It's Thinking: An Interview With Brian Bacino - The Man Behind The Iconic Dreamcast Slogan

The Dreamcast's North American launch was one of the most successful console launches of all time. It boasted a line up of games that was unmatched in terms of variety and quality, and an air of untouchable swagger and confidence swirled around Sega that hadn't been seen since the days of the Genesis. Key to the success of the Dreamcast's introduction to the lucrative American market was undoubtedly the bombastic and memorable advertising campaign that supported the console.

The iconic 'It's Thinking' TV commercials and the memorable launch date of 9.9.99 were powerful weapons in Sega's arsenal when waging a marketing war against Sony and Nintendo for consumer dollars. However, these two components of marketing collateral did not come about by pure coincidence. They were thoughtfully constructed prongs of the same pincer movement strategy, and arguably helped to propel the Dreamcast into millions of American homes in those first few months post launch.
Here, in an exclusive interview we talk to Brian Bacino, the man behind the North American advertising campaign. As former Creative Director at respected advertising house Foote, Cone & Belding (FCB) of San Francisco, Brian was instrumental in the creation of the Dreamcast brand and the system's early success...

DCJY: Brian, first allow me to thank you for taking the time to answer our questions. The Dreamcast console really was a game-changer when it was released (pun intended!) and still holds a dear place in the hearts of a lot of gamers. To kick things off, could you give us a brief description of what your role was at FCB and specifically with the Sega Dreamcast commercials?

Brian Bacino: Hi Tom – thanks, I’m totally psyched to talk about the Dreamcast launch. It was an epic adventure in advertising, full of drama, plot twists and explosions! I was FCB San Francisco’s SVP Group Creative Director/Writer in charge of the launch and roll out of The Sega Dreamcast. My partner, Steve Fong, and I conceived and created the ‘It’s Thinking’ campaign and the ‘Apocalypse’ launch film – heralded in 1999 by several video game magazines as “the most epic video game commercial ever created!” Steve and I would not argue.

We really can’t argue with that assessment of Apocalypse either! Let’s start at the beginning though - do you remember the first time you ever heard the name Dreamcast? What did you think of the console name?

Honestly? We were actually kinda bummed at first, especially with the logo. The name ‘Dreamcast’ sounded so light and child-like. We had been working on the campaign long before the name and console showed up.

Bernie Stolar came to us in 1996-97 and told us something was coming that was going to absolutely change the world of video gaming. He talked about early artificial intelligence and the ability of the console to learn the player’s moves and react accordingly. He also talked about how gamers were going to be able to play each other from all around the world over the internet. We imagined it to be totally bad ass and competitive – it was code named ‘Katana’. In comparison, ‘Dreamcast’ sounded like a toddler’s game to us at the time, and the swirl logo was like the Cinnabon bakery logo, hardly the next generation video game platform that was going to blow everybody’s ears back!
But that was the name Japan decided on, so game on.

Creatively we leaned into what the Dreamcast name could represent and ignored the aesthetic of the logo. The idea of thought control and mind bending artificial intelligence drove our interpretation of Dreamcast.
Interesting you mention the swirl logo – there’s a bit of debate about where that came from, but the general consensus is that it’s meant to represent a lifecycle or something. Can you recall the initial pitch that you presented to Sega of America for the Dreamcast campaign? What kinds of things were Sega looking for with the console – did they request anything specific or anything they didn’t want to be included in the Dreamcast campaign?

We actually won the Sega business in 1996, beating out Goodby Silverstein by pitching for Sega Genesis II. I actually got to be the voice for the iconic 'SEGA! scream' for a year before Dreamcast came out - my true moment of video game fame!

Our pitch team, led by strategic planner Bonnie Wan (still the most talented thinker I’ve ever worked with in advertising, by the way) and Patrick Kiss, identified that the real pitch was for the unnamed next generation console. Babysitting the final days of the Genesis was just a price of entry.

