It is with a heavy heart that we heard about the passing of Bernie Stolar.
If you’ll allow me a moment to editorialise
I’ve been searching for the right words for this article all weekend. Bernie was a huge deal in the video games industry (see the actual article below for just SOME of his career highlights) but he was equally as influential in the advertising industry. With both of those industries being at the forefront of popular culture, Bernie’s influence was always going to be all over pop culture.
Because of this, I was shocked when I read how little had actually gone into the first article which announced his passing. In fact, the first version of it was simply a copy-paste job of some of the author’s previous articles on Bernie. It’s since been fluffed up a little with quotes from (admittedly) big names
and one name that neither Squidge or I, or any of our industry friends have ever heard of
but it still remains mostly devoid.
I’ve intentionally not linked to it here, but you can see me reference it in this twitter thread
So the news that an actual article on his passing was being written for Forbes, with quotes from his friends and luminaries, and actual information on the man and his legacy, made me feel much better.
you can read that piece here, and I’d really recommend it. It’s really well written, and has quotes from many luminaries in the industry, including infamous reclusive figures like Ken Kutaragi
With that being said, let’s take a step away from my editorialising and get back to what Squidge and I have to say about the untimely passing of a real legend in our industry.
Bernie’s influence across, not just video gaming but pop culture and advertising, will forever be felt.
A Simplified Overview of Bernie’s Career
Without him, there would be no:
- Atari Lynx
- Crash Bandicoot
- if you haven’t seen them, the North American commercials showing Crash Bandicoot outside of Nintendo HQ are amazing
- Ridge Racer
- the Oddworld series
- Spyro the Dragon
- Sega Dreamcast
- No small feat, as he fought for internet capability to be baked in
- And using it, he brought SEGA back from almost certain financial ruin
- SegaSports series
- Microsoft built the Xbox with SEGA’s input, based on their experience of building the Dreamcast
- He was the Executive Chairmman of the gaming platform which is focussed on making old games playable on newer systems
- Did you know that they are the only online store licensed to sell the early entries in the Duke Nukem franchise
And that’s just a small list.
The problem with most pieces which try to distill Bernie’s contributions down to a single article is that they tend to focus only on his work at SEGA between the end of the Saturn and the start of the Dreamcast eras. Whilst this was a very important period of time, to be sure, this was not the only thing he did in video gaming. Far from it.
Bernie was a man ahead of his time, with a single dream: to make the best products he could and provide the best experiences possible.
No conversation about Bernie could be complete without mentioning the Dreamcast.
I wax philosophical about the Dreamcast a lot
maybe not as much as say AndrewD
but it was the first video games console which accurately (in my opinion) recreated the feel of an arcade cabinet in the home. Just look at the ports of games like The House of The Dead 2 and Soul Calibur, not to mention original titles like Power Stone. And where would we be in a world without Crazy Taxi?
are you ready to make some craaaaazy money? Ya ya ya ya yaaa
I’m not saying that he came up with those game ideas (though he did plant the seed of the idea for Crazy Taxi by saying, “how about a game where you drive around in a taxi?” in a meeting with other SEGA execs), but he had an important hand in creating the canvas on which they were painted.
And not to mention the fact that the Dreamcast had online support built-in. This wasn’t SEGA’s first attempt at online support for a games console, as the Mega Drive had a system called MegaNet which allowed gamers in Japan and Brazil to take their console online via dial-up.
But Bernie saw the way that the industry was going and pushed hard for the Dreamcast to have dial-up built in
with a broadband adapter sold separately
at the cost of a DVD-Drive. Was this a bad idea? Heck no. The GD-ROM had more than enough space for each game that was released for the Dreamcast, with the exception of the Shenmue games. But Shenmue is an outlier, because no console could have tamed that beast - though the first version of it was built for the Saturn. At the time of writing, we’re three games in, and the story still isn’t finished
Talk about an epic
Imagine playing something like Phantasy Star Online, but never being able to take it online. Imagine never being able to download extra content for your games
that’s right, the Dreamcast had DLC - before the other consoles
Imagine the Dreamcast being locked to local only gameplay. It was ahead of it’s time, with the Xbox being the only other console from that generation to have online capabilities
with all consoles having it too in the next generation
And that’s JUST his work on launching the Dreamcast.
