Exclusive Interview: “The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2” Writer Steven L. Kent

 

Twenty years after writing The Ultimate History Of Video Games, video game journalist Steven L. Kent has finally released a sequel: The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2: Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, And The Billion-Dollar Battle To Shape Modern Gaming (paperback, Kindle). Though as he reveals in the following email interview about it, this second installment — like many video game sequels — not only offers something new, but it fixes some of the bugs from the first one.

Steven L. Kent The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2

Photo Credit: © Niko Kent

 

The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2 is, of course, the follow-up to your 2001 book The Ultimate History Of Video Games (now called Vol. 1). What time period does Vol. 2 cover? Does it pick up where Vol. 1 ends?

When I began updating The Ultimate History, I thought maybe I could add a few chapters to the existing book. As I started writing, I absolutely believed I could catch up with the industry and cover PS2 all the way through the launch of PS5. Vol. 1covers the span from Bagatelle to the death of Dreamcast in 600 pages, that’s over 150 years. I figured, “How hard can it be to cover the 20 years from PlayStation 2 through the launch of PS5?”

It turned out to be damn near impossible if I wanted my history to be thorough.

As I sat down and mapped out my chapters, I quickly realized that 600 pages might get me through PlayStation 4 if I really pushed it. Then I started writing and realized that I’d have trouble fitting in everything I wanted to cover in the PS2 and Wii generations. My editors ended up cutting the book down.

Vol. 2, by necessity, begins by summarizing some of the information found in Vol. 1; the overlap was inescapable. The first few chapters, for instance, cover post-millennial Sony, Sega, and Nintendo. While many readers are familiar with that history, others are not. Chapters on topics such as Nintendo, Sony, and arcade history begin with a summary of events covered in Vol. 1, then quickly move into the post 2000-era.

Not only am I guilty of summarizing stories from the first book, I also skip ahead of myself with some topics while leaving others nearly untouched. I allude briefly to the 2007 launch of the iPhone while discussing handheld games, but I consider launch of the iPhone more germane to the rise of mobile games than portable systems. I cover the launches of the original DS and PSP, but I am saving 3DS and later iterations of PSPs for a later book as well.

On the other hand, the final chapters of Vol. 2 are about the Activision/Electronic Arts rivalry and the dysfunctional relationship Hollywood has with games. I skip all the way to the present in those chapters, well, to 2020.

Books whose titles start with “The Ultimate History Of…” can take a lot of different approaches…

I never liked that Ultimate History title. I originally released Vol. 1 as a self-published book titled The First Quarter: A 25-year History Of Video Games. When Prima Publishing bought the book from me, they wanted to change the name, and for good reason. They explained that people walking through book stores tend to spend less approximately 10 seconds considering book they are unfamiliar with, and that someone seeing The First Quarter is just as likely to think it is about basketball. coin collection, or possibly managing the fiscal year as they are to think it is about video games.

When they first suggested “The Ultimate History” I said, “Absolutely not!” It sounded so arrogant. Even worse, by declaring anything “ultimate” you challenge people to find something more ultimate. That’s why superlatives are the worst things in the world. [But] I eventually agreed to the title because it conveyed what I wanted the book to achieve in one extremely short bite. Also, I realized that my editors at Prima and Crown knew a lot more about the book business than I did.

Right, right. Anyway, what I was curious about was that books called “The Ultimate History Of…” can take a lot of different approaches. What approach did you take with The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2?

Both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are oral histories, though Vol. 1 involved more oral extraction than Vol. 2. (i.e., it has more original interviews).

The problem with oral history is that the historian is bound to relay the personal biases and mistaken perceptions of the people being interviewed. That said, I find the first-hand accounts in oral history to be more intimate and more engaging than other forms of history.

My favorite histories are the ones told by the people who were there, the ones who shaped events or who were there to watch them unfold.

That said, Ray Kassar, the former CEO of Atari, states emphatically that he never buried cartridges in New Mexico in Vol. 1. Since that interview, people have gone to New Mexico and located the dumped game cartridges.

There are times in Vol. 1 when people disagree about who deserves credit for what. I genuinely relish those disagreements and enjoy showing both sides of the argument. In short, I like showing readers both sides, and letting them decide whom they believe without adding my own views.

Vol. 2 has similar disagreements.

There are much more scholarly books about video games and video game theory than my Ultimate histories. I try to balance personal stories and industry lore with marketing data to create a history that is thorough and accessible to the widest audience. Also, I try to write the books I would want to read. My writing tends to become stilted when I lose passion for a project.

