While that certainly sounds ominous, we asked Alan Pritchard – newly instated veep of sales and marketing for Sega US and the man who held Mr. Post's spot until just a couple month's ago – to clarify what it means for Europe, for Sonic and (jingoism be damned!) for North America.
"I think perhaps Jurgen's comments have somewhat been taken out of context," Pritchard told Joystiq. "It's not quite as drastic as what Disney do for example. They bring out Lion King and all of a sudden there's a cut-off date, and you can't buy Lion King for another six months. It's not quite as drastic as turning the tap off completely. We want consumers and retailers to defocus from the back catalog, the older titles and focus more on the new-release titles."
That reference to Disney is no mistake -- the House of Mouse has been a well-rewarded steward of some of the world's most cherished brands, and Sega accepts that it could (and should!) be doing a better job with Sonic. "If Sonic were a Disney franchise or Sonic was a Nintendo franchise, how would they treat Sonic?" Pritchard asked. "Sonic, at the end of the day, is 20-years-old next year. Sonic is our crown jewel." Part of the effort to "defocus" from the back catalog -- specifically those games that underperformed, at least where Metacritic is concerned -- is to present that crown jewel in the best possible light.
"We've probably been guilty of bringing too many Sonic games to market too quickly," Pritchard admitted. "Certainly if you look at Nintendo as a comparison, they have been a little bit more strategic with the way they bring their Mario titles to market. If you look at 2006 to 2008, there were a number of Sonic titles coming to market on various platforms with very little time in-between." That date range is fairly specific in the chronology of Sonic titles over the last 20 years, and, "If you look at all of the Sonic releases over the last four or five years, there's a real mixed bag out there," we were told. "There are some 70s; there are some 60s; there are some 50s. We are upping the bar in terms of internal focus, investment, resource; and we plan to target 80-percent-plus."
Sonic Unleashed (2008)
It's no mystery as to which Sonic titles Pritchard is referring to: 2006's "next-gen" Sonic the Hedgehog title received a Metacritic average of 46 and 43 on Xbox 360 and PS3, respectively; 2008's Sonic Unleashed scored an average of 60 and 54 on the same platforms; and 2007's Wii-exclusive Sonic and the Secret Rings and its 2009 followup Sonic and the Black Knight scored a 69 and 54, respectively.
"A Sonic game can sell if it's a 60-percent Metacritic game, that's not an issue," Pritchard said. "But is that really what the consumer wants? Is that what we should be doing as a publisher and a developer? We should be bringing much higher quality products to market to deliver a better experience for the consumer." To that end, Pritchard reiterated that Sega will "strive for 80-percent-plus Metacritic" scores on all games it develops; however, he also acknowledged that "casual games and existing franchises probably trend slightly lower in Metacritic scores than more core franchises or new IPs."
"We've probably been guilty of bringing too many Sonic games to market too quickly." - Alan Pritchard, Sega
And that focus on quality going forward is why Sega is looking to "defocus" and, yes, "delist" Sonic games at retail. But what does that even mean? Will Sonic games be rounded up and sent to a landfill in New Mexico? When pressed for specifics, it became clear this wasn't as simple as it sounds. "It's a fairly general statement that we've made. It'll be tailored to each individual country, and it'll be tailored by retailer. And we'll just approach it on a case-by-case example." What are some of the examples of how this might look at your local retailer? "Rather than flooding the market with $15 or $20 products at the time when you're bringing out a $50 dollar game, it's just reducing the quantity, making sure those older titles are in a different part of the store," Pritchard said.
Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1
With a bevy of Sonic titles debuting this year, including this week's digital-only Sonic the Hedgehog 4: Episode 1, the Wii and DS bound Sonic Colors and the Kinect-enabled Sonic Free Riders, it's clear that Sega isn't interested in slowing down the pace of speedy blue hedgehog-brand titles. And Pritchard tells us that we can expect more soon. "The early part of next calendar year, we have two very exciting, huge announcements to make. I'd love to be able to tell you more about them now but I can't. That's further evidence of how we're looking to improve and enhance our Sonic strategy."
With a delisting policy that's dictated by perceived quality -- as filtered through the complicated prism of Metacritic – and not sales, it seems that Sega has its corporate heart in the right place. The real test, however, isn't whether Sega can "defocus" consumers from the lower-quality (and yes, cheaper) Sonic titles; it's whether these newer Sonic releases do the hard work of restoring the beloved mascot to a symbol of quality and not a vestige of failure.