Console Wars (2015)
THE NEXT LEVEL
BACK 2 WORK
Madeline Schroeder pushed a loose strand of hair away from her eyes, squinted in deep thought, and then slowly raised an eyebrow. “The Seattle Koopa Troopas,” she said with a cheerful one-upmanship in her voice. “Or even the Seattle Super Koopa Troopas.” She sat across from Nilsen in his office, their usual cave for swapping ideas. For the past few hours they had been working on an initial marketing presentation for Sonic 2, but had swerved into discussing Nintendo’s recent bid for the Seattle Mariners, whether the new ownership group would rename the team, and if so, what that name might be.
Nilsen judiciously considered her suggestions, tapped a finger against his chin, and nodded lightly. Not bad, not bad at all. “What about the Seattle Princess Chasers?”
“Or how about the Tetrises?” she said.
“Well done,” he said. “But I think the word you’re looking for is ‘Tetri.’ ”
“Exactly,” she said, pointing at him. “The Seattle Tetri.”
“Or maybe they keep it simple: the Super Nintendos,” he suggested. “But they change the team name every time they come out with a new console.”
“I like that,” she said. “But I also like the Nintendo R.O.B.’s. Gives a little shout-out to their forgotten robot from yesteryear.”
“Why dive so far into yesteryear? How about the Nintendo Power Gloves?”
“Or the Nintendo Power Pads!”
Nilsen was about to make a Zelda reference, perhaps something about gold cartridges perhaps, but suddenly the look in his eyes changed. Schroeder picked up on it instantly. How could she not? She’d practically been in a bunker with Nilsen for the past year, and as a result, their brains had seemingly fused together. Not only did she notice things about him, but sometimes she even noticed them before he did. “You got it, don’t you? That perfectly clever, conversation-ending idea.”
He did, and for this reason spoke in a slow, overly dramatic, I’d-like-to-solve-the-puzzle tone. “If Major League Baseball approves the sale, the Seattle Mariners will henceforth be known as . . . the Seattle Mariners.”
“The Mariners?” she asked, feeling like she’d missed the joke. “That’s boring.”
“Exactly!” Nilsen said. “When was the last time Nintendo did something other than maintain the status quo? Two weeks before never?”
“Spot-on. Shame on us for ever thinking otherwise,” she said with a laugh. “I think the better question is, what would the San Francisco Giants be called if SOJ bought them?”
Nilsen considered this. “It certainly is a better question, I’ll give you that,” he said. “But I refuse to answer on moral grounds.”
“Oh, yeah?” she asked. “And why is that?”
“Because as cool as it would be for Will Clark to bat third for the San Francisco Sonic Speedsters, we should never resort to following in Nintendo’s footsteps. Originality or bust!” he proclaimed. “But a football team, on the other hand . . .”
When the banter finally came to an end, they resumed their conversation about marketing plans for the Sonic sequel. The game was scheduled to be ready by October, but Schroeder believed it would more likely be November. Since Naka and the rest of his Sonic Team had begun working on the game at the Sega Technical Institute, she’d been driving out to Palo Alto once or twice a week to check on its progress. The game was obviously in its earliest stages, just character sprites and background art, but she could tell that it wasn’t going to be simply a hastily made rehash of the first game. That had been her biggest fear, and the biggest problem with sequels in general.
Even Nintendo had experienced this conundrum years earlier. After the release of Super Mario Bros., the game’s creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, got to work on a follow-up. After nearly a year of work, he delivered a game that many felt was too much like the original, just much more difficult. Nintendo of Japan released the game in 1987 to mixed reviews. Nintendo of America, however, disliked the game so much that they postponed the U.S. release and decided instead to find a different, already completed Japanese game and simply revise it in Mario’s image. They ended up settling upon an Arabian-themed game called Doki Doki Panic, which follows a family of four on a perilous quest to rescue kidnapped kids from Wart, an evil frog king who has an intense allergy to vegetables. Nintendo of America then made superficial changes to the game, like swapping out the original characters of Mama, Papa, and children Lina and Imajin for, respectively, Luigi, Toad, Princess Toadstool, and Mario. When their redevelopment was complete, Nintendo of America released their version of Super Mario Bros. 2 to generally positive reviews but a lingering popular sentiment that the game felt “off.”
