Console Wars (2015)






Another day, another plane. Kalinske’s go-go-go life was starting to feel eerily familiar to that of his Matchbox days, where he spent most of his time waiting in airport lines, flying through the sky, and landlocked in places where his watch didn’t match up with the local time. At least now he had company.

“Are you ready to have some fun?” Nilsen asked as he and Kalinske walked up the steps to the New Orleans Convention Center.

“Honestly, I’m ready for anything that does not involve reverse-engineering or defanging hedgehogs,” Kalinske said, as they were about to enter the 1991 Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) expo.

The AMOA trade show was as exciting, confusing, and carnivalesque as its name made it sound. The organization had been created in 1948 when sixty-eight angry jukebox owners banded together to fight against paying royalties on the songs their machines played. Out of that alliance came the idea to hold an annual trade show that would bring together various parts of their niche universe, from jukebox designers and equipment distributors to bar owners and music producers—basically anyone who had a stake in customers inserting quarters into a jukebox. Meanwhile, as the prestige of the AMOA grew, it began to attract the attention of companies producing other mechanized products that offered entertainment in exchange for coins, such as air hockey tables, love testers, and eventually arcade games. As jukeboxes and the less interactive diversions of yesteryear waned in popularity, the arcade business became the dominant species of coin-operated entertainment. Kalinske knew little about arcade games beyond what he’d learned watching his daughters play Frogger or Ms. Pac-Man at pizza places; eager to replace his ignorance with competence, he was excited to enter the show.

As soon as they stepped inside, Kalinske felt as if he’d been directly transported into the imagination of a five-year-old: row after row of pinball machines, kiddie rides, and arcade cabinets as far as the eye could see. Ironically, out of the thousands in attendance, there wasn’t a single child in sight.

“So how does this work?” Kalinske asked.

“It’s great. There are a couple hundred booths here, about half of which are utterly absurd,” Nilsen said, pointing to a man in a suit eagerly grasping for swirling dollars inside a tall translucent rectangle. “While we occasionally take a moment out of our busy schedules to mock that half, we’ll mostly be trying out arcade games, scoping out trends, and seeing if there’s anything we should consider licensing as a Genesis game. Then we ought to sync up with the Sega of Japan arcade folks so they can meet you and see that now we’re for real. Sound good?”

“Very. I mean, you basically just said that we get paid to play games.”

“That’s why we have the best job on earth.”

It was a great job. Or at least parts of it were great. As a lifelong sports fan, Kalinske had a tendency to think of things in terms of athletic analogies. Normally, he played the role of coach (motivating and instructing Team Sega) or general manager (wheeling and dealing, like with Wal-Mart and EA), but today he got to play the role of scout: purely an observer, looking for diamonds in the rough. When teams won, coaches and general managers were the gods responsible for every speck of greatness, but when they lost, they were incompetent morons who didn’t deserve the oxygen they were breathing. Given all that, today’s anonymity was a nice respite from those two opposite yet equally irrational perspectives.

“So,” Nilsen said, “shall we get down to business?”

Though they spent a pleasant afternoon checking out what was new in the arcade realm, their real excitement was reserved for the pay-per-view boxing match that evening. Prior to Kalinske’s arrival, Nilsen and then-president Michael Katz had taken a risk investing in a franchise built around Buster Douglas, a no-name boxer who had recently defied 42-to-1 odds and knocked out the heavyweight champion of the world, Mike Tyson. Part of their gamble was based on an appreciation for the young boxer’s scrappy fighting style, but the larger part was based on a desire to stick it to Nintendo, who published the popular game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

To rub it in Nintendo’s face, Sega wanted to fast-track their new boxing game so that it would be ready for release shortly after Douglas’s next match. But given how long it normally takes to design, create, test, and finalize a game (about a year), it would not be possible to start from scratch in February (when Douglas defeated Mike Tyson) and be ready in time for October (when Douglas would, everyone hoped, knock out Evander Holyfield). So Nilsen asked Hugh Bowen, a product manager he had hired and trusted, to find a good already-complete boxing game that Sega could buy and essentially slap Douglas’s face onto. He had some concerns about this type of approach, but after all, that’s what Nintendo had done with their famed boxing game. It originally had been called Punch Out!! until Nintendo’s Minoru Arakawa signed Mike Tyson, threw him on the cover, and made him the final fighter players had to beat in order to win the game. That had obviously worked out nicely for Nintendo, and Nilsen wanted to replicate the recipe for Sega, though, as always, he’d want to spice it up a little. Instead of fighting against the professional boxer as if he were some kind of villain, he wanted players to enjoy the experience of being a pro boxer. Hope became reality when Bowen found an arcade game called Final Blow, made by Taito. Needing to act fast, Nilsen quickly inspected and approved the game to be “Buster-ized,” Katz signed off on the plan, and Nakayama arranged a deal to use the boxing title on the Genesis. Sega’s R&D took Taito’s game and made the minor but necessary alterations (such as swapping the Detroit Kid, the game’s original main character, with Buster Douglas) and then racing against time to have the game ready for release within a month of Douglas’s first fight as champion. Which was, finally, tonight.

