In June of 1991, Chicago played host to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Summer Show, featuring all the latest tech—music, TVs, games and other devices. It was also the stage for a dramatic business deal gone sour, when Sony and Nintendo, who had been working together towards a brand new video game console that was poised to revolutionize the industry, suddenly parted ways in an explosive manner. Sony had planned to announce the PlayStation–in partnership with Nintendo. And they did, only to find out that Nintendo had other plans, and had been secretly working with Philips on its own console, leaving the PlayStation dead in the water. Sony had only found out about the betrayal shortly before the conference, and when asked about it, could only say what they were thinking: “We’ve been stabbed in the back by Nintendo.”
If that sounds like a story you want to hear about, you’re in luck. British games journalist, author and games expert Tristan Donovan has teamed up with the people at Wondery’s podcast Business Wars to write about the epic war of the video game titans—or those who aspired to be. Third Coast Review got a chance to discuss the series with him and his excitement for the subject was clear.
“When Wondery approached me about writing a Business Wars podcast series about a console war I felt it had to be PlayStation versus Nintendo 64. Why? Because it was one of the most important battles in video game history. It’s the moment games make the jump from 2D to 3D, it’s the moment consoles shift from cartridge to CD, and it’s the moment games go from being kids’ entertainment to mass entertainment. It’s also the contest that pushed Sega out of the console business and brought Microsoft into it. On top of that it’s a great story. Nintendo and Sony start as allies and then become enemies. You’ve got Sony which has no track record of note in video games taking on Nintendo, the company that sets the standard when it comes to game design and pretty much wrote the rulebook for the video game business. The story’s got it all – historical importance, long-term impact, drama, the lot.”
The resulting podcast is a six-part thrill ride through the evolution of video games, with a healthy dose of drama and plenty of nostalgia for those of us who grew up while video games themselves were growing up, too. Donovan manages to keep the tension of the betrayal a dull roar in the background as he travels back in time as far as the late 19th century when Nintendo as a company was merely a cart operation selling playing cards in a seedy back alley near Yakuza gambling outposts.
The podcast features some great characters–these are men with big dreams, like Ken Kutaragi of Sony, who was destined to run the family business until his family encouraged him to chase his engineering dreams, who were passionate about building something truly unique and wonderful, and those who ruled with an iron fist, like Nintendo’s Hiroshi Yamauchi—a man who inherited the business, nearly ran it into the ground with experimentation, and then drove its progress into the world of video games, creating an empire. Each of the important figures in the story is explored in depth, with first person accounts of their aspirations, thoughts and feelings. Timelines advance and larger scenes are set with care, building to the pivotal moment in Chicago and the sudden but inevitable betrayal.
The fallout from that initial CES confrontation would go on to change the industry forever, and eventually make Sony a real competitor—but not without a few hurdles. Says Donovan: “Sony had nearly zero video game experience when it started work on the PlayStation. I don’t want to spoil Episode 3 of Wondery’s Business Wars for readers since that’s all about these issues, but the big thing Sony had to do was get support from external game publishers because it had no in-house studios to rely on at this point.”
Much of the series explores the different challenges faced by each of these companies at the time, not the least of which was to outdo the other, either with superior technology, lower prices, better games, or by virtue of being released first. It’s compelling stuff—well written, produced and scored with very few things to complain about (though in some cases a pronunciation guide for some of the industry’s biggest players would’ve proved handy.) The video game business was already a multi-million dollar industry that was poised to overtake film and music handily, but during the 1990s and the time of the Sony/Nintendo wars, it would grow to a point where one game alone made trillions, while technology leapt forward in an impressive fashion.
And if it hadn’t have happened like it did? Tristan Donovan at least believes the entire landscape of gaming would be different.
“It would look really different I think” he told Third Coast Review, “I don’t think the Nintendo PlayStation would have changed the market – at best I imagine it would have done as well as the Sega CD. There’s a good chance Sony would not have entered the games business because much of the company wasn’t keen on entering the business. Without Sony in the race, the late 1990s would be a battle between Nintendo and Sega. And since Sega only changed the Saturn from a 2D to a 3D powerhouse in reaction to the PlayStation, I imagine Nintendo would have won that console generation hands down. The games business would be smaller, because while we would have had 3D gaming we wouldn’t have had the storage and audio power of CD so I reckon games wouldn’t have broken into the mainstream as they did with the PlayStation. Finally, Microsoft wouldn’t be in the console business – but I’ll leave you to listen to the last episode of the Wondery’s Business Wars podcast to find out why.”
Whether you’re a fan of tense stories of treacherous business deals, someone who enjoys exploring the histories of products and companies, or a gamer who wants to know more about a truly pivotal time in the world of gaming, this series is certainly worth a listen. Each of the series’ six installments covers a different aspect of the console wars that came out of the infamous CES backstab, but all tie together quite nicely. It’s a truly interesting, truly tense, well told story that will certainly be on our list of podcast recommendations for 2018. You can find Wondery’s Business Wars wherever you get your podcasts or by using this link, and find out more about Tristan Donovan and his work here.
With contributions by David Lanzafame