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Blake Harris Looks Back on the 16 Bit Console Wars

Based on first-hand accounts, Console Wars's Blake Harris discusses the difference between Sega and Nintendo, whether Michael Jackson’s music is in Sonic 3, and the challenges of being a subsidiary to a Japanese gaming company.

Bryan Cashman, Blogger

December 8, 2016

14 Min Read

Few people know the secrets of the 16-bit console war like Blake Harris, author of 2014’s Console Wars.  If you haven’t read it, pick it up. Console Wars was awarded as a Book of the Year by NPR, Slate and Publisher’s Weekly.  Based on interviews of employees at Sega, Nintendo, Sony and elsewhere, the book documents the rise of the Sega Genesis and the struggles and successes of a number of gaming companies. 

Harris has plenty to say, and in this lost interview from after the book’s release, Harris talks in-depth about the personalities and challenges of gaming in this era.

We cover everything from the differences between Sega and Nintendo, whether Michael Jackson’s music is in Sonic 3, and the challenges of being a subsidiary to a Japanese gaming company.

And if you ever want to talk to a veteran video game maker yourself, please check out Callvention, a service I run that enables veteran game makers and fans to talk on the phone about game history. 

Marketing drives so much of what happens in this book.  The book even notes how Sonic & Knuckles was released to coincide with a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  How do you view marketing after your work with this book?

So much of the book is marketing and for me, going into writing this book I didn't have the highest opinion of it. That doesn't mean I had a very negative opinion, but I think that I, like a lot of people, assumed that, one, marketing was only there to sell me things and, two, I sort of just associated marketing with television ads, and I didn't really think that marketing includes everything that you're trying to tell about the story of your company and the story of its products.

And I think in the case of Sega they reached a point where it's almost transformative where it wasn't -- of course they were trying to sell you products -- but I think that the vision of what they were trying to accomplish with marketing did alter the product development in a positive way and changed the perception of what those consumers were buying.

But the really interesting thing for me was because the story, especially the beginning, is told more so from the perspective of Sega, and because Nintendo, as I'm sure you know, was a really tight-lipped company and it was really hard for me to gain access to the former employees there and the current employees there, I was hearing the story from the perspective of the Sega people for the first half of my research.  It was always the David and Goliath story with Sega sort of being the good guys and Nintendo being the bad guys and this dynamic. Then along the way I realized that I don't think there were any good guys or bad guys, and I think they were both equally admirable and it was really just a company with two different philosophies.

Sega's Happy Meal Promotion

How were Nintendo and Sega different?

Sega, to over-simplify, was marketing driven and Nintendo was product development driven. 

One of my favorite responses was from Bill White, who was Nintendo’s Director of Advertising and Promotions and did a lot of stuff in the early years of Nintendo and he was saying that he came from a consumer packaged goods background. And he basically said that his job pre-Nintendo was to sell one paper towel over another paper towel. He had to basically make his company’s paper towel seem sexier. He ran all kinds of focus groups to see, “Oh, they want quilted. Oh, they want it two inches longer.” And the marketing side of things drove the product development. And when he got to Nintendo he thought it would be similar. He thought he would do focus groups. “Okay, we want more sports games, we want more RPGs, we want games with female characters.” But [Minoru] Arakawa (founder of Nintendo of America), and I would assume also that people in Japan, basically said, “You can't forecast the future of creativity and you have to let the R&D team and game developers do what they want, and it's not marketing driven.” And there was something romantic and noble to that strategy, especially as a creative person myself, with Nintendo putting product development on a pedestal and really empowering the creative team and then basically using that to give to marketing.

“Here's what we've got. How do we market this?” is so different to Sega’s approach where they put so much into the marketing before the product even came out.  Whether it was Sonic or whether it was Tails later on, just idea of what's in a name and what would Tails' name be? They were so focused on the story behind their product and did releases of Sonic 3 and Sonic and Knuckles and this whole strategy to the extent that it complied with the Happy Meal and gave them the maximum exposure. And I think that to some extent in the end that really hurt Sega because they didn't have the products to support the story that they were trying to sell, but a lot of times that's the case with an underdog: you really have to have a shorter term strategy and I think that marketing is really one of the ways you can get your foot in the door from a short-term perspective, but unfortunately they were unable to sustain that.