So we went beyond the Genesis brief and concentrated on what we heard was coming - a game console that you could play over the internet, that promised to learn and react to your moves.
We gave a spirited pitch to both Sega of America and at least one top executive from Sega of Japan on how to get the most out of Genesis - I hardly remember the Genesis work it was so long ago - but the thing that won us the business is when we started talking about the new Katana console that was coming.

We respectfully told Sega that we had not been properly briefed on the next generation platform and what we were about to show was only high level thoughts and that we would, of course need the guidance and partnership of Sega to really make anything worthy. But we had an idea.

Imagine a launch spot that started with two boys in a suburban backyard, competing to see who can get closer to the bulls eye with a toy bow and arrow with suction cup tips.

Tracked by a very hip bouncy music track, we see Boy #1 take a shot - he hits the bull’s eye. Boy number #2 is not impressed. He pulls his bow way back, aims and fires!

The camera follows the arrow as it flies across the yard, over the fence, down the street, over the highway, across the ocean through a French town (knocking over a painting), through a German town (knocking over a beer stein), over a Russian town (knocking over a snowman), into a Japanese town where the arrow goes through a school room class, out the window, to the playground and hits a target with a group of super hip Japanese kids who are impressed.

A voice over reads: "Bring on the World. Sega Katana." And just for the meeting I learned how to say it in Japanese: "Sekai ni motarashimasu."

Of course we never made that spot, but the idea won us the business.
That’s incredible to hear. The first ever pitch for the US Sega Dreamcast advertising campaign, when it was still called Katana. I don't think that's ever been discussed before. It really does encapsulate what the Dreamcast was all about though – playing together. Can you recall what the target demographic was for the system? Was there a specific type of person or gamer that Sega wanted to pinpoint as an ‘ideal’ customer?

Sega was after the serious gamer. We knew if we got the hardcore gamers, the casual gamer would follow suit. But Sega also recognized that this new promise of playing over the internet would intrigue an older, more sophisticated target as well, who was just getting enthralled with all sorts of things online.

The problem was Dreamcast’s internet gaming was across a standard dial-up 56k modem (and 33k outside of the United States) and so the actual gameplay was pretty limited at first. So in the beginning there was this strategic tug-of-war where Sega wanted to be first with internet gaming out of the box, but the games sucked. But the non-internet games were awesome and they had a simple form of AI – the games adjusted so the same old moves would not always work, which made the game play infinitely more interesting. At least, that was the message.

In the end, Sega hired us for our thoughts on how to handle the promise of internet gaming, but since the online part of the console was so weak, we ended up leaning into the other amazing feature – the console’s ability to learn your gameplay style and artificial intelligence.
You mentioned Bernie Stolar earlier. He's seen as the father of the Dreamcast, we spoke to him recently and he really had grand plans for the platform. what were your interactions with Bernie like? How influential was he in the formation of the Dreamcast brand?

Bernie was such a force. He challenged us to go big and he feared nothing. It was his description of what Dreamcast could be that triggered our initial idea, that this thing was actually alive. We really leaned into the classic fear of machines taking over mankind; a theme played out in classic stories from Frankenstein and The Matrix to A.I. and HBO’s recent hit, Westworld.

Basically, the fear that if we make the machines too smart, they will start thinking for themselves and take over the world. We will become irrelevant.

That’s an interesting angle to take, almost making it seem that the Dreamcast was something to be feared. I'd be quite happy to live in a world where we're all subservient to a Dreamcast overlord! The ‘It’s Thinking’ tagline is now synonymous with the Dreamcast, both in the print and TV advertising materials. Can you recall how that specific tagline came about?

I think once we all got on the same page, we figured that the internet gaming story was not ready as modem speeds were too slow to pin the whole launch on it. Instead we would talk about the modem and internet gaming as an added point, but not as the lead feature. That’s when we leaned into artificial intelligence and the fact that gamers’ number one complaint is that once they figure out a game, it’s done. It’s boring. But now Dreamcast games learn and fight back – in other words, ‘It’s Thinking’.

