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Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Review: Console Wars

Console Wars is Blake Harris' account of the rise and fall of Sega of America during the 1990s. Despite the title, it focuses almost exclusively on Sega, devotes relatively little time to Nintendo, and Sony's efforts only makes cameo appearances, even though it was the Sony that would ultimately dominate the generation.

Written like a novel, the protagonist of the account is Tom Kalinske, the CEO Sega recruited from Mattel to run Sega of America. Deficient in the account are any technical details, such as the actual creation of any of the consoles or games that feature during the actual wars.

This is as it should be. Sega of America was chiefly a marketing operation. While they had minor inputs as far as the character of Sonic the Hedgehog went, they couldn't dictate either hardware or software strategy, though they did bankroll a few games, such as Ecco the Dolphin.

This is by no means a bad thing. As a technical person, I've always been mystified by marketing and the efforts that go behind it. My preference, of course, has always been to work on product that would sell themselves, ranging from Purify, to of course, Google search. Harris does a good job de-mystifying that process, and explaining (through illustration) how important market positioning, branding and courting the press matters.

In the end, of course, we all know the end of the story. Marketing can only go so far: it makes the difference when your product is actually technically competitive, but no amount of marketing could save the Sega Saturn from the technical onslaught of the Playstation. It's a pity that Harris didn't go into that second half of the story, but again, as a story largely about marketing, Console Wars ended at exactly the right place.

Ultimately, the book illustrates a key principle in technology companies: you cannot control your fate without control over the technical development of future products. No matter how brilliant an executive Kalinske was, when he could not persuade his masters at Sega Japan to work on machines that would match the competition, he was doomed to failure.

The book also clearly illustrates the problems and politics associated with a multi-national corporate organization. Kalinske's American team clearly found the Japanese team inscrutable, and were frequently frustrated by Sega Japan's inability to pay attention to them despite their success. This is a great lesson for any one who struggles to get their remote office recognized from halfway across the world.


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