2016/07/04

Console Wars: The Secret History of Gaming

I just finished reading Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation.


This intriguing book's subtitle is somewhat misleading for two contradictory reasons.

First, it doesn't only deal with Sega and Nintendo, but touches on almost every industry player worth mentioning from the 1983 video game crash till the launch of the original PlayStation in 1995.

Second, the balance of the book's content is heavily weighted toward Sega.

That's not entirely the author's fault, though. Blake J. Harris relied on primary sources whenever he could, and Nintendo's legendarily tight-lipped corporate culture made getting information right from the horse's mouth a nigh herculean task.

With those disclaimers out of the way, let's dig into the meat of the book.


The Secret Masters of Gaming

To call Console Wars eye-opening would be a massive understatement. Revelatory is a more accurate word for Harris' chronicle of the take-no-prisoners commercial war that defined my formative years in particular.

Paraphrasing Benjamin Disraeli, "Gaming is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes." As a kid, I pictured the folks who made video games as inhabiting a Wonkaesque wonderland staffed by magic elves somewhere in the mysterious east.

Toys
10 year-old me's image of NOA
Despite having long since abandoned such naive illusions, I still held out hope that the gaming industry was somehow exempt from the demands of corporate culture; that it was mostly run by people who, first and foremost, loved playing and making video games.

Yeah, that romanticized outlook was the first casualty of Console Wars.

Nintendo of America
The actual NOA
It turns out that the gaming industry is run by an elite class of people whose skill sets are highly specialized to do one thing and one thing only: run companies.

In fact, the folks in charge of Sega, SCEA, and Microsoft's gaming division are the same people who run toy, consumer electronics, and pasta sauce companies. In the apparent majority of cases, they neither play nor especially like video games.

Nintendo was the sole partial exception. At least during the time period covered by the book, they were still a family-run enterprise who employed people like Howard Phillips and Tony Harman.

Howard Phillips
NOA paid this guy to play video games.
In contrast, Sega enjoyed its meteoric rise to fame under the steady hand of this cool customer:

Tom Kalinske
How to make Gamer of the Year without being a gamer: be the US market midwife to Sonic the Hedgehog.
Before his legendary tenure at Sega, Kalinske served as CEO of Mattel and Matchbox. He's had a lifelong passion for integrating education and technology, and he's still the Vice Chairman of Leapfrog.

Much of Kalinske's success can be credited to his personal marketing philosophy: telling people stories is a great way to make them buy from you.

As an independent author struggling against long odds to buck the status quo and bring you a refreshing brand of fun, imaginative SF that the Big Five don't publish anymore, I heartily endorse Mr. Kalinske's approach.




The Triumph

Speaking of pro authors, Blake Harris also took Tom Kalinske's marketing advice to heart. Console Wars does attempt to weave the corporate conflicts of the 16-bit generation into a linear narrative, complete with protagonists and antagonists.

Kalinske serves as the book's main protagonist, partially by default due to Nintendo's introversion; mostly because telling the story from his point of view sets up a compelling David vs. Goliath story.

It's certainly thrilling to read about how Kalinske took the American branch of an obscure Japanese company unworthy of Nintendo's notice and inside of three years turned them into the undisputed king of the gaming hill.

What's even more interesting is what emerges when you read between the lines.


The Tragedy

Two things save Harris' book from reading like a Sega fanboy puff piece: a) the fact that this David actually failed to slay his Goliath because [Spoiler Alert!] Nintendo won the 16-bit generation, and b) the Shakespearean-caliber betrayals suffered by Kalinske's team and their initial sense of integrity.

Look, it's a cutthroat world out there. Even those of us with the highest ethical standards can stumble under the weight of fiscal responsibility to employees and shareholders.

Which is why the reader fully understands Sega's decision to hype up the Genesis' "blast processing", which didn't technically exist. Or Sony's firing of their entire US team despite the unprecedented success of the first PlayStation.

Actually, scratch that last one. Sony pulled a total dick move.

Not as bad as contributing to the death of Michael Jackson, but still...



Conclusion

Console Wars is a sometimes one-sided but always engrossing look behind the curtain at events that shaped an entire generation's childhood. If there's one lesson to take away from Sega's rapid rise and Icarus-like fall, it's a warning against the fate that too often befalls revolutionaries.

Today's rebel is tomorrow's oligarch, so beware of staking your success on a perpetual underdog image.

And before you admonish me to practice what I preach, don't worry. I plan to make the most of my short reign by skipping the "well-intentioned compromise" phase and going straight to "Caligula-style power madness".

