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Nobody knows anything.

That’s the first law of Hollywood.

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.

Repercussions? None.

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 Hollywood.

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