Chapter 1: The Most Coveted Job in the World
Chapter 2: A Change in Responsibilities
Chapter 3: Every Captain Must Have His Mother Brain
Chapter 4: Enter Captain Nintendo
Chapter 5: Captain Nintendo Lives
Chapter 6: The Captain Goes Hollywood
Chapter 7: The Real Power Behind Captain Nintendo
Chapter 8: New Worlds to Conquer and a New Superpower!
Chapter 9: The Last Adventure

Toward the end of completing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Power Blade, I had written a game proposal for a two-game crossover simultaneous release based on The Flintstones and The Jetsons for which the company had paid Hanna-Barbera handsomely to acquire the rights to produce. Nothing quite like it had ever been done before and there were layers and dimensions of complementary marketing inherent. Barney was desperate for a game proposal to submit to Hanna-Barbera for approval and no one else had stepped forward.

So, I wrote a lengthy proposal that would tie the two storylines together and utilize virtually all of Hanna-Barbera’s massive library of world-famous characters (including some that, up to that point, I hadn’t realized they owned the rights to like Scooby Doo, Popeye, Tom & Jerry, and the Smurfs, as well as their regular stable which included Yogi Bear, Quick Draw McGraw, Huckleberry Hound, Magilla Gorilla, Johnny Quest, Atom Ant, Secret Squirrel, Space Ghost!, and a great many others.). Since my company had paid a pretty hefty sum in order to use the library of H-B characters, it made sense to try to utilize as many as possible (if it helped the story). Barney hated the fact that I was the one that created the proposal since his resentment of me had only grown more intense over the months, but he was under pressure to produce a game proposal of some kind to meet the H-B deadline, and, in order to save his considerable posterior, he submitted my proposal.

Reportedly, the Hanna-Barbera company liked the proposal and we were a go. After a little more than a year at this company, things seemed to be humming along. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was doing well. Power Blade was a bonafide hit. Several other successful titles were out the door and making money. Over 35 titles, actually–for several platforms. The company I worked for was making more money than ever before.

So the company closed the American facility.

I know. Ultimately, it doesn’t make any sense. But there were a couple of factors that prompted that decision. I can never say for sure, but it was the common consensus that our success had caused our Japanese counterparts to lose face. We had proved that we DID know our market better and we DID produce quality entertainment software. Understand, even in the face of what it would ultimately cost them monetarily, it was more important to terminate the goose that laid 35 golden eggs in order to justify the denial they had created for themselves. Add to that, the Japanese disdain for the games we were being successful with. [Sidebar: I promised that I would explain the chief reason that existing games in Japan are altered for American audiences. Games are made easier for American audiences. I was told by the Japanese management that games must be made easier for American audiences for a couple of reasons. “American game players do not have the skills to defeat a game at the difficulty level set for Japanese game players. American game players also do not have the patience. They insist that the game is at least defeatable at some point. Japanese game players do NOT require this. Many games released in Japan cannot be defeated. Japanese game players love that!” There was no attempt by the Japanese management to hide their contempt at having to make games easier for American audiences. To me, that just implies: “Since we don’t have the design skills to incorporate longevity into the game through creative design and gameplay, we just increase the difficulty level so that the player must take longer to finish it. If he never finishes it, that is the greatest longevity of all.” It’s not the inadequacy of us “spoiled” American gameplayers; it is the inadequacy of the designer to design properly for his audience. People make all kinds of excuses when they are found inadequate. So the Japanese equated difficulty with quality. While this may just be a cultural difference, I can never support the idea that a game cannot be defeated. If all you can do is “show up and take damage,” you are not playing a game. You are marking time. BIG difference. You cannot measure progress. You cannot feel a sense of accomplishment. Likely, you cannot feel a sense of satisfaction. If the Japanese game players don’t mind plunking down their $60 for this, God love them. Taking the liberty of speaking on behalf of my fellow American game players: We want—check that—we DEMAND more for our mom’s hard-earned money.] So the Japanese side of the company could never reconcile the (in their minds) “bad quality” of games we produced with the successful dollars they were bringing in.

However, even this alone was not enough to justify shutting down the American facility.

Someone in Barney’s “inner circle” indicated to me that the Japanese bosses were increasingly unhappy with their interactions with Barney. Apparently, according to the confidant, Barney continued to be abrupt and abusive with the Japanese like he was with the rest of us, and they finally decided he wasn’t worth it. Unfortunate, if understandable. While it was only said in whispers, everyone certainly thought it: Barney had lost us our jobs. [Sidebar: Of all the programmers, testers, artists, musicians, producers, outsourced people, and support personnel, the ONLY two people that were asked to remain on board with the company was the Japanese secretary and myself.

