Console Wars (2015)
As Kalinske settled into his new office in the one-story warehouse where Sega rented space, he couldn’t help but think about how different this was from every other place he’d ever worked. It was a far cry from Mattel’s eight-story tower in Hawthorne, California, not even in the same league as J. Walter Thompson’s high-rise on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue, and barely a step up from the college apartment where he’d founded Wisconsin Man magazine. Well, he thought, at least this new office came with a view, and then he looked out the window at the small company parking lot. It was his first day as president and CEO of Sega of America and he had only met a few people thus far, but he couldn’t resist trying to guess which car belonged to which person.
“You’re a colossally outstanding idiot!” someone said, interrupting his thoughts.
Kalinske turned around, looked up, and muttered a barely audible noise that could best be described as the sound a question mark might make. It was Michael Katz, standing by the door, slowly shaking his head, with an unfinished smile on his face.
“I’m sorry, Michael,” Kalinske said. “I didn’t actively pursue this job.”
“You stealing my job isn’t what makes you an idiot. That makes you kind of an asshole. But I’ve always known you were secretly kind of an asshole. What I didn’t know was that you were also secretly a colossally outstanding idiot.”
Kalinske offered Katz a seat, but he declined. “How so?”
“For taking this job,” Katz said.
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh, I don’t know, about a million things, but at the top of the list is the glaring fact that you don’t know a thing about videogames!”
Kalinske considered this. “I’ll learn,” he said at last.
“Yes, and what you’ll soon learn is that you shouldn’t have taken this job. Do you know what Sega really is? Sega is a joke. Sega is a punch line,” Katz ranted. He was good at ranting; at times it appeared to be his best quality. “Sega is a ticking time bomb, and you just signed up to strap it to your chest—”
Kalinske cut him off. “I’m glad you came in here, actually. I’ve been doing some research, and I wanted to say that you did a very strong job, given the hand you were dealt.”
“I know,” Katz said, nodding. “I did. And look how far away we—sorry, you are from even being a blip on Nintendo’s radar.”
“Then I guess I’ll be the one to go down with the ship,” Kalinske said with a dignity he felt distinguished him from most other leaders. “Look, I appreciate the advice, Michael. I know it’s going to be an uphill battle.”
Katz shook his head. “This just isn’t like you,” he said. “What happened? Did he take you to the secret lab? Or was it the hostess bar?”
Kalinske tried not to let his eyes reveal the answer.
“Oh, my God. It was both, wasn’t it?” Katz snickered.
Kalinske stood up and walked Katz to the door. “Listen, I appreciate the . . . whatever you would call this, but . . .”
“Wait,” Katz protested. “I just want to ask you a question. Do you really think he’s not going to do the same thing to you that he did to me? Think about it.”
Kalinske tried his best not to. This was a question that had scraped the top of his mind on numerous occasions since his Japan trip, but he’d been trying his best to avoid it.
With a sheen of sincerity, Katz met Kalinske’s eyes and offered some parting words. “Just remember: you may think you’re in charge and you may think he’s your friend, but watch your back.” And then, before leaving, Katz locked eyes with Kalinske, and it dawned on both men that their future success and failure would forever be strangely intertwined.
“I really do think you did a good job, Michael.”
“Thanks, Tom. Thanks.”
They shook hands and, for a moment, let mutual respect trump awkwardness.
Kalinske shut the door and walked back to the window, where he spent a few moments staring at the unspectacular parking lot. This was the view, this was his new life. Get used to it, he thought.
There was a gentle knock on the door, and in came Shinobu Toyoda, a thin, soft-spoken Japanese man who wore fine Italian suits, fetching neckties, and a pair of thick glasses that always seemed to be trying to escape down his nose. He served as the executive vice president with the primary responsibility of acting as liaison between California’s Sega of America and Tokyo’s Sega of Japan. After Kalinske accepted the job, Toyoda had graciously been meeting with the new CEO to give him the lay of the land. Within moments of their first meeting, Kalinske could tell that behind Toyoda’s reserved demeanor and perpetual smile-for-the-camera grin was an incredibly shrewd and resourceful man. What he couldn’t tell, however, was the true source of this man’s devotion. Kalinske had heard varying opinions on Toyoda’s role at Sega of America, ranging from “the straw that stirs the drink” to “a Japanese spy who was ready at the drop of a hat to tattle on his colleagues to Nakayama.” Thus far, his actions had caused Kalinske to believe the former but, then again, wasn’t that exactly how the latter would behave? Kalinske happily greeted his guest. “Toyoda-san, come in!”