Would Sega of America have made the transition from upstart to establishment without their parent company's fatal meddling? It's impossible to say.

What we do know is that the Big N revived an industry left moribund after the crash of '83, weathered Sega's assault to successfully reinvent their image, and beat two new challengers to regain their crown as the top name in gaming.

We also know that they're still obsessed with foisting dead-end gimmicks on their players, which is part of the reason why Nintendo's on the ropes right now. But if I were a gambling man, I wouldn't bet against them.

That's my two cents. For completeness' sake, here's author Blake J. Harris explaining the impetus of Console Wars.


5 comments:

  1. Sega's idiocy is what doomed them. They had it all and they wasted it. I'm not sure if the book goes on to explain the absolute mess that was the Sega Saturn, but let's just say that it was essentially the Playstation 1 at one point. They're very lucky they're still around.

    Nintendo had a habit of having developers run things. Satoru Iwata worked on Balloon Fight for the NES and Kirby's Dream Land, for instance.

    I was a big fan of the original console wars. Razorfist's video on them is very close to why. They were clearly goofing on each other and bringing out the best in what the other could do. Everyone won that console war.

    Then Sony came in and it just wasn't the same. They had good games, but their hardware has always been shoddy.

    As for Nintendo, they're set to unveil their next console soon to be released next year. I wouldn't count them out any time soon.

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    1. You've clearly done your homework. I highly recommend Console Wars to further your gaming education.

      A few related points to whet your appetite:

      "Sega's idiocy is what doomed them." To a large extent, true, with the vital caveat that it was SOJ's Father Knows Best meddling that cocked up the Saturn. much to SOA's frustration.

      -Kalinske did indeed approach Sony about a partnership to co-design Sega's 32-bit console, but Sega of Japan nixed the deal.

      -Even more heartbreaking, he next went to Silicon Graphics and cut a deal to put their RISC chips in the Saturn.

      That's right. The Saturn was almost a disc-based N64. But SOJ canned the deal yet again, claiming that CG's chips were "too big".

      -Kalinske made a last-ditch effort to save the Saturn by orchestrating a worldwide launch on September 2, 1995 (which would've been known as "Saturnday").

      Nakayama ordered him to launch the Saturn four months early at the first E3 in LA. With only 1/4 the number of finished consoles they needed on hand, SOA faced the no-win situation of choosing which retailers would get their orders and who'd get snubbed. Wal-Mart was among the pissed-off chains, and their later refusal to carry the Saturn was the last nail in the console's coffin.

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    2. I own a Saturn, and it really is such a miss. It is capable of some great looking and playing 2D games, but its 3D architecture is horrendous.

      PS1 3D games have aged pretty bad outside of a few games, but Saturn 3D games are a special flavor of ugly. Not to mention the games are near impossible to emulate fully which means a lot of good games are now lost in obscurity.

      The Dreamcast was actually a really good system. It did some things better than the PS2, and had solid hardware. Sega of America even gave it a great North American launch. But it was just too late at that point.

      Nintendo had some screw-ups, too. However, they also didn't have their Japanese division meddling with everything every step of the way. I'd like to think if Sega had worked together, they would still be releasing consoles and competing with Nintendo.

      But that era is over.

      Now we live in the AAA world of samey games and constantly closing companies. Bleh.

      Still, that new Zelda game looks cool, huh?

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    3. "Still, that new Zelda game looks cool"

      Absolutely. Not a fan of breakable weapons (which killed Silent Hill: Origins for me), but the gameplay footage shows promise.

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    4. "I own a Saturn"

      Same here. You speak the truth.

      "Nintendo had some screw-ups, too. However, they also didn't have their Japanese division meddling with everything every step of the way."

      *cough* Virtual Boy

      You've gotta respect the Big N's grace under fire, though.

      A great story from the book: Arakawa sends Bill White to a pre-screening of the Super Mario Bros. film and asks him how it was.

      White is understandably nervous, but he mans up and tells his boss how it is--awful.

      Arakawa thinks for a minute and asks if they should kill the picture. White answers that buying out the distribution rights just to shelve the movie will be money down the drain, whereas releasing the thing will at least recoup some of their costs. Besides, it'll be out of theaters so fast that nobody will remember it in a few months. Still, it's Mr. A's call.

      Very few CEOs would let reason trump pride in a situation like that. But Arakawa grasped the fuzzy end of the lollipop and made the fiscally sound call. The film got released, and the rest happened pretty much as White predicted.

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