It would be easy to have written The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2 as a business book, something that would put the average gamer to sleep with words like “fiduciary.” How often did you find yourself having to dial back the business-y stuff?

Writing a history of the video game industry that gamers will enjoy is a balancing act. I include a lot of sales data into my histories because those numbers give me and my readers a gauge to measure what worked and how well they worked. It’s simple enough to say Wii outsold both Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2008, but readers get a clearer picture when they hear that Nintendo Of America sold over 10 million Wii consoles, nearly 2 million more units than Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 combined.

That said, this is not a business book; it is a history and a celebration of video game industry. Units shipped and tie-ratios only appear when they help illustrate the evolution of the industry.

The best example of what I am trying to achieve may come from the seventh generation. I want people to see why and how Nintendo jumped so far ahead of the competition in the beginning, and citing sales gives quantifies just how far ahead Wii jumped. The important part of the story is that most of the industry had written Nintendo off, that Perrin Kaplan [Nintendo Of America’s former VP of Marketing & Corporate Affairs] struggled to explain what Wii had to offer to gamers early on, that publishing Wii games was far more lucrative for Nintendo than it was for third-party publishers, that the Xbox team tried to fix all of the errors they’d made launching the original Xbox when they launched Xbox 360, and that while Sony found itself in a terrible trap at the beginning of the generation, PS3 ultimately dominated both Wii and Xbox 360 in the end.

Sales figures are helpful for showing trends. They are interesting when added to enhance a story, but deadly dull when they become the story.

You kind of already answered this, but in putting The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2 together, did you go back and look at what you did in Vol. 1?

I mostly wrote Vol. 1 between the years of 1994 and 1997; you bet I had to go back. That was a long time ago, and my brain isn’t getting any younger…at least not according to Brain Age.

There are errors in Vol. 1. Not everything everyone told me happened actually happened in the ways that they said it did. Vol. 2 includes a footnote or two in which I have the joy of admitting, “My last book says this. Since the time of that writing, this information has been proven incorrect.”

It’s interesting, I interviewed Steve Wozniak and got some great stories which I included in the first book. Walter Isaacson interviewed him years later and got stories that contradicted some of the ones he told me. Wozniak strikes me as an honorable person, so how did that happen? He may simply remember things differently with added perspective. Maybe people saw the stories I had in my book and told him corrected errors he had made. Maybe the death of Steve Jobs has changed how he views certain events. I don’t doubt that he gave us both his best information.

The video game industry, like all industries, has been going through a reckoning as far as how it treats its workers. How much of that stuff made it into The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2? Because it seems like that could be a book unto itself, albeit not one called The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2.

The penultimate chapter of Vol. 2 covers Electronic Arts and Activision, and how both companies have misbehaved. That chapter has a lot to say about the way employees are treated and how customers are mistreated as well.

Those stories are essential in as much as they reflect the evolution of the industry.

You make a great point about writing a book from the employee’s perspective. Having never worked for a game company, I wouldn’t attempt to write that book, but such a book would be a worthy project for a writer with the right experience.

Now, along with The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 1 and 2, you’ve also written 10 science fiction novels in your Clone Republic series, and co-wrote the horror novel 100 Fathoms Below with Nicholas Kaufmann, all of which you wrote in the time between when Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 came out. How, if at all, do you think writing fiction influenced how you wrote Vol. 2?

I hope I am a better writer for having spent so much time in fiction.

As a journalist, I relied heavily on having the right contacts to help sell my work. People don’t care who writes an interview with Shigeru Miyamoto or Dan Houser. Miyamoto and Houser are the stars. The interviewer is mostly along for the ride.

In novels, you either need to be readable or you need to be a star. There are a lot of novels, especially kids books, written by celebrities and politicians. Some are excellent and some are dreadful but still sell based on the notoriety of the author.

I was never a star. Nobody has ever gone to a bookstore thinking, “I hope Steve Kent has a new book out.” If my writing irritated them or my premise didn’t catch their attention, readers bought other books. (That said, I benefitted from having some pretty cool cover art, truth be told. Christian McGrath did the American covers for my Clone books. Was that ever nice!)

So I’ve had 15 years in which I lived or died based on my writing and reputation instead of hiding behind having access to game designers or early access to an anticipated games.

So, how often, while talking to someone for The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2, did you say to them, “Y’know, I wrote this series of sci-fi novels that could easily be made into a kick ass game…”?

I tried that once or twice. I did that a lot more often during the overlapping years when I was writing novels and covering games for Boy’s Life, but I never had a single taker. I almost got a couple of movie deals when I wasn’t pitching myself.

