Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation.
Blake J. Harris tells an epic tale in his best selling book ‘Console Wars.’
In 1990 Nintendo had a virtual monopoly on the video game industry. Sega, on the other hand, was a faltering arcade company with big aspirations and even bigger personalities. But that would all change with the arrival of Tom Kalinske, a man who knew nothing about video games and everything about fighting uphill battles. His unconventional tactics, combined with the blood, sweat and bold ideas of his renegade employees, transformed Sega and eventually led to a ruthless David-and-Goliath showdown with rival Nintendo.
Blake was kind enough to do an interview with us:
1. Console Wars has been well received. Can you tell us what was your inspiration for writing it?
BH: I grew up in the heyday of the Sega Nintendo battle. As a kid, I participated in the quote unquote, “console wars”. A big part of my social life was defined by playing Sega or Nintendo or Super Nintendo. Flash forward about 20 years or so, and in terms of the inspiration for the actual book, it was a couple of things, but really what set everything into motion was my brother got me a Sega Genesis for my birthday in 2010, December 2010. That really brought back a lot of memories of playing Genesis and Nintendo and what a big part of my life video games were when I was a kid. Back then, I didn’t feel like the term gamer existed, you were just a kid. If you wanted to have a social life, you played games.
Reigniting that passion, that part of my life, it made me very curious. My favorite books to read as an adult are behind the scenes business stories. Before I ever wrote Console Wars, I honestly just wanted to read a book like Console Wars. After a trip to the Barnes and Noble here in New York, of one of the big flagship stores on 86th Street, they had two floors and it didn’t have a single book on video games in the entire store. I found that a little bit shocking. That really got me interested in maybe writing something like this. Everything really crystallized for me after my first interview with Tom Kalinske when I realized that there was interesting pieces of information related to Sega but there was a great personal story. Within that story, there was a lot of other interesting personal stories and cultural stories.
2. How long did it take you to research the book?
BH: That took the longest part of all. All in all, I would say that the book took me about three years to write. The first two years were almost exclusively just research and interviews. The last year was mostly the actual writing of the book. I’m still researching it, doing interviews while I was writing it. It really took me two full years, for the most part, to get a really good handle on the story and make sure I was able to get all the information I needed to write it.
3. Can you tell us how Tom Kalinske got involved in the project?
BH: Sure. When I left that Barnes and Noble bookstore and started to think more seriously over the next few months about writing something like this, I guess I should mention that prior to Console Wars, I had never written a book. I had also never written an article. My background in writing was mostly that I was a want to be writer and a failed screen writer. It was hard, it was really hard at first for me, to get my foot in the door with anybody, let alone Tom Kalinske. [inaudible 00:04:07] interview anybody who worked at Sega or Nintendo during that time, they were understandably skeptical to speak with this guy who’s never published anything. Tom was not the first person I spoke with.
Eventually, after I started doing some interviews with lower level people and started to learn what there was out there, other stories, so that I could speak credibly about it, I noticed that the only time that I saw anything quoted from Tom was in an IGN piece about the history of Sega, that was a long form piece. I contacted the author I asked him if that was an original quote that he got from Tom, or if that was something that he had read somewhere.
He said that he had interviewed Tom, and I asked if there was any way he would introduce me, and he did. That was really great. I really deal a lot of credit to Tom for being willing to take the leap to speak with a guy with no credits and having read Console Wars, I’m sure it doesn’t shock you that Tom is willing to take risks on people that he sees some promise in, even if they don’t have the typical credentials. After that phone call, Tom and I hit it off and we spoke a lot over the next few years.
4. How excited were you to work with Tom?
BH: The whole project was kind of a dream come true. Unlike every other creative project I’ve worked on before, I’m used to going through periods where you love what you’re working on, you hate what you’re working on. Some days are good, some days are bad. With Console Wars, it will sound kind of cheesy, but I sincerely had fun working on it every day for those three years and a large part of that was because of the people that I was speaking with, and the people that I was writing about. Tom Kalinske is a huge part of it. Really, outside of my parents, he’s the adult who probably had the biggest impact on my childhood, based on everything he did with Mattel and [inaudible 00:06:22] Thompson and then with Sega. His influence made it really cool, and he’s also just an awesome guy to speak with.
Al Nielsen was probably the person I spoke to the second most. He’s an inspiring marketing guru guy. It was all surreal for me, and in a sense, I think that would work out well just because I didn’t necessarily realize how surreal or how unusual it was, because I had never really done anything like this. I didn’t really know what I got myself into. If I had known what a comprehensive project it was going to be, I maybe would have proceeded with a little more caution.
5. What is your overall assessment of Tom’s tenure at Sega from a business standpoint?
BH: I obviously think very highly of Tom, and … I would like to emphasize that a big part of the reason I feel that way is because of what those who worked under him had to say. That was really what sealed it for me. I think statistically or financially, it’s easy to see the impact that Tom had at Sega. Even if you were going to take a devil’s advocate argument, that Tom benefited from Sonic the Hedgehog, or he inherited talent there, if you look at the track record of his career, it’s pretty obvious that he has a knack for creating success out of nothing. He really does have that magic touch.
