying to do is democratise and allow people to experience some of those games. The Genesis is where we're starting - don't take this as the definitive benchmark in terms of quality, it's where we're starting.
Finally what are the next steps - what are you doing to ensure we don't see some of these same problems again?
Mike Evans: We're doing a couple of things. One is listening to all the feedback, two is taking all the data we have - there are many many data points - and feeding that into the production cycle. We're going to test and retest to get it as good as we possibly can. I'm confident the next couple of games and over a period of time you're going to see a marked improvement.
One final point - the reason you're seeing fans upset, and why you've got people like me asking tough questions, is because we care. There are worse problems to have.
Mike Evans: What we've been really pleased with is the overall reception. It's a big ambitious vision, and with that there'll always be challenges. The reason why this has come into play is that we've grown up with the titles - we want to see them done right, and we're going to keep working until they are.