While we’re on the subject, what are the Clone Republic books about, and when and where are they set?

The Clone books began as Stare Wars prequels. LucasArts asked me to write a strategy guide for Star Wars: Galactic Battlefields because I’d already written similar guides for the first Age Of Empires games. I said yes, but only if I could write an original Star Wars story that would be included in the strategy guide.

As I worked on the book, LucasFilm called to say that my story could not be published unless George Lucas personally approved it. I sent the story over, and they called back the next day saying that he’d enjoyed it. I finished my strategy guide and immediately began working on a three-book series…telling myself, “If he liked the short story, he’ll just love my novels.”

Maybe he would have, too. Then again, maybe not.

I had nearly finished the first installment when LucasFilm called to tell me that I would not be able to publish my Star Wars novel unless Mr. Lucas approved it, and that he did not read or approve novels he had not commissioned in the first place.

I liked my novel and I thought I had an interesting concept: a story narrated by a cloned soldier who has been programmed to believe he’s natural-born and has a gland in his brain that will kill him if he discovers he’s synthetic. I liked the world I had created and the characters, and I wasn’t ready to abandon them, so I reconstructed the story taking it out of the Star Wars universe and relocated it to our galaxy 500 years in the future.

And is there anything particularly video game-y about them? Like are they Mass Effect-esque, Borderlands-ish, Halo-like…?

They’re mostly Star Wars-esque with all of the fantastic creatures and technologies stripped out. There are no Jedi Knights and nothing like Jedi-esque.

As far as Halo, Mass Effect, and Borderlands are concerned, my novels included nothing from any of the above. One of the givens in the first few novels was that alien species did not exist in this galaxy.

I was very, very inspired by The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. My story-arc bears no resemblance to his, but his brand of storytelling and military science fiction helped inform my views as a writer. The Forever War is a sensational book, by the way. I believe it was the first science fiction novel to win both a Hugo Award and a Golden Nebula.

As I mentioned, The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 1 came out in 2001. Are you already thinking you’ll write The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 3 in 20 years?

I’ve had some discussion about writing a third volume with my publisher; it would come out in 2026, and it would catch the series up to present day as it would start with the launch of PS4 and go through the end of the current generation.

Again, compacting mobile games, the rise of European game houses such as CD Projekt Red and DMA, the GameStop stock phenomenon, the return of VR, China’s growing influence on the industry, and so many other important issues into a mere 600 pages will be a feat.

Steven L. Kent The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2

Finally, if someone reads The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2, they’ll probably go back and get Vol. 1 if they don’t have it already. But if someone wanted to know more, what book about games that you didn’t write would you recommend they check out?

There are so many books I could recommend.

Harold Goldberg’s All Your Base Are Belong To Us and Chris Kohler’s Power Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave The World An Extra Life are sensational histories that include a healthy dose of cultural impact as well. Like my Vol. 1, they’re getting a bit long in the tooth, but the access and insights Harold and Chris offer is unmatched.

Two more current favorites, Blake Harris’s Console Wars and David Kushner’s Masters Of Doom, stand out because they give you a much more intimate view of the people involved. Console Wars is a work of creative nonfiction, a style of writing that sort of novelizes true events. Creative nonfiction requires just as much research regular nonfiction, but it presents that information in a more dramatic style. Harris did a sensational job. Kushner had such a narrow focus, the story of id Software, and he is such a talented writer that you really can’t help getting sucked into the drama.

The other trend that has impressed me a lot has been very focused books. The first one that comes to mind is Atari Inc.: Business Is Fun by Marty Goldberg and the late Curt Vendel. This book truly is ultimate! It’s huge. It’s deep. It’s ultimately an insider’s book. Curt and Marty are not just great historians, they’re specialists.

I have not read Jason Shreier’s books yet, but I have heard rave reviews. He strikes me as far and away the most successful chronicler the industry has produced so far. As soon as I get a chance, I can’t wait to read Blood, Sweat, And Pixels.

 

 

One thought on “Exclusive Interview: “The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2” Writer Steven L. Kent

  • September 14, 2021 at 6:16 am
    Permalink

    “It turned out to be damn near impossible if I wanted my history to be thorough.”

    “So, how often, while talking to someone for The Ultimate History Of Video Games, Vol. 2, did you say to them, ‘Y’know, I wrote this series of sci-fi novels that could easily be made into a kick ass game…’?”

    (finds some of the language in this article to had been vulgar and unnecessary)

    Reply

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