“Please, just Shinobu.”
Kalinske nodded, convincing himself that Toyoda’s desire to be addressed informally should count as a point in the not-a-spy column. Though, once again, perhaps that was just a clever ruse.
Toyoda punctured Kalinske’s pulpy thought bubble by advising him that the executive meeting was about to begin. “It will be a great chance for you to meet everyone and understand what they do.”
“Perfect,” Kalinske said, and then followed Toyoda through the wide hallways of the warehouse. Though the building was small, it had an open feel, which made the many boxes stacked against the wall feel less like clutter and more like the foundation of something to come. “Did I hear you mention the other day that you had recently been in Dallas? What’s out there?”
“Ah, yes, my family is there,” Toyoda said. After a moment, he seemed to realize that his answer could benefit from elaboration, and he continued, “When I left Japan to work for Mitsubishi, my wife and I made a life in Dallas. So she stays there with the kids full-time and I return for the weekends so we can be together.”
“Wait, you fly back every weekend? So you basically commute from Dallas?”
“Yes, exactly,” Toyoda said softly.
“That’s—” Kalinske was about to say “crazy” until he realized that he would be doing a similar (though shorter) commute for the foreseeable future. With the school year about to begin for Kalinske’s daughters, he and Karen had decided that until next summer it would be best if she remained in Los Angeles with the girls, and he rent a small place in the Bay Area. On weekends, he would drive down to Los Angeles to spend time with his family and then drive back north early Monday morning. It was not at all an ideal situation (for Kalinske nor his car’s odometer), but it wouldn’t have been fair to his daughters to move so abruptly, especially when there was a decent chance Sega might not even be around a year from now. And hey, at least he wasn’t going all the way to Dallas each weekend. “That’s really nice, Shinobu.”
Toyoda led him into a shadowy conference room with a large table and dark wooden walls. The room was filled nearly to capacity with just over a dozen employees. Kalinske took a brief moment to introduce himself and explain that today he was there merely as an observer. This led to a few minutes of glad-handing, ass-kissing, and proclamations of future greatness.
After the compulsory pleasantries came to an end, the meeting resumed—if you could even call it a meeting. In Kalinske’s experience, meetings were places where employees could share ideas—some good, some bad, some unclear—and then isolate the best ones for implementation. Meetings were places where status updates were given, strategies were discussed, and, most important, employees left feeling slightly better about what they were doing. This was nothing like that. Here, all the voices blurred into a cacophony of discontent.
“What’s the status with Atomic Robo-Kid?”
“Who cares? The game is garbage.”
“Well, whose fault is that?”
“Some idiot at UPL for coming up with a crap game, some other idiot in Japan for porting it to the Genesis, and then another idiot here for ordering too many copies!”
“Are you talking about me?”
“Well, now that you mention it . . .”
“Hey, screw that. You’re lucky you weren’t fired for that Babbage’s bullshit!”
Finally there was a respite to the chaos when the verbal daggers were momentarily replaced with collective giggles. “Sgt. Kabukiman,” Sega’s director of licensing, Diane Drosnes, repeated over laughter, “Yup, that’s right, he’s back.” Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. was a 1990 comedy about a clumsy New York cop-turned-superhero with powers like heat-seaking chopsticks and fatal sushi. Only a few Sega employees had actually seen the movie, but those who had all agreed it had to be among the worst ever made. Yet despite its seemingly obvious horridness, Sega’s game developers in Tokyo thought it was a wonderful film and the Americans needed to obtain the license to make a game based on it. Every month, Drosnes and her colleagues would send faxes explaining why this was a bad idea. But without fail, the suggestion kept coming back from Japan. This perpetual cultural difference was a source of great levity, but after everyone had a quick laugh the bickering resumed in full force.
Kalinske tried to hold his tongue, but it was tough. There were, however, three employees whom Kalinske immediately deemed as highly promising. One of them was the enigmatic Shinobu Toyoda, and the other two, Paul Rioux and Al Nilsen, he knew from previous career stops.
