Console Wars: An Interview With Blake J. Harris

Console Wars

Console Wars, written by Blake J. Harris, is one of the most interesting pieces of non-fiction I have ever read.  The book tells the story of Nintendo and Sega and their fight for console supremacy during the 1990s.  However, Harris writes the book as though it were fiction, with characters and dialogue, not just facts and explaining what happened, where and when.  Using two years of research and over 200 interviews, Harris brings to life the uphill struggle Sega had to face when competing against reigning king Nintendo for dominance of the market, told using real life quotes from the past, memories cobbled together from his meetings with current and former employees, and his own witty, well-written discourse to fill in spaces that no one remembered or to condense a larger part of the history.

The book was a blast, especially for someone like me who grew up in the height of the time period and choose Nintendo as my console.  The vast majority of the book is from Sega’s point of view, following former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske and his ragtag crew, and even though I knew the outcome, I still wanted them to come out on top.  That’s the best part: I knew what happened, but there was so much information I didn’t know about that it felt like an entirely new experience on a story I thought I had cold.  Names and events that I was too young to really remember or even know about, fully detailed and insanely fun to read, are peppered throughout the experience.

I recently got a chance to talk to Blake via e-mail and asked him a few questions about the book and himself.  He was gracious enough to reply quite thoroughly.

First off, the book is fantastic.  Thanks for bringing my childhood back to life.  Every time I read about a commercial, the entire thing came rushing back into my head and it was glorious.  To begin, what is your background?  What do your parents do?  Did they formulate any of your interests?  Where are you from and what did you study in school?  Is being an author what you’ve always dreamed of doing?  What were you doing before writing this book?

Blake: Thanks, Drew! I’m honored to have been able to send you through a Potter-esque pensive and back into your childhood. I’m 32 years old so, like you, the drama between Sega and Nintendo provided the backbone of my childhood.

Speaking of which—since you asked about my background—I grew up in Chappaqua, NY (which is about an hour north of the city, and a now somewhat famous town because that’s where the Clintons moved after Bill’s presidency). Growing up, my father ran a textile company in the city, and my mother worked at The Gap in a nearby town. But since we’re about to discuss video games, and my writing of CONSOLE WARS, the key member of my family that I think about most during this era is my brother. He’s two years younger  which, back then, felt like two decades. As a result, I never wanted to do anything with him. Except for the lone exception: play video games. So many of my memories from this era include him and I often find myself answering questions about that era with the word “We.” And that, to a large degree, is where my interest in writing this book began. Not because video games are awesome (which they are), but because back then, video games were the social lubricant of our generation.

Anyway, back then I wanted to be many of the typical things that a kid wants to be when he grows up (fireman, superhero, professional baseball player etc) but it wasn’t until my last year in high school that I began to take a serious interest in reading and writing. And after falling in love with that passion, I knew by my first year of college (at Georgetown) that I wanted to be a professional writer. Unfortunately, though, I had no idea how to go about making a living at that and so I wound up spending my first seven years out of college working for a financial brokerage where I traded commodities for Brazilian clients. I was writing all that time, of course (and one of the things I loved about the job was that the market closed at 2:30), but Console Wars was definitely my big break and has truly been a dream come true for me. I mean, I get to wear shorts every day and make up stories. Best job ever.

Blake J. Harris

Author Blake J. Harris

Exactly how much time and research did you put into this before the writing began and how did the idea come to you?  Were there any people who turned down interviews or wouldn’t talk about specific things you asked about?

Blake: All in all, I spent about three years on the book. The first two years were almost exclusively dedicated to research (though I did outline my thoughts and write some sample chapters for the book proposal), and then the last year was mostly focused on writing the actual book.

The idea to write Console Wars came to me because, quite honestly, I wanted to read the book. But after visiting a Barnes & Noble in the city, I was shocked that not only did no such book exist, but also that there were so few books about the history or business of video games. Especially books oriented towards a mainstream audience, which was part of the reason that I wrote Console Wars in a manner I felt would be accessible for both gamers and non-gamers alike.

