Gaming

PS5 vs. Xbox Series X: What the '90s Sega-Nintendo rivalry can tell us

The executive producers of Console Wars talk Sony vs. Microsoft, Sega rumors, and big tech in games.

Welcome to the next level.

Sega's iconic advertising tagline still hits, nearly three decades later. In just a few weeks, Microsoft and Sony will launch the Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5, each promising an elevated video game experience. As eager fans banter over brand allegiances on Twitter, Console Warsthe new CBS All Access documentary on the heated ‘90s rivalry between Nintendo and Sega — still feels remarkably timely.

So what can Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis tell us about PS5 and Xbox Series X? While the games have gotten flasher and the market has expanded exponentially, executive producers Blake J. Harris and Jonah Tulis’s tell Inverse the concept of a console war is just as relevant today, even if Sega and Nintendo's roles in the space have dramatically changed.

“It's a battle for exclusivity. It's a battle of aligning incentives for consumers, developers, and distributors,” says Harris of the current Microsoft-Sony rivalry. “One of the reasons that we're so fond of this particular console war is that it fundamentally changed the game industry into what it was today. It went from being something you bought for kids at Toys R Us into a mass-market consumer product.”

“It was more heated from the actual executives in the 90s though,” Tulis adds. “They hated each other. I don't think the executives at Sony or Microsoft are paying as much attention to people on Twitter.”

As digital sales continue to outpace physical copies and Cloud-based processing becomes more widespread, the gaming market will likely become even more competitive — and more profitable. But it’s looking less and less likely we’ll be adorning our living rooms with bulky plastic game boxes come 2030.

Scenes from 2001's Tokyo Game Show, and a fleeting four-way console war.AFP PHOTO / Yoshikazu TSUNO via Getty Images

“This could be the last console war, because technology is such that, in five or 10 years, we're going to be doing everything through our TV. You're going to have a PlayStation app, and you're not going to need the power of that machine anymore. So then IP becomes so much more valuable,” Tulis explains.

Microsoft’s recent 7.5 billion-dollar acquisition of Bethesda parent company Zenimax is a clear signal that intellectual property and popular franchises are indeed the future of the industry. But the minds behind the CBS documentary worry that shift could make the industry a bit less nimble and inventive.

“Teams of maybe four or five people made those original Nintendo games, and spent maybe half a million dollars. Now it’s 30 devs and 5 million dollars. There’s just so much more at stake, and you can’t take those creative risks.” Harris explains. “Part of what made Console Wars so special and so fun to research is that these were really small companies. At a big corporation, everything requires like 50 stakeholders to sign off. I lament how those things have changed.”

A 16-bit rendering of Sega of Japan President Hayao Nakayama, known among his colleagues for his scary demeanor and weird combover.CBS

The latter-day console war sees Sony in the swaggering Goliath role Nintendo inhabited at the outset of Console Wars in the early 1990s. But this time around, Nintendo’s left PlayStation and Xbox to squabble at the kids table while it quietly continues to sell tens of millions of copies of Animal Crossing and Mario 3D All-Stars in the background. In some ways, the seeds for Nintendo’s current status as a conscientious objector in the console wars stemmed from its fiery rivalry with Sega.

“In the beginning, I heard the Sega perspective — that Nintendo were a bunch of bullies and this monopolistic company — but in the six-plus years we’ve been working on this, I’ve just come to respect Nintendo so much,” Harris explains. “They’re not going to get involved with a spec battle or first-person shooter battle with Sony and Microsoft. I really respect them for staying true to their identity, for making that decision and sticking with it.”

With Tokyo Game Show kicking off just after news broke of Microsoft’s bombshell acquisition, rumors swirled that Sega would be next to join Xbox Game Studios. That speculation grew to such a fever pitch ahead of the event that the official Xbox account had to clarify there were no plans to announce any new acquisitions at TGS.

Dancers at the Sega game booth during the Electronic Entertainment Expo, May 11, 2000 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Being uniquely familiar with Sega’s corporate culture, Tulis and Harris are of two minds on the topic of a future team-up between these two iconic gaming brands.

“Anything could happen, and Microsoft can just throw money around,” Tulis says. “But having been to Sega of Japan's offices, I can't see that. Just the vibe of it, I can’t see them being owned by a Microsoft.”

“Well, 20 years ago, I never would have predicted you’d see Sega games on a Nintendo console, or games with Sonic and Mario together. The 2020s are going to be all about content, and that’s what Sega does now. [If a deal were to happen,] I would be surprised, but I can’t say I’d be shocked at this point,” adds Harris.

Hi yes I'd like to buy 10 of these.

Even as the prospect of cloud-based and digital platforms as the future of gaming looms large in the years ahead, the big three hardware makers have had enormous success thus far at keeping big tech powerhouses like Facebook, Google, and Amazon from gaining a firm foothold in the space. Despite these companies’ near-infinite financial resources, they’re not likely to do so unless they change their approach to the audience.

“These companies are too big to be nimble, or to be humble. If I were in a meeting with executives at Facebook and talked about the success of Fall Guys, they would sort of turn their noses up at the numbers because they operate on scales of billions,” Harris explains. “They want to influence what they would prefer their audience to like. I guess it's been a successful business model for them in other areas, but it hasn't worked for gaming. The gaming audience can't be fooled.”

Console Wars is streaming now on CBS All Access.

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