Exclusive! Console Wars Author Blake J. Harris Interview

by Harold Goldberg

SIGNIFICANTLY UPDATED: MAY 13, 2014

May 13 will likely be lucky for author and filmmaker Blake J. Harris. That particular Tuesday is the day Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that Defined A Generation (It Books), his well-researched and compelling narrative history of Sega, Nintendo and Sony’s battles, will be released. I met the affable Harris a few years ago – shortly after All Your Base Are Belong to Us, my own narrative history of games, hit the shelves.

We hit it off immediately. Harris has many fascinating stories to tell, of his collaboration with Seth Rogen and Scott Rudin for the tome’s film version, of the geniuses of videogames, and of the writing process itself. Part One appears today. Part Two will appear on the book’s release date.

Also, Harris will read and answer questions from Console Wars at the Astoria Book Shop on May 15 at 7 p.m. If you get there early, you can play old school games with the author.

Now, on to the interview.

1) What compelled you to write a book on the Console Wars?

My journey down the 16-bit rabbit hole was as unexpected as it proved
to be delightful.

A little over three years ago, my typically terrible-gift-giving
brother surprised me on my 28th birthday with the perfect gift: a Sega
Genesis, which is what we had when we were kids. Holding that
controller in my hands after so years away from videogames brought to
the surface all kinds of memories and then, after the barrage of that
nostalgia hit me, came all kinds of questions. What ever happened to
Sega? How were they even able to compete against Nintendo in the first
place? And ultimately: what the hell was going on behind the scenes
all that time?

To answer these questions and all the others that kept bubbling up I
wanted to read a book on the subject. But, as luck would have it, no
such book existed. Not only did no such book exist, but I quickly
learned that for an industry as gigantic as videogames there was an
alarmingly small number of books about this wonderfully wild world.

Well, after reviewing my old college econ notes on supply and demand,
I began contacting former of employees from Sega and Nintendo to find
out if there was an interesting story here; something exciting and
dramatic with twists and turns that would appeal to gamers and
non-gamers alike. Needless to say, what I soon discovered exceeded
even my wildest expectations.

2) What do we need to know about Tom Kalinske, who’s kind of the
protagonist of Console Wars?

The most important thing to know about Tom Kalinske is that he’s the
man responsible for the childhood of anyone born in the 70s or 80s.
From Barbie and He-Man to Flintstones Chewable Vitamins and Matchbox
cars, his ability to turn unusual ideas into iconic properties is
second to none. And in 1990, when Nintendo had over 90% of the market,
that made him the perfect guy (and perhaps the only guy) capable of
transforming Sega from an industry punchline into a
generation-defining market leader.

3) What did he do right and what did he do wrong?

He did a ton of things of right. Some that many of us might remember
(like launching the famous Sega-Scream-infused Welcome to the Next
Level campaign), some that many of us never knew about (like
brilliantly and unexpectedly getting the Genesis into Wal-mart) and
some that none of us will ever know or fully understand (like how he
convinced a team of rebels that they truly had the golden touch).

What did he do wrong? Like any CEO, a variety of mistakes were made
along the one. Perhaps the most notable (and perhaps inevitably
unavoidable) was to focus on beating Nintendo (and then Sony) when a
more crafty enemy was lurking much closer than he realized.

4) Were the ways Sega, Nintendo and Sony dealt with each other really
war-like? Can you give an example of how?

Since I have never personally been involved a physical war, I feel
that I should defer to someone who has: Paul Rioux, who served as Sega
of America’s executive vice president after previously serving in
Vietnam. When asked a similar question, he answered “Whenever you’re
at war, like any fight you’re in, you always hit the guy in the mouth
as hard as you can with the first punch. And if you can’t hit ‘em
hard, you might as well not even fight, right? That’s the attitude in
real war and that’s the attitude in business. You gotta be prepared to
take on the competition and win.”

