Interview: Console Wars Author Blake J. Harris Discusses Film Adaptations and the Struggles of Sega
Posted by Jake Shapiro
Sega of America does what Sega of Japandon't.
A couple weeks ago we reviewed Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation by New York City-based author Blake J. Harris, about the bitter rivalry between Sega and Nintendo in the early 1990s through the eyes of Sega of America head honcho Tom Kalinske. The review sparked a heated discussion about Sega and about the book's polarising narrative non-fiction approach, so we reached out to Mr. Harris for a more in-depth discussion of Console Wars and his writing process. We asked about the book's two upcoming movie adaptations (a feature film with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, and a documentary made by Harris himself) and about the true battle in Console Wars: not Sega vs. Nintendo, but Sega of America (SOA) vs. Sega of Japan (SOJ).
Thanks for taking the time to discuss Console Wars! Could you start by telling us a little about yourself and how the Console Wars project came about?
First off, I wanted to begin by saying that I enjoyed your review of the book. Given the narrative style that I chose, it would have been very easy for you to object to the book as a whole and use lots of four-letter words and villainous emotions. So I really respect your taking the time to show what the book does nicely (and who might enjoy reading) as well as criticizing where you thought it lacked. Not all reviewers would have been as fair, and believe me, I have the e-mails to prove this. But before we talk any more about reactions to the book, let me answer your question and explain how it all began…
Videogames were not just electronic playthings; they were the social lubricant of my childhood.
A little over three years ago, my brother gave me a Sega Genesis for my birthday. This was the console that we had growing up, the source of so many fights and friendships, and booting it up after all these years brought back a mountain of memories; ToeJam and Earl all-nighters, NBA Jam tournaments, and a vicious childhood jealousy based on my little brother being so much better at videogames than myself. What I soon discovered was that not only were my memories of this time really vivid and visceral, but that like a magician with his colorful handkerchief they just kept coming and coming. That’s when I began to realize that throughout this time of my life videogames were not just electronic playthings; they were the social lubricant of my childhood.
This realization was less of an epiphany and more of an oh-yeah-no-duh moment, but what followed these memories were all sorts of questions. Where did Sega even come from anyway? How were they able to take on Nintendo? And, most importantly: what kind of wild and crazy things were going on in boardrooms thousands of miles away that so directly influenced my life at the time?
We're glad you took our criticisms in stride! One of the most divisive elements of Console Wars, as you mentioned, is the almost novel-esque narrative style you chose. How did you pick this approach over a more traditional oral history?
To be perfectly honest, I have to admit that I didn't realize there was anything divisive about my decision to write Console Wars in the style with which I did. My favorite business writers — like Ben Mezrich and Michael Lewis — have reached that upper echelon of non-fiction writing by transforming dry facts into lively stories, and as someone who greatly admires the way those guys are able to make seemingly faceless business entities (such as Facebook, Salomon Brothers or the Oakland A's) become exciting, relatable and intriguing, that was always my goal from the get-go.
As informative as it can be to provide the infamous “who, what, where when, and why,” I believe that sticking to the facts can often be just as misleading. A great deal 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.
The best reviews of the book that I have received are undoubtedly from the characters themselves.
That being said, I realized from the very first chapter I wrote that writing dialogue for others can be a presumptuous endeavor. So to avoid this from becoming a problem, I shared these chapters in advance (often as soon as I finished writing them) with the real-life players to ensure that the story was as authentic as possible. I asked them to review the dialogue and actions to make sure that the language felt like their voice, the internal thoughts were captured accurately and that the content was either directly what was said or at least mimicked the premise and tone of the conversations. In this way, it became a rather collaborative experience. And, to this point, the best reviews of the book that I have received are undoubtedly from the characters themselves who feel that my style managed to capture the magic of these times.
Interesting that you mention Michael Lewis, as we noted the similarities between his book Moneyball and Console Wars in our review, and their movie connection through Scott Rudin (who produced the movie adaptation of Moneyball and is producing the Console Wars feature film as well). At what point in the process did Rudin get involved with Console Wars, and how did that all go down? What was it like working on a book that's been cinema-bound since before it even hit shelves?
