Tom Kalinske has returned to the games industry. After stepping down from his position of CEO at Sega in 1996, Kalinske spent the next 20 years looking at how video games could be used to make learning fun and improve education at outfits like LeapFrog and Knowledge Universe. While he's continuing to work with a number of companies in the edutainment field, Kalinske has also taken over as chairman of the board for Gazillion Entertainment, developer of the free-to-play online action game Marvel Heroes.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, Kalinske admitted he hadn't kept up with everything that's happened while he was gone, but perhaps surprisingly, some of his experiences are keenly relevant today.
"You can imagine being out of the industry for 20 years and then coming back in, the changes are unbelievable," Kalinske said. "I've got so much learning to do. I didn't even know about things like Steam and Valve. But the great thing is a lot of this was started so long ago. Remember, we had mobile games long, long ago. We did mess around with VR, but never successfully. I cancelled the introduction of VR when I was at Sega because it made everyone sick, basically. I love what's going on in AR. I've been a little bit part of eSports. So I've seen these things develop, and I'm so excited about what's going on."
As for what brought him back to the entertainment side of the gaming industry, Kalinske attributed his return to an invitation from current Gazillion CEO Dave Dohrmann.
"If I have any strength at all, it's that I like unique strategies, and I'm hoping to help the company by helping them develop some unique strategies."
"We'd known each other strangely enough from our children's little league baseball days," Kalinske said. "And we had tried to do a deal a few years ago with Nolan Bushnell to buy Atari back from the French [company that] owned it at the time. So that got me back thinking about the video game industry. So when Dave joined Gazillion, he invited me over and I was frankly knocked out by the quality of the Marvel Heroes game. To me it was a sensational game, and I then had my sons play it and they confirmed with me that they thought it was a sensational game. And I just thought it was an interesting company and wondered if I could help them in any way."
Kalinske said he was particularly impressed with the work former Gazillion CEO and original Diablo designer David Brevik had done, in developing the game as well as building a team.
"It reminded me a lot of when I joined Sega in the 1990s... They didn't have that many products and we had to develop a lot quickly. We did so, and we had a unique strategy to go up against Nintendo. If I have any strength at all, it's that I like unique strategies, and I'm hoping to help the company by helping them develop some unique strategies."
Also reminiscent of Kalinske's time at Sega is having Marvel as a licensing partner. In the early '90s, Sega produced a handful of games using the Spider-Man and X-Men licenses. However, working with the comics company is a far different experience these days.
"I've had a long experience with Marvel, and the way I've seen it evolve is in the past, video games were a bit of an afterthought to them and not as important as they are today," Kalinske said. "In the early days, they were more concerned with comics and movies and other forms of entertainment. But I think that's changed dramatically. They're extremely careful, extremely thoughtful, and now a really great partner because they understand the importance of the game industry more than they did 20 years ago."
"As a company, of course there's a concern when you only have one product. But if it's a great product and you can build a company around that, it can make a lot of sense."
It's fortunate that Marvel's a great partner, because at the moment Gazillion is heavily reliant on the continued use of its licenses.
"As a company, of course there's a concern when you only have one product," Kalinske acknowledged. "But if it's a great product and you can build a company around that, it can make a lot of sense. And I think there's a lot in the future that will come out of Gazillion, either more Marvel or in other areas."
When asked if his appointment to chairman indicates any sort of a change in direction or philosophy for Gazillion, Kalinske describes it merely as an indication that there is "more to come."
"I wouldn't have done this if I thought it was only going to be a small company," Kalinske said. "I believe there's an opportunity to build Gazillion into a very large company."
Kalinske wasn't able to discuss all the steps that will make that happen, but perhaps the first one will happen later this year when Gazillion launches Marvel Heroes in Asia.