I interviewed over 200 people for the book, definitely at least 100 Sega employees, and almost every single one said that Tom was the best boss they ever worked for. That really means a lot to me, because I interview tons of people, and usually with successful leaders, there’s usually a polarizing aspect amongst the ranks. Some people think that they’re really incredible, some people think that they get too much credit. Tom had that great combination of actually being a good executive, and also a good leader. He really did inspire and seemed to bring out the best in other people. He’s become a role model of mine, and I think he’s an incredible business leader.
6. Were you a fan of the NES or Sega Genesis?
BH: That’s a good question. In the eight bit era, my brother and I, we had an eight bit NES, like one in three households in America. It wasn’t really a competition with Sega, it was either just a matter of you had it or you didn’t. Like all kids that loved the NES, my brother and I desperately wanted to get a Super Nintendo. I remember when we asked my father if we could get that for Hanukkah or Christmas and combine it with whatever birthdays we would need. Basically, this was the one thing that we really wanted.
helping us get something if we really wanted it, whether that was doing extra chores or working or waiting, saving up. Whatever the case, they just objected in principle to the Super Nintendo. That’s indicative of what was going on with Nintendo at that time, in the sense that a lot of parents who were the gatekeepers to these purchases, were upset that Nintendo, that the Super Nintendo, wasn’t backwardly compatible. They felt like they had spent all this money on the NES and the cartridges and it felt like, to them, a cash grab by Nintendo. Whether that’s right or wrong, I think the fact that this keeps happening generation after generation, maybe show that Nintendo had reasons for not making it backwardly compatible, and focusing on the new generation.
As an adult, when I reflected on that, I basically realized, “Wow, because of this business decision that somebody or somebody has made in a boardroom somewhere, I no longer was a Nintendo kid.” My parents ended up helping my brother, and I get a Sega Genesis
. It really did change my childhood because of this business decision. I was definitely on King Sega during the console wars described in the book, but not because I initially wanted to be, but because my parents would not let us get a Super Nintendo.
7. Do you still actively play video games? If so, which games do you play now?
BH: I did not actively play video games very much when my brother got me that Genesis five, or whatever that was, six years ago. Playing that did get me more excited and also writing the book, and starting to get … Follow the video game industry more. Even though I definitely play more frequently now, I’m still pretty old school with my gaming. The things that I play the most, it’s usually platformers and I still love all the Mario titles. The thing I play the most these days, because I’m working on a new book, so I haven’t had that much time, but I still play Smash Brothers on the Wii U or Mario Kart, is what I’ve been playing.
8. If you could only own one Sega Genesis game to pass down to future generations, which one would it be?
BH: My favorite game, the game I like to play over and over the most for the Sega Genesis is NHL ’94. I’m not even the world’s biggest hockey fan, but I just think that game is pure poetry. I feel relaxed playing it. Probably one of the only video games out there that I’m actually good at.
9. Sony Pictures plans on making the book into a movie with Seth Rogen directing. Can you tell me a little bit more about the project?
BH: I can’t tell you any … I don’t have an update, though there will be one soon. That’s maybe a little disappointing, but I can tell you a bit about how the project came together, if you’d like. Going back in time, after my brother got me the Genesis, and after I connected with Tom Kalinske and started interviewing a bunch of people, I put together a 25 page treatment of what I envisioned the book could be, that was just like an outline that was more for my benefit than anybody else, just to see what the story was and how I was imagining it told. After I had that, I asked my screenwriting manager if he would send a copy to Seth Rogen’s company. I had met with Seth Rogen’s company before, though never with Seth. I met with a lower level person there.
He said, “Sure, let’s send it over there.” I did not have very high hopes that I would ever hear back from someone as successful as Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, his partner. They amazingly, it got to them and they really loved it. I went out to meet with them. We met for a couple of hours and then by the end of that day, they said that they wanted to be involved with producing a feature film, and also producing a documentary for me and my business partner, Jonah Tulis, to direct. That was probably the best day of my life, to date.
It was a life changing moment, and it was just great to chat with Seth and Evan. Even though Seth looks like he’s about 50 years old, he’s the exact same age as me, I think. We were both born the same year. Him and Evan, his writing partner, his business partner, that friendship was solidified over bonding with video games. They grew up on Sega, Nintendo, and N64 and playing James Bond, Goldeneye. There was a lot of common ground there.
They saw the value in the project like I did, that it was kind of a social network type story, but about video games, and that it was in the way that Social Network was about social media, and the most … One of the most important things for the millennial generation, that video games really were like that thing for us, that thing that was a convergence of entertainment and pop culture, and social interaction. They responded very well. They were very supportive from the beginning, before I ever had written anything. I’m really appreciative to them.
10. What are you working on now?
BH: I’m working on a new book about virtual reality, about the current wave of consumer virtual reality and basically the direction of the consumer VR industry, starting in 2012 with Oculus. The story focuses a lot on Paul Malecki and Oculus and building this industry from scratch and also, with some help and competition from Valve and HDC and Sony and now, a bunch of other big players. Again, it’s a behind the scenes business story that really focuses on characters. Like Console Wars, I hope that it is appealing to gamers and non-gamers alike. That will be coming out next summer, in the summer of 2018.
About Blake J. Harris:
Blake J. Harris is a writer and filmmaker based out of New York. He is currently co-directing the documentary based on his book, which is being produced by Scott Rudin, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg. He will also serve as an executive producer on Sony’s feature-film adaptation of Console Wars. For more information, visit his website or find him on Twitter @blakejharrisNYC
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