Great question. Not only Moneyball, but Scott Rudin also produced The Social Network (which was based on Mezrich's The Accidential Billionaires). So to have the opportunity to work with the guy who did both those films (and many, many more great book-to-film transitions) I am fully aware that I'm the luckiest bastard on earth.
How it happened was like this: In January 2011, I was given the opportunity to meet with Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to discuss this project (at that point, I had interviewed about 100+ people and had an early draft of the book proposal). A few months after they were on board, they mentioned the project to Scott who was surprised that the Sega/Nintendo story had not already been told. I met with him a few days later, and we talked about the story, the characters and my assassin-like process of tracking all these people down. He asked if he could bring the project to Sony (who he has produced many films with over the years) before my agent sent out the book proposal to publishers, which at this time contained a chapter outline and about 10 chapters from what would become the book. I basically said "you're the greatest producer there is and one of the best storytellers in the world, so I'm on board with whatever you think is best." Two days later, this article hit the internet, which was basically my way of finding out Sony wanted to move forward with this dream-come-true for me.
So, as per your question, it was a pleasantly strange experience for me to write a book knowing that all of these film pieces were in place. But the cinematic avenues on the horizon didn't influence the way I approached the actual writing of the book (it intimidated me at times, I will admit that, and challenged me to write something Rudin-Rogen-Goldberg worthy), but I always wanted to tell this story in a way that I believed both gamers and non-gamers alike would appreciate. My goal with this book was to write a story as rich with information as DisneyWar but that read like The Da Vinci Code.
How much direct involvement will you have with the film adaptations of Console Wars? What led to the decision to make both a documentary and a narrative film, rather than just one or the other? How far along are they in development?
I've been co-directing the documentary with my business partner, Jonah Tulis. We shot about 15 interviews last year and are currently in post-production. It's coming together wonderfully and really fun to tell a similar story (as the book) from a different medium. The reason why we thought it was important to create a documentary, in addition to a book and feature film adaptation, was to capture all the wonderful media from that era. The commercials, the news stories, the trade show presentations and other assorted never-before-seen footage.
As for the feature film adaptation, I'm serving as an executive producer. With Seth and Evan attached to write and direct, the film could not be in better hands. We've been working with them on the documentary for almost two years now and the next step for them on the feature is to begin writing the script. Creatively, they (along with producer Scott Rudin) are the captains of the ship, but I'll be here to assist them in whatever capacity suits they need from beginning to end.
Will most of the major characters from the book be in the doc, from Sega of America and Nintendo of America? What about Ólaf Ólafsson from Sony?
Yup, most of the major characters from the book will in the documentary. Like the book, the only person who declined to speak with me was [Nintendo of America founder] Minoru Arakawa. This was not very surprising given his previous track record with the press, but sad (in my opinion, at least) that someone who was often described to me as caring so much about his team, would let them down by not sharing his perspective at Nintendo's leader during this time.
For both the documentary and the feature film, will you be able to secure the rights from Sega and Nintendo to show real game footage, as well as some of the things you mentioned like commercials and trade show presentations from the era?
It's basically just a TBD situation. It's often been rather frustrating for me [dealing with SOA and NOA]; not just because I love both companies (so feeling the opposite emotion from them is offputting), but also because I genuinely believe my book can and will help both Sega and Nintendo and I wish they would be more supportive to that end.
Console Wars is about the rise of Sega, but it's also about the downfall; you seem to place the blame for Sega's fall from grace largely on Sega of Japan, as Sega of America is impeded at every turn by the meddling parent company often for no apparent reason other than self-defeating jealousy and rigid cultural differences. In our review, we criticised Console Wars for neglecting to provide Sega of Japan perspective on the situation. Were you able to interview many SOJ figures in your research? As you ask multiple times in the book, "what the heck is wrong with Sega of Japan?"