Schroeder didn’t know which scenario was worse: a sequel that felt too similar or one that felt too different. But despite concerns about sequel-itis lingering in the back of her mind, everything she had seen thus far from Sonic 2 looked very promising. The game was a bit faster and a bit more colorful, and she had recently heard it might even feature a sidekick for Sonic. Plus, this time around the developers were located mere miles away, which would make any concerns, disputes, or cultural disagreements that much easier to resolve. She was cautiously optimistic about the sequel, and that filled her and Nilsen with a desire to develop a marketing program that was as good as they hoped the game would be.
“Maybe we should send Sonic to retailers a few months before the release,” Schroeder suggested. “And he can show off demo versions of the game.”
“I like that,” Nilsen said. “Add it to the list under in-store promotions.”
They’d spent weeks putting together a preliminary marketing plan, which they’d be presenting at the next day’s senior staff meeting. The strategy they’d come up with looked like a shinier and more pervasive version of how they had launched the first Sonic game: magazine coverage, radio promotions, and maybe even a mall tour around the Christmas season. There was nothing wrong with what they had put together, but as Nilsen looked over the list he felt greatly underwhelmed. He shook his head, angry with himself for doing what had already been done (even if it had been he himself who had done it the first time).
“This isn’t good enough, Mad,” Nilsen said. “It just isn’t.”
“Which part in particular?” Schroeder asked.
“All of it,” he said, still shaking his head. “This just isn’t good enough.”
“You were okay with it ten minutes ago.”
“Maybe we should start over from scratch.”
“You’re joking, right?” she said, not at all amused. “This is weeks of work—half of it yours, by the way.”
“I don’t care,” he said. “It’s not good enough. It’s not big enough.”
“What do you want, Al? A monument?” she asked, getting annoyed. “A blimp?”
“I don’t know,” Nilsen said, trying to piece together his thoughts.
“I have an entire list of ideas right here. This is what we’re going to present tomorrow and, trust me, everyone’s going to love it. .”
“But it’s not Sonic-worthy, Mad. It just isn’t. It’s Mario-worthy.”
“I don’t know what you want from me.”
“I want you to help me come up with something better.”
“There is nothing better! This is everything we’ve got—the kitchen sink!”
“Fine,” Nilsen said. “Then I want the whole kitchen!”
Their conversation soon escalated into a shouting match, with Schroeder yelling at Nilsen and throwing reason and rational thinking at him, and him refusing to listen or offer any better suggestion. In two years of working together, this was the first time they had ever raised their voices to each other. Though they’d disagreed before, there’d always been the common bond of logic and reason to keep heads cool and smiles on their faces. This time, though, the bickering got so loud that employees stopped outside their office and peered inside to make sure everything was okay. Nilsen saw them watching, their eyes filled with a concern that in the moment he interpreted as taking joy in his failure. He wanted to shout at them to look away, but he knew that he wasn’t really mad at them. He wasn’t even really mad at Madeline. He was mad at himself, mad that his brain had stopped cooperating, mad that he had failed to come up with an elegant solution to the impossible question.
“You’re not listening to a single thing I have to say!” Schroeder shouted. “Maybe it would be better if we each present our own plan and let them choose.”
“Oh, yeah?” Nilsen asked, his face reddening by the moment. “Maybe a better idea would be if—” He stopped midsentence, and a maniacal smile began to form.
“You figured it out, didn’t you?” she asked, her voice returning to a normal level.
Nilsen nodded slowly. People outside the office were still looking at him. But now he welcomed their watchful eyes.
“So?” Schroeder asked. “What is it?”
