G&G Reads: Service Games: The Rise and Fall of SEGA

By Michael Mendis

Service Games Book.png

Author: Sam Pettus

First Published: 2013

Length: 472 pages

Growing up as a kid, my favorite pastime was playing video games, and most of the time I was playing on my SEGA Genesis.  A gift from my parents at some point in the mid-1990s, the Genesis became an integral part of my childhood, and I spent countless hours playing through as many of the Sonic the Hedgehog games as I could get my hands on.  These years were what cemented my interest in gaming, and even today I enjoy going back every now and then to play some of those classic, retro games.  On top of that, I’ve also come to enjoy learning about different gaming companies, how they operate, and the ways they have impacted the gaming industry as a whole.  So when I heard that someone had written a book talking about the corporate history of SEGA, I couldn’t pass it up.

In his book Service Games: The Rise and Fall of SEGA, author Sam Pettus dives into the history of one of the most fascinating companies in the history of gaming, focusing on their years creating video game consoles.  He details how SEGA put together a console (the Genesis/Mega Drive) and a marketing strategy that could go toe-to-toe with rival Nintendo, and how internal conflict within SEGA’s management tore them apart, causing them to make numerous unforced errors and dooming the company’s future as a console maker.  While Pettus occasionally delves into technical jargon that goes over my head, he does a good job overall of putting everything into language that the average person can understand, boiling down the nitty-gritty details into something more digestible.  He touches on many aspects of SEGA’s business in those years, from the technology within each of their consoles, to their relationship with third-party game developers, to the ways they marketed their products to the public, and more.  To me, the most interesting parts of the book are where it describes the inner workings of SEGA’s management, how the Japanese and Western branches worked together (or, more often, how they didn’t), and the way that different people within SEGA affected the company’s fortunes.

The book is well researched, backed up by countless articles from throughout SEGA’s years as a console creator, as well as interviews from top executives and developers from around the industry.  Some of the interviews within the book are from old articles and gaming journalism outlets, but others were conducted by the author himself, providing new information that can’t be found anywhere else; one former SEGA executive provided Pettus with a detailed account of an important internal meeting that had been largely unknown or misunderstood by the general public up to that point.  Pettus also intersperses pictures throughout the book; some of these images are screenshots from important games released at the time, while others showcase the marketing materials used by SEGA and other game companies.  These pictures provide a useful historical snapshot of the game industry during the 1990s and complement the text nicely.

If you have any interest in learning about the game industry, I highly recommend this book.  Pettus clearly put a lot of time and dedication into making this the most accurate account of SEGA’s corporate history on the market, and does an excellent job of detailing the company’s successes and failures.  When we think of the word “corporation”, we tend to think of some powerful, faceless entity, one with no personality and driven only by profit; Pettus’ great achievement in this book is to highlight the many real people within SEGA who made the company what it was, for better or worse.

G&G Reads: eGods

By Michael Mendis

Author: William Sims Bainbridge

First Published: 2013

Length: 250 pages

 

We’re back with another entry in G&G Reads, in which one of us here at Gospel & Gaming reads a gaming related book and shares some of our thoughts.  In his book eGods, author William Sims Bainbridge examines religious themes found in games, particularly the numerous MMORPGs that he has poured countless hours playing over the years.  His approach is nothing if not thorough, as he covers a wide variety of topics in the book, including morality, death, the soul, priests, and more.  

Bainbridge is approaching all of these matters from a distinctly non-Christian perspective; particularly, he frequently refers back to a philosophical ideology he refers to as the New Paradigm, which argues that religion is a compensator: a reward that people make up for themselves to deal with challenges in their lives that they otherwise cannot overcome.  It’s a rather cynical approach to religion, especially in regard to clergy, who he believes are often taking advantage of their congregations for personal gain.  He believes that games and technology offer a new approach to faith, that they offer lessons as humanity moves past the religious compensators of old and finds better solutions to the problems we face as a species.  As a Christian, I naturally disagree with many of Bainbridge’s conclusions, but he asks a number of questions that deserve thoughtful answers from any believer.  The book is at its best when it offers clear and concise challenges to religious beliefs.  Does faith in religion offer any real benefits?  Why should we put our trust into invisible, unquantifiable supernatural deities, when we can absorb ourselves entirely into a virtual world where priests hold mathematically quantifiable power?  If I had the opportunity to speak to Bainbridge, a dedicated gamer with a highly negative view of religion and the church, how would I approach these questions?  It is these moments in the book that have provided the best opportunity for reflection.

