Console Wars: Takeaways for the Virtual Reality Industry

Okay, so I’m a bit late to the party, but I finally finished reading Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that defined a Generation today and wanted to share my thoughts. Console Wars is a book about the birth of the home entertainment console industry in the early 1990’s, and leads us through Nintendo’s journey into the home console business, Sega’s rise and fall with the Genesis and Saturn consoles, and what brought Sony, with their original PlayStation, into the fold in the mid-1990’s.

My first console as a kid was the N 64, but I had a soft spot in my heart for Sonic the Hedgehog, which I’d play whenever I visited my cousin during the summer between school years. That said, I was five when the N 64 came out, so most of the events of this book happened when I was admittedly too young to be reading Nintendo Power or remember Sonic 2sday – which made this all the more interesting read, because I got to learn about and understand the dawn of the era that spearheaded the industry in which I now work. Virtual reality pops up a few times in the book briefly and in passing, but I’d highly recommend this book for folks who are evaluating or interested in the state of VR today to provide historical context in a similar field.

Console Wars opens with a strong emphasis on how much dedication and optimism was required on the part of early video game company employees, a sentiment that mirrors the feelings of many working in immersive technology fields today. In the earliest days of the home console, Nintendo reigned supreme, and Tom Kalinske was tasked with (and, for several years, largely succeeded) at elevating Sega of America to a serious competitor in the game industry, breaking the monopolistic hold that Nintendo held on the industry as a whole. In a somewhat ironic twist, decisions by Nintendo and Sega executives in Japan to not work with Sony resulted in the PlayStation unseating Sega’s place in the hardware market, but the events nonetheless enabled the open, varied game industry that we have today. While not covered in Console Wars, the years that followed with Microsoft entering the ring, PC gaming, and democratization of game development tools all have led to today, where independent development teams are now serious competitors in a number of verticals across traditional gaming and virtual reality.

It can be easy to try and map early 1990’s Sega and Nintendo to today’s VR companies, but beyond the idea that draws parallels between the console makers of yesterday to today’s headset manufactures, the silent stories of the publishers underlying third-party titles says a lot about how game companies succeeded. While feature sets of different consoles and headsets may provide some degree of consumer preference, a common theme throughout Console Wars was the idea that Content Was King.

“The name of the game is the game.” – Peter Main

Yes – we can take that quote, used within Console Wars by both Nintendo and Sega employees alike, quite literally and apply it to some of the earliest VR hits (Job Simulator and Tiltbrush come to mind, two very aptly-named and popular launch titles) but the idea that solid game play with memorable characters would sell hardware rang true throughout several launches in the early days of home gaming. Too few experiences in virtual reality today have a strong enough world or narrative to bring people back repeatedly, which is a challenge when landing the content that will sell hardware. Any time I watch Henry, I’m moved to tears with the beauty of the emotion captured in the experience (and I have the Oculus Connect 2 birthday note cards from Henry’s launch framed in my home office), but after enjoying the first play through of Lucky’s Tale, I haven’t been motivated to return because that world was missing motivation and attachment to the characters presented in it.

Narrative and characters played a heavy role in the successes of both companies in Console Wars, and is a lesson that I think many VR experiences could benefit from today (why am I fighting those robots in Space Pirate Trainer?) We saw, in the early days of the video game industry, that while hardware capabilities could compel users towards one platform over the other, it was content that ultimately pushed through success for both companies, though managing expectations of that content was also an important consideration for development teams. And speaking of production- an almost unmentioned part of the success of different platforms in the early 1990’s? The tools available to the developers and creators of third party content. Sony, when they released the PlayStation, had a significantly easier SDK to work with than Nintendo and Sega, and seeded publishers with devices similarly to how Oculus and HTC have done the same with their devices.

Hardware feature sets have to be extraordinarily improved over what already exists before that alone becomes the sole reason for creators and consumers to switch.

In addition to the hardware and content, one of the biggest takeaways from the more challenging areas of Nintendo and Sega’s early histories in the gaming industry was a lack of collaboration – not externally, between competitors (the ESRB and E3 both resulted from compromise and work across companies actively in the game industry) but internally, where different branches of a company resulted in high profile failures. While it’s impossible to know exactly what would have happened if SOJ hadn’t pushed the Saturn launch up by four months despite serious objections on the part of SOA, repeated points of contention between different teams around launch strategies, content, and marketing were all consistently cited as reasons for more challenging components of the early game industry days. In many cases, simply being more open to the idea of exploration and experimentation would have helped create cohesion between different opinions.

Looking at where we stand today in the resurgence of the virtual reality industry, it’s important to keep pride reasonable, optimism flowing, and respect at the top of our interactions with each other. We have a number of tools available to us to help us guide our decisions around building up the VR industry, and should take care to recognize when we are inflexible or falling prey to our own assumptions.

A few other takeaways that I may expand upon in future posts:

  • Several key players in the early days of the video game industry who were fundamentally instrumental in success of the market did not have existing knowledge of arcade games. We’re at a stage in today’s VR industry where we should be recognizing the benefits of diversity in experience across all backgrounds, and open to enthusiastic experts from other industries who are looking to bring impact in immersive technologies.
  • Be aware of how focus groups can seriously shape early stage technologies. There is good opportunity to come in at the ground level targeting demographics that aren’t being served with today’s VR hits.
  • Beyond IP and characters, fundamentally, VR is about shaping the human experience and providing new ways to explore and understand our inner minds. Successful applications will be ones that can truly redefine emotional and mental states around this new paradigm.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of allies.

All in all – I strongly recommend checking out Console Wars, especially if you’re curious to know more about what happened behind-the-scenes to get us where we are today. We’ve been granted such wonderful opportunity as creators in 2017 with this new medium – and it’s important to appreciate and respect the players that came before us to help get us here.

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