“We’re going to start in Japan, move to Europe, and then end in the U.S. No trucks, no boats: everything will be delivered by plane exactly one day before. We’re going to have a street date, Mad, we’re going to have the world’s first global launch, and in the process we’re going to break every single sales record. What do you think?”
“What do I think?” she mused. “I think a global launch is Sonic-worthy.”
And just like that, it was decided. They scrapped their previous plans and started planning the videogame world’s first-ever street date. The ideas started flowing.
“The faucet of ideas was turned on full blast and their minds melded into one. Movies come out on Friday, but this should be different.”
“Definitely—how about Thursday? Or Saturday?”
“No, it should be Tuesday, and we’ll call it Sonic 2sday!”
“That’s perfect! Wow, you’re 2 smart!”
“Aw shucks, you’re 2 kind!”
As they came up with each pun, they started typing it on Nilsen’s computer, printing it out, and taping it to the wall. Soon enough, the office walls were covered: 2 Fast! 2 Rad! 2 Day! They kept going, the pages pouring out of the printer until there was no more space on the walls.
“Now what?” Schroeder asked. “2 bad for us?”
Nilsen got up and went into Van Buskirk’s office next door. “Do you mind if Mad and I start taping things to the window outside your office?”
“That’s a new one,” Van Buskirk replied. “No, I don’t mind, but I would not mind even more if I knew why you were doing this.”
“Of course,” Nilsen said, waving for her to follow him back to his office. “We’re going to do the first international global launch. We’re going to shatter every record, and it’s all going to happen on Sonic 2sday.”
Van Buskirk entered his office and saw all the puns taped to the walls.
“For the record,” Schroeder said, “we’re just a little insane. But not clinically, or anything like that.”
Van Buskirk looked at Schroeder, then back at the wall, and then moved to Nilsen’s computer. She typed up something quickly, printed it out, and then taped it to the window outside her office: 2 Cool. With three crazy people hanging up puns everywhere, it didn’t take long for their happy insanity to spread. Employees started migrating over from all around the office, coming up with their best puns and hanging them on the window.
Nilsen took a step back and watched the impromptu collage come 2gether, 2 impressed 2 speak. He then got over himself and went back 2 work.
Bill White had suddenly become a very popular guy. And he didn’t like it one bit.
“No comment,” White said into the phone, and he said it again twice more before the reporter gave up and thanked him for his time. He looked around his messy office, shook his head in disbelief, and wondered how many minutes it would be until the next call came in. Since the press conference the day before, Nintendo’s marketing director had been flooded with calls from reporters around the country. What did Nintendo hope to gain from owning a baseball team? Would the team be renamed the Seattle Super Marios? And if so, was there any concern that the new name would sound too similar and possibly upset the local pro basketball team, the Seattle Supersonics? White tried to clarify that it wasn’t actually Nintendo buying the team, but rather Nintendo’s owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi. He would own the Mariners the same way he owned a variety of other businesses in Japan. And he was only putting up 60 percent of the money, with the other 40 percent coming from local investors who wanted to keep the team in the city. But those facts didn’t make for good headlines, so the reporters didn’t care.
And, honestly, White didn’t care either. He’d thought this was a bad idea from the beginning, and it was even worse now that baseball’s commissioner, Fay Vincent, had weighed in. Less than twenty-four hours after Yamauchi’s bid was submitted, Vincent cited a “strong policy” against foreign ownership and coldly deemed the deal “unlikely.” The folks at Nintendo were disheartened by his quick response, but White didn’t understand how they could expect any less. After all, only a year before, some Japanese businessman had inquired about purchasing an available minority stake in the New York Yankees. Any prospect of such a deal was nixed immediately, with Steve Greenberg, baseball’s deputy commissioner, explaining that baseball policy prohibited non-North American ownership.
That was all before Japan balked at providing aid to the Gulf War effort and U.S. politicians took to blaming Japan for America’s current recession. Since then, things had only gotten worse. Just two days earlier, the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission had been nationally applauded for voting to cancel a $122 million rail car deal with the Sumitomo Corporation, a Japanese firm that had won the contract over a company in Idaho. Videogames were no longer the fastest-growing medium of entertainment; that honor now went to xenophobia, with Japan-bashing being the most popular game.
