The Two Faces of Martin Alper

Mastertronic 3D logo
Mastertronic 3D logo

Of Mastertronic’s original four directors, Martin Alper stood out as being the one with the marketing flair, the big creative ideas, the personality that inspired and enthused games designers and impressed business executives. He was the man who took over what remained of Virgin Mastertronic after Sega acquired most of the business and created the games giant Virgin Interactive.  Well, if you read the obituary in Venturebeat by Dean Takahashi, published 8th June 2015, you would certainly get that impression. These are some extracts.

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Keith Greer met Alper while setting up a loan while he was at Wells Fargo in 1989. Greer eventually joined Virgin as chief financial officer.

“It was a magical journey and he was such a creative genius and knew how to inspire people,” said Greer in a comment on Facebook. “I think most people will agree that it was the best job they ever had working for Martin.”

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Alper also worked closely with Westwood Studios, a Las Vegas game company that was founded by Brett Sperry and Lou Castle…

“Martin was a great deal guy, always unafraid and unabashed when going for the big deals,” said Castle in an interview with GamesBeat. “He was a great strategic thinker for the company. Command & Conquer would never have happened without Martin.”

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Elizabeth Olson, who worked at Virgin Interactive Entertainment in PR, also said that Alper was an “incredible dealmaker,” setting up relationships with Golden Nugget, 7-Up, McDonald’s, Disney, Hasbro, and others. Over time, Virgin Interactive grew to a peak of more than 900 employees and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.

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But others would disagree.  Stephen Clarke-Willson worked for him at Virgin Interactive and wrote a long piece on his blog titled “Fun with Martin Alper”…

Fun with Martin Alper

Wednesday, March 05, 1997 – The Amazing Martin Alper, Part I

Martin was my boss at Virgin Interactive. It was never really clear what his title was, whether he was the president, or CEO or, whatever, because Martin’s boss, Robert Devereux, retained the title of CEO and Chairman of the Board for himself. In a Virgin company, the true power lies with the person who anoints himself “Chairman”, and the so-called “Board” actually exists to serve the Chairman. Robert was my real boss – I ran all financial and budget decisions right around Martin and straight to Robert, who would usually respond within 24 hours. (More on the Amazing Robert Devereux in another column.)

But technically Martin was my boss, and the person who hired me. Martin was a founder of Mastertronic, which was later purchased by Virgin, becoming Virgin Mastertronic, later renamed Virgin Games, and then still later renamed Virgin Interactive Entertainment, as it is known today. Martin was a great boss because he had no idea what it was I did every day and for the most part kept out of the way. We’d clash from time to time, but I would pretty much ignore Martin and go my own way (more on management by random walk in another column).

When we acquired Westwood primarily through my own efforts (backed by Robert) to bring them on-board, my advice to Brett Sperry was, “Ignore Martin – you known 10 or 100 times more about games then Martin will ever know. Go your own way and do the right thing.” This was hard for Brett to imagine, since wasn’t Martin the boss? It took a few years but Brett finally got the idea and the result is “Command and Conquer”, which Martin tried to cancel any number of times. (More on the origins of Command and Conquer in another column.)

Martin liked to say he had ten years experience in the game business, but it always seemed to me that he actually had one year’s experience repeated ten times. Martin remembered the good old days when you tossed a few thousand quid (Martin’s British) at a programmer, and then later a programmer and an artist, and waited to see what came out. Then you copied the stuff onto audio tapes, stuck it in a plastic bag, and then charged 10 quid for something you were paying 15p (that’s pence – just think pennies) in royalties and a quid for the tape and plastic bag. It didn’t matter if you sold 100 of ’em or 5000 – you made money. Production values were as low as could be and the risk minimal. In Britain, the phone company, or the government, or someone, was giving away Sinclair computers to kids and homes, so there was a huge market, and a lot of excitement about games and cheap software.

When Martin came to the US it appeared to me he had some trouble transitioning. Nobody wanted cheap software. I remember when I joined Virgin Martin kept talking about “full price software”. What the hell was that? What other kind was there? I didn’t know Martin’s background was in discounting. The company had finished a few products, including “War in Middle Earth”, which sold boatloads (it ran on the C-64), and “Spirit of Excalibur”, (only ran on PC), which did very well for Virgin. There were a lot of games in production, and progress was moving forward on almost none of them, (the same situation as at the company today). One exception was Graeme Devine (who later founded Trilobyte), who cranked out the amazing Spot game on the Nintendo NES in about 16 weeks or something. About five other Nintendo games were in development with nothing to show for them.

When I joined Virgin, the reason for hiring me was, “we need someone to manage our projects and get them done.” And that was it. None of the current bullshit about “we need a vice president of production who knows games.” Nope – under Robert’s direction, I’m think, the edict was, “find someone who can finish things.” And that was me.

Coming in part II: what’s really amazing about Martin.

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Thursday, March 17, 1997 – The Amazing Martin Alper, Part II

When I joined Virgin Interactive, Martin was converting the company to creating ‘full price’ software. Unfortunately, the economics of full price software are completely different form discount software. The cost to develop a title is very high and so you can’t just throw stuff out and see what sticks. It requires planning and brains.

Before I tell you what’s truly amazing about Martin, let me point out one more interesting fact: Martin doesn’t play games. Martin gets all of his information by reading magazines and looking at games. Martin is very proud of the fact that he doesn’t play games. (Luckily now it’s all up to Brett Sperry, who does play and know games very well.)

