Console Wars by Blake J. Harris

There was a time when Sony and Microsoft didn’t know the first thing about gaming. A time when the term home video game console was equivalent to the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). This was the time when Sega, one of the rivals, decided to break the status quo. If they had managed to keep their momentum perhaps the videogame industry would look very different to what it is today.

Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation
Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation book cover

The book from Blake J. Harris, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined a Generation, is based not just on publicly available materials like conference presentations, newspaper articles but also on more than 200 hundred personal interviews with key figures from the industry at the time. Such a key figure was Tom Kalinske who was recruited to be president and CEO of Sega of America in 1990. The book centers around his figure and his team’s efforts to overthrow Nintendo.

To be in the gaming industry in the early 90’s must have been a crazy rollercoaster ride. The market was growing at an ever faster speed and the user base exploded astronomically. For Sega, the key question was how to combine technology with clever marketing to fight from the underdog position. To better understand the differences just have a look at their mascots. Nintendo’s best-known character Luigi is a nice, jovial guy who is jumping around the Mushroom Kingdom to save Princess Peach. In contrast, Sonic the Hedgehog rushes through levels at a breathtaking speed and with an edgy attitude.

Sonic the Hedgehog
Sonic the Hedgehog

If it was only about the characters and the gaming experience these two companies had to offer the story wouldn’t be so interesting. But if you add into the mix the cultural differences between the Amercian and Japan parties on both sides. The problems of distribution, fighting for the shelves space at major retailers. Deciding which R&D project to support and which one to kill. Answering the question whether having the superior technology is enough to win the battle? As you can see there’s a lot of room for clever thinking – and a lot of chance for things to go south. How about pricing? Does printing brand new catalogs overnight just to announce a price drop a few hours earlier than Nintendo to steal their thunder sounds crazy? At Sega, this level of dedication was rather a rule than an exception.

The author of the book did a remarkable job of describing an era by telling the stories of the individuals who lived through it. Their happy, sad and sometimes bitter sweet moments, their professional victories and individual losses make the book very personal. What I really liked about their story is that no matter how many challenges they had to face still they managed to have fun in growing this niche market into a multi billion dollar industry while also shaping an entire generation.

Sega Genesis
Genesis a.k.a. Mega Drive: 16-bit home video game console from Sega

Nevertheless, Sega has faded away and today Nintendo is only the 3rd by market share on the console market. How did it happen? Well, it has a lot to do with the PlayStation and Steve Race’s “299$” speech. But did you know that Sony has originally planned to release a console with Sega? For more on that and for other interesting anecdotes I suggest to get hold of the book. Have I mentioned it’s more than 500 pages? Long but worth every page 🙂