It also didn’t help that Yamauchi, the man at the center of this story, was considered to be a frigid, enigmatic corporate tightwad. Only two years earlier he had responded to inquiries about Nintendo’s noticeable lack of philanthropy by saying, “I believe a business can contribute to society by growing and making money and paying more taxes. That’s how we contribute to society.” Given that previous stance, it was unsurprising that Americans would suspect an ulterior motive behind this out-of-the-blue act of supposed charity. Of course they would think: Here comes Japan, this Godzilla-sized bully—they show up in our country and take over our precious national pastime. As irrational as that point of view might be, the nation was angry, looking for someone to blame, and Yamauchi wasn’t doing himself any favors by skipping the press conference and avoiding the American media. The only public statement he made on the matter was to Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper, saying simply, “This is a kind of social service, not a business activity intended to make a profit.”
Another call to Bill White. No comment. No comment. Thank you for your time.
All of this couldn’t have come at a worse time for Nintendo, which had recently lost the very American ace that had been up their sleeve for years: Howard Phillips. Nintendo would often parade Phillips, with his curly red hair, boyishly thin freckled face, and gaudy bow tie, in front of the press to provide a familiar-looking face for a mistrusted Japanese company. He was the go-to guy for interviews, the physical embodiment of Nintendo in most of the population’s minds. Officially Phillips was Nintendo’s Game Master, a tribute to his ability to select hit titles and beat any game, but over the years his job had morphed into serving as the company’s unofficial mascot and a role model for a generation of young gamers. Phillips spoke in a fun, fresh parlance that resonated with kids of all ages, and he talked constantly about how he had the coolest job in the world, but in March 1991 he had unexpectedly left Nintendo. White didn’t know all the details behind his departure, but he wished that Phillips were around right now to help cushion the blow.
Without Phillips in the picture, Yamauchi’s bid for the Mariners had reopened a greatest-hits list of problems from Nintendo’s past: the lawsuits with Atari, Tengen, and Galoob; a discrimination case from 1990 alleging that Nintendo had repeatedly failed to hire and promote qualified African Americans; and a failed venture in Minnesota that would have allowed individuals to purchase lottery tickets through the NES, which the press was using to paint Nintendo as a proponent of gambling. This festering negativity would eventually cut into Nintendo’s bottom line, which was already suffering as a result of the recession, lack of a must-have title, and the presence of additional options in the marketplace. Less than a month after the holiday season, in addition to dropping the price of the Super Nintendo from $199.95 to $179.95, it had also dropped the price of its handheld Game Boy from $99.95 to $89.95.
Another call, this one from White’s wife. “Will you be home for dinner tonight?”
“No comment,” he replied.
“That kind of a day, huh?”
“You can’t even imagine,” he said. “I should be home by nine, provided Nintendo doesn’t go ahead and buy a football team.”
White understood the good intentions behind purchasing the Mariners, but surely Arakawa couldn’t be naive enough to believe that the country would see the situation from his point of view. He wanted to give his boss the benefit of the doubt, but that was becoming harder to do as it became more and more clear that he and Arakawa suffered from irreconcilable philosophical differences. In short, the issue was that White was a classically trained student of advertising who believed in the divine power of marketing, while Arakawa was a master of product development who believed that marketing was pretty much a complete waste of time. This was particularly troubling to White in light of the fact that he was, you know, Nintendo’s director of marketing.
Though Arakawa’s perspective may have seemed shortsighted, there was an anecdotal basis to his outlook. Over the past decade he’d heard from focus groups that the NES would never sell in America, that the Legend of Zelda was much too confusing, and that an Italian plumber made for a terrible hero. Experiences like these led him to believe that the fundamental problem with marketing was its reliance on the past. It looked backward, not forward, and failed to take into account innovation, trends, or cultural shifts in taste. At the end of the day, the only true predictor of future success was the quality of a product. In short: the reason a game sells is because it’s a good game, not because Bill White tells people to buy it.
