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Console Wars Book Review

console-wars-book

On Sundays I enjoy blogging about the history of technology. As my 8th entry, here is my review of the book Console Wars by Blake J. Harris.


I grew up a Sega kid. Not only did I have a Sega Genesis but I also had a Master System, Sega CD, Saturn and well… pretty much everything besides the infamous 32x. Heck, I even won a free vacation for winning a Sonic 3 competition. Most of my friends growing up had Nintendo and Super Nintendo so I got a chance to play the best stuff from both companies. I liked both Sega and Nintendo but when it came down to it I stuck with Sega.

For people who grew up gamers in the 80s and 90s, and especially fans of Sega, then Console Wars (2014, Blake J. Harris) is for you. Console Wars covers the epic battle between Sega of America and Nintendo of America during the 16-bit console era. This book doesn’t cover the details of game development but rather provides an inside look at the American operations of both firms.

Console Wars starts off on the wrong foot with the laziest, stupidest foreword of all time by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. The duo is working on a movie adaptation of the book which hopefully involves a bit more effort. Thankfully, following the foreword the rest of the book is fantastic.

tom-kalinske

Tom Kalinske - Alan Levenson/Time Life Pictures, via Getty Images

Right away we are introduced to the main protagonist, Tom Kalinske. Kalinske is one of the most interesting figures in American business history, having been responsible for defending Flintstones chewable vitamins in front of Congress, the revival of Barbie and Hot Wheels at Mattel, launching the He-Man series and more recently CEO of children’s educational company Leapfrog. If you are a marketing professional then Kalinske should be on your list of heroes. The book mostly chronicles Kalinske’s perspective as a video game industry outsider asked to come in as CEO of Sega of America from 1990 through 1996.

Back in college I remember reading boring business case studies and I always thought the Sega Genesis marketing strategy should be a required reading. If nothing else, this book goes into amazing detail on every facet of Sega of America’s incredible marketing job spearheaded by Kalinske, Al Nilsen and other Sega executives from 1991-1994. In a few short years, Sega’s American home console market share went from 5% to 50%, even slightly edging out Nintendo for a brief period of time. Considering Sega had about 10% of the marketing budget of Nintendo and little name recognition it was an incredible accomplishment. Many of us remember “Genesis Does What Nintendon’t”, the Sega Scream and “blast processing” but the more in depth details covered in this book are particularly fascinating. For example, I had no idea that Sonic 2uesday (the release date of Sonic 2) was the first global launch of a game in history. I particularly liked the details covering the national Sega Genesis promotional mall tour since I remember playing Sonic for the first time at Raceway Mall tour stop. I ended up getting a Genesis soon after so it worked for me.

Here’s a look at how Sega’s commercials evolved throughout the 16-bit era, featuring ads from 1989, 1991 and 1993:

As you would expect, Nintendo is covered in detail as well. Nintendo is portrayed as the rich, arrogant but wholesome antagonist to the scrappy, crass Sega. One of the more interesting angles that the book dives into is Nintendo’s successful but albeit questionable business practices. It’s been known that Nintendo had underhanded business practices in the NES era (such as the exclusivity contract that prevented third party publishers from also releasing games on rival platforms) but the book really drives home the point of how poorly Nintendo treated all of its business partners and the rest of the industry. From retailers to third parties to gaming magazines to parts suppliers, Nintendo’s business practices opened the door for Sega to come in and gain support from everyone that was tired of Nintendo’s antics. When Sega stumbled in the 32-bit era, Sony came in to take their place as the favored console maker partner.

It took Nintendo a few years but they finally responded to Sega’s aggressive advertising techniques. Here is an example from 1993 promoting the game Donkey Kong Country:

As we now know, Sega’s rise was short lived and they soon fell from grace and eventually out of the home console business entirely. Console Wars covers that in detail as well and displays how quickly jealously and egos can destroy even the most talent rich and successful organizations. Between the fall of their console business and the decline of the arcade industry in general Sega never really had a chance to recover and was acquired by Japanese Pachinko maker Sammy years later. A further reminder of how times have changed happened this week as Sega Sammy announced that they are laying off 300 workers and closing their San Francisco office. Nintendo has faired much better, having had great success with their Wii home console and Nintendo DS portable. More recently though, Nintendo has started to struggle in both their home and portable console markets and seems to be at their own personal crossroads as a business. It will be interesting to see how they respond in the coming years.

Here are some additional tidbits of the book that I found particularly fascinating:

  • Sega turned down both Sony and Silicon Graphics as part of their 32-bit console partner development process. Sega of America attempted to set up both relationships and was turned down both times by Sega of Japan in favor of Japanese chipmaker Hitachi. The Sega Saturn was crippled by a confusing architecture and high price thanks to it’s Hitachi architecture and allowed Sony to come in and take over the industry with their Playstation. I always thought the 32x was the biggest mistake Sega ever made but now I think they could have recovered if either their Sony or Silicon Graphics partnership were allowed to go through.
  • Yuji Naka (lead programmer and later producer of the Sonic series) actually quit Sega after Sonic 1 and was only brought over to the US to work on Sonic 2 after the fact. According to the book he was being paid a paltry $30,000. I could possibly understand if Sonic was his first game but he had already proven himself as an incredible talent having worked on Phantasy Star and several other successful games. Sega executives also complained that it took the Sonic 2 development team fourteen months instead of the usual ten to create the game. It’s amazing how much times have changed as some games now take up to five years to complete!
  • The story of how Donkey Kong Country was funded is truly amazing. I won’t spoil the details so read the book.
  • In general I love the insider stories detailing the hatred between Sega and Nintendo executives. Whether it’s in-person confrontations, confrontational phone calls or nasty letters I get the warm and fuzzies inside just thinking about it. In the end though it was nice to read that Nintendo of America’s Howard Lincoln wrote Tom Kalinske a nice send off letter when Kalinske left Sega.

Console Wars is a great read and I highly recommend it.