To quote C. Montgomery Burns: “Friends, family and religion. These are the three demons you must slay if you wish to succeed in business.” A cold hand at the grindstone is he, but this callous philosophy resounds profoundly with a game industry built from hard-boiled bricks of insensitivity on coldhearted foundations, held together with a merciless mortar of unfeeling dedication.
The games we know and love exist because of demon slayers born to make Monty proud, and though we may love to hate them, our aching thumbs owe their emotional stolidity a debt of gratitude.
“As the majority of hobbyists must be aware, most of you steal your software.” – An excerpt from Gates’ “Open Letter to Hobbyists” dated February 3, 1976.
Unlike many, I feel I can see through the red (it should be green, but I didn’t choose the color of my blood) haze of jealousy that surrounds the Microsoft mogul. William Henry Gates III has led a charmed life, and it’s all too easy to resent him for simply amassing a wealth that dwarfs the GDP of numerous developing nations, especially when there are far more valid reasons to resent his business strategies.
Despite the iron hand with which Microsoft has ruled throughout its reign of terror, Bill himself actually got started by exploiting weaknesses in a computer system to acquire privileges for himself and his team of nerdish cowboys. Gates and his chums found a loophole in Computer Center Corporation’s PDP-10 system (a system that limited how much time users could spend on a specific mainframe). They were able to find a security hole that all but disabled the security software and gave them unlimited access to the machine, effectively stealing hardware resources from CCC. CCC found out what Gates and his cronies were up to and banned them from its network.
Not one to leave a market opportunity unexploited, Gates then took his nefarious skills back to CCC and offered to put them to use by actively seeking out other such bugs in the company’s systems, in exchange for the free computer access to which he’d previously been helping himself.
In the end, this arrangement worked out well for both Gates and CCC, who began paying the young hacker to write software for new platforms. Young William then took his now working partnership with Paul Allen and founded Microsoft to develop a BASIC system for MITS, and one of his first acts (as the owner of exactly the kind of system he used to exploit) was to publish a nasty letter to hobbyist programmers complaining that they were all stealing his software. To be fair, many were, though as Bill knew better than most, the climate at the time was one which sought to provide software and information for free in order to expand and improve the programming world.
At least Bill stuck to his ruthless philosophy from beginning to end, and it remained, whether we like it or not, a strong platform from which a great many incredible games were launched. Now a dedicated philanthropist, having received an honorary KBE by the British Crown, his bottomless bank account has genuinely begun to benefit the whole world.
Someone of a more lenient nature could never have made Microsoft the powerhouse it is today, and while there’re many thousands of small reasons to dislike Bill Gates, they’re outweighed by the two or three megalithic reasons to like him. Plus, he can hold his head up high and truthfully say to most any software hacker who’s exploited one of his products, “I did it first.”
“It’s probably too cheap.” – Ken Kutaragi, after being quizzed about the price tag of his latest console, the PlayStation 3.
Ken is a genuine dichotomy. Did he simply make a mistake with the PlayStation 3, or did he build himself up to such lofty heights that he had further to fall than most?
Glancing over his recent history (namely the two previous generations of his console) he appears to have remained impressively consistent with his business approach, ultimately to be let down by an epic marketing blunder. This hasn’t stopped the one-man quote machine from standing beside his confused product with nothing less than utter, unswerving loyalty, of course. But Ken is that most perfect and well developed antagonist: His motivation is pure, his purpose just, but his blind dedication has driven him to the dark side. Darth Kutaragi actually has a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
Pity poor Ken, for he was an undiscovered and unappreciated visionary, hidden deep within the bowels of Sony – put away where he could no longer aggravate the board of directors with unwelcome talk of videogames and the future. Sony didn’t have – and didn’t want – any part of a future based on toy fads. But Ken had seen the impact Nintendo’s Famicom had on his own children. It handcuffed them to the television (a Sony television, mind you) where they would while away blissful hours in imaginary worlds. This was no fad, and Ken wanted in.
When Nintendo came to Sony looking for a new sound chip design, the engineer defied his superiors and worked on the project in secret, secure in the fact that the financial success would vindicate him.
Nintendo, on the other hand, had no such reservations about Kutaragi-san’s videogaming abilities, and when it came time to develop a CD-ROM drive for the SNES, it knew exactly who to go to. With the help of a friend at the top, Ken managed to wager his career against the viability of a small venture into game hardware design, and the partnership was struck.
Pity poor Ken, for Nintendo suddenly adopted the Monty Burns business philosophy and slew the friendship demon when the company publicly announced a partnership with Philips, and all development work on the Sony-SNES drive had been scrapped. The engineer’s only saving grace was the public humiliation Sony felt after being disrespected by its videogame partner, and Ken was allowed to complete his work: codename Play Station.
Sony embraced the bastard son it had long ignored, and the company’s videogame arm quickly became the leading profit machine in the vast desert of Sony products. And yet Ken’s success has left a bitter taste. Touted as a strong prospect for the next president of Sony, Kutaragi was brutally sanitized in the dead of night when he was removed from his roles as the head of the Consumer Electronics division of the company.
Placed in a position designed to fail, the outcome of the disastrous PlayStation 3 launch begins to seem more understandable, as does Ken’s sad decline into confusion and contradiction. His fall from grace, both within and without of Sony, is the result of an unswerving devotion to an ultimately false idol. So fickle are we, the gamers, that already the PlayStation 1 and 2 are forgotten, cast into the pit with poor Ken’s reputation, while he turns restlessly in a PR grave, the architect of his own misfortune. Pity poor Ken, for his nose is cold.
“Business is like sex. You have to be involved.” – One of Commodore founder Jack Tramiel’s famous sayings from “The Religion.”
If there was one man C. Montgomery Burns could learn from, it’d be Jack Tramiel. While Monty might have advised us to slay the demon of religion, Jack embraced it, nurtured it and rewrote its doctrines in his own words. His employees knew his business model as “The Religion,” and if they wanted to remain in His presence, at Commodore and then Atari, they must learn its passages, sayings and ways intimately, or face the eternal damnation of a man who’d literally lived through hell and come out the other side hardened by fire and brimstone.
During World War II, Tramiel had spent several years in concentration camps; one of only 60 survivors from the 10,000 people he was originally incarcerated with. Deciding to settle in America (since it was American troops that first entered Auschwitz), Tramiel spent several decades earning the right to be the hard-ass, no nonsense businessman that saw him placed at No. 3 on California magazine’s list of bosses from hell.
A man who genuinely knew what it was to have nothing, Jack was careful with every single cent, wringing every last use from each one before handing it over to someone less deserving. Whether or not his method of conducting business was ruthless by design or simply a product of volatile times, we’ll never know, but it became standard practice for Commodore to hold off paying bills until the creditor was either climbing the court steps or was pushed out of business. When the latter occurred, Jack’s financially vigilant company would step in, buy the struggling contractor and then casually forgive its own debt.
Jack’s well quoted cry of “We need to make computers for the masses, not the classes!” was ultimately prophetic, though Tramiel’s contempt for the competition would eventually prove too costly for even his product range. Determined to destroy Texas Instruments (which had previously incurred his fathomless wrath when it began manufacturing its own calculators), he took a chainsaw to the C64’s price tag, and as sales soared, profits plummeted.
Jumping before he was pushed, Tramiel took a handful of loyal acolytes and left Commodore for new pastures, buying the home games division of the failing Atari. Jack’s son Leonard took a microscope to Atari’s records and discovered an unusual agreement with a struggling startup hardware developer called Amiga. The company had been given a loan by Atari to develop a new computer, with a clause allowing Jack’s new company access to its technology if Amiga was unable to repay on time. Quick as a particularly cunning fox, the Tramiels pounced on Amiga (which was in talks with Commodore for a lifesaving buyout deal) and made excellent use of the access clause to shave months, if not years, of development time off their new 16-bit project. By the time the Commodore Amiga hit the shelves, it had a worthy competitor – the Atari ST – to face off against.
Despite Jack Tramiel’s savage dislike of – and ruthless reaction to – competition, providing a hard-faced counterpoint to market leaders is where he’s proven himself an unrivaled success. Were it not for Jack, Apple, Amiga, Amstrad, Sinclair, Texas Instruments and a host of other major players in the game industry would have had unrestrained control of their respective markets and we, the consumers, would have suffered greatly. Don’t mistake the rise and fall of Commodore for the story of Jack’s life. He has never fallen, and few have ever risen so high.
And please try and pronounce his name correctly. As Leonard so astutely put it, “It’s pronounced Tram-ell. It rhymes with ‘done well.'” It’s the least we can do for a true anti-hero of the game industry.
A Very, Very Unholy Trinity
These are men who made no effort to be liked. They don’t care what we think of them. Their dedication was poured not into a glistening public image but into quality products that people wanted. Love or hate them (or, like me, do both depending on the moon), but acknowledge their accomplishments and respect the millions of gaming hours they’ve provided the world. And then you must tremble. To quote Monty Burns one last time, “What good is money if it can’t inspire terror in your fellow man?”
What good indeed.