Interview: The Trouble With The TurboGrafx-16
Posted by Damien McFerran
We speak to former TTI Vice President and General Manager about the PC Engine's ill-fated trip to the US
The NEC PC Engine turned 25 this week, and to celebrate the life of this remarkable system we've already taken a comprehensive look at its history. If that didn't satisfy your hunger for NEC-related knowledge, then allow us to offer up this interview with Ken Wirt, who served as Vice President and General Manager of the TurboGrafx-16 (the US name for the PC Engine) Group at NEC Home Electronics from 1989 to 1991, and was responsible for many of the decisions made in regards to releasing the system in America.
Nintendo Life: What were you involved in prior to joining NEC?
Ken Wirt: Immediately prior to joining NEC I was Vice President and General Manager of an artificial intelligence start-up company called Cognitive Systems. Before that I was Vice President of Marketing for the home computer division of Atari.
When were you made aware that NEC intended to release the PC Engine in the US?
Almost right after I started at NEC as Vice President of Strategic Planning, NEC released the PC Engine in Japan and it did quite well there. Then in the fall that year there was a request to bring the machine to the United States, so from that time it took us about a year and a half in order to be able to do that.
What factors influenced the name change to ‘TurboGrafx-16’ and why was the tiny PC Engine redesigned as a larger machine for the US?
Well I think you have to go back to the time period – this was the early nineties. Prior to the launch we did some market research with customers in the US and we found that the name ‘PC Engine’ caused quite a bit of confusion. I think in Japan the name was ok because it’s kind of an American phrase and that had some cachet. In the US ‘PC Engine’ was literally interpreted by customers as ‘Personal Computer Engine’.
Prior to the launch we did some market research with customers in the US and we found that the name ‘PC Engine’ caused quite a bit of confusion
In regards to the restyled shape of the machine, it was going to be sold at a relatively high price and the customers we asked questioned why something so expensive should be in such a small package. They believed that if it’s small it should cost less, not more. Of course today in the 21st century we understand that smaller things sometimes cost more and you pay premium for that advantage. The name change came about because we tested a number of different options and the one that did the best was the one that described the main benefit of the product, which was the graphics. Hence the name: ‘TurboGrafx-16’. The ‘16’ related to the 16-bit graphic chips inside the machine.
How did you market the machine, and were you trying to entice other sectors of the gaming community, possibly those with home computers?
Well in terms of marketing of the product we knew it was a little more expensive because of the technology – quite a bit more expensive that what people had been used to paying for game machines, in fact. We also knew that we had peripherals coming out in the future such as the portable version – The TurboExpress (PC Engine GT in Japan) - and the CD-ROM drive that would be really quite expensive. So what we attempted to do was to position it as a high-end gaming machine for the kind of customers that had maybe grown up with the NES and were graduating to a more advanced system. Because these kids were older they would feel like they could spend more money on it. It wasn’t like today though, where there’s a real adult market for gaming. We viewed this as kind of the older teenager crowd, so Nintendo was for people below the age of 16 and we’re trying to go for 16 to 22, sort of when you graduate college, as the target market for TurboGrafx-16.
How did the company view the rapidly emerging Sega?
We certainly had our eye on Sega. In Japan the PC Engine had a big advantage over the Sega Genesis/Mega Drive because it was out about a year before. In the US I believe the TurboGrafx-16 and Genesis launched within about ten days of each other so there was no year-long advantage. In the US we knew that Sega would have strong software because they were developing games themselves. They also had experience in the US market with their Master System and they had licensed games too, so we knew they would be a force to contend with. We were actually more concerned about Sega than we were about Nintendo.
We certainly had our eye on Sega...we were actually more concerned about Sega than we were about Nintendo
Sega was very focused on licensing and they had Joe Montana Football and that was a great game on the Genesis. The games that were on TurboGrafx-16 typically did not have licences. We tried to get some but needed to go back to Japan for approval and in those days licensing did not play a big role in the success of the product in Japan. We had a tennis game that was pretty good but we wanted to get a tennis star to put their name on the game, so we worked out a deal with Pete Sampras. This is before he won any major tournaments, but we could tell he was an ‘up and comer’ as he’d just won the national championship for juniors. We drafted out a deal for him to be the star in our tennis game for $25,000. Ironically we couldn't get approval from Japan, not because of the amount of money involved but because they didn't believe in licensing. So we had 'TV Sports Tennis' instead of ‘Pete Sampras Tennis’.
What are your memories of the US launch?
We actually launched it with some commercials that turned out to be quite controversial. The first set of TV commercials we used tried to capture the excitement and speed that TurboGrafx-16 delivered. One of them showed a teenager playing TurboGrafx-16 alongside a goldfish bowl, and when the teen began playing the fish started swimming faster and faster. Bubbles started to appear, like the bowl was heating up, and the fish eventually jumped out because it was so hot.
We had a similar one with cats - they also got very animated by the TurboGrafx-16 and were bouncing off the walls. This generated a fair amount of controversy among animal activists who thought that we were harming animals – in fact it was all done with computer graphics, which was much less common back then than it is now. Today people would probably guess it was CGI, but back then they wrongly assumed we were actually boiling the water with the fish in it, which I can assure you we did not do! Anyway, there were enough complaints directed to Toys ‘R’ Us management that they made a strong request that we pull those commercials, which we eventually did.
Animal activists thought that we were harming animals
Another interesting anecdote involves a game from Japan called PC Kid, which featured a character who would go around and hit things with his head. In the US, a slang term for hitting something is to ‘bonk’ it, so we renamed the game Bonk’s Adventure. Of course in England to ‘bonk’ means something entirely different, so our advertising campaign for this title got a lot of attention in Europe. We even had a commercial campaign in the US with the slogan ‘Bonk for President’ and that was printed on T-shirts and other marketing materials. I think if eBay had existed at that time you would have seen a lot of sales in the UK for those shirts!
The TurboGrafx-16 struggled against Sega and Nintendo. What steps were taken to rectify this situation when the TurboDuo was launched?
After a period of time we realized that there was a major cultural difference between the US and Japan that impacted the financial nature of the business. In Japan children get money for gifts, typically at New Year's time. It’s their money and they can spend it however they want to. So if you have a very expensive games system, that’s OK - if the kids want it and they have enough money, then they’ll buy it.
In the US of course it’s a very different dynamic. Kids still get presents around Christmas time but the parents buy the presents. Parents are very hesitant to spend a big amount on video game systems, so we had a much tougher time selling the high priced technology to parents in the US than they did selling the same thing to children in Japan. As a result we had to lower the price of the product and that put a lot of margin pressure on it.
Because of the way the business was structured - with Hudson manufacturing the HuCards, sending them to NEC who then shipped them onto the US - there were mark-ups at each individual stage. It made the product too expensive. So in order to simplify the business model and reduce the cost to the consumers in the US, ‘Turbo Technologies Incorporated’ was created. It basically let Hudson – the majority owner of TTI – manufacture the cards and sell them in the US at a lower price, which increased the volume and made the business healthier.
This interview was originally printed in its entirety in Retro Gamer magazine, and is reproduced here with kind permission.