Getting people from SOJ to speak with me made my troubles with gaining access into the Land of Nintendo seem like a walk in the park. In short: the reason why so little of SOJ's perspective is included in the book is because very few from SOJ were willing to discuss their experiences with me (and those bold souls who did were not willing to do so on the record). That being said, I would have felt like my portrayal of the SOA/SOJ relationship was unfairly one-sided if not for two things:
Getting people from SOJ to speak with me made my troubles with gaining access into the Land of Nintendo seem like a walk in the park.
1. When I was in Tokyo, [former Sega president] Hayao Nakayama graciously invited me over to his home for tea. We spent a few hours reminiscing about his days at the top of Sega's ladder. Our meeting was contingent upon the matters discussing being off the record, but that time we spent together was invaluable to me for gaining a glimpse into his personality and adding a great deal of context to the events I had been researching.
2. A few years ago, I was hired by Sega of America to direct some short documentaries at Sega of Japan. And there in Tokyo, with my own eyes and ears, I witness first-hand an enormous level of friction between both sides of the company. I won't get into specifics, but I will say that at every possible turn it felt like SOJ went out of their way to make this SOA-led project much more difficult than it needed to be. I have to admit that prior to this trip, I thought that the SOA employees I had been speaking with were retroactively shifting a lot of blame to their counterparts in Japan, but witnessing the cultural rift in person shifted my perspective several degrees. I realize that two decades have passed since the time period I wrote about (and, therefore direct, comparisons aren't fair), but I left there with much more sympathy for Tom Kalinske, Al Nilsen and the other SOA rebels.
So getting back to your question, I certainly did ask several times in the book "What the heck is wrong with Sega of Japan?" Although I would have loved to hear much more of the story from their perspective (and perhaps even their own version of "what the heck is wrong with Sega of America"), the unwillingness to speak with me made that an unfortunate impossibility.
Now, whether or not you agree with my depiction of the SOA/SOJ relationship, the facts are the facts: With almost exactly the same hardware and software during this era, Sega of America eclipsed over 50% of their market and Sega of Japan failed to ever break even 25%. I think that disparity is enough to make anyone ask "What the heck is going on here?"
It felt natural to conclude your book with the end of Kalinske's saga, but of course that leaves out the story of the Dreamcast as well as Sega's modern day situation as a software-only publisher. With how much time and energy you've put into researching the company, is there any urge to write a Console Wars 1.5?
Absolutely. I spent over three years writing and researching Console Wars and I can say with absolute honesty that my interest and excitement about the story grew with each day. So I have to admit that it's sad in a way to no longer be writing the book. As you mentioned, from a narrative standpoint it made a lot of sense to end the book with Tom's resignation; not only did his departure signify the end of an era at Sega, but I felt really good about where the story left Nintendo (still making fantastic games, but now armed with a killer instinct) and Sony as well (the new king of the hill, though strangely firing or forcing out the key players stateside). But even though Tom left Sega in 1996, my interest in the company and the incredible cast of characters still in the industry is stronger than ever. So, to answer your question, I'd love to write about Sega's Dreamcast era for the same selfish reason I initially wanted to write Console Wars at the very beginning: personal curiosity.
You've got the two films coming up (and a Wikipedia musical!) — what's next for you? Can you reveal any sort of timetable for when the movies will be released? We hope you're not done writing about the video game world.
Between the documentary and the musical my days have been jam-packed, but once things settle down a bit I'd like to return to the videogame world with a series of articles focused on characters and topics that didn't quite make sense for the book, but are incredibly compelling and deserving of their own spotlight.
As far as timetable, Jonah Tulis (my co-director) and I are currently in post-production on the documentary and things are looking great. We're looking to have a cut of the film done by the end of the year. And as for the feature film adaptation of the book, Seth and Evan are hoping to get started on the screenplay this fall, so things are shaping up for an exciting year ahead!
We'll be sure to check out both films, and good luck with the musical. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us.
It was absolutely my pleasure. Thank you so much for taking the time to learn more about the process.