“Console Wars”, or its robust full title “Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation”, documents the fourth generation of video game consoles through the eyes of Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske, with occasional perspectives provided by Nintendo of America’s Senior Vice President Howard Lincoln and Sony’s Olaf Olafsson.
The book starts in 1990, after the home console crash of the early 80’s and subsequent revival by Nintendo with the Famicom/NES in the late 80’s. The book’s main plot follows how Kalinske took the then unknown Sega from a 5% market share to 55% of the home console market through marketing the Genesis as an edgy, more adult video game console in-contrast to Nintendo’s family friendly image. The book ends naturally as Kalinske steps down as the CEO for Sega of America shortly after the launch of the Sega Saturn.
“Console Wars” covers famous game industry moments: the launch of the Super NES, the creation of Sonic the Hedgehog, Sega’s “Welcome to the Next Level” marketing campaign, development and abandonment of the mythical Super NES CD-ROM, the infamous Nintendo press conference where Nintendo backstabbed Sony by announcing an ill-fated partnership with Phillips, the launch of Mortal Kombat and Sonic 2, the launch of the Sega CD and it’s controversial title Night Trap, the subsequent 1993 congressional hearings on video games ratings, the transition from CES to the creation of E3, Nintendo’s development of the graphically groundbreaking Donkey Kong Country, the forgetful launch of the Sega 32X, the pivot by Sony from looking for partnerships with Nintendo and Sega to developing their own console and finally the downfall of Sega with the launch of the poorly received Sega Saturn.
Why You Should Read It
“Console Wars” gives a great glimpse into the history of the game industry written from the perspective of the players who were there.
The book is first and foremost a product marketing book. From an educational standpoint, it provides a great insight to the chaotic nature of product marketing back in the 90’s and gives readers a look into how, almost purely through marketing, a failing brand was able to capture the majority share of a market. Although magazine and television ads are no longer the main avenue for brand management today, the overall sentiment and strategy Kalinske and team deployed remains effective.
Also, the book gives insight in how multi-national corporations think and why they make the decisions they make. The corporate cultural difference between Nintendo of America and Sega of America couldn’t be more stark. Nintendo believes in something more than profits, shying away from violence and aggressive marketing, while Sega has a hunger to prove itself and succeed at all cost. The other culture clash is between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. The book paints Sega of America as the reason for the Genesis’ success and Sega of Japan as the reason for Sega’s downfall. Releasing the Sega CD and 32X too soon after the Genesis and refusing to partner with Sony on the Saturn, allowing the Playstation to dominate the fifth console generation, are all blamed on Sega of Japan’s CEO Hayao Nakayama.
Finally, I believe in the value of studying the game industry’s history to help guide its future. Understanding how and why the video game industry has arrived at this point in time is critical to avoiding similar missteps both Sega and Nintendo made in the future. I honestly wish there was a “Console Wars” written for each home console generation; I would read them all.
Why You Shouldn’t Read It
“Console Wars” is long. Well, it’s only 558 but it feels longer. Some parts drag out or come-off as completely unnecessary. The book focuses on too many members of Sega of America, which in turn leads of a lot of introduction and departures, bloating the size of the book.
Also, a lot of criticism towards the book is at its dialog. Harris isn’t quite Michael Lewis, but I think the critics were a bit harsh on his dialog. If gripping dialog is required for you to enjoy a book on the video game industry, then maybe skip this one.
The book is written under the assumption that the reader both lived through and can remember famous commercials or marketing campaigns during that era of video game history. I had to YouTube some commercials to really understand what the book was talking about. I can imagine readers born from the mid-90’s onward may be lost or not fully understand the significant of certain events or products mentioned in the book.
Finally, the view is from the top executives at these major companies (Sega, Nintendo, Sony). The book is about product marketing, executive leadership and navigating corporate politics and just happens to take place within the game industry. There are no insights from Yuji Naka, Tim and Chris Stamper or Shigeru Miyamoto on game development or design.
“Console Wars” is a must read for anyone who is working the video game industry. Our industry have very few books that give this level of detail for a 5-6 year span of the industry. I felt both professionally and personally satisfied at the end, having both grew up during the years covered in the book and now worked as a design, programmer and product manager at both studios and publishers.