Does that philosophy difference of Sega and Nintendo extend to their hardware releases? Saturn’s release was rushed.

We’re talking about kind of how Sega had the Saturn, this system that wasn't ready, and then you look at what did Nintendo do during this time? They had the N64 or Project Ultra, which should've come out at that time. It was supposed to come out 18 months earlier, however much earlier, but they kept delaying it and they took the heat at the time and the bad PR and the bad marketing stigma that came with that. But that's just who Nintendo was. They had this undying patience and a loyalty to their customer base, and you see Sega rush and come to market, which Tom Kalinske and others wanted to prevent.

But then you have Nintendo on the other side, with Howard Lincoln getting in front of people and saying, “Sorry guys, it's not ready yet, but we're going to wait until it's ready because that's what we do at Nintendo.” And to that point I've bought a lot of video game products over the years and I've never bought a Nintendo one that felt like it was rushed or unready or I didn't feel like I got my $50 worth. So it's pretty impressive.

Sega versus Pretendo!

Your book documents the stresses that Sega faced as they crowded their market with more and more pieces of hardware. 

Yeah, I mean, it was kind of a nightmare. One of the things I always remember Joe Miller (Sega of America’s SVP of Product Development) saying was there was a time where he was supporting eight systems at one time between the Pico, the Nomad, the Game Gear, and all that stuff and at some point you're going to be cheating the consumer in some way just because ideally they're buying all eight of these or even if they only own one you're just not going to be able to put your best foot forward eight different times. And looking back something that isn't fully explored in the book is that Sega of America, in some ways, was a case of expanding too quickly not just with products but also with personnel, and it was tough.

I think that that overexpansion would've worked itself out had their next generation system not been the Saturn or had it been more successful. I think that these things that maybe people think about now as huge flops like the Sega CD and 32X wouldn't be perceived that way because reading the literature at the time, looking at the sales results, I don't think the Sega CD was unsuccessful at all, especially at first, and the 32X was not as successful as they had hoped, but it wasn't like a huge, huge failure in a sense of like the E.T. Cartridge.

And I think that things like that would have seemed more like--almost like peripherals that either succeeded or failed and it would've added a depth to the roster of what Sega offered instead of just being these Achilles heels that somehow took down the company. But at the end of the day, why I think it's called Console Wars, not just the book, but the concept, is you need that flagship hardware system to support all of this. And for a lot of reasons, a lot of that being the dynamic between Japan and America, they weren't able to have that system and that ended up hurting all of these other hardware releases. A proper [flagship hardware release] would have glued down the house of cards that probably would've been able to sustain itself otherwise.

While Sega of America seemed to suffer as HQ in Japan took control, PlayStation in the US and Europe saw success from its launch by being able to approach their markets in their own way.  Why?

It's really hard to think now because the PlayStation is so successful, but speaking with Olaf Olafsson (founder of Sony Interactive Entertainment) and Steve Race, these guys that were there at the beginning, it was not supposed to succeed.  That was why I think they had so much autonomy, it was such a pipe dream and as it became--as the launch was so successful and as it became a bigger thing -- all those guys ended up getting fired or pushed out which I always found very interesting in terms of what we're talking about with autonomy. They lost it almost as soon as they were successful. But very early on the PlayStation was not supposed to succeed and it wasn't supposed to be as big as it was so I think that that's why there were big risks and they were able to take more chances and then that changed.

You may be the closest outsider we have who can confirm if Michael Jackson’s music is in Sonic the Hedgehog 3.  Care to share?

I worked on this for three years, so I developed very close rapport and relationships with the people at Sega, and at Nintendo as well, but that was always the one question they weren't really super open to talking about. So I assume that there were legal agreements signed when the relationship between Michael Jackson and Sega terminated for Sonic 3, but his music is definitely in the game.

