Blake Harris is a historian of the video game wars. His first book — Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that defined a generation — came out in 2014 and it chronicled the fight between Sega and Nintendo in the 1990s as Sega stole a march on Nintendo with the launch of the Sega Genesis. The book was written in a dramatic way, and it was licensed for a film adaptation by Hollywood directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
That book’s success let Harris quit his day job as a Wall Street trader, and it enabled him to research his newest book, The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the revolution that swept virtual reality. Harris spent more than four years on the book, with close access to Palmer Luckey, who founded Oculus as a 19-year-old living in a trailer in front of his parents’ house.
After Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014 for nearly $3 billion, Harris was able to get exclusive access to the executive team to chronicle the revival of virtual reality. But after Luckey was let go in March 2017 and Facebook learned the inside story that Harris was picking up, he lost access. That made his work harder, but Harris persevered and published a 500-page tome on the story.
In the book, we see the role that CEO Mark Zuckerberg played in Luckey’s departure, as well as the fraying of the relationship among the top leaders. We asked Facebook for a comment to some of the stories in the book, but did not receive a response. I attended a book reading that Harris gave in Mountain View, California, and this is a transcript of that session. In it, I asked some questions, as did members of the audience. I also did an interview with Harris that will run on another day. I found Harris’ talk, interview, and book to be very illuminating on the history that I covered on a day-to-day basis as a writer at GamesBeat.
Here’s an edited preview of our interview.
Blake Harris: Ten years ago, or even seven years ago, I had a day job trading commodities for a financial brokerage in New York. I was working for Brazilian clients, trading coffee and soybeans and corn and all this stuff. When I first started out of college, it was fun. It was a lot like the movie Trading Places, with all that chaos. Then everything went electronic and it wasn’t very fun, but that gave me more time to daydream about writing.
Throughout my 20s I was screenwriting on the side, very unsuccessfully. I ended up spending all the money I had saved up from this job making movies, also very unsuccessfully. One of the big turning points for me, a disappointing turning point, was that my screenwriting partner and I wrote a script called The Sordid Tales of an Evil Tyrannical Ex-Dictator. It was about a dictator who was overthrown from his country in Europe, comes to the United States, and works at a DMV in the Witness Protection Program. This was the script we were sure was going to finally break us and make us millions of dollars and launch our careers and let me wear shorts every day. Then, a week after we finished it and sent it to our manager, Sacha Baron-Cohen announced he was doing a movie called The Dictator. Everything we had put together was immediately worthless.
I understood that. If I was a studio I’d much rather bet on Sacha Baron-Cohen, who has a great track record and is very funny, than me and my buddy Jonah. Around that time — I was probably 27 years old — I’d always been hoping to make it as a writer, I was starting to think that maybe wouldn’t happen. I guess I had always imagined somewhere in my mind — this was probably inspired by Dave Coulier on Full House — if I don’t make it by the time I was 30 or 35, I was going to give this up, it was never going to happen.
But I was always going to write, and since I was going to do that, I wanted to make sure to write things I really love, because there’s always a possibility that Sacha Baron-Cohen might be working on a similar project, and what I’m doing might end up being–not worthless, but commercially not viable.
As seems to often be the case when I’ve interviewed people who found success, the one project that I set out to do with no monetary goal in mind was the one that ended up being successful. It doesn’t always work that way, but it tends to be in the ballpark. This was the one I did purely out of passion and not to try to fit some template of an action comedy about a dictator.
Before I even set out to write Console Wars, I really just wanted to read it. I grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I now, as an adult, love behind the scenes business stories. I remember going to a Barnes and Noble on 86th Street in Manhattan — I live in New York — and asking where the video game history section was, thinking it would be near the music history or film history. Then I learned that there was no such section in the store, and there wasn’t even a single book in the store about video games, the history of video games, the business of video games. The only somewhat related thing they had were walkthrough guides.
That just seemed very odd to me. At the time I hadn’t played games in many years, but I knew it was a big industry. I liked watching other people play. I’m very bad at video games, which is partly why I don’t play all that much. But I love the industry and I love what’s being done out there. And so, again, before even really imagining that there was a project here, I just started trying to get in touch with Sega and Nintendo employees from the early ‘90s.
My biggest worry was that–as a kid growing up I imagined that working at Sega or Nintendo was like working at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Although I guess the working conditions weren’t that great there. Like going to his factory, maybe. I would talk to these people and they would say, “No, working at Sega and Nintendo was just like any job, punching a time card.” But almost everyone I spoke with, especially in the beginning, they described it as the greatest experience of their lives. That was inspiring to me.
