Gaming legend Bernie Stolar passes away

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Video game legend Bernie Stolar, former president of Sega of America, has passed away at the age of 75, friends said.

Stolar became famous. I met him when he was president and chief operating officer of Sega of America, where he helped lead the development and launch of the Sega Dreamcast. He was one of the more blunt and honest — as well as memorable — executives that I met in the game industry.

Before that, Stolar was the first executive vice president and founding member of Sony Computer Entertainment America. He helped line up original games for the launch of the original PlayStation. At Sony, he signed game franchises including Crash Bandicoot, Ridge Racer, Oddworld Inhabitants, Spyro The Dragon and Battle Arena Toshinden. But he exited that job.

“I loved working for Sony,” Stolar told me in an interview. “I really did. But when the opportunity came up to go to Sega and help rebuild the business and come up with new hardware, I was very interested in doing it. I wouldn’t have left Sony if I hadn’t also lived in fear of getting fired along with everyone else, though.”

I talked to him about that in 2015.

“1994 was when I did that, yeah. Unfortunately Steve (Race) got fired by Jeff Sagansky, who was running Sony Computer Entertainment America after others were fired. That changed the whole complex of the company because Mr. Maruyama, who was the lead board member for PlayStation in Japan, came over to restructure the entire company. Everybody else was there doing work for hire.”

He added, “What happened then was, I got worried. Everybody was getting fired. I felt like I was the last man standing. I got the job offer to become president of Sega of America after Tom Kalinske left.”

Over at Sega of America, Stolar wasted no time.

“When I got to Sega I immediately said, ‘We have to kill Saturn. We have to stop Saturn and start building the new technology.’ That’s what I did. I brought in a new team of people and cleaned house. There were 300-some-odd employees and I took the company down to 90 employees to start rebuilding,” Stolar said.

Stolar helped lead the development and launch of the Dreamcast. One of Stolar’s top moves at the time was to acquire Visual Concepts for Sega of America and create 2K Sports.

The Dreamcast did well in the U.S., but on a global basis it lost out to the Sony PlayStation 2.

“I took the Sega position based on conversations with Hayao Nakayama, who was then chairman of the company,” Stolar said. “We’d institute and bring in a new hardware system that would do online multiplayer games. That became Dreamcast. I headed that up. Unfortunately Nakayama got pushed out of the company by Mr. Okawa at the end of 1999, and when he got pushed out, I got into an argument with Japan as well. I was pushed out as well.”

In 1999, he joined Mattel. He saw some success selling Barbie video games during the tenure of Mattel CEO Jill Barad, who had acquired The Learning Company.

“It was the right decision for Mattel to go into the software business,” Stolar said. “They just bought the wrong company. She didn’t realize she was buying a company that had top-end revenue but no bottom line. When I joined the company they were losing a million dollars a day. That’s when the board asked me to get out of the business, which is what I did.”

In late 2005, Stolar became an adviser and director at Adscape Media, and he later sold that company to Google for $23 million. At the time, he became the games evangelist at Google and he hoped to get them in to the gaming business.

“There was no interest in games at Google at the time,” Stolar said. “I went to the CEO, who was Eric Schmidt, and said, ‘Why don’t we put advertising in all these games and give them away for free online?’ He said, ‘We’re not in the game business.” I said, ‘We’re not going into the game business. We’re not developing games. We’re taking games from publishers and streaming those through our online network.’ He wouldn’t do it. That’s when I knew I should leave the company. I started helping them evangelize, but I knew there was no future for me.”

After that, Stolar moved over to startups. He ran companies such as GetFugu, Zoom Platform, the Jordan Freeman Group, and CogniToys. When I did the interview in 2015, Stolar was 68 when he took the role at CogniToys.

In that 2015 interview, I reminded Stolar that the comedian Martin Short once made a joke at a game awards show that Bernie had worked at every company in the gaming business.

“To me it’s about the team and the product. If you don’t have the right team, you’re not going to win,” Stolar replied. “If you look at what I did at Sega, I basically fired all the senior people from sales and marketing and brought in a whole new team. I brought in Peter Moore, who’d worked with me at Reebok. When I brought Peter in, Hayao Nakayama said to me, “Why am I hiring a shoe salesman?” I said, “I don’t care about that. I believe that he understands how to build a brand. I want to rebuild this brand, because right now we’re showing the consumer that we’re losing. We need to show them that we’re a winning company. He agreed with me finally, and so Peter got the job.”

Toward the end of our interview in 2015, Stolar said, “I’ve been doing this since 1980. I love this business. I love it because I get to work with people who are young and passionate. I’m one of the old gray-haired guys in the industry, but it’s wonderful to work with all this young talent.”

Stolar joked he could be the grandfather for the CEOs he was advising. I asked Stolar how long he would work.

“Put it this way. I’ve spoken to two individuals about this, Sumner Redstone and Rupert Murdoch,” he said. “They’re both in their 80s. They’re both multi-billionaires. They certainly don’t have to work, right? And they’ve both said to me, ‘If you retire, you die.’ I believe that. My father, when he sold his liquor store and stopped working, passed away three months later. I’m not going to stop.”

A funeral service will take place at 11 a.m. Pacific time at the Home of Peace Cemetery in Los Angeles on Sunday.

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