The choice to deliver the line in a whisper was to give the line added intrigue and mystery. We wanted people to sort of fear this thing (on some level). I thought it was also an interesting move going from the Sega scream to the Dreamcast whisper. A new voice so powerful and clever, it doesn’t have to scream.
That’s a fascinating juxtaposition there, between the outgoing scream and the incoming whisper. On the same topic, are you able to give us an idea of the brainstorming that went into the Dreamcast ads? What was the general feeling towards the console and the gaming scene at that time?

We imagined the Dreamcast console as a home where every game character, from Sonic the Hedgehog to NFL players like Randy Moss and Jim McMann, and NBA stars like Gary Payton and the drivers in Crazy Taxi, to the fierce characters in Virtua Fighter, all lived together. They went to the same restaurants, the same stores, the same weight rooms. We showed the insides of the Dreamcast console to be a multi-layer city, where all the characters lived and learned.

We were also the first to bring the characters to life outside their main game franchise. So when Crazy Taxi drivers go the DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) they get into altercations with a Street Fighter who happens to work there, for instance. It was totally a fun way to say its thinking before cutting to actual game footage.

But we wanted to start with something bigger and more epic. Something that would feel threatening – a true challenge, an adversary to be reckoned with. And that’s how ‘Apocalypse’ came to be. It’s the story of the very first Dreamcast console, which is stolen from the Japanese Sega headquarters by a spy from PlayStation (evidenced by her arm band) who is thwarted by the collective thinking, and digital connectivity of the Dreamcast game characters.
The ‘Apocalypse’ film is one that is referenced by many Dreamcast fans when the topic of the launch comes up – it really made an impact. Also of note is the American Dreamcast launch date of 9/9/99. Did you have any input into that?

We knew we wanted to begin with a foreboding message - a warning that something wicked was coming and the 9/9/99 gave us the perfect, seemingly connected numerology to make the launch feel extra dangerous and memorable. Remember the fear of what would happen to everybody’s computer systems when the date changed to 2000 – the Y2K or Millennium Bug panic? It played right into our hands.
The European advertising campaigns were completely different to those in the United States. Were you aware of the differences in approach? Did you take a look at the print/TV commercials at all, and if so what did you think of them?

It seemed that Europe decided to go head long into the whole internet story. They ignored the fact that the games available were very limited, or not even playable online at launch. They were selling the potential of what Dreamcast could be as opposed to what it actually was. Ironically our pitch piece from 1996, ‘Bring on the World’ was very much like what Europe decided to do. But once Sega of America realized how underwhelming the internet offering was going to be for our hardcore gamers, we went with the artificial intelligence side of the story.

In year two of Dreamcast we introduced more online gaming ideas under Sega Net, including ‘Evening in America’ featuring Seaman narrating a ‘We are the World’ type song performed by all the Dreamcast characters in a sound studio – while we intercut to kids from all over the USA playing each other so intently they don’t notice when their curtains catch on fire! One guy in a trailer gets so agitated he accidentally pulls his gas stove from the wall and ends up blowing up his entire trailer!

You’ve mentioned working with the Genesis prior to Dreamcast. Were you familiar with Sega’s heritage or the Sega Saturn prior to working on these commercials?

The idea that all the characters lived together in one place gave us a fun territory to play with. We had Sonic the Hedgehog DJ-ing at a party with Gary Payton, we had NHL Hockey players making crank calls, we had Virtua Fighter characters eating tacos with NFL players in Mexican restaurants. The known characters made the idea really work since kids would be seeing their favorites act in a whole different and original way. Yeah, we were familiar with the Sega cast of characters.
Where there any campaigns or ideas you can recall that Sega rejected (if you can speak about them!). If so, can you elaborate?

I think if the Dreamcast’s modem been up to speed, we definitely would have gone with a ‘Bring on the World’ type launch. I think it was serendipity that forced us to focus on the artificial intelligence vs. the online gaming aspect. I believe it made for a more emotional, epic launch.

Famously, there was the tongue-in-cheek ‘condolences’ print advert aimed at Sony when they were experiences with console shortages around the time of the PlayStation 2 launch. Did you ever get any feedback from Sony on that or hear anything to that effect?