I ended up accumulating more and more contacts and starting to put together an outline and a story. Console Wars is essentially a narrative, a case study, of how Sega went from five percent of the market to 55 percent of the market and toppled Nintendo’s monopoly, and then shot straight back down. The rising part of that trajectory, there’s a lot of business lessons I learned. One of them was that Sega did a really good job of identifying that they were an unknown, as was I, and they aligned themselves with younger celebrities who would help their brand.
I literally googled for celebrity gamers and Seth Rogen’s name came up. He was definitely out of my league. I didn’t expect to hear back from him. But I knew this guy liked Nintendo, probably also liked Sega, so I had my manager send him a copy of a treatment I put together. Miraculously, he was interested in meeting. I met with him and his partner Evan Goldberg in January of 2012, seven years ago now, and I remember meeting with them on a Thursday. Not only was it surreal and unusual to be hobnobbing with someone who I knew from the movies, but I remember thinking, “Wow, this is the first time I’ve ever had a meeting with an actual decision-maker.” I’d always met with creative executives that would end up with us telling each other that our people would call each other and nothing would happen.
At the end of that meeting–we spoke for a couple of hours, and then later that day I got a call that Seth wanted to produce a movie based on the book that I hadn’t written yet. But I had interviewed about 100 people, so I had a good sense of the story. He also wanted to produce a documentary. That was amazing and life-changing. I remember going back to my commodities job four days later on Monday and thinking, “Wait, my life was supposed to change, but I’m back to work at 6:30.”
Eventually Scott Rudin joined the project, and we ended up going out with the book proposal. Flash forward a bit from here, but the last note here was that I remember, when we went out with the book proposal, that even with this great package of people who were way more successful than I was, who were making movies and documentaries based on this–we went to 25 publishers, and 22 of them passed because they said video game books don’t sell. I remember thinking that was a weird thing to say. That’s a segue way to saying that if anyone out there is interested in writing a video game book, I always try to make myself available to provide advice, because I thought that was a pretty crazy thing for them to say. I’m glad that Console Wars sold well, and I like reading video game books, so if you have an idea, get in touch.
That came out in May 2014. It was a very big, life-changing experience for me. I quit my day job. I remember telling my manager that it was kind of sad that I would never write a book as good as Console Wars, and he said, “No, you’ll keep getting better with each book.” I said, “Well, I hope so, but I’ll never find a topic that has such a convergence of pop culture, technology, entertainment, larger than life personalities, and billions of dollars.”
It remains to be seen whether VR and the legacy of Oculus will come anywhere close to Sega and Nintendo, but I did end up sinking my teeth into this story, spending three and a half years working on it. I think the earliest memory I have of it was–because this was such a big deal, that I had a book coming out, it was also a very big deal when someone wanted to write an article about me. I think the first publication to contact me was Popular Mechanics. They did a profile on me. It was such a big deal that my dad came to the photo shoot. Everyone in my family was super excited about it. The issue came out on Mother’s Day of 2014, so I slipped out of Mother’s Day brunch to get an issue of Popular Mechanics. I was so excited to finally see myself.
Before I even got to that point, though, I was so interested in what was on the cover, which was Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, and this cover story about how his company had sold to Facebook for a few billion dollars. I was somewhat familiar with Oculus, but I never stopped to pay much attention to it. I thought it was a good sign when I was heading back to the restaurant and not giving my mom the issue with her son in it because I was captivated by the story about Oculus.
After that, I knew that I wanted to write a book about Oculus, or in the near future I suspected that would be something I’d like to do. But also, to tell the stories in the way I liked to tell them, it requires really credible access to the people involved. I want to be able to place readers in the room with them, on their shoulders, in their heads. It took me about 14 months from my first visit to Oculus to get permission from Oculus and Facebook to be introduced to anyone at the company and set up interviews. That finally happened in February 2016. This was one month before Oculus launched the Rift product, CB1. I felt like I was right there, on the precipice of something great.
My last book was a rise and fall story, and I thought this one was just going to be upward to the top of the world. That’s not how it turned out. I wouldn’t say this has been a rise and fall story, but I think anyone who’s interested in VR has been a little surprised by how it played out over the past few years. Also, the fact that the main character, one who appeared on the cover of Popular Mechanics and inspired my interest, he was no longer at the company within less than a year. It turned the book upside down. But as writers we go where the story takes us. I tried to follow that story when it went to places I never imagined I’d be writing about, particularly politics and crazy sub-Reddits.
