Console Wars (2015)
THE BIRTH OF AN ICON
Back in the office, Kalinske stared at his phone with Wal-Mart on his mind. He knew that he had laid it on pretty thick with the electronics merchant and wasn’t sure whether he ought to call back and apologize. Before he could persuade himself in one direction or another, however, the phone rang. Kalinske quickly answered, so certain that it must be the man on his mind that he even took half a second to try to hide the excitement in his voice.
It wasn’t Wal-Mart. Of course it wasn’t Wal-Mart; the man Kalinske had met with didn’t even have his direct line. It was Nakayama, whose ominously chipper voice boomed through the phone. “Tom! How is everything? How are you adjusting?” Nakayama and Kalinske spoke just about every day, but still their conversations often began with this open-ended question.
“I had a great meeting with Wal-Mart,” Kalinske said. “I think they’re close.”
Nakayama was an intelligent man who understood many of the intricacies of the industry, but he didn’t quite grasp the distribution difficulties in the United States. “What is the holdup?” he asked. In Japan, where Nintendo also reigned supreme, Sega had still managed to get their products into all the biggest retailers. “I thought everything would be smooth after we moved on from Tonka. I was told this was the plan,” Nakayama stated. “But I have not called to discuss distribution. I am calling with good news.”
“Wonderful,” Kalinske said. “Let’s hear it.”
“The new company mascot is ready, and he is sure to be a success.”
“This is the hedgehog named Mr. Needlemouse?”
“Ah, you have heard,” Nakayama said, surprised. “We have made some changes, and his name is now Sonic.”
“Okay,” Kalinske said. “Well, when can I see him?”
“I will send him over now,” Nakayama said, and then barked orders in Japanese to someone on the other end. “He will enter through the fax. I will stay on the line to hear your reaction. You will be very pleased.” Kalinske made his way over to the fax machine as it buzzed and huffed, printing out lines of what would be the company’s savior. “My guys here have already begun work on the game engine. They showed me an early version, and it is fast like nothing else.”
The fax machine stopped sputtering, and Kalinske picked up the sketch. “Ah,” he said, trying not to sound repulsed. “Very interesting.” Kalinske stared at the drawing, trying to see in it what Nakayama saw, but it was no use. The hedgehog looked villainous and crude, complete with sharp fangs, a spiked collar, an electric guitar, and a human girlfriend whose cleavage made Barbie’s chest look flat. “I assume this is his girlfriend?”
“Yes,” Nakayama said. “That is Madonna.”
“Kind of racy, no?”
“Tom,” Nakayama said, and sighed. “This is not the reaction I expected.”
Kalinske continued to stare at the drawing. “Sorry, Nakayama-san, sometimes it just takes a little while for things to sink in for me,” he said, still shocked that this bruiser was supposed to be his messiah. “I’ll tell you one thing, though—if Sonic and Mario were alone in an alley, I have no doubt who I’d put my money on.” He had been expecting a Mario-killer, but not one that literally looked like a serial killer. Maybe this Sonic could sell in Japan, but in America he belonged inside a nightmare.
Kalinske got off the phone with Nakayama and took the fax to Madeline Schroeder’s office. “I have good news and I have scary news. Which do you want first?”
“This doesn’t sound promising.”
He handed her the artwork. “What do you think?”
She looked it over. “I think we’ll be the first videogame company whose core demographic is goths.”
“Nakayama loves it.”
“Of course he does,” she said. “It’s so weirdly Japanese. I’m surprised the girlfriend’s boobs aren’t hanging out of a schoolgirl outfit.”
Despite his sour mood, Kalinske laughed. “Her name is Madonna.”
“Of course it is,” she said. “What kind of leeway did he say we had?”
“We didn’t exactly have a Q&A session.”
Schroeder put the drawing on the desk. After a long silent inspection they both spoke at the same time, saying the exact same thing: “Can you fix it?”
Schroeder sighed. “You know, I expected something pretty terrible. I mean, the second-place winner in the contest was an egg, for God’s sake. This is certainly not ideal, but it’s actually not as bad as I was bracing for. We can make this work.”
Her optimism was contagious. “Great,” Kalinske said, standing up. “Then let’s turn this punk into a global icon.”
“And how exactly do you propose we begin?”
“Oh, I know of a little place where the icons all hang out together. Why don’t we grab Al and go check it out?”
Kalinske, Schroeder, and Nilsen went on a field trip to Toys “R” Us to pay a visit to some famous friends: Mickey Mouse, GI Joe, He-Man, Mr. Potato Head, and the newly popular and ever-rowdy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Kalinske walked them through the store, pointing out one billion-dollar property after another and explaining what made each character unique, likable, and timeless. There didn’t appear to be a single toy in the store that Kalinske was unfamiliar with; he knew which company had developed each toy, why they had done so, and how they had gone about marketing it. There was just no place that Kalinske felt more in his element than inside a toy store.