Barney begrudgingly related this offer to me. The Japanese bosses wanted me to go to Chicago and open up a one-man office and perform the same service that I performed at the American facility, while also taking up the slack for the now-absent programmers, testers, artists, musicians, producers, outsourced people, and support personnel—with NO increase in salary. Hmmm. Let me think a minute on that reeealll har—no. I DID respond with a counter offer, however. I told Barney that I would consider performing a modified version of that role for an increase and then I named my price (nothing outlandish, but very reasonable). Barney refused to deliver the message. He said, “Take it or leave it.” So, I left it. I like easy decisions.]

Then, Barney asked if I would remain on board to complete the testing of one last game that he had committed to complete. Barney had called me to his office to ask if I would test his game because, since I no longer officially worked there, he couldn’t order me to do it. The phone rang and unbeknownst to Barney, I overheard him give a negative reference about me to a video game company who’d inquired about hiring me (since the American facility was now going to close and I’d be available). It was just serendipity (and poetic justice) that the timing of my presence in his office coincided with the phone call. However, beyond the fact that Barney loathed me, if I went to work for another outfit, I wouldn’t be available to test the game he desperately needed me for. So he nipped any chance I’d had with this new company (on the phone) in the bud and hung up. He returned his attention to me and tried to keep an innocent expression.

It would mean a few more weeks worth of work and he would pay hourly, implying that HE was really doing ME some big favor. I told him that I needed to begin the process of looking for a new job and that I doubted he could afford my hourly price, which was quite different than my salary rate. He inquired as to my hourly price and I told him some ridiculous figure that was about 5 times what had been my original rate. I thought he was going to swallow his gum. He cursed at me and grumbled that he’d just hire some high school kid to test it and that he didn’t need me or the other testers. He’d threatened to do this pretty much daily ever since the day of my hire. I invited him to do just that and discover the quality of testing he will get for minimum wage. I knew I was leaving him in a terrible bind. I imagined that he would probably lose a considerable amount of money on the deal if he couldn’t produce the game by deadline. I also knew that it couldn’t happen to a more deserving…individual. I’d saved his considerable ass on at least two occasions. I’d made him look good to the Japanese bosses time and time again. If he’d ever once just acknowledged my contribution…If he’d ever just once said a kind word…hell, a CIVIL word, to me, I probably would have tested his lousy game for what he wanted to pay and saved his ass once again, but the negative reference clinched it.

So I bid Barney a fond farewell and a few days later I was on a plane to the east coast to interview with a prominent entertainment software company known for flight simulators and military strategy games. It was headed by a former major in the U.S. Air Force who’d gone into the private sector to run this software company. I was told by several of the individuals that worked there that much of the code used in the commercial flight simulators was identical to the ones used by the Air Force. Made sense. The planes in the software were the same as the ones used by our military. Though I was a little concerned that such remarkably similar software programs were being so casually made available to the public at large, I just assumed that they had been altered enough so as not to betray any classified information. Still, it does seem place for concern.

In any event, I met with several of the company’s key people and went through a fairly typical interview process. I had always been impressed by their product and the thought of working with this team appealed to me. All seemed to be going along well. And, then, I met the major. We’ll call him Major Dick. He was called Major along with his real first name “affectionately” by the staff, but I’ve changed all the names in my writings here to protect the innocent. And he just struck me as a “Major Dick.”

Being former military, he wasn’t big on chitchat and got straight to the point, which was fine with me. He said, “We’ve already conquered the PC market with our flight simulators and military strategy games, and the reason we’re talking to YOU is that we are now getting ready to enter the Nintendo market and we think you’d be valuable since you have a strong Nintendo background.”

I was honestly flabbergasted by this news, and I told him that. I said, “Wow. That is amazing news. Your company is going to begin making character-driven action and adventure games! That is exciting. And I think you’re right. I think I could be quite useful to you…” I was truly getting excited.

He interrupted, “No, no. We make flight simulators and military strategy games. We don’t make character games or adventure games.”

I replied, “Well, then, I’m confused. You said you wanted to enter the Nintendo market…”

“Yes,” he insisted. “With flight simulators and military strategy games. See, we believe that there are a large number of adults that play the Nintendo and we think we could capture that market.”

“Ah, I see,” I said. “Well, let me clarify a little bit for you.” And I recalled the consumer responses I’d charted. “Approximately 40% of all the people who play Nintendo are over the age of 24.” (Now this is actually a staggering figure for that time and not many people knew it.) “But they are NOT adult Nintendo players. They are adult-AGED Nintendo players. They are drawn to play the NES because of the little bouncy characters and the pretty colors and the lighthearted adventures—the same way the 10-to-14-year-olds are. They are not interested in flight simulators or your type of military strategy games. If they were, they’d be playing on PCs, not 8-bit consoles.”

Now, of course, I’m making some generalizations here. Obviously, there is always going to be at least SOMEbody that likes flight simulators and military strategy games and plays the NES. But when you discuss markets intelligently, you are talking about large amounts of people and generalizations are not just reasonable, but essential. But, my stats and facts were accurate.

