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Book Review – Console Wars

18505802Books on the history of gaming are culturally important to my own life. Genealogically, I’m a mutt with little foundation. My family and myself have no real traditions or history we share beyond our own generation or two. I’m Italian but I don’t have a a deep identity in it. But, as a gamer, I have a history, music, traditions and my own self-perception is very much rooted in tabletop and video games.

When I read a book like Console Wars, it’s partly me accepting that this culture is bigger than myself and there’s elements to learn about. I felt that connection when reading Empire of Imagination or Masters of Doom, that this part of my life has been going on for longer than I’ve been around and there’s names and history that are important to it all.

Blake J. Harris’ Console Wars taps into that, except this was a history I experienced. Harris follows the war between Nintendo and Sega; how Sega fought for and won it’s place in the market and how Nintendo fought back. Both companies make mistakes along the way, sealing certain fates for themselves.

One factor that makes this book fascinating is it’s focus on the differences between the Japanese and American sides of each company. While Nintendo was more focused on having like-minds, Sega was much more divided. Sega of Japan rarely agreed with SOA and these arguments and differences would prove to be the companies downfall. Even with Sega earning it’s place in the market, it’s lack of strong leadership would have it go on to follow the success of the Genesis with multiple consoles with little individual identity.

Nintendo, on the other hand, had a direct and strong hand when it came to it’s leadership. So much so that some employees began to chafe against the lack of freedom. Whereas Sega of America was throwing everything against the wall to see what stuck, Nintendo was nailing their decisions to the plaster, even as the wall was crumbling to the floor. The desire to avoid direct competition due to tradition and lack of respect for it’s rivals led Nintendo to lose a few loyal employees, but also to the creation of Donkey Kong Country and Rare’s rise as a second party. It also was responsible for the Super Mario Bros. movie and stabbing Sony in the back when it came to CD technology, so not all good things.

The book is written in prose, using the facts and history to tell more of story than real life might have been. The dialog is where this technique is a hit-or-miss, but the rest of the book is a compelling read, with great insights into the two companies and their respective employees. This style might not be for everyone, but if you’ve read the aforementioned Empire of Imagination or Masters of Doom, you’ll be right at home. This isn’t the text book tome that was David Sheff’s excellent Game Over, it’s edutainment and a turn pager.

Reading about Sega’s marketing plans, Nintendo’s resistance to fire back, Sony’s frustrations with entering the market and the whole industries growth is highly entertaining. There’s a lot of egos on display and hindsight gives the reader a one-up on the players in this book. The most frustrating part of this book, for myself, is that it ends just as things are getting really juicy. The Sony Playstation has just entered the market, Nintendo is about to release their 64-bit console and we all know what happened to Sega soon after. I wanted an account of the next war, of the Sega Dreamcast and Microsoft getting ready to enter the fray.

But Console Wars is a dense book as it is and I’m sure someone is preparing a book on the stage that followed. If you’re interested in the history of video games, Japanese business practices, the thought process of marketing, 90s culture and the whole Sega vs. Nintendo fight, I highly recommend this book. You might have to get past any hangups over the style of writing, but, once you do, you’ll find this to be a great resource.

Book Review – Empire of Imagination

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A reference to Unearthed Arcana, for those unaware.

Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons by Michael Witwer is one of those biographies/histories where the author dramatizes it. Meaning there’s dialog and inner monologues that the author is taking a few liberties with, similar to Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle that Defined a Generation. That may bother some people, including me, but for once I actually found it helpful in relating to the subject matter.

The book is a history of Dungeons & Dragons but it’s a history we see as we follow one man, D&D’s creator, Gary Gygax. There’s very little jumping around and visiting other people involved, this story is firmly about Gygax and his how is life affected and was affected by D&D.

Having read a few books on the subject, my favorite so far being Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It by David M. Ewalt, there wasn’t a whole lot of new information to gain about the game itself. But I didn’t realize how little I knew about Gygax himself. A self-made high school dropout, creative and self-destructive and gamer to a fault. It’s strangely fascinating to read about Gygax’s personality and how it rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, including his wife and kids. It’s also shows how much of the company and game relied on friends, family and the gaming community.

And yet, with all of his flaws, the man created one of the greatest games of all time and then kept creating, kept the community of tabletop players alive through a home-town convention and never stopped playing games during his free time. While nothing after D&D ever gained the same popularity, there’s something to be said for the amount of material Gygax created in his life. He reminded me a bit of Stan Lee in that regard, having created an amazing and loved universe at the early stages of his career and then never being able to top after. Life Stan Lee, it wasn’t the material he created after that made him a star, it was him just being who he was. Gygax lived a rock star life for a while and the geek community helped make him feel like one.

Another great read on the subject.

A lot of the book talks about how much Gygax influenced the world and it’s hard to argue. The path of D&D to computers, to MMORPGs, to LARP to Stephen Colbert and Vin Diesel, it’s all easy to see. Near the end of the book, Witwer talks about how Gygax is geek royalty, maybe even King of the Geeks. Considering that D&D has been going since the 70s, he might be right.

As someone who’s life has been heavily affected by Dungeons & Dragons and tabletop games in general, the history of the medium feels strangely personal (there’s a reason this blog is called Natural 20). I wasn’t playing in the 80s, but reading about the groups that formed, I felt like I could have been. There’s always something geek-romantic about friends around a table in a basement roleplaying. Well, maybe it’s only that way for me, but I love reading about that stuff.

If you’re remotely interested about the history of D&D, Gary Gygax or the hobby of roleplaying, this is a great read. Combined with Of Dice and Men, digging through the past has never been easier or more entertaining. I will say both books share a flaw in that neither really dig into the history of TSR after it’s removed from Gygax’s control. Empire of Imagination does a better job, but seems like the company was so destructive that you could get another book out of it’s time in the 90s, before it was bought by Wizards of the Coast.

I guess I’ll have to start reading Designers & Dragons next.