SEGA in the mid-90s
A lot of people claim that Bernie killed the Saturn, but that’s just not true. He joined SEGA in 1996, and they were already struggling with a staggering SEVEN consoles on the market:
- Master System (not discontinued until the early 2000s)
- Mega Drive / Genesis
- Game Gear
- 32x (technically an addon for the Mega Drive)
let’s be honest, the 32x was advertised as a new console
- Mega CD (again, another addon advertised as a new console)
And almost no way to support them at all. There’s a reason why there were only 40 titles published for the 32x, and it’s only partially due to simplifying SEGA’s portfolio of home consoles.
Anyone in business will tell you that if you diversify too far, you run the risk of collapse, and that’s almost what happened to SEGA in 1995 with “the price heard around the world” - aka this:
It’s easy to overlook just how cheap the PlayStation was when it launched. It undercut all of SEGA’s consoles available in the US at that time, and it was a calculated move; one that Bernie had a hand in setting up.
Back when Sony where looking for titles for their nascent console, Bernie had brought Crash Bandicoot to them, along with Ridge Racer and Abe’s Odyssey.
Because of this, the Saturn was already dead before Bernie arrived at SEGA. Which meant that his task of bringing SEGA back from the brink was a monumental one. And he achieved it in spades. I’ve seen reports of SEGA being up to 270 million dollars in debt before he took over SEGA of America, and by the time he left they were not only in the black, but they were up by several tens of millions. That’s not something you can do overnight, or with seven consoles that you are having trouble supporting.
Also, let’s not forget that Tomb Raider was meant to be a launch title for the Saturn, but SEGA (pre-Bernie) were so inept that they never sent a dev kit to Core; meaning that SEGA’s launch title became Sony’s.
Just think about that for a second: if SEGA had had proper support for developers ion place, we could have seen Tomb Raider as a Saturn launch title.
"something something no RPGs on the PlayStation"
I see this quote bandied about a lot, and not only is it incomplete but it’s also not true.
A lot of people take this to mean that Bernie was against RPGs completely. But what he was doing was looking at the video game market in the West and comparing it with that of Japan.
In Japan, RPGs tend to sell really well. Like, really, really well. But in the 90’s they didn’t sell that well at all. Just look at the early Final Fantasy games
we’ll get to VII in a moment
In Japan, they sold like hot cakes. But in America and Europe, they didn’t sell well at all. In fact, only three of the first six were officially released in the West by Nintendo. And when Square took a wack at making a Super Mario RPG, even Nintendo
a company who will literally sell Mario branded anything
thought better of selling it to the West.
The fuller quote has Bernie saying:
No RPGs for the PlayStation yet. We have a massive audience for fighting games, action games, and sports games. Let’s focus on those first.
You’d be forgiven for thinking
But Jay, what about FFVII?
But you have to remember that FFVII had a marketing budget for the US alone which was more than the cost of developing and marketing the PlayStation, alone. Somewhere in the region of 100 million dollars was spent on marketing FFVII. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great game. But it had a shed load of money behind it, in the form of advertising.
There’s no way that Squidge and I could ever do Bernie’s legacy justice
we didn’t even mention his amazing deal with the Spielberg’s when he made Shark Attack
as this would end up being a very log blog post. Besides, others who are way better at writing will do a much better job of that. My purpose was to point out how lucky we are that Bernie went into the games industry, and that he had the chutzpah to shake it up as much as he did.
I did write up a twitter thread with some points that I haven’t raised here (including a little on the Shark Attack story):
Due to the recent changes at Twitter, we are unable to embed tweets at this time. We apologise for the inconvenience.
click through for the full thread
Bernie’s influence on the games we play, and the pop culture around us, will be felt for decades to come if not longer. For that, both Squidge and I say:
Thank you, and farewell Mr Stolar. You will be missed. And your influence will be felt for decades to come, if not forever.
And please do go check out the Forbes piece on Bernie, here.
We mentioned 15 games in this post. In the following order, those games where: