Nobody knows anything.
That’s the first law
The video game industry
always wanted to be like Hollywood. Who would know this better than
me, the man who did the most notorious movie conversion of them all?
But then again, nobody knows anything.
If anybody knew
anything then why would major Hollywood studios reject the original
Star Wars movie because “sci-fi is dead?” And why would they
green light Waterworld?
Why would anyone sell
Atari for under 30 million just a few years before it was worth a
billion? And why would the shrewd buyers who made that purchase turn
around and spend 22 million dollars for the privilege of rushing a
game out in five weeks and then spend even more money burying those
games in the desert?
Not that I claim to
know whether or not that burial took place, but one thing I do know
is nobody knows anything.
The other first law of
Hollywood is: Nobody ever got fired for saying “no.”
Rejecting a blockbuster
is merely a war story, but doing a flop is original sin.
Think about that.
In a business where
every move is a high stakes gamble, people get punished for taking
chances. Isn’t it odd that the games industry (which lives or dies
by inventing and delivering compelling strategies) chooses this
strategy as its guiding light?
So let’s talk about
some of Atari’s greatest NO’s. Let’s see, there was the time
that some goofy guy came in to demo his radical new software
application. It wasn’t even a game and no one gave it a second
thought. It was some useless little text application called Visicalc,
but he kept referring to it as a “spreadsheet.” What did Atari
need with that? We were already working on the electronic dictionary.
Another time someone suggested a martial arts based game and most of
us laughed at that one. It’s a video game and they don’t even
shoot each other? Ha!
Then there was the time
when one of Atari’s own employees offered them a new and improved
design for a home computer. But they already had a home computer in
the works so they told Steve Jobs to take a hike. He took a
frightfully short walk. One of the first Apple buildings was right
next door when I started at Atari. We stole their sign once, which
was ironic because nobody accepted their product when it was offered.
In fact the fellow who
was in charge when these decisions were made was doing quite well at
the time. . . until he said yes, that is. It was not too long after the
whole E.T. fiasco that this CEO “stepped down” from the position
and a new sheriff came to town. It was right around here that a truly
great NO occurred.
It was clear that the
2600 was dying fast. Atari waited too long to commit to a viable
hardware platform that could move them forward in the industry. They
had plans going but it was too little too late. At precisely this
moment, a Japanese company called Nintendo came to Atari with the
opportunity to exclusively distribute their hot new NES system in
North America. You know, Donkey Kong Nintendo. Mario Nintendo. Luigi
too. For a company like Atari that was too busy greasing the rungs of
the ladder to grab one, this was the perfect opportunity to turn Free
Fall into a platformer, so to speak. So they started negotiating and
considering all their options and examining alternatives and they
found a way to say NO. Ostensibly it was because Nintendo was double
dealing them when someone else (Coleco) came out with a Donkey Kong
demo. Never mind that it was an illegal, unlicensed demo and no
threat. Never mind that Atari had made a billion in sales the year
before was now losing nearly that much. Never mind that a company
desperately in need of a quick solution was being handed one with a
proven track record. Atari couldn’t hear any of that. All Atari
knew was they weren’t going to let anyone take advantage of them.
(Why Atari had such an enormous sensitivity to being taken advantage
of is a topic for another column)
The simple truth is
they knew they were being played and they found a way to say NO. They
forgot that nobody knows anything.
A YES to the NES could
have changed the course of the gaming industry. Could have forged a
partnership that would have continued to evolve and revolutionize the
industry. The hot new system in the industry today could have been
the Nintendo Atar-Wii.
But Atari said NO.
In the twelve months
after that decision Atari dumped its home gaming and home computer
divisions (along with the rights to their back library) and
successfully made the transition from trailblazing entertainment
technology pioneer to footnote. That was a devastating transition for
a company of Atari’s success and stature to face.
And you know who got
fired for making that decision? Nobody.
Which nobody was that?
The one that doesn’t know anything.
I think the game
industry has achieved its goal. They have indeed become a lot like