No, not really. That was Bernie’s game. He probably heard an earful!
I bet! What are you most proud of when it comes to looking back at the commercials you produced?

I thought how we demonstrated the Dreamcast’s learning in print ads was pretty genius. The theme was created by Jim DiPiazza and John Davis, the Creative Writer and Artistic Director working in our group. They showed how making the same move twice in a row will get you burned by showing comparative frame grabs. We had demos for NFL 2K, Virtua Fighter and Crazy Taxi to work with.

Also, the ‘It’s Thinking’ commercial series showing all the characters in their Dreamcast home was super fun to create.

But the most memorable piece had to be ‘Apocalypse’, the 90 second epic TV commercial that launched Dreamcast, directed by John Moore. John Moore did such an amazing job on that shoot, that he was offered his first movie because of it – ‘Behind Enemy Lines’ starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson.

We shot the whole thing in Vancouver over three days. The original script called for the thief to be captured when a motorcycle accident landed her near a zoo, where the Dreamcast console electronically released a tiger from its cage. We settled for a super dangerous motorcycle stunt and an enormous explosion created when an airplane is forced off course though, so it clips a tower on top of a building. The tower happens to land on the thief’s van, forcing her take a motorcycle instead. Can you imagine getting that scene approved post 9/11? No way, man.

It's worth mentioning that while Bernie certainly started the party, Peter Moore poured gasoline on the fire and wrote the check for Apocalypse, then had an idea to use Eminem...he definitely shared Bernie’s flare for the dramatic and courage to dream big.

Wow - I had no idea about John Moore! Apocalypse really is an epic production, and it’s amazing that so many effects and so much action is crammed into just 90 seconds. Finally, did you own a Dreamcast at all? If so, do you have any favourite games?

I did own one, but I gave my Dreamcast away to a kid who just begged me for it. I understand the console is truly loved by those who got it, still to this day. My favorite game back then was Crazy Taxi – it was highly addictive. I also wasted a lot of time playing NFL 2K.

Brian, thanks so much for answering our questions. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with you and learning about the creative processes and the ‘what ifs’ surrounding the Dreamcast’s advertising campaign.

No problem at all, it’s been great fun taking the time machine back to 9/9/99.


Thanks again to Brian Bacino for taking us on a whirlwind trip back to the 1990s, and revealing what went in to creating the memorable Dreamcast launch campaign and extended advertising schedules. You can find more of Brian's work at his personal website.

Special thanks must also go to our good friend Pcwzrd of Dreamcast Live, for putting us in touch with Brian and the inspiration for this interview.

So, what do you think? Were you a fan of the 'It's Thinking' or 'Apocalypse' adverts? Let us know in the comments, on Twitter or in our Facebook group.

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Blondejon said...

Well that was up there with the bernie interview. Ive never seen any of the amerAmer ads before

hoogafanter said...

Great work as always Tom, this might be your best...

Tom Charnock said...

Thanks for your comments and feedback all - it was a real honour to be able to put these questions to Brian (and once again thanks to Pcwzrd for putting us in touch!) :)

Daniel Turner said...

that was an awesome interview! love hearing this stuff, it’s like a continuation of console wars.

CD ageS said...

I'm almost certain that most of US commercials that had all the different mascots together, none ever had any appearances by Street Fighter characters of any sort. As a matter of fact i'm certain he's confusing SF characters for Powerstone characters which are seen in just about every commercial he described in the interview. I used to love those US commercials btw! Seeing so many characters really sold me on the hardware back in the day.
Very informative interview as always.

Tom Charnock said...

CD ageS - I thought the same, I think he meant Virtua Fighter characters, but well spotted. I might simply change the references to Street Fighter for Virtua Fighter.

JSSM-VCJR said...

One of the pages you left at the bottom of the article says "If science fiction movies and books are any indication, all this leads to game consoles overthrowing humanity and using us as batteries."

Be careful what you wish for...

JSSM-VCJR said...

"If science fiction movies and books are any indication, all this leads to game consoles overthrowing humanity and using us as batteries." Careful what you wish for...