Bernard Stolar, Influential Video Game Executive, Dies at 75
Bernard Stolar, who as an executive at Sony and then at Sega of America played an important role in the development and marketing of the video game consoles of the 1990s, including the original PlayStation and Sega’s Dreamcast, died on June 22 in Los Angeles. He was 75.
Jordan Freeman, founder and chief executive of Zoom Platform, a video game company for which Mr. Stolar served as executive chairman, confirmed his death, which he said resulted from a long illness.
The 1990s were a time of intense competition and rapid technological advancement in the video game industry. Mr. Stolar was at the heart of the ever-changing scene, making bold decisions that drew admiration from some but broke the hearts of others, who were enamored of particular systems or types of games.
He was an executive vice president at Sony Computer Entertainment America from 1993 to 1996, when Sony was developing the original PlayStation, which was introduced in the United States in September 1995. Nintendo and Sega were dominating the market at the time, but PlayStation changed the equation.
For one thing, at $299, PlayStation, undercut the competing Sega Saturn by $100. And Mr. Stolar spurned complex role-playing games, which he thought appealed to a relatively small and nerdy group of customers, in favor of action-heavy titles like Mortal Kombat 3.
PlayStation was a hit, but Mr. Stolar was a short-timer at Sony: In 1996 he moved to Sega as president of Sega of America. He quickly killed off the Sega Saturn, much to the dismay of fans of that system.
“I racked my brain on a way to salvage Saturn, but it was just too far gone and too expensive and difficult to develop for,” Mr. Stolar told the blog The Dreamcast Junkyard in 2018. “Sega was nearly bankrupt, they needed a new console and they needed it quick. The only options were to go big or go home.”
His idea of going big was the Dreamcast console, which was to offer 128-bit processing when the competition was still at 64.
“Dreamcast is Sega’s bridge to worldwide market leadership for the 21st century,” he told The Ottawa Citizen in 1998, a year before Dreamcast was released in the United States.
But Mr. Stolar wasn’t part of that future at Sega, which turned out to not be quite as predicted anyway. Shortly before Dreamcast went on sale, he was ousted in one of the perpetual shake-ups that regularly roil the video game industry. Yet Dreamcast was, for a hot minute at least, an attention-getter.
“As a game machine its power is unrivaled, except by high-end personal computers costing more than 10 times as much,” Peter H. Lewis wrote in a review in The New York Times that month, “and it makes the graphics on the current market leader, the Sony PlayStation, appear grainy and jerky. The Dreamcast is the closest thing to an arcade-quality game experience you can get at home.”
Dean Takahashi, lead writer for the website GamesBeat, interviewed Mr. Stolar several times over the years.
“Bernie Stolar’s personality and sharp wit made him uniquely refreshing in the increasingly corporate world of video games,” Mr. Takahashi said by email.
Mr. Stolar didn’t mince words as he tried to upset the status quo in gaming hardware, Mr. Takahashi said. “The result was often hilarious,” he added, “and it made being a reporter a joy during that time.”
Mr. Stolar was born on Oct. 9, 1946, according to an obituary in Forbes. Information about his early life and his survivors was not immediately available.
He got started in video games in 1980 when he helped Brian Semler start Pacific Novelty Manufacturing, which developed coin-operated arcade games. Among its biggest hits was a game called Shark Attack, in which the player is a shark trying to fend off scuba divers who are out to kill it.
After a few years, Mr. Stolar and Mr. Semler sold the company to Atari.
“We thought we were geniuses because we sold the company for stock,” Mr. Stolar told GamesBeat in 2015. “Then Atari imploded and was shut down.”
In the early 1990s, after Atari had been revived, Mr. Stolar spent several years as an executive there. He joined Sony in 1993 and Sega in 1996.
The Sega Dreamcast sold well at first. But the introduction of PlayStation 2 in 2000 cut into its appeal, and Sega’s hopes of returning to the top of the video game heap faded Mr. Stolar left Sega in 1999 and joined Mattel in 2000. He led its interactive division for almost three years. He worked with several other start-ups over the next decade, and in 2014 joined Zoom Platform, which, its Twitter account says, sells “old games that play on new systems.”
Mr. Freeman said Mr. Stolar had been eager to support him.
“I met Bernie when I was 16, there was absolutely no reason for him to agree to meet with me, but he took that chance,” Mr. Freeman said by email. “He gave everyone an opportunity. He was the paragon of a mentor to all who knew him.”