Console Wars (2015)
AND THE HARE
Ten months later, Kalinske sat at his desk and stared out the window. He had been doing a lot of this lately, not by choice, but it was a side effect of failure and, in truth, seemed about as productive as anything else going on at Sega.
As he had predicted, the Saturn was a flop. Since the surprise launch in May, Sega had sold eight hundred thousand units of hardware, less than half of what Sony’s PlayStation had sold (and the PlayStation had been available for only half as long as the Saturn). This dismal experience was accompanied by an untold number of frustrations, but none more grating than the fact that he had seen it coming. Kalinske had tried to work with Sony, and then Silicon Graphics, and even with Sega of Japan for what would have been Sega Saturn. He and his team had redefined the videogame industry with the Genesis, then been forced to sit back and watch as it was methodically destroyed by people who should have been on his side.
To put it like that made him sound naive, and maybe he had been at times, but if so, then shouldn’t he have regrets? Things he would have done differently. People and products he had trusted too much. Maybe the problem had been that he had been fighting the wrong war, all that time believing it was Sega vs. Nintendo, when really the more treacherous battles were between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. But without the triumphs of Sega vs. Nintendo, there wouldn’t even have been an SOA vs. SOJ; Sega of America would still be the same fifty-person operation that Kalinske had taken over in 1990. He thought back over the years, rewriting history in his head and playing out scenarios, but even then he couldn’t find an alternative ending to this story. He knew all the whos and whats and whys, but never could figure out how things could have been different. And that haunting mystery was his ultimate frustration.
He could feel history rewriting itself, and it made him sick. Sega was no longer the alternative upstart, but just the new giant ready to fall, the way Nintendo and Atari had before them. Sega CD, 32X, and the Sega Channel would be viewed not as dynamic innovations but as flops that took Sega’s attention away from the oncoming freight train. Kalinske felt he would no longer be perceived as the mastermind of a company that had gone from a 5 percent market share to 55 percent in three years, but instead thought of as just some guy who’d happened to be lucky enough to ride the wave of Sonic and reap the benefits of hawking games full of blood, sex, and violence. He would be remembered as the guy in the right place at the right time who’d benefited from everything Michael Katz had done. Or maybe, and probably even more likely, he wouldn’t be remembered at all. History was indeed rewriting itself, and history was cruel.
Perhaps Kalinske would have seen some small silver lining if Sega’s defeat had meant big things for those he admired most at Sony. That, however, was hardly the case. Although Sony would go on to sell ten million PlayStation systems by the end of 1996 (with more than half of those sales occurring in the United States), most of SCEA’s key executives would be fired or let go within a year of the launch. The curious timing of this purge (which included Steve Race, Olaf Olafsson, and Michael Schulhof) would later be questioned in a September 23, 1996, Forbes article titled “Great Job: You’re Fired.” Why these men were let go will forever be something that only a select few truly know, but to this day Steve Race has no problem sharing his own theory, explaining that “the way to attain success at Sony was to either get into, or come out of, a Japanese vagina.” Despite the salty language, there would be no hint of bitterness (neither then nor today), and Steve Race would soon forget all about Sony and simply do what he did best: shrug it off, move on, and find a new company to turn around. And from his quiet office in Redwood Shores, Tom Kalinske couldn’t help but feel it was time for him to do the same.
“Are you busy?” Fornasier asked, interrupting his thoughts.
The sight of a friendly face made Kalinske perk up. “Never for you,” he said. “You’re one of the good guys. So take a seat, tell me what’s going on.”
“Thank you,” she said, her voice still chipper despite the faded light in her eyes. She’d had that hollow look ever since June 1995, when her son Troy, the only one of the triplets to survive the pregnancy, passed away ten days after his birth. The doctors had told her that these things sometimes happen with high-risk pregnancies; it was an absolute tragedy, but not one that could have been avoided. They said the words, and presented medical data, but she would always partially blame herself for working through the pregnancy. Unlike Kalinske, who could never figure out the how of his problem, Fornasier believed that she had figured it out for hers, even though she was repeatedly told there was no reason for her to feel guilty. Still, nothing could ever change the thoughts in that unseeably small part of her mind; she had made the ultimate sacrifice, and would forever have to live with that.
“What can I help you with?” Kalinske asked, suddenly hopeful that he might be able to do something productive with his day.
“Tom,” she said, shaking her head, “I’m just in a real bad spot here.”
“In what way?”
Logically, she knew it was time to leave Sega, but emotionally she just couldn’t let go. The choice had become easier to make after Paul Rioux left in June, Tom Abramson resigned in February, and Nakayama had fired Goodby, Silverstein & Partners just a few weeks ago. But even with all that, she still couldn’t bring herself to do it. She was one of the last remaining dinosaurs, but just couldn’t face extinction—that is, unless she was not alone. And she knew Kalinske’s contract would be up in June.
“I know that you’re legally not allowed to tell me,” Fornasier explained, “but if you could give me any sort of indication on whether you’re staying at Sega, that would really help a lot. Just to know that you’d be here, and that we could build another team . . .”
“I know what you’re asking, but it’s hard for me to answer.”
She was aware that he wasn’t allowed to talk about which way he was leaning, because Sega was a publicly traded company in Japan. Still, she had hoped that asking him in person might reveal some sort of answer. She felt kind of bad about putting him in this position, but she just didn’t know what else to do. Her job had become almost unbearable; she just couldn’t take any more, particularly any interactions with Paul Rioux’s replacement.
