SNK and the Neo Geo hold a special fascination for us at Arcade Attack, and we’ve not been able to chat to anyone affiliated with the company…until now, and how! Ex SNK Playmore USA president Ben Herman joined us courtesy of Jordan Freeman and the folks down at ZOOM Platform with whom he has joined as their new VP of Business Development. Needless to say we had plenty of questions for him. Before having a read why not check out Ben in action in this G4 Icons episode…
Ben, great to have you here at Arcade Attack! You’re best known in our circles as the president of SNK Playmore USA (as it was called eventually). What were the standout moments of your career prior to SNK and where does your time at the company rank?
Pre-SNK days were highlighted by working for Parker Brothers selling Monopoly and other board games as electronic and video games were added to my sales case. Frogger, Q*bert and The Empire Strikes Back for Atari 26/52/7800, Colecovision and Intellivision were my first products that I sold in the gaming category. Working as a sales rep for Nintendo during NES and SNES days, starting my own consulting business representing Atari Jaguar and Lynx as well as representing many strong video game companies.
That’s quite a CV! A lot of our readers are Atari fans, could you go into a bit more detail for us? Why do you think the Jaguar ultimately failed?
I was a sales rep introducing Jaguar to retail. It was all about little or no third-party support.
What was it like taking over a company that was humungous in the 90s with the Neo Geo and its arcade machines but had fallen on such hard times?
In 2003 I was honored to bring the SNK brand and its strong IP’s back to prominence on the newest home gaming systems Xbox, Wii and PS2.
The arcade business had changed drastically. Home consoles was the place to be.
Why did SNK suffer insolvency and would you have done anything differently had you been president of SNK prior to 2001?
I was the VP of Sales in 1999-2001. I introduced the Neo Geo Pocket Color to all USA accounts. SNK had entered the Pachinko business in Japan and that was the financial undoing of the company. The Japanese government was slow to approve consoles, causing financial stress on a privately owned manufacturer. If involved I would have suggested less of an investment in Pachinko (I still don’t understand how to play the game! – Ed).
When you were president of the company, gaming was in a very 3D space, yet the games that SNK released were very much 2D and true to its roots (including re-releases of previous classics). What was the thinking behind this decision?
We tried shading and did introduce a KOF 3D game with a TV commercial, yet our core fans preferred our 2D games. It was about the game play, not the look.
We love the old Neo Geo games, no one did 2D fighting or action games quite as well (Capcom might have something to say about that! – Ed). Were you a big gamer back then? What did you know of SNK prior to presiding over its affairs?
I knew that they had the Neo Geo cabinet that allowed play of multiple games in one cabinet. I also knew about their high profile IP’s. I came to learn about the passion of their fan base. I played sports games.
We’ve purchased a lot of Neo Geo games from the Wii Virtual Store. How did that idea come about and what are the biggest sellers?
Not sure about sales results but digital sales are much cleaner. No returns and one stop shopping. SNK started with MS but Sony Store and finally Nintendo were easy decisions.
Do you think there is room for the classic SNK titles to be completely remastered and released on the powerful consoles of today?
No. SNK should continue digital sales. A few series anthologies should be pursued as boxed retail sets such as a Metal Slug Anthology.
A new Metal Slug game is long overdue for Switch, PS4 and XB1. Not sure how to help make it a reality. Take it to a new environment, such as the Moon or in space. It’s a great action series. I would focus on online team play and add a build your own character mode (sounds good to us! – Ed).
The home version of the Neo Geo never really caught on here in the UK, possibly due to the cost (none of us here could afford one!). Do you think the release of the much more affordable Pocket Color came too late? Why, in your opinion, did it not sell as well as it should have, especially having ticked a lot of boxes for gamers (like the release of SNK vs Capcom: The Match of the Millennium)?
I too, know that the AES was too expensive for mass distribution. I introduced the Neo Geo Color Pocket to the US in 1999. It was a solid success reaching 2% of the market against the GameBoy which was the gorilla in the room. It was the financial issues in Japan with the Pachinko market that caused the company to close the USA offices.
What was your team like and do any of your ex-colleagues deserve a special mention?
The team was great. Mark Rudolph (marketing), Eric Feiner (VP of Sales) – small staff did magic.
What’s your favourite SNK game?
Baseball Stars. The NES version had a battery for back-up. A pure classic.
What are you up to these days? Can you give us any exclusives?
These days I keep my hands involved with projects I believe are good for the industry. I also work with distribution, rebuilding and selling older system games. I like to help retro projects and look forward to working with ZOOM Platform in the months ahead.
Jordan Freeman: we’re mutually glad to see retro gaming on such an upswing and the rising popularity of plug-and-play devices, this is something we’re currently working on with announcements coming soon. Ben has recently joined ZOOM Platform as its new “VP of Business Development”. A role that will surely tap into his many and unique talents especially in the hardware space.
You’re credited as “motion capture talent” on MVP Baseball 2005 by EA. Is this really you or the actor Ben Herman?
Not me. Wish it was! I played college baseball.
What was your biggest achievement at SNK, what led to you leaving the company and is there anything you’d have done differently?
Keeping the brand true to its fan base from 1990 to 2008 and beyond. If given the chance in 2008 I would have stayed involved for free to guide SNK into the future. When the office was closed in 2008 in NJ I left the company. SNK keeps a CA address to this day. If asked I would have relocated back to CA (we’ll come with you!! – Ed).
And just one final question – if you could go for a drink with any video game character, who would you choose and why?
Donkey Kong. My favorite movie was King Kong the 1939 original with Fay Wray.