To me, that statement does a great job of summing up Sega’s mentality
during this era. They didn’t go after Nintendo until they were ready
to dethrone the king of videogames and when they finally did, they
left nothing on the table. Nintendo, for their part, had a very
different fighting style. Part of that was due to the company’s unique
corporate DNA and another part was due to the different kinds of
advantages and disadvantages that come with being a market leader.

Sony is a whole other story, and one that made this tale especially intriguing.

5) What games from the era were you drawn to, and why?

From the moment I saw Super Mario Bros. 3 appear in The Wizard, I was
absolutely smitten. I love that game, and I love how whenever I play
any Mario game I instantly feel like an happy-go-lucky explorer,
foraging through frontiers of 8-bit, 16-bit, 64 and beyond.

I also really loved Bubble Bobble because there was something magic
about that game that turned my brother and I from strangers into best
friends.

After burning through our NES, we got a Sega Genesis and would rush
home after school to play the systems’ incredible sports games like
Joe Montana Football, NBA Jam and, best of all, NHL ’94.

6) How did Seth Rogen become involved in the project?

The credit for involving Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg belongs to
Julian Rosenberg (my literary manager), who packaged every aspect of
this project (book, documentary and film) from start to finish. After
getting an early overview of the project to Seth, Evan and James
Weaver (the other principal producer at Point Grey Pictures), myself
and Jonah Tulis (who is co-directing the documentary) flew out to LA
and we spent a couple of hours talking about hedgehogs, plumbers and
power gloves. Needless to say, we hit it off and decided to work
together. I can’t speak for them, but for me it was a dream come true.

7) What surprised you most about the people you interviewed?

The biggest surprise was a very pleasant one: that almost every single
person I interviewed from both Sega and Nintendo considered this to be
one of the best times in their lives. My biggest fear going in was
that I’d learn that working at a videogame company was hardly fun and
games; that it was just a job like any other. Happily, this was not at
all the case, and it made going down memory lane with my interview
subjects a generally fun experience for both them and I.

8) For me, it was Sam Houser at Rockstar Games for two chapters. But
what was the hardest interview for you to procure and why?

My great white whale was Howard Lincoln, Nintendo’s former Chairman
and the currently CEO of the Seattle Mariners. Given his
responsibilities as the head of a major league baseball team (one that
happened to be owned by the same man who owned Nintendo), it was
incredibly difficult to get him to speak with me about things that
happened long ago. Luckily, however, after over two years spent trying
to pick his brain, he graciously invited me to speak with him in the
owner’s box at Safeco Field. So there was a lot of effort on my end to
speak with him about this golden era, but it was absolutely worth it
because the tale would have been terribly incomplete without seeing
the story through his eyes.

9) During the writing process, what surprised you about yourself?

Nothing surprised me more than how much I enjoyed and learned to excel
at interviewing people. I’m an introverted person by nature, so I was
very anxious about the prospect of interviewing a large number of
people. So anxious in fact that at first I fantasized about doing all
the interviews by e-mail. But after my first interview for the
project, which was with Tom Kalinske, I realized how ridiculous that
plan would have been. During my conversation with Tom, I learned as
much about him through his tone of voice as I did from the things he
said. He’s a great storyteller and incredibly kind person, so he
quickly put me at ease, and that helped me develop the confidence to
go on and interview hundreds of people.

10) What was the most difficult part about writing the book?

The hardest part of writing CONSOLE WARS was putting the puzzle
together. After doing an enormous amount of research and interviewing
such a large number of people (and many of them multiple times), I
accumulated thousands upon thousands of pieces for this great puzzle.
This was a great thing, but it also meant that many of these pieces
wouldn’t actually wind up in the solved version of the puzzle. So the
process of differentiating what was “interesting” versus what was
“interesting and relevant to the narrative” was challenging. But it
was a great challenge to have, and one that taught me how to fit
pieces together in unlikely way.

UPDATED BELOW

11) You do this well, but can you explain how this is a “narrative
account,” as opposed journalism based precisely on the who, what,
where, when, why? Why was this the best way to tell the story?

