“War” is an easy metaphor often used to describe a given competition, and companies sometimes exploit our tendency to attach ourselves to tribal modes of thinking in order to move product.
In the case of a few media companies in competition with one another, war isn’t a valid metaphor, it’s marketing for invented tribes.
Marketing was responsible for setting the tribe’s belief systems with slogans (like "play it loud” and “blast processing”), with the ultimate manichaean goal of getting you to choose and then spend your money on your tribe. Nobody was ever born into this system. It had to be fabricated first.
That’s right Sega and Nintendo fans of the early 90s: I just wrote you belonged to tribal vapor.
The huge irony of all of this is that, even subjectively, video games should have objectively been considered all part of the same subset of the larger pastime of games. Literally every video games company saw itself competing for the same sliver of disposable income, and behaved as though growing their customer base meant taking customers from one group or another.
Perhaps they weren’t wrong to do so, really, considering how expensive game consoles are. It was probably not practical to hope that just because a family would buy one console, surely they would buy up to two others, even if this is now commonly the case. Today is rather different, though. Consoles haven’t changed much in price, and as a result, they have become less costly to produce and buy thanks to inflation.
A new console produced in 1990 at $299 is more expensive than a new console in 2015 at the same price point ($536.14 per CPI Inflation Calculator). That makes things a bit more palatable when it comes to indulging in what might otherwise have been considered an extravagance. And more TVs are common in a single household. Prices of displays have fallen considerably in the intervening years, to say nothing of computers themselves, which have become nothing if not more ubiquitous.
What I find interesting about this period—a period in which I wasn’t involved and didn’t affect me the slightest—is that nobody seems to have even tried what Nintendo eventually did with the Wii: grow the user base of video games in general, focusing instead on chasing a much smaller market to the exclusion of all else.
This is something humans do naturally: split up into factions both substantial and insubstantial. Sega and Nintendo weren’t doing anything that would have worked if human beings didn’t have these tendencies inculcated into us at the genomic level. And they wouldn’t have succeeded in dividing large numbers of players if neither side could offer the best quality games possible for their respective platforms.
Tribalism often creates more problems than it solves, of course. But it’s mostly harmless—if a bit bizarre—in being expressed as some sort of console choice. Since tribalism can often degenerate into bigotry, racism, or sexism, expressing a preference for a toy manufacturer is perfectly fine.
So the other thing about war is that it destroys things. I’m not going to recount the history of this period—that’s why we have books and/or Wikipedia—but some have argued that Sega was the clear loser because they no longer produce hardware. I’d agree that doesn’t look great, but in another sense it freed Sega from a commitment to its own platform and left it to pursue other platforms—including Nintendo (one of the best Nintendo racing games is from Sega—F-Zero GX for the GameCube).
Consider this: in the 90s I never once played Sonic the Hedgehog or even saw a Sega Saturn (even in a commercial). One might be inclined to wonder what authority I even have to cast aspersions on the notion of calling it war, and one wouldn’t be wrong, but my point is it was very easy to live without even hearing about it while it was happening. A console war might get a lot of press these days, but it was a tempest in a teapot back then. I sometimes wonder if people don’t, in fact, exaggerate how into their preferred tribe they used to be, but then I get on the internet and see comments from people who appear to be serious about how into their toys they still are—even to the exclusion of other sorts of fun in the same category.
But back to Sega and the loss of the hardware division.
There are, of course, downsides to not running your own hardware platform, such as: if a hardware maker folds, your games (and the investment they represent) could be orphaned. But this is a risk every publisher faces.
But ultimately, the result of this competition was a vast multiplicity of games—a near-Cambrian explosion of culture and productivity (some of it great, some … not so great) which I’ll be sampling here in the future. Wars don’t do this. Wars hold back, shatter capacity, and limit the future. That’s not what the “console wars” of the 90s actually did. But overall, more franchises were probably invented, launched, and refined between Sega and Nintendo than at any prior point in video game history.
In 2017, I finally got to play Sonic the Hedgehog on the PlayStation 3, part of a compilation of many of Sega’s games. I can see the appeal. It’s a fun game.
I still haven’t gotten past the first level.
I wrote this over a period of three days, stealing time as I could. But it will post while I’m in the air, flying to San Francisco, in part to attend GDC 18. I’ll be able to return to blogging after that point.