“That is why you have been able to corner the PC market.” I continued. “That is the platform for your market because PCs have the capability required to handle that kind of software. Flight simulators and military strategy games have been tried on the NES and they really don’t sell well. That is why there is a warehouse full of copies of a particular submarine simulation game. Because it just didn’t sell well.” And I mentioned the game by name. Major Dick’s attitude changed and he seemed to be a little more withdrawn.

I found out later that the submarine game I’d mentioned had been a cooperative effort between Major Dick’s company and one of the Nintendo licensee companies. And I had unknowingly touched a sore nerve.

Major Dick had not wanted to hear the bad news about the potential of the Nintendo market and he tried to change the subject. “Well perhaps you could help us in our arcade division.”

A red flag had gone up. The interview had failed. Major Dick was not interested in hearing the truth or wanting my expertise. He wanted to hear me confirm that it was all right for him to make another business error like the submarine game. And, obviously, I wasn’t going to do that. I didn’t create the bad news; I was just the messenger. And you know what they do with messengers of bad news. So he implied that I was likely NOT going to be helping his company in the new Nintendo division. Well, obviously, that is the most likely spot to use me, so if you don’t use there, you are basically not going to be using me. Okay, I got it. The writing was on the wall. But, I’d worked on some arcade product for my most recent company, so I played along.

“Follow me,” said the major. And I followed him into a large warehouse room. This room was not carpeted like the offices, nor particularly organized. It was a typical warehouse, apparently used for a combination of research, product development, and miscellaneous storage. Conspicuously, in the middle, sat a very large sit-down arcade console with a larger-than-usual screen.

Major Dick began to talk about his pride and joy. “This is something that we’ve had in development for two years. It is the arcade version of our flagship commercial product.” The flagship commercial product was a flight simulator based on an actual aircraft used by the Air Force. I drew closer and stood beside the machine. I could see that it was a much more elaborate arcade console than the usual fare. The dashboard had been recreated to match the actual aircraft and the cockpit was pretty close to what I imagined the real deal would be. Then Major Dick confirmed it.

“We’ve spent two million dollars to reproduce—with great accuracy—the cockpit of [the aircraft]. The cockpit dashboard is to scale and is an exact representation. The graphics are near-photographic quality.” The major turned on the screen in demo mode. He was as right as he could be. The graphics were better than anything I’d ever seen in a game to that point.

“It controls and handles exactly like the actual aircraft. I know. I’ve flown them and it is perfect.” Well, almost.

I complemented him on how impressive the machine appeared and I marveled aloud at the graphics and I congratulated him on his engineering accomplishment. And I was sincere on those points. I have always found it best to give a spoonful of sugar when I have to deliver bad news. This was the second time within an hour that I was having to do so. I stood for about 30 seconds looking the admittedly impressive contraption over, but staring past it in deep thought. And then, I began to nod. “You’ve already tested this, haven’t you?”

“Yeesss…,” he confessed. “We gave it a two-week trial run at a mall arcade in town where we have a one-way mirror testing room set up.” His enthusiasm has quickly been replaced with quiet caution.

“And it didn’t do to well, did it?” I guessed.

“Nooo, it didn’t,” he admitted, starting to become visibly uncomfortable. “We first set it up at a 50 cents per play. After three days, no one had touched it. So, then, we set it at 25 cents and after a day or so, one kid, about 14, sat down and played it. Forty seconds later, he got up and kicked it and cussed it and walked over to his friends and told them to not waste their time. After that, no one ever played it.”

Again I nodded. “I could have saved you two million dollars.”

“Well, what?!?!” he shouted, and threw some papers he had been carrying onto the ground. “Please. Tell me what! There isn’t a thing wrong with it. It is perfect! I’ve had six engineers at six figures each go over this thing with a fine tooth comb. It is flawless. I’ve operated it. It handles exactly like the real thing. Exactly. I know. I’ve flown the real thing. The dashboard is to scale. It is exact! So, please explain to me why!!! I would LOVE to KNOW!!!!

I remained professional and calm. “When you trained pilots to fly this aircraft in the Air Force, how long did you train them on average before they would fly solo?”

I seemed to recall that he answered “about 16 weeks.” I do remember that it was an extended period of time.

“Then, what makes you think a 14 year-old kid is going to be able to operate it in 40 seconds?”

The major looked like I hit him the face with a shovel.

I continued, “The kid doesn’t know these controls. Moreover, he doesn’t care. All he wants is a joystick that goes up and down and left and right, maybe a simple throttle to control speed and altitude, and a big red button he can mash to fire missiles and blow stuff up. A dashboard like that intimidates him. He wants a simple interface that he doesn’t have to spend a lot of time learning.”

