On the eve of Sonic’s 25th birthday, one of the main (if not the main) driving force behind him and Sega in the early 90s kindly gave me some of his precious time to conduct this exclusive Skype interview. There’s nothing more to do other than for me introduce an absolute retro gaming legend, one of our all-time heroes, the one and only Tom Kalinske…
Hi Tom! I had a look to see what you’re up to at the moment, can you tell us a bit about Global Education Learning?
Sure! So, Global Educational Learning is a company that we started about three years ago. Our goal was to go to China and put together a number of education companies all focused on young children’s education using technology. Then to start bringing in US or UK education companies into China because it’s difficult for small education companies to move into China. We own a site called Yaolan (http://www.yaolan.com/) that means “cradle” in Mandarin. It’s a site for mothers (moms) to answer any question they had about educating/nutritionally feeding their young children and we grew it to around 15 million mothers a month using it three or more times a month, so pretty good!
Wow! Do you run the company? Are you hands on these days?
I’ve got a CEO, he’s a good friend of mine. He’s Chinese but he was actually born in San Francisco. He runs it and I’m the guy that does the strategy and things like that (he says with a smile).
Sounds excellent, we wish you all the best! So you’ve worked for some of the biggest children and entertainment companies in the world including Mattel and LeapFrog – how does your time at SEGA compare to all the others?
That’s a great question. You know, I’ve really been fortunate because I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve ever done. I really enjoyed my time at Mattel and then I really enjoyed my time at Sega, and at Leapfrog and then when I was president at Knowledge Universe as well. Sega was the time that was probably the best, I worked with so many great people, such a great team. We’ve actually remained pretty close all these years later. I’m still very close with Al Nielsen and Diane Fornasier, Ellen van Buskirk, Paul Rioux, Shinobu Toyoda, and we remain very good friends and try to see each other as frequently as we can. We accomplished so much in such a short period of time. I think we inspired each other and was just a great time.
Could you ever have imagined that what you did back then would still be relevant twenty-five years on?
No, I still find it hard to believe! I really do! When Blake Harris approached me three years to do this book (Console Wars), I thought he was nuts! Who’s interested in retro games?? What audience is gonna read this! I said there’s probably around two hundred people in the world who care and he was “no, no, you’re wrong, there’s thousands and thousands of people”. And as I got into it I realised he of course was correct!
Does it surprise you that there’s this many retro gamers out there?
Yes, it does. And I’m grateful!
We’re grateful for you too Tom!
My middle age – I get to relive it!
Ha ha! So, you and your team were the main reason why Sega was so popular in America. When you first went in there, did you believe you would be bigger than Nintendo?
Well, at the time I didn’t know whether we could be bigger than Nintendo but I was pretty certain we could create a really good market based on the technology (the 16bit and the Game Gear) and if we were smart about what we did we could create a large company. It was only after we got going I thought, you know what, we can probably pass these guys! The challenge of that all made it more interesting and enjoyable.
I know, you guys accomplished so much in a relatively short space of time. The end of the reign (the Saturn in particular), the demise of Sega, does it make you sad to look back at that time to see Sega winning the battle, but ultimately losing the war against Nintendo?
I’ve often thought if I had been a little more persuasive, if I had been able to get Sega Japan (the board and the chairman) to do the deal with Sony that we had on the table, then history would be completely different! But I wasn’t able to convince them of that. The other thing that I didn’t realise, frankly I didn’t realise until fairly recently (when Console Wars came out), that there was this animosity built up within Sega Japan towards Sega of America and for that matter to Sega of the UK. Because we were so wildly successful in the commercial world, it didn’t work in Japan (to the same level).
Do you think it boils down to jealousy or maybe cultural differences?
All of that. Imagine if you’re over there (in Japan) and every Monday the CEO/chairman Nakayama would walk into the decision room and he’d beat the hell (metaphorically) out of you, the marketing team and the product development guys. Shouting “why aren’t you as successful as Tom is in the US! I mean, if this happens every week and you’re compared to “Tom”, you’re not gonna like that guy! And that’s essentially what happened.
Oh no! That’s crazy. I guess if Sega had just been a bit more unified we could have had a Sega PlayStation and the N64 might not have been a big thing. It’s crazy to think where the company could have gone! In building up Sega to that level you took down Nintendo publicly on many occasions (apparently Peter Main a few times), was this something that you relished and where did you find the strength to continually do it? These guys (Main and Howard Lincoln), I would’ve run ten miles in the opposite direction! You stood toe-to-toe with them, how did you do it??