“Both of you, settle down,” Rioux said, controlling the room with poise, authority, and a hint of threat. Rioux was a stocky Vietnam vet with hollow eyes and a deep, silvery voice. “I’ll take care of giving us a little wiggle room, and then we’ll ship through Chicago to make up for some of the lost time.” Kalinske had briefly worked with Rioux at Mattel, where Rioux had held a management role in the electronics division and been hailed as the nuts-and-bolts guy of the operation. It was immediately clear that Rioux was the go-to guy at Sega of America, the one who made sure that everyone had at least a vague idea of what they were supposed to be doing. Throughout his life, from fighting in Vietnam to fighting for shelf space, he was an unapologetic gladiator who always got things done.
“Hey, maybe we should create some big event to generate interest in the game,” said Nilsen, a large-bodied, larger-than-life marketing dynamo. Beneath round-rimmed spectacles, Nilsen’s face rarely depicted emotions. But when he spoke, a wonderfully boundless, kid-trapped-in-an-adult-body enthusiasm could not be contained. “Like maybe, I don’t know . . . a National Kid’s Day! Yeah, that might work. You know, like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but for kids. And we’ll make Atomic Robo-Kid the perfect gift for the occasion. What do you say, guys? Do we have a winner?” Nobody responded, and Nilsen sat back down. From their time at Mattel, Kalinske remembered Nilsen as someone who could and would lay golden eggs from time to time. Seeing Nilsen excitedly churning with ideas put Kalinske slightly at ease.
After a lingering silence, Toyoda meekly spoke up. “If we delay the shipment as Al suggested, but not for such a reason, can we depreciate the R&D costs for the second quarter?” Nobody responded, but it was clear the financial guys in the room loved this idea, and they scribbled it down. Toyoda only spoke up a few times, each time asking a clever question or clarifying an important remark that had gotten lost in the perpetual shuffle.
Kalinske gazed out the window of the conference room, once again attempting to accept that this was now his life. At least he had Rioux, Nilsen, and Toyoda. Kalinske took a deep breath. Everything would be okay. But just as Kalinske was starting to feel a little better about this motley crew, the meeting once again turned into a name-calling shouting match.
“Who cares about depreciating the R&D costs? You can’t expect a Band-Aid to cover up a hole the size of the goddamn Grand Canyon.”
“Yeah? Well we wouldn’t be in this hole if you didn’t convince us to overbid on trash like Dick Tracy and Spider-Man.”
“What do you want from me? These are our only options. Everyone else is developing for Nintendo!”
“So why don’t we get them to develop for us?” Kalinske said, before he even realized that he was speaking. His own words caught him off guard, but he’d already started, so he couldn’t stop now. “If they’ve already made the games for Nintendo, why don’t we offer them some money to put them on our system too?” Kalinske said, shining a spotlight of reason in a room full of nonsense. “Maybe we could even get them to make enhanced versions for the Genesis so they’ll stand out.” Kalinske looked around, expecting enthusiastic nods. Instead, he found a combination of discomfort, dismay, and maybe even some pity.
Toyoda spoke up to fill the void. “Those are all strong ideas, Tom. Thank you for sharing. But unfortunately, at this moment, they will not be most efficient. Nintendo has taken measures to prevent anything like that. They are prepared.”
Kalinske nodded, getting the message: Shut up until you know what you’re talking about. He thought about trying to compensate for his blunder by making some bold promise or guarantee of success, but realized that might make him appear even more out of his element. For now, there was nothing to do but sit there, listen, and wonder if he’d made the biggest mistake of his life.
When the meeting ended, everyone quickly exited the conference room, except for Paul Rioux, who lumbered toward Kalinske with a thick, Hemingwayesque grin. “I know how you’re feeling,” he said. “It’s how I felt my first day on the job. To come from a place like Mattel to . . . this?”
“Yeah, it’s a little different from what I expected,” Kalinske said.
“It is. And it took me a little while to figure out that different is good,” Rioux said, reflecting. “Anyway, I wanted to come over and say that I was very, very pleased when I heard that you were coming here. You’re going to do a hell of a job.”
“We shall see . . .”
“We shall. And to help you get there I’ve put together a dossier of information so that you can familiarize yourself with Nintendo. They’re a real beast, and their financials are just . . . I don’t even know how to describe it. I’ve got all kinds of articles, reports, presentations, and things of that nature. It’s yours, if you want it.”
Kalinske was so grateful that for a moment he considered enveloping Rioux with a giant bear hug. Instead, he took a moment to gather himself and simply say thank you, before setting out to learn everything there was to know about Nintendo.