Unfortunately, these moments are few and far between, as overall, eGods is a very poorly written book.  Bainbridge spends most of his time bogged in dry minutiae, as he details the lives of the fictional characters he has created while playing online games.  He is easily sidetracked, explaining gameplay mechanics that are irrelevant to the topic at hand and detailing long quest lines, all the way down to the most insignificant fetch quests.  Sometimes he’ll even get lost talking about other media/pop culture (such as a part in the second chapter where he describes whole TV episodes of Star Trek).  Some of these explanations do eventually tie in to the ultimate point he wants to make, but by the time he gets to that at the end of the chapter, he’s already lost the reader.  Any fascinating theological/philosophical discussions are buried beneath all of this worthless data, and reading through the book is an absolute chore.  It’s as if no one bothered to edit this book, or else the editor was afraid to say “no” to anything Bainbridge wanted to write.

In the end, eGods is not a book I can recommend, unless you have the incredible patience needed to slog through page after page of boring gameplay descriptions in order to find the few nuggets of worthy philosophical discussion.  Quite frankly, had I not been tasked with completing this book for the sake of this article, there’s no way I would have made it past the first chapter or two; the content is just so dry and so stuffed with superfluous details that it isn’t worth the time to read it.

G&G Reads: Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

By Michael Mendis

Author: Tom Bissell

First Published: 2010

Length: 242 pages

 

This next entry in the G&G Reads series covers Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell.  Bissell’s goal in this book is to explain to his readers what he finds both fascinating and frustrating about games, predominantly as it regards a game’s narrative and storytelling, but also through some of the core game mechanics that he has interacted with during his years of playing different games.  Each chapter tends to focus on one or two games (though he makes passing references to a variety of others when applicable), as well as interviews he has done with prominent game developers.

For those unfamiliar with the games that Bissell talks about (or with gaming as a whole), Bissell does a good job explaining the details of a game in a way that anyone can understand.  His critique of the games he has played (whether he is talking about a game’s narrative aspects like storytelling and character development, or core mechanics of gameplay) is quite honest; while he is eager to recount the thrilling and fascinating experiences that attract him to games, he also doesn’t shy away from pointing out where games fall short.  He often compares his experiences with games to his experiences with other forms of art (such as movies and books), even as he recognizes the challenges of comparing such different media.  Most of the games he covers in the book are story-driven games (such as Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and Mass Effect), as that is the aspect of games that he enjoys the most, but he also makes reference to other types of games throughout the book.

Interviews are also prominent throughout the book, and they provide a fascinating insight into the world of game development at many different levels.  Bissell spends time with developers of big AAA titles (such as Gears of War creator Cliff Bleszinski and Mass Effect writer Drew Karpyshyn) as well as indie games (Braid creator Jonathan Blow), and the variety of opinions shared by these developers help give the reader valuable insight into how professionals in the game industry approach their craft.  Topics of discussion in these interviews include not only some of the details of game writing and development, but also perceptions among industry leaders regarding how gaming has grown and changed over the years.

Overall, Extra Lives is an excellent book that provides an interesting window into one person’s experience playing games, and into the some of the nuts and bolts of game development and the game industry as a whole.  Whether you are a dedicated gamer who is already fascinated by this subject matter, or a non-gamer who wants to know more about this hobby and why it is so popular in today’s society, Bissell’s book is a great read.  The only note of caution I would give is that this is not a good book for young children; some of the games described in this book are quite violent, and while Bissell does not write in such a manner as to intentionally shock or provoke the reader, he doesn’t mince words when describing some of the graphic material he has seen in games, either.