I mean, I think to read between the lines it makes a lot of sense that Michael wanted to be involved. Sega was moving towards this bigger direction of multi-media and also trying to expand into the music space. Michael did have a close relationship with Sega during that time. The music--he did produce music for them before the relationship terminated -- and then with the molestation allegations it made sense why that relationship would end and why that wouldn't be part of the marketing story, but they still had the Michael Jackson quality music. So I would say it's definitely in the game.

You’ve talked to the best marketers of video games in the 90’s.  Do you have any guidance for independent game developers today and how they can approach marketing?

That's always the classic dilemma for the creative person. Speaking from my own personal experience, my goal in life is to be a writer and to tell good stories and I don't think anybody would fault me in that respect if I just wanted to bury my head in the sand and say, “You know, I wrote a book or I wrote a screenplay and that's it. Someone else figure out the rest.” But as somebody who loves his or her creations, if you want to give that creation the best chance to succeed you do need to be involved with the marketing. My lesson for that was with the book. I spent three years researching and writing this book and I could've just said, “Okay, it's done. It's already sold to Harper Collins, so let them handle everything and let the chips fall where they may,” but because those three years were, for me, almost like a crash course in business and getting my MBA from Sega and Nintendo, I saw the value in marketing.

I imagine that what drives [independent game developers], the passion behind what they do, is the idea of other people playing their work and enjoying it, and as the creator you should be involved in creating that dialogue with the gamer. Whether it's a Twitter account or a Facebook account to communicate directly with them and answer any questions or just finding those connectors out there who are going to help bring your game, if they like it, to others.

You really have to be involved with that and it shouldn't come at the expense of the quality of your product. So when you speak with game developers I don't think that maybe 18 months out or 6 months out that needs to be their top priority, but it should definitely be a priority and as you get to 3 months out or 1 month out, it should become more and more their top priority because you want it to live for as long as it can and as long as you think it deserves to be.

Much of what I learned with Sega and Nintendo was counter to what I assumed as a kid: “Oh yeah, the best games get to the best stores and there's the biggest shelf space and that's it.” But that's not how it goes and that's not because of back-room deals or anything like that. One person's taste is different another and it's really hard to have your voice heard and to get your game out there so you need to do everything in your power to make sure that you give it that voice, that platform, and distinguish it. Even if it's just a one sentence pitch of here's why my game is different.

How many people did you talk to for your book?

I interviewed at least 300 people, because when you're personally interested and curious about something just have to do it.  It got to the point where I was so in love with the story that if someone was like, “Oh I was a janitor in Nintendo for one week,” I would be like, “Yes, let's get on the phone. Let's talk.” And I say that because I even spoke with the Sega rep at Blockbuster, anyone I could.

On the back of the book I think it says I spoke with 200 people from Sega and Nintendo and that's definitely a fair estimate of Sega and Nintendo employees, but I spoke with everyone else I could, whether it was the people at analyst conferences or journalists who would cover that timeframe. I uncovered so many archival documents during this time and any time I saw a writer's name I'd always contact them and say, “I saw you were covering that story that time. Do you have any stories? Do you have any suggestions, any contacts?”

And so I just really wanted to make sure that even if I didn't mention every name that was involved, every game, or every decision or ever marketing strategy, that you got the sense that there were so many people involved.

It was just important to understand that while Tom Kalinske is the head at Sega of America and Howard Lincoln and Minoru Akawa and Peter Main ran Nintendo, the people that drove the business were people under them and there were so many gears to this machine. I just wanted to make sure to get that aspect across. It would've been easy to over simply that.

For more stories on video game history, and to make a phone call directly with a veteran game maker, please visit Callvention.  Blake Harris is currently writing a book on VR.  When not writing, he conducts oral histories and interviews for Paul Scheer's HOW DID THIS GET MADE PODCAST, most recently with a special episode with Brian Taylor.  Console Wars is also being adapted into a documentary and a film, produced by Scott Rudin, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.

Bryan Cashman is currently president of Callvention, connecting fans with the people behind their favorite video games. Bryan is a sixteen year video game veteran with games experience in corporate consulting, incubators and investor research. 

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