This book took three and a half years. This was three and a half years of me working full time on it. Console Wars took three years, but I had a day job for two of those. It was not the emotional investment that this one was. Because this one got into politics, and a lot of times politics I don’t agree with, it was pretty exhausting. I kind of can’t believe it’s finished. It was a running joke between me and my wife — or not a joke, because she didn’t find it funny at all — that I’d be done with the book in the next couple of weeks, because I said that every week or so for two and a half years. She deserves a huge award. I wish she were here. She got the dedication in this book. My mom was pretty upset about that, but Katie really deserved it.
The publisher didn’t sign up for this three-and-a-half year project either. They expected the book to be done in 18 months. For the most part they were supportive. There were some ups and downs. Because I didn’t turn it in on time — I ended up turning it in two years later — that was two years I wasn’t getting paid. My wife was wonderful enough to financially support me during that time. I’m glad she did. I’m glad I didn’t take the easy way out of just trying to finish the book for the sake of fulfilling a contract. I made sure to get to the bottom of the topics I was investigating.
Question: There was a post that went on your Reddit AMA where you mentioned that at a certain point, Facebook pulled access due to something they saw in one of the advance copies you sent them. Would you be able to talk about that?
Harris: Oh, yeah. It wasn’t an advance copy. In general, I’ve always tried to be very open and transparent and semi-collaborative with the people whose stories I’m writing, because I feel like they’re owed that much. Obviously that doesn’t mean they’ll have editorial approval over what I write, but I find that sharing with them–at worst they can give me feedback I disagree with. But often it spurs other ideas.
Early on, or I guess throughout the two years of my relationship with Facebook, we had a pretty good relationship. I shared materials with them and the people involved. When it came to the issue of Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, and his not being at the company anymore–for those who are unfamiliar with him and his exit from Facebook, the short version is that in September 2016, he made a $10,000 donation to a pro-Trump organization. That organization’s goal was to put up billboards across the country, meme-like billboards, a very internet-inspired organization. Their objective had nothing to do with the internet, but the way the story was reported was that, essentially, Palmer and this group had been responsible for all the crazy shit you’d see on the internet, all the hateful, misogynist, anti-Semitic stuff from the past election season. That wasn’t true, but it certainly felt true, if you were on social media, because it kept being reported and referenced in articles reporting the same thing.
From that point on Palmer was basically sidelined at Oculus for six months, and then he exited the company. There were not too many details when that happened, in March 2017. I had come to know Palmer pretty well through where I was at this point in the project. I knew that it wasn’t his choice to leave. But initially Facebook declined to comment about what happened. Then, after I continued sharing material with them, I told them, frankly, my biggest concern with the book was Palmer’s exit and how to handle it. I couldn’t have one of the main characters in the book just disappear and say, “Whoops, that was the end.” I needed to provide some explanation.
Eventually I did get an explanation from a handful of people on a pretty senior level, people who could speak on behalf of the company. I came to believe that that explanation was fictional. They were going so far as to say that he chose to leave the company, which I would bet my life is not true. Some other details seemed to not add up. I started thinking about why they were telling me this and not just saying, “No comment,” or presenting a more plausible story. I was thinking that because of my narrative non-fiction writing style, which intentionally does not attribute specific information to sources, I felt like they were essentially trying to launder misinformation through that style.
I was hearing the same story from multiple people, having it confirmed. Palmer couldn’t talk to me, or wasn’t talking to me, I assume, because he was legally gagged from doing so. I felt I was being used to put this information out there. I ended up sending a chapter that was just a straight-up question and answer transcript with one of the people there, to see how they would react when their names were put on this material.
The conversation was on the record. The irony of the conversation I sent was that, in the conversation, I had asked this person if they felt that Palmer had been treated poorly by journalists who broke the news about him, because the conversation with the journalists had been off the record, and then this person said said, “No, no, it’s not off the record unless you specifically get a journalist to agree it’s off the record.” I thought that if there was any doubt about it, this was certainly not an off the record conversation.
After I shared that with them, the situation escalated to a whole different bunch of people who I had no relationship with. They asked me not to publish that. They gave me a different story about why Palmer was fired, having to do with bad performance reviews, which I also knew was not true. Also, around that time, the head of AR and VR at Oculus told all the employees not to speak with me anymore. That was pretty much the end of that relationship. I felt like I was lied to, and also I was no longer able to speak with employees. A lot of them continued to speak with me, of course, because they were not happy with the situation.