Well, I actually enjoyed doing it! There were a lot of these events where Peter Main would speak first and then I would follow. It gave me a great opportunity to ridicule him and make fun of him, point out that they really weren’t doing as well as they said they were doing. I really enjoyed that. Howard (Lincoln) was a little less public eye until later in my time at Sega. I knew him from Mattel and Matchbox, so I had some familiarity with him, we had a bit of a good relationship actually! Even though he sent me poems and things (you gotta read Console Wars – Ed), but when I left the company (Sega), he sent me a very nice letter.
Obviously, there’s a lot of mutual respect between you guys and thankfully (I don’t think) it turned into fisticuffs.
I heard they had a dartboard with my picture on it!
Ha ha! That’s surely a compliment! I can see you’ve got a little Sonic mascot behind you.
Yeah, I have Sonic all over the place!
It’s crazy to think that before you and your team tinkered with him he looked completely different. Blake Harris (in Console Wars) goes into a little detail as to what he looked like (fangs, angry, leather jacket). Do you think the original version would have been as popular globally?
No. I’m quite confident that he wouldn’t have been. It’s too bad we don’t have a sketch of what he looked like (previously). He was actually depicted as a pretty ferocious character and we needed something that was gonna be loveable and kind of a smart-ass guy next door who got into trouble but always did the right thing.
Kudos to you guys for changing it! So that was one of many successful projects your team worked on internally. What were the best external game developers to work with in terms of quality and following the “Sega” way?
Another good question. Obviously, Electronic Arts as a third party developer was fantastic. I joke with Larry Probst (the CEO of EA at the time) that he wouldn’t have been successful if it weren’t for Sega and he says that Sega wouldn’t have been successful without Electronic Arts! When he reverse engineered our machine (the Genesis) we weren’t happy with him but we turned it to our advantage by using the (John) Madden engine for our Joe Montana game. Tengen also, were really great to work with as too were Acclaim and Activision.
I own a lot of Sega Electronic Arts games, so it’s safe to say you both helped each other out!
I learnt yesterday that there are now 300 million FIFA players (worldwide) – can you imagine that?
I’m still one of them! Yeah, it is crazy! When you play the first FIFA (94, on the Mega Drive/Genesis) it was the best football game released to that game. Could I have predicted it would still be going in 2016, probably not! Going back to what happened at Sega in the latter years, what was your reaction (the general reaction of the team) to the introduction of the Sega CD and 32X? Did you think they were winning products and was it a surprise to see them not really take off?
Sega CD to me, was a really necessary step to take. Back in those days we were only developing games on cartridges and we knew optical disc was coming and that it was the future of the whole industry. But we didn’t know how to program on it. It was something we had to go through and learn how to program on an optical disc machine. We also had grandiose views of it, endless memory, wow! That’s not bad! We can put a lot more into a game than we ever did before! Symphonic music, that’s pretty good. Full motion video, and combine that with 3D animation it all sounds wonderful! But it was hard to do! We didn’t make the best games but it was something we had to go through. It was a great learning experience.
32X, we shouldn’t have done it, it was a way of extending the life of the 16-bit and frankly I was hoping that would give me ammunition so that I didn’t have to introduce the Saturn early. And early for me was the fall of that year. Little did I know that I was gonna be forced to introduce it in May/June of that year, it had no software!
I guess you weren’t to know what Sony had planned (the PlayStation) and that they’d end up usurping Sega eventually. I found it quite hard to believe that they (Sega of Japan) would do that to you. How did you cope with the stress of being continually told how to do things (when Sega of America was more successful)?
It was difficult. The first three/four years, they did let me do pretty much what I wanted to do and we were very successful. It was only toward the end of my time when the whole game changed and all of a sudden I was being ordered to do things I knew were incorrect. That was pretty much when I decided I had to leave the company. I was happy to be recruited by Mike Milken and Larry Ellison to form what became Knowledge Universe. On one hand I hated leaving all of my friends and on the other hand I knew it was something I had to do. The stress, pressure and also integrity-wise, doing things you knew were not right, it was very difficult.
It’s clear from the book and history itself that you did your best and we’re thankful for what Sega have left us, so we’re good!
What was the internal reaction at SOA to a lot of the controversy about violent video games in the 90’s like Night Trap? This is something Sega pioneered whereas Nintendo were hesitant is getting these kind of games out. What was your attitude in getting these games out there (to market)?
So, a number of things. First of all, we had the vision (or the view) that video games were for all ages not just kids and we particularly wanted to target teens and college-age kids/young adults. And we did, not just with the CD but a lot of the cartridge games as well. And Night Trap, it seems to strange to me that it became so controversial. We actually thought it was a campy horror film! We thought it was funny! And we thought people would see it the same way whereas the newscasters didn’t put it this way. As a player you’re there to save the damsels from the monsters, you’re trying to protect them! We knew it was for an older audience so indicated it on the packaging.
Did you think going down that route would lose you market share?
