Blake J. Harris is a writer and filmmaker based out of New York. In May of 2014, HarperCollins published his book, Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation, an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at the video game console battle between mighty Nintendo and Sega, the cunning upstart, in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Within its pages, Harris studies the people, products and strategic gambits that helped put Sega on the map and put a dent in Nintendo’s dominance.
Harris is currently co-directing the documentary based on his book, which is being produced by Scott Rudin, Seth Rogen, and Evan Goldberg. He will also serve as an executive producer on Sony’s feature-film adaptation of Console Wars.
Readers can learn more at www.consolewarsbook.com.
My creative background mostly consists of failure. When I was 18, I fell in love with writing; when I was 20, I knew that I wanted to do it for a living; and when I was 22, I realized that I had no idea how the hell one goes about doing that, so I got a job in New York City trading commodities to support myself while I tried to figure it out. For the next eight years I spent my days trading sugar futures and my nights writing movie scripts and trying to produce films. In addition to patience and persistence, the greatest lesson I learned was passion: the more of my “free time” I spent writing, the more I realize that I really better love what I’m writing about. And that’s what led me to CONSOLE WARS.
In December 2010, my younger brother got me an old Sega Genesis for my birthday. After booting it up for the first time in nearly two decades, I was flooded with memories of all the fun I had playing that console when I was a kid. Not only did I viscerally remember the joy, but I was taken aback when I started to think about just how much a part of my life videogames were. That realization prompted me to search for a book that would take me behind the scenes and show me what was going on at Sega and Nintendo during those golden years. To my surprise, no such book existed. So I set out to write one, and that’s where my adventure began.
What was the first game you played when you booted up that Genesis in 2010? Did you go right to Sonic the Hedgehog, or was it something more obscure?
As much as I love that chaotic blue blur, the first game I played after all these years was the one that will always be nearest and dearest to my heart: NHL ’94.
What was your process for reconstructing the conversations — some of which occurred 30 years ago — that are recounted throughout the story?
Very early on, I made the decision to include reconstructed or, at times, re-imagined dialogue in the book. I did this because it was extremely important to me that this book not only capture the “who, what, where when, and why,” but also illuminate thoughts, feelings and motivations of the pioneers who populate this story.
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.
My first step for writing the dialogue was always to try and pluck as many fragments of the conversations as I could from the people who were there. But because most of this happened about twenty years ago, that was often not quite possible. In those instances, I wrote what I thought was a representative conversation based on the characters (who I had gotten to know over a 2-3 year period) and then shared it with them to get their feedback, suggestions and ultimately approval. It wasn’t always the easiest process, but it’s the only way I felt like I could avoid just “telling” the story, but also “show” it as well.
Former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske receives a lot of credit for making Sega a household name. What was it about his personality or approach to business that made him the right man for the job at the time?
From resurrecting Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars to developing He-Man and the Flintstones chewable vitamins, Tom Kalinske possessed an uncanny ability for transforming unusual ideas into iconic properties. And that’s why when he took over at Sega in 1990, during a time when Nintendo controlled over 90% of the videogame market, he was perhaps the only man out there capable of turning an industry punchline into a generation-defining market leader.
Throughout his career, Tom has always had a talent for surrounding himself with fantastic teams. Some of this is luck, of course, but a larger part has to be an intrinsic ability to identify talent, shepherd potential and instill his unique brand of scrappy renegade confidence into the hearts and minds of those around him.
What was the most unexpectedly-interesting anecdote you unearthed during your Console Wars research?
I was shocked to learn how close the world was to having a Sega PlayStation (and the strange sequence of events that caused this not to happen).
In your opinion, what are the three best (and/or most important) Sega Genesis games?
As important as Sega’s marketing power and PR prowess were to their success, without great games they never would have been able to take down Nintendo. In particular, I think these are the three games that were most pivotal in helping Sega slay their Goliath:
- SONIC THE HEDGEHOG: Not only was this Sega’s Mario-killer, but Sonic’s attitude came to personify the company and permeate through all their future successes.
- JOE MONTANA FOOTBALL: Getting Electronic Arts to secretly help them develop this game was a classic case of Sega turning lemons into lemonade and also helped develop a sports-heavy library (something Nintendo never really attained).
- MORTAL KOMBAT: Sega’s bloody version (compared to Nintendo’s watered down iteration) epitomized the difference between the two companies and helped them finally “finish” Nintendo. Well, at least until just about everything went wrong for Sega and right for Nintendo in the years ahead.
How did Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg get involved with this project?
The credit for getting Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg involved in CONSOLE WARS 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 how much videogames shaped our childhoods. Needless to say, we hit it off and they decided to write, direct and produce a feature film adaptation of my book as well as produce a documentary based on it as well.
How is the Console Wars documentary coming along?
The documentary is coming along great! We (Jonah and myself) have already finished interviewing the majority of our subjects and right now we’re in the middle of editing the film. Even after spending over three years in the thick of the 16-bit world, there’s nothing quite as special as hearing the story told from the people who were actually there, so co-directing this documentary has been extremely rewarding every step of the way. Plus, it’s always a good sign in life when you can watch old commercials all day and chalk it off as “work.”
Have you given any thought as to what your next writing project will be?
I’m still exploring ideas for the next book, but in the meantime have been happily consumed by a musical about the splendors of Wikipedia that will debut next month in the New York Musical Theatre Festival. If you’d like an overview of the show, or want to listen to some of the songs, check out www.wikithemusical.com!