As informative as it can be to provide the infamous “who, what, where
when, and why,” it can often be just as incomplete or misleading. So
much of life is a matter of context, which is why when it came to
writing CONSOLE WARS I decided that capturing the spirit of the times,
and the thoughts, feelings and motivations of these characters were
important to me as any fact.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a non-fiction book, so the facts
absolutely serve as the engine to the narrative, but instead of simply
reporting what happened, I set out to transport readers into the story
so they could not only watch it play out before their eyes, but also
feel what it was like to be in the room and surrounded by an
extraordinary cast of industry pioneers. In my opinion, to do any less
would have been a disservice to these incredible characters.

The other motivation for writing this way was my grandmother. Although
she doesn’t know the first thing about videogames, I wanted to write
this book in a way that would be appealing to her and others who don’t
necessary know much about this world. The key to that was by telling a
character-driven story full of Davids and Goliaths, innovators and
imitators and the inevitable drama that comes from trying to be the
best at anything. That’s a story anyone can fall for, and the secret
to pulling it off hinges on being right there with our heroes (and
villains).

12) As a filmmaker, what different and what’s similar about the
process of writing a book?

For me, the big difference between writing and filmmaking is the level
of control. Filmmaking is a collaborative experience, while writing is
an omnipotent one. A writer has the opportunity to control just about
every aspect of the storytelling experience, from what a reader sees
to what a reader knows and, ultimately, what that reader feels. In the
case of CONSOLE WARS, this was particularly valuable when trying to
weave together the rich history of these companies and individuals
with the actions and decisions playing out before the reader’s eyes.
Pulling this off in an entertaining and informative way can be
endlessly tricky, but seeing George R. R. Martin do it so masterfully
in Game of Thrones really opened my eyes and helped me a great deal.

13) I know that at one point, you were delivering a chapter when it
was done to Seth Rogen, so he could write a script. Can you tell me
more about that process? Do you feel that each chapter is kind of like
a scene in a movie?

The guys at Point Grey Pictures (Seth, Evan and James) could not have
possibly been better to work with. They were (and still are) always
enthusiastic, intelligent and know how to get the best out of those
around them. As I am grateful to those guys for seeing the promise of
this project so early on, I was happy to provide them with any
materials that they requested, or chapters I had already written.

As for the writing style itself, I do very much feel like each chapter
is a scene (or multiple scenes) in a movie. It was very important to
me from the beginning that this story had an in-the-moment feel, so
that readers felt like they were always there with our characters.
Whether that meant standing on the beach with Tom Kalinske as he’s
given the opportunity of a lifetime, or taking a walk with Peter Main
and his dog while fuming over Sega’s recent batch of commercials, I
wanted to make sure that I always gave readers something memorable to
play out before their eyes.

14) Console Wars has been optioned with Scott Rudin as producer and
Sony as distributor. Would the film be akin to The Social Network, the
movie about the rise of Facebook? How?

Since I won’t be writing or directing the feature film adaptation of
my book, I can’t really say whether or not it will be similar to The
Social Network. But I can say that the book that that movie was based
on (Ben Mezrich’s wonderful The Accidental Billionaires) was an
enormous influence on how I chose to tell the story. When it comes to
narrative non-fiction, Ben Mezrich is as good as it gets, and his work
challenged and inspired me to take a similar approach with the
battlefield between Sega and Nintendo.

15) Tell me about Scott Rudin, the producer. What kinds of questions
did he have for you? Or did he get the whole idea immediately?

With apologies to my father, Scott Rudin is quite simply the most
impressive man I’ve ever met. If you make a mental list of the best
movies you’ve seen over the past two decades, I can almost guarantee
you that there will be some Rudin-produced films on that list. The guy
just has an uncanny knack for identifying good stories and then
nurturing them into great ones. So for me, Scott’s interest in my book
alone was the greatest compliment I’d ever received as a writer.

