Video games are great, but books about video games are even better!
– Evan Goldberg, from ‘Foreward’ by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, in Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo, and the Battle That Defined a Generation by Blake J. Harris.
If Evan Goldberg’s aforementioned statement is true, then wordsmith Blake J. Harris is better-than-better. He has two video game-themed books to his credit: Console Wars (2014) and The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality (2019). Interestingly, Harris self-identifies as an un-produced screenwriter (his descriptor is ‘failed’), but those unsold scripts matter no more. In fact, he regularly leaps past ‘better’ and is well into the next level of achievement (Sega pun intended).
Lending further support to that better-than-better theory is this: Harris excels at establishing lasting, mostly golden bonds with collaborators. These long-term ties endure, despite the eagle eye that Harris trains on his subjects’ secrets, insecurities, and oft-times career misses. Cases in point: Harris maintains an easy rapport with Sega legends Tom Kalinske and Al Nilsen, principals in the true story of Console Wars (CW). The trio is so chummy that Kalinske and Nilsen blessed Harris’ decision to chronicle Oculus Rift’s origin story in The History of the Future (THOTF) as follow up to CW. Moreover, Kalinske himself introduced yours truly to the esteemed Mr. Harris . . . for mutually beneficial purposes.
Similarly, Harris enjoys professional cordiality with Joe Chen, former Oculus engineer and real-life supporting lead in THOTF. In contrast, THOTF’s Brendan Iribe is one instance of good book vibes gone flat, perhaps temporarily. Tech entrepreneur Iribe is a principal in the Oculus backstory, which Harris covers with tough love. Presumably, Iribe’s Oculus/Scaleform/Gaikai/Wikipad start-up-sale gazillions are a comfort during trying times.
Another of Harris’ better-than-better qualities is his knack for spinning non-fiction written words into small silver screen gold. Specifically, there are two live-action adaptations of CW in the works: a CBS All-Access exclusive documentary film, which Harris co-directs with Jonah Tulis, and a companion TV series, which Harris exec produces.
What potentially rockets Harris to the top of his game – beyond better-than-better – is his skill in proverbially gamifying, well, video games. Harris has penned two classic texts that cover interactive entertainment behind its pixelated facade. Both tales volley between opposing players’ perspectives, like a good Pong match. The works are satisfyingly gossipy, yet never short on historical accuracy, cultural context, and layman explanations of tech speak.
What follows is a brief Q and A with true storyteller Harris. He describes a bit of his path from good, to better, to better-than-better, and beyond.
MS: Could you talk about the process in writing your first book?
BH: CW took about three years, but it wasn’t a full-time three years. I had a day job [commodities trader for New York-based Brazilian clients]. The first year and a half was me interviewing people and research. The second year and a half was writing and editing. Obviously, I wanted to quit my job and work full-time on writing, but the length of time turned out to be a good thing, because I was able to develop long-term relationships – organically – with the interview subjects. This serves us especially well with the upcoming documentary.
MS: How did you snag the involvement of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg into CW?
BH: This was a unique, life-changing experience for me. I had no prior relationship with Seth and Evan, but I was fortunate in that, as a failed screenwriter, I had met with their company! Well, not actually met with them specifically, but with one of their creative executives . . . I had heard that Seth was into retro video games, so I asked my manager to reach out to them [with the 90-page book proposal] in hope of them turning it into a movie. That’s what led to them agreeing to write the CW ‘Foreward,’ plus work on the future documentary and the TV series. That ended up delaying the process in getting it to publishers, but ultimately, it was very helpful!
You know, as much as both CW and THOTF are interesting, character-driven stories, they are also business books. One of the [business] lessons that I learned was that, when Sega was a no-name company – just like I was a no-name author – they were able to extend their reach by working with young, up-and-coming celebrities like Joey Lawrence and Dustin Diamond. I cannot express to you enough that I did not expect to hear back from Seth, but in January 2012, he sat down with me for two hours, and now we’ve been working together for over seven years.
MS: Wow! You actually went through the proper channels and prevailed! So, the involvement of Seth and Evan made CW a slam-dunk, no-brainer, must-have for potential publishers, right?
BH: Actually, 22 of 25 publishers rejected it. There still are not that many books about the video game industry, but there were even less back then. Tom Kalinske even said to me, ‘Do you think anyone will want to read that?’ He doubted whether there would be a market for this.
MS: So, in writing your next book THOTF, did you have direct access to Mark Zuckerberg, as you had with Tom Kalinske?
BH: In order to maintain content control, I did not accept direct access to Mark Zuckerberg. I assumed that Facebook would make certain demands of me in return for a one-on-one conversation with Mark. Instead, I relied on other sources, like e-mail exchanges between Mark and Oculus team members. Lots of these are in the book.
After Facebook’s Oculus acquisition and ensuing drama, Facebook was less than forthcoming about the firing of Palmer Luckey. There was little chance that I’d get a different take, so I didn’t pursue it.
On the other hand, there will be additional Facebook/Oculus insight coming in the paperback version of THOTF.
Following the publications of Harris’ tomes, neither Sega nor Oculus ceased in generating news. For example, the last of Oculus’ original team (Nate Mitchell, Oculus Co-Founder and VP of Product at Facebook) announced his Facebook departure in August. Sega committed to an extreme CGI makeover of toothsome Sonic the Hedgehog as a lead character in the forthcoming feature film. What does Harris think of these recent, historic developments in games, tech, and related enterprises? Perhaps it’s best for fans to await the full scoop. One presumes that Harris’ perspective will surface in his sequels and spinoff projects, and that promises to be better-than-better, indeed.