In the course of my research, I wound up interviewing over 200 people so there were absolutely many ups and downs to that process. Since I did not have any prior writing credits, it was hard at first to get folks to speak with me, but I managed to prove myself and, in the end, get almost all of the interviews I wanted. More important than just asking questions, however, was building relationships with these people. Since I wanted the book to be character-driven and as much about ideas and personalities as about consoles and cartridges, this was vital to me. And having such a long time to work on the project really helped me out.

What was your favorite chapter to write?

Blake: Great question, but too hard to answer. I love just about every chapter equally (they’re my babies, after all!) and I think that my approach to writing chapters—essentially to craft chapters that I believe could serve as stand-alone short stories—makes it hard for me to set one above the rest. But I will tell you the one I’ve been thinking about the most. It’s Chapter 31: “Too Hot, Too Cold and Just Right,” which chronicles the behind-the-scenes process of Sega choosing an ad agency and crafting their famous Welcome to the Next Level campaign. Not only did I love learning about how everything came together, but it really makes you think about what-could-have-been and how amazing (and unlikely) it is to catch lightening in a bottle.

The way the dialogue was written really struck me.  It felt like you found a real knack for having a good line between interesting yet mundane, like how real people speak.  Saying things that aren’t really that funny, but to the people you’re with and the way it’s said, it’s hilarious.  Did you take any kind of approach to this?  Also, other than dialogue that you could find on video tape, your author’s note mentions things being “altered, reconstructed or imagined.”  How much dialogue was taken, verbatim, from people you interviewed, if any? 

Blake: 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. And to accomplish, I relied on things like dialogue, internal thought and various forms of scene-setting.

Don’t get me wrong, this is a non-fiction book through and through—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.

In terms of approach, it was basically to first figure out which “scenes” I would use to tell the story and then evaluate from there. In cases where characters remembered exact bits of dialogue, I would use those words verbatim. But in cases where they simply remembered the gist (which was frequent given how long ago this all took place) I would take a crack at recreating the scene and then, in most cases, share the material with the subjects themselves for evaluation. In the end, I’m extremely pleased with how this worked out and, in retrospect, am glad that the project took as long as it did because it gave me the opportunity to know these people better and become familiar with how they talk.

I’ve heard a lot of talk about the film version of this with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg in the writers’ seats, as well as a documentary of sorts.  As an amateur filmmaker myself, this is really, really exciting.  Also, really annoying that I don’t get to do it.  How far along are they?  Do you have any creative control or get to help in any kind of way?  Who would you want cast in certain roles, like Kalinske? 

Blake: The plan is to finish the documentary first and then dive into the feature film. At the moment, the documentary (on which I am a co-director) is towards the final stages of post-production, so hopefully we’ll be able to finish that up in the near future. And after that, onto the feature film (on which I’ll be serving as an executive producer). How much creative control will I have? It’s too early to say, but the whole reason I wanted to work with Seth and Evan (and Scott Rudin as well, who is producing) is because I want them to have the creative control. They’re the experts—responsible for many of my favorite movies over the past few years. As for casting, it’s obviously too early to really think about that as well. But I will say that when writing the book, sometimes Tom would be played by Aaron Eckhart!

Tom Kalinske and Knuckles circa 1994.

Tom Kalinske and Knuckles circa 1994.

When the book was released, I’m sure there were some hate comments.  I know how it feels to work so hard on something, put it on the internet for the world to see, and people just shit on it.  What were some of the worst ones?  Did you ignore them or try to converse? 

Blake: Ha! Yeah, being told that I suck at writing is not one of my favorite pastimes. And the first few times it happened, I will admit to feeling a bit beat up by some of the comments. I mean, logically I had expected that some percentage of readers wouldn’t like my work, but when it actually happens (especially for the first time) there is a gap between how you feel and how you’d like to feel. But I think what enabled me to bounce back so quickly from any negativity was a simple question: if I had the chance to re-write parts of the book, what exactly would I do differently? And my answer to that was just about nothing, so there wasn’t really a point in getting bogged down by criticisms. The other big thing that enabled me to shrug off any dislike for Console Wars, was that the subjects themselves loved the book and were incredibly supportive. So when folks like Tom Kalinske, Al Nilsen and dozens of others are telling me how perfectly I captured the story, it’s pretty hard to take seriously reactions like these…

AV Clubs's review by John Teti

AV Clubs’s review by John Teti

The Telegraph's review by Tim Martin

The Telegraph’s review by Tim Martin

The sections on finding a name for Tales or Jimbo Matison screaming “Sega!” are a true joy to read.  It’s these little parts that I feel might get lost in a film that has to be compressed to a two hour time limit.  Are you worried about all these smaller, interesting and historic little pieces of the battle being lost in the larger picture? 