“By the way,” Nilsen said as they played a blood-spattering zombie game, “at some point we should see what the folks at Gottlieb are up to.”

“Gottlieb?” Kalinske nodded. “They’re the ones who made Q*bert, right?”

“Hey, look at that. You’re really getting a firm grasp on the business!”

“Slowly but surely,” Kalinske said, almost surprised to realize he was indeed starting to get a handle on things. “Slowly but surely.”

Nilsen smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t tell anyone. We’ll try to keep expectations as low as possible so it’s that much more impressive when you shock the world.”

That night, Kalinske and Nilsen got to the sports bar early to stake out a prime position for the fight. Neither being a particularly big drinker, they each nursed a beer, shared some appetizers, and reflected on Kalinske’s crash course in the arcade industry.

“So, any grand observations?” Nilsen asked.

“Nothing too crazy,” Kalinske said, scanning through his memories of the day. It had been as light and enjoyable as he hoped for. They’d spent some time with the Sega of Japan arcade guys, who had some cool things in the pipeline but seemed a bit standoffish. And they had indeed gone to the Taito booth, where they’d seen a game that Nilsen liked called Hit the Ice. It was a hockey game, but unlike typical hockey games, this one featured only three players per team (forward, defense, and goalie); even more unusual was that the players were encouraged to break the rules by slashing, tripping, and kicking opponents in the groin. It was cartoony and ridiculous, but definitely fun. “Still, all things being equal,” Kalinske started, trying to find the words to match his mild discomfort, “I could do without all the violence. Lots of those games we saw seemed to be a bit excessive with the blood and gore. Doesn’t any of that stuff ever bother you?”

“I don’t love it. But it doesn’t get to me.” Nilsen shrugged. “Besides, the arcade games tend to be a bit racier. They’re usually made for an audience a little older than what we’re doing with the Genesis.”

Kalinske subtly shivered. “I just hate the idea of using that garbage to sell games, you know?”

“I absolutely do,” Nilsen said, right there on the same wavelength. “But the good news is that we don’t need that stuff to make great games. And at the end of the day, that’s really all that matters. Just remember: the name of the game is the game.”

“I’ve heard you say that before.”

“And you’ll hear me say it again. Because it’s true.”

“The name of the game is the game?”

“The game has to be good. That’s all the matters. That’s the only thing.”

Kalinske nodded, getting it, and glad to have an excuse to feed his conscience. He looked across the table and tried to find a way to express his appreciation. This had really been a nice day, a great respite from the time he spent in front of a firing squad. But as he sought a way to savor the moment, he was interrupted by an excited hubbub inside the sports bar as the fight was about to start.

Kalinske and Nilsen looked up at the TV, and despite their best efforts to play it cool, they couldn’t help but do a double-take. Their fighter—the heavyweight champion of the world, the face of their new game franchise—did not look like the face Sega had signed. Douglas was bloated, at least fifteen pounds overweight, and even as he danced around in his boxing trunks he looked sluggish.

The guys looked at each other.

“Uh-oh,” Nilsen said.

The words quickly proved to be prophetic. Holyfield overmatched his chubby opponent and knocked out Douglas in the third round.

After it ended and Douglas was put out of his misery, Kalinske looked at a shell-shocked Nilsen. “Don’t worry,” he said. “Everything is going to be okay.”

“Somehow I doubt that,” Nilsen said, unable to think about anything besides how hard he’d worked to get the game ready in such a short amount of time and how the press was going to have a field day with this.

Kalinske put a hand on his friend’s shoulder. “We’ll be fine.”

Instead of spending a celebratory night in New Orleans, victory-dancing their way through the Big Easy, stopping only to tell anyone who appeared willing to listen that Sega was for real and Nintendo had better watch themselves, they went back to their rooms and called it an early night.

Back in his hotel room, Kalinske wondered how so much had gone so wrong in such a short amount of time. He was beginning to worry that the vaunted reputation he’d built over two decades might quickly and irrevocably sink with Sega. He had come to the company with the goal of giving it an identity, but the more he learned, the more uncertain he became of what that identity might be. In a few weeks he was supposed to get in front of Sega’s board of directors and tell them his plan for how Sega could become competitive. What was he supposed to say? Maybe he ought to just stand in front of them, shake his head, and succinctly say, “Let’s just give up.”