I always thought that like the movie industry, it would expand it (Sega’s market share). We can’t compare ourselves logically to Disney but if you think about it, they have movies for all ages. They use a different label for their R-rated movies but still. And that’s why we came up with the ratings system and I think history has proven us to be correct. When I was at Sega we used to brag that the average age of our player was 18, Sony talks about the average age of their player being 32! (two years off your esteemed editor by the way – Ed). Clearly, we changed the market so that now a lot of older aged people are playing video games.
We love what you guys did back then, so it was all worth it in our eyes! A cheeky question from our Adrian now – if you could turn back time and had the opportunity to trade Sonic for Mario and make him the face of Sega instead, would you have been tempted?
Ha ha! Of course I wouldn’t! You know that, I love Sonic! Are you kidding me! Sonic is a much better character!
I don’t know if I was expecting you to say anything else! But I think he wanted to ask anyway… So for us, Sonic being in Nintendo games back in the early Wii days was a bit of a mess with the head.
It’s a complete shock to me! I think it was two years ago I was at the E3 show and to my shock there was Sonic and Mario racing. I thought, holy cow! Well I’m happy to say that although I haven’t often played on a Nintendo system, I picked up the controller and I played the demonstrator, I was Sonic he was Mario, and I was able to beat him! So I felt very good about that, but I was shocked!
Did he know who you were??
No he didn’t!
Did you tell him afterwards?
Somebody with me told him afterwards!
If you were in charge of SEGA today how would you get the company back to where it belongs?
Well, without a hardware system I think obviously you’d have to be on every platform. You’d have to be more ubiquitous with your good IP (intellectual property). I think there still is a lot of great Sega IP that could be redone with today’s technology and made into great games. Obviously you’d need a wonderful team of people and people who knew how to make great games. I think all of that is possible today, SEGA could become much more important in the Video Game Market. Sega is a great brand, they have Sonic and many other great properties/characters people love, it would be great to see them regain their position in the market.
Given how different it is now, what are your views on the video game industry of today?
I’m actually very pleased about what’s happened. First of all, it’s all ages now and secondly lots of women are playing video games. I feel very good about what happened to the video game industry (such as what the industry is now worth compared to the early 1990s) and I think my team deserve credit for changing it or at least to setting the industry on the path for what has occurred. I like what I see. I’m very interested to see what they do with VR (virtual reality). As you probably now, we (Sega) had experimented with VR way back in 92/93 and the reason we didn’t bring it out because you’d put the headset on and you’d feel sick! You’d run into things, it was really strange. I want to see just how they’ve overcome those issues. I do think that the VR experience, I’ve tried it here in San Francisco, is terrific! But I don’t know if you can do it for a long time or not!
You’d just end up falling over again wouldn’t you! One thing I don’t like about today’s industry are “free” games that end up fleecing players by charging for extras (power-up, unlockables etc…). I want to pay £X for a product and then be free to enjoy all of it.
The other thing I liked about the industry (in the 90s) was that we were selling games for $40/$50 and in terms of hours of enjoyment I don’t think that there’s any form of entertainment that could compare. If you’re playing a game for a hundred hours and you only paid forty dollars for it, it’s pennies per hour that you’re spending! As opposed to spending $10 on a movie that lasts an hour and a half.
Talking about excellent entertainment, Console Wars in being made into a film – which actor would you like to play you?
I don’t dare say! Because I’m sure it won’t happen! My daughters thought it should be Bradley Cooper.
I think Brad could pull it off! I was thinking more a younger Harrison Ford or a Dustin Hoffman.
It couldn’t be Harrison Ford, he’s older than I am!
We can put some makeup on him and send him out, I think he’d do a good Tom Kalinske! Time for our token question and one I’m sure our readers would love to know the answer to, which video game character would you most like to share a few drinks with?
That’s a tough one! That’s a really good one! (you can blame Adrian for that one Tom – Ed) Again, I really enjoy hanging out with Sonic, he’s maybe too young to drink so we’d probably have to stick with the soda pop. In terms of American Football game, of course Joe Montana.
What do you think of Joe? Is he a good guy?
He is a really good guy. I actually do know him well. My daughters went to school with his daughters. And because of the (Sega) game I got to know him quite well. He’s a really smart guy which is also nice!
Who’s the most famous person you’ve met?
Oh boy! When I was very young I met John Kennedy, so I’d probably have to say him! I was awestruck (as I was a kid), absolutely awestruck. I’ve met other presidents, I’ve met Bill Clinton and he was very impressive. He looks you in the eye and he makes you feel like you’re the only person in the room even though there’s two hundred others there. He had a nice way about him.
That’s pretty hard to top! You’re the most famous person I’ve spoken to Tom! How’s about that?
Well you gotta get out in the world more then!
Thanks so much for your time Tom, it’s been a real pleasure!
Great talking with you!