So here’s what’s really amazing about Martin: Martin is the second best salesman I have ever met. The only difference between Martin and the best salesman I know, in my humble opinion, is that the truly great salesman knows considerably more about what he is selling. (So who is the greatest salesman in the world? Hmmm.)

But I’m serious about this. Martin could sell snow to Eskimos. In fact, he actually did just that. He sold animation to Disney. And not only did he sell animation to Disney, he sold Disney’s own animation back to them! This is not strictly true from a contract point-of-view – but emotionally in terms of getting the backing of Disney on the Aladdin game for the Genesis (which went on to sell over 3 million copies), Martin went in and convinced Disney that we were the people who could take animation from Disney animators and put it into a video game. Selling a corporate image is second nature for Mr. Alper and he has done a superb job of it.

Now, as it turns out, we were the people who could make that game. Of course, the amazing Dave Perry, who could mold his custom-made game engine into whatever he wanted, was brilliant at taking animation from hoards of animators (in house or from Disney), adding movement commands and collision detection, and getting it on the screen in mere hours. Tasks that would take other programmers weeks (if they ever finished) Dave could complete in literally hours. Sometimes it would take 10 or 12 hours, but Dave would stay up and get it done, pretty much no matter what. And once it was in the game, then everyone got excited, and if changes needed to be made, the animators would make them because it was so exciting to see their work up running on the Genesis.

So, in spite of a lot of trauma during the project, it was completed, and everyone lived happily ever after (mostly).

Once Dave Perry left the company, we managed to produce some cool products in spite of the lack of Dave’s power-house programming. Guy Johnson, who I hired to manage the internal studios, managed to complete several projects in a very short amount of time, even without the miraculous Dave. (Some were based on Dave’s engine but some weren’t. And the games that were based on Dave’s engine had significant modifications made to the engine.)

After I left, and then Guy, and then Pamela Thompson, and then all of the other good producers, and there wasn’t anymore product to sell.

But this didn’t bother Martin Alper… He kept on selling! He has convinced someone – again and again – in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary (a one quarter of a BILLION dollar write-off) – that next year will be the breakthrough year. And someone – perhaps everyone – believes. And is excited to be a part of it. And if it happens that you are a person – like me, or Dave Perry, or Tommy Tallarico, or Guy Johnson, or Pamela Thompson – or whomever – who likes to complete projects to a high standard, then your belief will carry you forward. And you might even finish a project or two.

But I promise you this: if you go and talk to Martin Alper about the problems in the company, you will soon come to believe in the glorious prospects for the future. And you know why? Because Martin himself believes what he is saying with all his heart. He knows in his heart the company will turn around. And he will convey that enthusiasm to you, and you will believe. In spite of all evidence to the contrary. In spite of a QUARTER OF A BILLION DOLLAR WRITE-OFF… In spite of schedules that never stop slipping… In spite of everything! You will believe.

And that’s the most amazing thing about Martin Alper.

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Tuesday, August 12, 1997 – Martin Alper – SuperHero (revised – February 27, 1998)

I really want to forget all about Martin, but he’s so amazing, it’s really difficult. For instance, a head hunter phoned me today asking if I knew someone who could be a VP of Product Development for a ‘medium sized company’ in Silicon Valley. We got to talking and he said, “Well, you know, I understand that Martin’s not really running things anymore.”

I’d heard ever since the ill-fated Tom Allen was hired that “Martin is just a figure-head” and “Martin’s not really in charge.” Why someone would pay him $300,000.00 a year or more (that’s my guess – I don’t really know what he makes) to not be in charge escapes me. Most recently, of course, it was announced that Brett Sperry is “President of Worldwide Publishing” so perhaps Brett really is in charge.

But how can Brett really be in charge if Martin is Chairman?! Go visit the website and check out “The Company Line”. It says right there – Martin is in charge!

One friend of mine described Martin as “the Teflon Man.” I presume this was because even though Martin is chairman and would normally be held responsible for the huge write-off, he’s somehow managed to escape damage to himself.

Well, it’s really up to Brett now. If he can turn the place around so that they deliver more than one significant product per year, then the Martin-effect will kick in and the salesmanship that Martin excels at will become really useful again.

I really hope for the best since the Westwood guys and gals are very talented, and it would be a real shame if, in spite of delivering some world class products over the last three years, Westwood got dragged down by the rest of the Virgin overhead.

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When Martin came to the US it appeared to me he had some trouble transitioning. Nobody wanted cheap software. I remember when I joined Virgin Martin kept talking about “full price software”. What the hell was that? What other kind was there?


And I found another piece about Martin, by Gregg Man which is reproduced here in full. It appears to have been drafted for Stephen Clarke-Willson’s website, although Gregg has his own blog site at Article about Martin Alper and Virgin Interactive Entertainment

The claim that Martin bragged about never having played a game is not an exaggeration – he said so to me more than once. He took no interest in seeing games under development or in playing the finished versions. He had no idea how to set up a computer and never used one for work or leisure. Not so unusual for a typical businessperson in the early 1980s, but for a director of a games publisher?

I must add one other memory of Martin. Soon after he moved out to California, in 1986, we had a phone call from him to our office in London. “Hi it’s Martin. I’m in my car driving on the Pacific Highway”.

How nice. There we were, working in a dull city street, in a country where you still needed to give BT several months’ notice to get a landline put in , and where mobile phones were still rare, expensive and the size of house-bricks, and Martin was in his car, probably his Rolls-Royce that he had shipped over to the US, with the roof down, driving to work in the morning savouring the breeze from the ocean, calling us not because he needed to but to let us know that he could.

If anyone comes across any other reminiscences of Martin, do please let us know using our Contact Form.

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