Blake: Worried isn’t the right word because, as your question alludes to, this is pretty much an inevitability. But the truth is that not even the book—at 550+ pages—is the “whole story” and that’s because there really is no such thing. There were tons of people who helped make Sega, Nintendo and Sony successful who aren’t mentioned in the book and even with those that are, it’s still only the tip of the iceberg. So it all really comes down to setting the scope of your story and then finding the right narrative to navigate that tale.

Did you have a system of choice in those times of fierce competition?  Did that make it hard to write objectively or not to make one side seem more “good” than the other?  What were some of your favorite games? 

Blake: Growing up, my brother and I had an 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System that we absolutely loved. So, naturally, come 1991 we wanted a Super Nintendo. Unfortunately, however, our father refused to get one for us because, like many parents around this time, he didn’t like that the new system didn’t play old games. So basically, due to the lack of backward compatibility, we weren’t allowed to get an SNES and ended up with a Sega Genesis. That, in a way, is what propelled me to write this book; recognizing that a business decision is ultimately what influenced me and my brother to end up on Team Sega.

We loved our Genesis, in particular the sports games—Joe Montana Football, NBA Jam, NHL ’94, etc.—but I also really liked the SNES and when I was 18 I bought a used one to fulfilled the lost dreams of the childhood version of myself. So while I was certainly fought for Sega on the school yards as a kid, I certainly had a great respect for both companies by the time I wrote the book.

That said, I’m pretty sure my personal gaming habits had little bearing when it came to objectivity. At least I hope that was the case! But maybe that doesn’t even matter because the thing about Console Wars is that it doesn’t necessarily aim to tell an objective version of the truth. And that’s because the Sega employees saw this battle one way while the Nintendo guys saw it another (and Sony, too, had a very different perspective). To me, the truth is the synthesis of all these perspectives and that’s what I think makes the story great. To put it another way: when I wrote the Sega sections, I despised Nintendo; and when I wrote from Nintendo’s perspective, I hated Sega and their flashy usurping ways.

"Blast Processing" at its finest.

“Blast Processing” at its finest.

Do you still play games now?  Console of choice?  Some favorite games of the last couple years?

Blake: I actually didn’t play games at all, really, until I started researching this book. That rekindled my passion for games and got me back into the mix. In particular, it was a PlayStation 3 that reignited my interest in gaming. But as much as I love the PS3, I’m an old school gamer at heart. So my console of choice nowadays is the Wii U and I think just about every first-party game they release is outstanding. It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? Even after 30+ years, Nintendo still manages to deliver a consistently high threshold of fun with their games. Hats off to them.

What’s next for you?  I read about the internet musical, how far along is that?  Any other pet projects you’d like to see happen? 

Blake: Yup, I wrote a musical about the Internet with my former high school English Teacher (Frank Ceruzzi) that premiered at last summer’s New York Musical Theater Festival. I’m also working on a documentary with Jonah Tulis (who’s co-directing the Console Wars doc with me) about Ralph Baer, the man who invented video games back in the late 60’s. And last but not least, I’m getting started on a couple new book projects.

One last thing I’d like to say before signing off here is this: Thank You. Thank you for taking the time to read Console Wars, thank you for reaching out to me so that I can share my experience, and thank you for caring so much about the content you consume (be it books, games or movies) that you are willing to spend the time and energy to get your opinion out there.

What an awesome guy.  My deepest thanks to Blake for taking the time to answer my long winded and convoluted questions.  When casting for the film comes up, don’t hesitate to call me.  I’m entirely serious.  Console Wars is available right now at any local bookstore-place-area, or you can order it right here.  It’s on Audible, too!  A worthy addition to any bookshelf.

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