Toy stores were more than just a comfort zone or realm of inspiration to him. They were like a library of cultural mythology. His biggest takeaway from the toy industry had been the importance of story. A toy might be just a piece of plastic, but if you added a compelling narrative and a character mythology, you could transform that piece of plastic into the next big thing. He had proved it with Barbie and with He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, and he was starting to feel more and more confident that he could do it with Sonic as well.
They stopped in front of a Mickey and Minnie dollhouse. “He’s the ultimate friend,” Kalinske said. “No matter what, Mickey remains upbeat and encouraging. It’s like he lives to put a smile on the face of others.”
“Sounds kind of pathetic, if you ask me,” Schroeder said. “I prefer my friends to be a little more selective.”
“Well, not everyone can be as popular as you, Madeline. There are a lot of kids out there who just want someone to like them. Enter Mickey Mouse.”
Kalinske continued his tour and stopped in front of a large display of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the most recent plastic sensation. “I’ve been thinking that these guys embody the tone that we should be trying to strike. Playful, but edgy—cool, but no leather jackets. You know what I mean?” Nilsen and Schroeder nodded, taking it all in. “And I’ve seen a few episodes of the cartoon. They do a great job of establishing the universe.”
They passed through the boys’ action hero section into the pink and purple world of girls’ dolls. Kalinske didn’t notice until he was face-to-face with Bathtime Fun Barbie, dressed up like a mermaid. Schroeder and Nilsen noticed his subtle flinch.
“Don’t like running into her, do you?” she asked.
Kalinske rolled the question over. “It can be a little strange sometimes.”
“I’m sure it doesn’t help that she’s just about everywhere,” Nilsen said.
Schroeder could tell that the sight of Barbie really did strike a nerve. “Would it make you feel any better if I told you she was just a piece of plastic?”
“If only that were true,” he said with a sigh. He glared at the doll and moved on, his mind racing with ideas to try to put Barbie in her place.
Day after day, Kalinske, Schroeder and Nilsen worked to turn this critter into something more than lines on a page. At first their primary focus was subtraction, removing the fangs, the collar, the guitar, and the girlfriend. Then as he began to look more and more like a lost little hedgehog, they worked to add back some of that attitude, focusing less on gimmicks like a guitar or a girlfriend and more on his backstory and character. To better understand this speedy blue hedgehog, Kalinske had Schroeder write a thirteen-page bible that detailed the who, what, where, when, and why of his personality. He had grown up in Nebraska, lost his father at a young age, trained hard to develop world-class speed, and befriended a brilliant scientist who acted as a father figure until an experiment gone awry turned him into an evil villain.
Eventually, the creative forces at Sega of America got to the point where they no longer felt like they were making up the hedgehog’s story on the fly, but actually learning more about a character who truly existed. As they continued to redefine this character from a marketing standpoint, the designers and engineers at Sega of Japan were busy working on a “game like no other” in which the hedgehog would star. During this time, Nilsen did what he was often known to do and took things further by rechristening him Sonic The Hedgehog (with his middle name literally being “The,” on the reasoning that it would make a cool story one day).
Sonic wouldn’t just become the face of the company but also would represent their spirit: the tiny underdog moved with manic speed, and no matter what obstacles stood in his way, he never ever stopped going. Sonic embodied not only the spirit of Sega of America’s employees but also the cultural zeitgeist of the early nineties. He had captured Kurt Cobain’s “whatever” attitude, Michael Jordan’s graceful arrogance, and Bill Clinton’s get-it-done demeanor.
When the newly refined hedgehog was ready, Kalinske called up Nakayama. “We made some changes. I want you to take a look.”
“Okay,” Nakayama said. “I will call you back.”
“No, I’d like to stay on the line and hear your reaction,” Kalinske said as he faxed over a copy of Sega of America’s revised hedgehog.
Nakayama chuckled, but his good mood quickly devolved into a cold neutrality. “Oh,” he said. “This is not even the same hedgehog that we gave you! Where is his lady friend? And those sharp teeth of his?”
“This is not the reaction I was expecting,” Kalinske said, echoing not only Nakayama’s earlier words but also his distinctly disappointed tone.
Nakayama thought for a moment. He was a man who chose his words wisely, so it was significant whenever he took an extra moment to do so. “It doesn’t matter what I think. It only matters what will sell.” But over the following days, tempers at Sega of Japan began to flare. The games designers believed they should be in charge of every aspect of Sonic. In normal circumstances, this would likely be the case, but since the character of Sonic had initially been created for the goal of success in the United States, Sega of America believed that they knew best when it came to the tastes and preferences of their audience.