To subdue these thoughts, Kalinske turned on the TV. There were only twelve channels (though one of them, the hotel boasted, was HBO), but that would be enough to provide him with the numbing therapy of television. He watched the middle of some Sean Connery movie, trying to figure out if this was a James Bond movie or not.

When the film went to a commercial, he quickly forgot all about the movie. There was something going on with this commercial, and it got his juices flowing.

It began with a quaint, to-grandmother’s-house-we-go bridge. Plain. Pretty. Picturesque. And then, after the visual lullaby, it hits you: Boom! A warning appears on the screen: Extremely dangerous. Don’t try this.

Two men stand on the bridge, preparing to jump into a tumultuous body of water. The man in Nike Air shoes breathes nervously, while the other bends down to add some air to his Pump shoes, made by Reebok. Just then the audience realizes they are bungee-jumping. In slow motion the two men spread their arms and jump. Downward they go, soaring with immaculate weightlessness as time seems to stand still.

Until suddenly their bungee cords snap them back. The man in the Reebok Pumps dangles upside down, safely above the water. Meanwhile, the other bungee cord can be seen, but the man is gone and all that remains are his flimsy Nike Air shoes.

After it ended, Kalinske stared at the television screen. This was it—this was the message. Edgy, sarcastic, clever, and fun. The ad perfectly summed up Kalinske’s vague and disjointed notions of how Sega should define itself and its products. How would he pull this off? He didn’t know, and right now he didn’t care.

He wanted to play the commercial again, over and over. He wanted to call Karen, or Nilsen, or even Nakayama and say, I’ve got it! But truly, he didn’t know what he had. Luckily, he had the rest of the night to figure that out.

The following morning, Kalinske met Nilsen downstairs for breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Though he didn’t have any tangible reason to feel upbeat, he seemed to be as cheerful as the bright yellow walls.

“How’d you sleep?” Kalinske asked as they took their seats.

Nilsen, normally a man of many words, answered by placing a copy of USA Today on the table, which featured a cover story on Buster Douglas’s embarrassing loss.

Kalinske slowly shook his head. “How screwed are we?”

Nilsen opened his briefcase and pulled out the documents related to product development budgets and schedules. “Everything’s already been manufactured and shipped. The cartridges, game cases, manuals, and everything else are on a boat somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. So, in short, very screwed.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Kalinske said. He knew this to be factually correct, but there was something about that commercial last night that made him feel resilient. “But still, come on. There must be something we can do. I mean, the fact that an obscure boxer knocked out the champ and then got fat and lazy doesn’t change the fact that we have a better product than Nintendo, right? In a way, it’s almost comical.”

Before Kalinske finished the sentence, Nilsen’s mind was already furiously at work; that’s how it went with him. Often he’d seem to suddenly zone out, but actually that was when he was most zoned in. He would become bombarded with images, related and unrelated alike: Buster Douglas, game cartridges, the Pacific Ocean, bright yellow walls, refreshing orange juice with its tiny bits of pulp. These seemingly random remnants of memory would collide against an eclectic soundtrack in his head: a chord from Beethoven, a crash from MC Hammer, and the eternal optimism of that “Zestfully clean” commercial—and in a matter of seconds, unlikely connections formed.

Nilsen knew that some creative types worked slowly and deliberately, but that was the complete opposite of how his mind worked. “Wait!” Nilsen proclaimed. “Let’s make it a cool inside joke.”

“I like it,” Kalinske said, “but don’t quite understand. What do you mean?”

“Let’s not run from this thing. We’ve got egg all over our face, but instead of running to go wipe it off and pretending like it never happened, let’s just not wipe off the egg. Let’s stand here, embarrassed, and just laugh at ourselves.”

“So we turn into the skid?”

“Exactly! We embrace the failure. Maybe we even turn the game into a collector’s edition. But whatever we do, we don’t run and hide. After all, even though it’s named after an overweight former heavyweight champion, it does happen to be a really fun game. And the name of the game—”

“Is the game.”

Nilsen nodded, proud of his boss. “So, what do you say?”

At the time, Kalinske couldn’t have known that by going along with this plan, James “Buster” Douglas Knock Out Boxing would go on to be a critical and commercial success. He didn’t know that the game would sell so well that Sega would have to order a second shipment and that upon its rerelease it would be packaged with the tongue-in-cheek branding of “Sega Classics.” And he didn’t know that this game, and the company’s laugh-at-us stance in releasing it, would give Sega a certain credibility and coolness with gamers and the press. At the moment Kalinske didn’t know any of these things. But he knew that what Nilsen said was the best idea he had heard in a long time, and for them to have any chance of pulling off the impossible, it was exactly the type of thing they needed Sega to become: the fun, rebellious, sarcastic underdog.

“Let’s do it,” Kalinske said, with the enormous confidence, fearlessness, and appreciation the idea deserved.