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Sega: Back to the future

"We're returning to our roots... in a very modern way."

Mike Hayes, the man in charge of Sega's fortunes in the Western world, is going "a little bit crazy".

Don't worry: he's not reimagining Sonic as a gender-confused alcoholic slug or pushing Yakuza Fitness on Kinect. And he's definitely not thinking about getting back in the hardware race. That really would be unhinged.

No, Mike's just doing his sums.

It takes $30 million to develop a major console title, he explains - plus $20 million in requisite marketing funds. The money spent on one of these games, he says, could instead be used to create ten full games on PSN or Xbox Live.

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So that's pretty much what Sega has decided to do.

A ballsy move, but 'crazy'? It might sound mundane in an industry where such outlandish adjectives are more regularly attributed to exploding helicopters and gun-toting mutants - but it's evidence of perhaps the biggest shift in thinking at the cherished Japanese company since it tried to sell us online gaming networks with the Dreamcast. As if that was ever going to take off.

Despite roaring success on PC, Wii and iOs - and Aliens vs Predator aside - Hayes candidly tells CVG that the company has underperformed on PS3 and Xbox 360 in the last 12 months, where its biggest games and biggest expenditure have been directed.

But, commendably, the publisher hasn't responded by witling back all experimentation and concentrating fully on its 'bankers': Total War, Sonic, Football Manager and the Aliens licence.

Activision-style conservatism simply isn't in Sega's blood, which is why it's taken the opposite route - asking its developers to concoct a bundle of fresh ideas for non-boxed releases, in the hope that one or two of them will eventually blossom into industry-conquering franchises.

"We're encouraging our developers to be more innovative, because you have a better chance of success with an IP if you stand out," Hayes explains.

"Digital gives us the option for originality, and the opportunity to be that little bit crazy. This is Sega trying something different again. In a very modern way, we're going back to our roots."

The first major trial of Sega's new approach is Renegade Ops, from Just Cause developer (and bunch of all-round Swedish dudes) Avalanche. A charming mix of puzzle, strategy and action, it fuses tiny vehicles with massive explosions, and has already won positive intrigue from critics.

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Importantly, it also resembles nothing else released in recent months, whilst retaining the polish and meatiness Xbox and PS3'ers demand - something that very few other publishers can boast is in their portfolio.

"Renegade Ops is the first product of this new approach, and we've got a couple of other really good titles lined up for the months to come," adds Hayes. "It's a really exciting time to be trying this stuff. By lessening the financial risk - like that we'd have when taking one big bet in an economically tough time - we widen choice and, hopefully, encourage these games to stand out as being that little bit different."

Recent history shows how the "one big bet" games have hurt Sega, with both espionage RPG Alpha Protocol and the artful, blood-splattered Madworld failing badly on shelves despite early promise. (When asked if Madworld could ever return on non-Nintendo consoles, Hayes replies: "No, I don't think so.")

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