Days later, Nakayama called Kalinske back, sounding less open-minded. “My people do not like what you have done to their creation. It no longer resembles what they had in mind. We must revert to the original.”
Kalinske realized for the first time that despite being under the same umbrella, Sega was essentially two companies: Sega of Japan (SOJ) and Sega of America (SOA). It didn’t matter to SOJ that the new hedgehog might be better; all that mattered to them was that it wasn’t theirs. Although the friction between parent company and subsidiary was subtle, it certainly did exist and was real in a way that Sgt. Kabukiman was not.
Kalinske knew this was the moment that could make or break the company. He had to put it all on the line and urge Nakayama to reconsider. “I’ve been in the videogame business for about five minutes,” he began, “but I’ve been in the toy business for over twenty years. You know what the toy business really is? It’s not about size, shape, color, or price; it’s about character. You want to play with characters you like. You want to become a part of their world and let them become a part of yours,” Kalinske said, overwhelmed with passion. “I can only speak for myself, but there’s not a character out there that I’d rather spend some time with than our new Sonic The Hedgehog. And if I feel this way, I think there are a lot of others who will feel exactly the same.” Kalinske stopped and took a deep breath. He thought for a moment about reminding Nakayama about his promise to let Kalinske do things his way, and he also considered suggesting they conduct some market tests to see which hedgehog was more popular, but at the end of the day none of that mattered. This was about a vision, and if Nakayama couldn’t see that, then he didn’t deserve Sonic.
Nakayama finally broke the silence. “Tom, maybe I agree, but you must understand that there are people here of premium integrity who think differently.”
“I understand,” Kalinske replied. “So how about we try and change their minds?”
To share Sega of America’s vision for Sonic, Schroeder was sent to Japan with the unenviable task of convincing the programmers that although they may know how to develop great games, she and her colleagues knew how to develop great characters. This fateful meeting at SOJ began friendly enough, but when it became clear that Schroeder wasn’t interested in revising her vision, tempers began to flare. As a compromise, they suggested that each faction of the company simply have their own Sonic: you use your Sonic, and we’ll use ours. To support this multi-Sonic worldview, they cited how Mickey Mouse wasn’t exactly the same all over the world.
First off, Schroeder thought, I don’t even think that’s true. And secondly, even if Mickey does get localized in certain regions, she felt fairly confident that there wasn’t a territory in the world where Mickey had fangs (or Minnie had double-Ds). Thirdly, and most important, she didn’t want two Sonics. This wasn’t about Sega of America getting their way, but about creating something immortal that existed in the world’s collective imagination. And to do that, there could be no S(OA)onic and S(OJ)onic. Schroeder tried to make this point, but soon enough everyone had left the room. Although this impromptu boycott seemed to point toward a Sonic schism, whatever she had said in Japan appeared to have done the trick. When Kalinske next spoke with Nakayama, he and his team were given the green light to proceed as they saw fit.
With this mandate, Sonic sprinted toward the finish line, hoping to one day race past Mario and declare war on Nintendo. But in the coming months, those David-vs.-Goliath dreams were too often dashed by skirmishes between Sega of America and Sega of Japan. This cultural clash would lead to a standoff in which every decision, big or small, escalated into a battle of pride, principle, or sometimes just pure pettiness. This growing divide would be hard on everyone, but it would undoubtedly be hardest on Shinobu Toyoda, the liaison between the two factions. If Schroeder fought for a change, and Naka fought against it, it was Toyoda who was thrust in the middle and played the role of peacemaker. Kalinske knew that when it comes to war, everyone ultimately has to pick a side, and in the process of watching Toyoda constantly trying to broker peace between SOA and SOJ, he finally saw this man’s true colors. Toyoda looked like a Japanese man and sounded like a Japanese man, but when push came to shove, he remained loyal to SOA. It was the small things that Kalinske noticed: the way he translated fighting words into diplomatic terms, the way he might claim Nakayama had approved something that he’d never even seen. Most important were the subtle ways he moved the emotional chess pieces to get what SOA wanted, for example, by doing something like adding a ridiculous character detail and then gaining leverage over SOJ by offering to remove it.
But before any of those unnecessary battles in the Sonic wars would be fought, Kalinske was informed about a more pressing conflict: Sega’s negotiations with Electronic Arts.
“What negotiations?” Kalinske asked.
“I’m sure I must have mentioned this earlier,” Nakayama replied.
“Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.”
“Well, the situation at present is that Trip Hawkins of Electronic Arts has found a way to reverse-engineer the Genesis and now they have decided to make games without our approval.”
Kalinske was floored. “Didn’t we just release some of their games?”
“Yes,” Nakayama said. “You must go to Electronic Arts and show them that we mean business.”
Kalinske sighed deeply, looking at the fax machine. At least he had Sonic. At least there was that.