You’d have thought I’d said something bad about Major Dick’s mama. He got simultaneously defensive and disgusted at the thought. “Well, then, it wouldn’t be an exact replica of the {aircraft]!!”

“No, it wouldn’t,” I agreed, “but it WOULD bring in quarters. Now, what is your purpose here?”

He was silent for a few minutes. He slowly realized that he’d spent two million dollars making a video game…for himself, like a lot of companies with programmer/engineers in charge. [Sidebar: This is the single greatest reason that causes video game companies to go bankrupt (and many have.) People who think they know how to make commercial software (when all they really know how to do is design a game that THEY would like) are allowed to design product for the masses. Programmers and engineers by their nature are known for their narrow focus. This is what makes them so gifted with code. It requires a narrow focus. Designing for the general populous requires a different skill set—one that most programmers and engineers don’t possess. Allowing a programmer to design a video game is like allowing the cameraman to write the movie. Carpenters don’t design houses. Architects do. If you’re in a video game company or you’re thinking about starting a video game company, do yourself and your fellow employees a favor and re-read this paragraph eight times and save yourself a ton of money. End of sidebar.]

The major was not used to being spoken to this way and certainly not by anyone on his staff. He quietly ushered me to the man who had originally contacted my about the job and told me “they’d be in touch,” and left the room. Well, I knew what that meant. My original contact and I exchanged some pleasantries and I hopped the next plane back to Seattle.

On the way back, I thought back over the experience. Should I have just kept my mouth shut and agreed with him that he was on target regarding the Nintendo market and stand silently by and watch him lose money? Should I have played along and marveled at his baby (the arcade extravaganza) and encouraged him down a financial pit? I could have and probably could have gotten the job. But that wasn’t the environment I wanted. I’d just spent a lengthy period of time with a boss who didn’t want to hear from me. It made no sense to enter in to a similar environment again. Moreover, if I had to keep silent and be a Yes Man, I wouldn’t be giving him my best. If I was forced to do that, I wouldn’t like him very much. More than that, I wouldn’t like me very much.

[Quick sidebar: About eight months later, I happened into an arcade and saw the final commercial version of Major Dick’s pride and joy. However, there had been a few modifications. The control panel dashboard had been replaced by a silk-screened version. The only controls were a joystick that went up and down and left and right and a simple throttle for speed and altitude. And there was a big red button which a kid could mash to fire missiles and blow stuff up. And the biggest modification of all?: kids were now finally playing it.]

I returned home from the cross-country interview and decided that I was dissatisfied with the video game industry. The tight-fisted grip with which the narrow-minded Japanese (that controlled it) ruled, had left a bitter taste in my mouth, and I reluctantly opted for something equally challenging and more lucrative. In a few days, I accepted a position as an Instructional Designer with a company that made training software programs for client companies. It allowed me to utilize my education-methodology skills and my software development skills, and, eventually, I became a Technical Writer. Now, a “technical writer” encompasses many types of documentation tasks and responsibilities, but it usually entails writing very dry and boring documentation to support the rules and business requirements of some company’s internal programs. For the most part, I’ve worked in the telecom industry in recent years. It is good, honest, worthwhile work and it has its own merits, but it is a far cry from writing about lasers and magic potions and superpowers and the like. Truth to be told, I do miss it.

However, on a happy note: As I write this, the corporation I currently work for is contemplating the acquisition of an up-and-coming progressive company. A video game company! This is not my corporation’s traditional industry, but there is a great deal of potential that they recognize with this video game company, and knowing my background as my corporation does, there is a real strong chance that I will once again be in the thick of things with regard to video game development. Keep a good thought.

One last thing: I regretted that I wouldn’t get to work with such a talented team of individuals like the ones at Major Dick’s company, but however I end up, I sleep soundly at night, and I don’t regret for an instant anything I did at that interview. Doing the right thing (for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do) can cost you. And does. Often. But, you can’t beat yourself up for doing the right thing. AND you get to sleep nights. I learned a long time ago that living in integrity is the most important thing you can do. Professionally. Privately. Personally. That’s my biggest life lesson for you, People. At the end of the day, if being able to look yourself in the mirror is important to you, then integrity is what it is all about.

I can’t take credit for that one though. Despite being mesmerized by all his incredible powers, the overshadowing message I got from Superman (those many years ago) was that the most important thing a person (superpowered or not) can do is to live in integrity. The people at DC Comics can afford to be mighty proud. When a guy can fly and shoot heat beams from his eyes, and integrity is the thing you go away with, that’s good writing by any standard. Extraordinary writing actually. I certainly didn’t invent that notion, but it certainly impacted my life, and because of that, I impacted others. I just pass it on. In the end, passing it on and impacting others is the one superpower we are all given. All of us. You, too. And remember, true believers: “With great power comes great responsibility.”