In regards to our first meeting, by the time we got together he had
already read an early draft of my book proposal so he had a good grasp
about what this story was about. But he certainly had all sorts of
questions, particularly about the larger-than-life personalities that
populate this story and the wild west tactics that Sega and Nintendo
employed during this era. It was a treat for me to see this impressive
man’s mind at work, and a surreal feeling to realize that I actually
knew the answers to his questions.

16) Tell me about your editor at Harper. And what kind of specific
feedback did he give you?

As if working with Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Scott Rudin were not
already enough, I won life’s lottery again by having Mark Chait as my
editor.

When my agent Alex Glass went out with my book proposal, many
publishers responded with some variation of “interesting story, solid
writing; but videogame books don’t sell.” Mark Chait, however, saw the
promise in this book from the very beginning, and possessed an
infectious enthusiasm that would energize us both as we set out to run
this marathon together.

There were so many instances where Mark gave me the right note at just
the right time that I wouldn’t even know where to begin, but it’s
worth singling out how much he supported my decision to expand the
scope of this story, even though doing so made the book longer than we
had originally expected. I can only imagine the grim uh-oh look on his
face when he realized this was going to be a 500+ page book, but to
his absolute credit he always read my work with an open mind and that
gulp he must have felt with regards to length turned into nods of
encouragement that were vital to my telling the story as I believed it
deserved to be told.

17) You also have done or are doing a documentary on the console wars
in tandem with the book. Can you tell me more specifically about that
and why it was done? What’s the state of that project?

In addition to the book, I am currently co-directing a documentary on
the same subject with my longtime business partner Jonah Tulis, which
is being produced by Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg and Scott Rudin. There
were a lot of reasons why we believed it was important to do a
documentary as well, but two in particular jump out at me:

1. The unique inherent value of having the story told directly by
those who were there.
2. The opportunity to build a story with some of the
iconic media from this era, as well as all sorts of never-before-seen
photos, videos and assorted memorabilia that I accumulated in the
course of my research for the book.

We are currently in post-production with the documentary, and it’s
coming together great.

18) You’ve worked on another game-oriented documentary about Ralph
Baer, the lauded creator of the Magnavox Odyssey. I spoke to Ralph
when I did my book and think he’s a great guy. But what made you want
to document him (as there are a fair amount of video interviews and
documentaries about him)? What did you feel you could bring to fans
that others have not?

After spending a large amount of time investigating the evolution of
the videogame industry, it occurred to me how little I knew about the
creation of videogames. To learn more about the origins, I figured
there was no better person to speak with than the inventor himself:
Ralph Baer.

So Jonah Tulis (who is co-directing this with me as well) and I drove
up to New Hampshire and met with Ralph who, at the time, was 91 years
old. We were both immediately overwhelmed by his fascinating stories
about not only the creation of videogames but his earlier life
experiences growing up Jewish in Germany, fighting in World War II and
his years working as an engineer for a prominent defense contractor.
The man is a living legend, there’s no doubt about that, and we jumped
at the chance to tell a story about him that was more personal than
anything that has touched on him before.

19) Late in the book, Kalinske says to Michael Milken, “…in the
videogame industry nobody cares about history.” Why do you think
people will read your account of history?

I think that there’s a variety of personal reasons why people will
care about this history (nostalgia, the pop-cultural significance of
these products, or perhaps simply a love for videogames), but the
primary reason I think people will be drawn to CONSOLE WARS is because
the book never allows itself to become a history lesson. Although the
narrative is topped with rich histories, and sprinkled with intricate
backstories, the real sundae here is the compelling universal story.

20) And you have a new play about that’s being produced this summer.
What’s that about?

To my very pleasant surprise, I recently learned that WIKIMUSICAL, a
show I wrote with Frank Ceruzzi was accepted to participate in the
2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival and will be one of twenty shows
selected to have off-broadway performances this July.

Harold Goldberg, a contributor to the New York Times, is the founder of The New York Videogame Critics Circle.

BlakeHarris

ConsoelBook

 

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