Though the differing philosophies occasionally produced friction over the years, it was never anything that didn’t evaporate in a day or two. After all, why bother blowing gaskets or holding grudges when things were going so well? But as Nintendo shifted to 16 bits and the era of good feelings came to a close, blind faith was gradually replaced with muted skepticism. Fingers that once had seemed to have that Midas touch were now being pointed to allocate blame. And as the company began to lose market share, White found himself disagreeing more and more with Arakawa and the direction that Nintendo was headed. Ultimately, though, his concerns didn’t matter much. Arakawa was Nintendo of America’s president, and his opinion was the magic wand that enchanted everyone and everything into action. Nothing exemplified the growing divide greater than how Nintendo responded to the emergence of Sega.
For the past year, Sega had been going directly after Nintendo; naming names, trashing games, and making all kinds of bogus claims. At first it was almost cute, their yippity-yapping about how “Genesis does what Nintendon’t,” like a toy poodle barking in the face of a Great Dane. It was a nuisance, yes, but White knew it wasn’t worth the energy to fight them off. But then Tom Kalinske took over, and that poodle turned rabid. Sega lowered their price, signed up third-party developers, and painted Nintendo as nothing more than a cutesy kids’ company. Their bark was still much greater than their bite, but it was loud enough to warrant a response. Now was the time to put Sega in their place, either by launching a campaign that bit them right back or by feeding them some scraps and sending them away from the table. But this was not the Nintendo way. They refused to stoop to unsavory levels and negotiate with marketing terrorists.
Sega realized that they could do or say whatever they wanted, without fear of retribution. At the Consumer Electronics Show, Sega had thrown Mario into a footrace with their too-cool blue hedgehog. Nintendo did not respond. Then they took their parlor trick on the road, setting up their side-by-side comparisons around the country. Still Nintendo did not respond. And then over the holiday season, Sega took things to the next level, airing negative ads, puffing up their numbers for the press, and continuing to find ways to exploit their new mascot, who was nothing more than a Mario ripoff in fast shoes. Once again, Nintendo did not respond.
Looking back, White couldn’t believe that Nintendo had let this happen. Sega was nothing but a one-trick pony who had fooled the world into believing their hype. If only his bosses had allowed him to bark back, then they could have sent Sega to the woodshed before they became an actual threat. But now it was probably too late. White would never really know for sure, and that was the worst part. Even after everything Sega had done, Arakawa still refused to fight fire with fire. Though he had opened Nintendo’s purse strings and allocated $25 million to market the SNES, that money was earmarked for a wholesome, kid-friendly, gee-whiz campaign, which played right into Sega’s hands. But Arakawa wasn’t too concerned. He would forever be a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of guy, patiently hoping that the nineties would turn out to be as much of a fairy tale for Nintendo as the eighties had been.
Only time would tell, but there was one key difference between now and then. The reason that Nintendo had pulled off the impossible in the eighties was because they had fought for every inch. Now, though, they were sitting back and letting others take their precious real estate. Nintendo had underestimated Sega, undervalued backward compatibility, and underrated the importance of Howard Phillips’s freckled face. They were slightly wounded, but still very much the market leader. If they wanted to remain king of the jungle, then they should be spending their time searching for that same fighting spirit, not buying baseball teams. It was time for Nintendo to get back to work.
What was done was done, however, and White was willing to adopt the key tenet of Arakawa’s philosophy: look forward, not backward. The bid for the Mariners had already been made, and the only thing they could do now was damage control. For the deal to go through, it would have to be approved by the commissioner, the ownership committee, and at least 75 percent of the twenty-six major league baseball teams. At this point, White didn’t know which of the two evils would be better: suffering through months of bad press only to watch the deal fall apart, or miraculously receiving ownership of the team and exposing the company to continued attacks. He started to give this question some serious thought, but was interrupted once again by a ringing phone.