When Rioux had stepped down, his position was filled by someone from Sega of Japan named Makota Kaneshiro whose best talent, as far as she could tell, was not caring what anyone else had to say. This had really started to wear her down with the release of a game called NiGHTS into Dreams, which was the first non-Sonic game being made by the Sonic development team. The graphics of the game were beautiful, but conceptually it was a tough sell. Inspired by Jungian philosophy, it starred an androgynous fairy who guides a young boy and girl through a colorful but dreary dream world. She protested that the game would have trouble finding an audience in the United States, but he was adamant that Sega of America put all their eggs into this basket. It was by the prestigious Sonic Team, it had beautiful graphics, and people in Japan would understand it. She didn’t disagree with any of this, but she didn’t believe the audience here would connect. But he had little interest in her point of view. Although Fornasier had not been at SOA during the creation of Sonic, she couldn’t help but think about how perfectly this situation epitomized the change that had taken place.
For the most part, she had made peace with the dynamic, but something Makota had said to her last week wouldn’t stop rattling around her head. They had been discussing plans for the second annual E3 show and strategizing about the best ways to highlight various titles. Long discussions about what went where and which titles got how much attention had led to a meticulously crafted plan. But the following morning, when Makota distributed plans for the show, everything had been changed. The new strategy, unsurprisingly, featured all NiGHTS, all day long. She confronted him about this, hoping for at least an explanation, and he told her that she was mistaken.
“But everything is completely different,” she said.
“No, no, you approved this, Ms. Diane,” he said. “You have just forgotten.”
She shook her head and wanted to let the issue go, but her feet simply wouldn’t turn and walk away. She was sick of this happening, over and over, and she was sick of the new but unspoken corporate culture of giving in. What had happened to the Sega that had taught her to take? More important, what had happened to her that she was okay with no longer being that person? “Makota-san,” she said, now refusing to budge, “I apologize if I am speaking out of turn, and I have tremendous respect for all the good work you do, but I feel like I would be doing a disservice to my job if I did not stand here and fight for this.”
When she finished, Makota-san smiled widely and appeared to finally understand where she was coming from. Maybe this particular situation wouldn’t change, nor would the next, but there was now this understanding, and that had to be worth something. And then after a moment, nodding slightly, he replied, “Ms. Diane, you need to learn to be less passionate about your work.”
Suddenly her feet started working again, and as she walked through Sega’s increasingly unfamiliar hallways, she decided that she very much needed to speak with Tom Kalinske.
“I’m sorry for asking,” Fornasier said to Kalinske. “I shouldn’t have put you in that position. It’s not right.”
“Don’t even think twice,” he told her. “I’d have done the same.”
“But even though I can’t discuss my contract with you, I can give you some advice if you would like.”
“Yeah, of course. Always.”
“Good,” he said. “I would just recommend that you don’t make your decision dependent on me. I don’t mean to imply anything by that, one way or another, but you need to do what’s best for you. You owe that to yourself.”
Somehow, with those words, it was as if a curse had been broken, and her logic and emotions were intertwined and functioning once again. “Thank you,” Fornasier said, with an assertiveness befitting someone who had accomplished all she had done. Shortly after this, she would go on to work for Paul Rioux, who had recently been named president of New Media at Universal Studios. There, as VP of marketing and business administration, Fornasier would seal a multiple-title contract with Sony to license Spyro and Crash Bandicoot. But before any of that, and coming to terms with life outside of Sega, she thanked Kalinske for everything he had done with a farewell hug.
“No, stop, don’t go,” Kalinske said. “I didn’t mean it—I need you to stay.”
“All right, all right, that’s all I needed to hear,” his wife replied, and then turned around and swam back in his direction.
Tom, Karen, and the kids had returned to a beach in Hawaii. Once again the sun was shining, and the children were collecting hermit crabs in a bright yellow bucket, but on this trip something there was noticeably different. Tom was different.
Not long after his conversation with Fornasier, Kalinske called Nakayama to resign. By this point, Kalinske had assumed that his leaving Sega was all but a formality, but Nakayama appeared to be genuinely surprised by this and asked if they could speak in person. The following week, Nakayama flew to Redwood Shores and met Kalinske to further discuss the matter. At first their time together felt just like the good old days, but eventually that feeling faded and Kalinske reiterated that it was time for him to look for a new challenge.
“What kind of challenge?” Nakayama asked.
“Something that uses technology to improve education,” Kalinske replied.
Nakayama’s eyes bubbled with questions until the president of Sega Enterprises blinked and suddenly they all went away. He then gave Kalinske a strange look, perhaps wistful and said, “I understand, thank you.”
And that was that, the end of Tom Kalinske’s time at Sega. After several years spent turning nothing into something only to watch it slowly be turned back into nothing once again, he would go on to successfully apply video-game technology to education throughout the rest of his storied career (at places like Knowledge Universe, Leapfrog, Blackboard, and many, many more).
“Hold still,” Karen said, trying to climb on her husband’s shoulders, but accidentally dunking him in the process.
“This is why I sent you away!” Tom exclaimed when he came up for air.
“Okay, I give up,” Karen said, floating by his side. “So now what?”
Tom didn’t respond right away, but as he looked at his wife a smile slowly grew across his face. This was his beautiful Barbie, the mother of his children, and the one who made his world possible. “Anything we want.”
This time, instead of trying to conceal his dislike for the beach, Tom Kalinske was up for anything. He had learned how to adapt, how to enjoy, and how much better it felt to smile and actually mean it. And finally, after all this time, he was getting to finish the family vacation that had been so strangely interrupted six years earlier.