A few years ago, I found myself in a flea market in downtown Montreal. Amid dusty furniture and faded French-Canadian comic books, I saw something that piqued my interest: a large black plastic box—a cross between a Nintendo 64 and something you might pull from the wreckage of a jetliner. Placed on top of it was a pair of sleek gray boomerang-style controllers and what appeared to be a modem. The device was simple and utilitarian, yet it had a hint of style. The colorful logo on the front of the device read “Pippin @WORLD.” What the hell was this thing?
A chain-smoking salesman seated nearby told me it was some kind of gaming system from Apple. It was mine if I had a hundred bucks. I contemplated snapping it up, but I figured it was unlikely to work—not to mention the fact that I’d have to track down games for it. The Pippin, however, always stuck in the back of my mind.
Today, the Pippin is a curious footnote in Apple’s corporate history, a device long since laid to rest alongside the TurboGrafx-16 and the Sega Dreamcast; dug up and enjoyed almost exclusively by a few masochistic hardware modders and eBay traders. And yet, Apple is now a leader in the video game industry, with players choosing from countless titles on the iPhone and iPad. In fact, last year, iOS and Google Play apps outsold portable games from Nintendo and Sony, according to a recent industry analysis. Is it any wonder that the internet was abuzz with recent (and later debunked) rumors of Apple once again entering the console market?
Apple’s rise to the top as a gaming giant, however, has hardly been quick or easy. In fact, the company’s first big foray into video games was a complete disaster.
The story of the Pippin reads like a geekier, technological version of a Greek tragedy. It has its heroes and its villains. There’s a strange artifact with supposedly untold magical powers. And like all good tragedies, it’s a story filled with its fair share of hubris, with characters who were destined to fail almost before they even began.
To really understand the Pippin, we have to jump back almost 20 years to December 1994, shortly before the ill-fated device was unveiled at a crowded Tokyo trade show. In the chaotic tech boom of the early ’90s, Apple was a very different company. Steve Jobs had been ousted several years earlier after a humiliating and much-publicized boardroom coup, and the company was now under the control of CEO Michael Spindler, an eccentric German engineer who had risen through the ranks of Apple’s European division.
Spindler’s tireless work ethic and hard-nosed policies had earned him the nickname “Diesel.” And while he was an exceptional engineer and strategist, Spindler’s people skills left something to be desired. He was known for leading incomprehensible meetings in which he’d rattle off stream-of-consciousness talking points and scribble illegible notes on a whiteboard. He’d then leave the room without answering any questions, relying on his assistants to explain what he’d actually meant. In one infamous anecdote, Spindler had landed a front page interview with the prestigious PCWeek magazine, but the conversation was such a mess—Spindler rambled aimlessly, jumping from one non-sequitur to the next—that the magazine’s editors had to schedule another chat. Spindler remained equally inarticulate the second time. The story was never published.
Under Spindler’s watch, Apple remained the largest computer manufacturer in the world, but it was losing ground as a slew of inexpensive Windows computers flooded the market.
To make matters worse, Apple’s once-sizable coffers were being drained on a number of failed experimental consumer products, with Apple dabbling in digital cameras, portable CD players, speakers, and even TV appliances. Millions of dollars had been funneled into the Newton, a handheld computer that was the butt of jokes in Doonesbury and on The Simpsons. Apple was spending more on research and development than almost any other tech company—$600 million in 1992 alone—yet this investment wasn’t producing successful products.
Faced with mounting financial pressure and an eroding market share, there was increased talk of Apple merging with other companies or even selling off its assets. Spindler, however, was determined to turn Apple’s fortunes around. He came to the conclusion that licensing the Mac operating system to other hardware manufacturers—emulating Microsoft’s Windows model—was the only viable option to keep Apple from running aground. As such, Spindler approved the “clone” initiative. Starting in 1995, Apple-approved third-party manufacturers could create their own Mac-compatible computers.
The Pippin came directly out of the clone initiative. Based largely on the Macintosh, the console used a simplified version of the Mac OS. In terms of processing power and speed, the Pippin was a Ferrari compared to the lumbering Pintos of other game consoles at the time. The device packed a speedy PowerPC processor and, more importantly, included built-in internet access and a CD-ROM drive that could run a variety of multimedia programs. Apple pictured the Pippin being more than just a game console. It could easily be modified for use in business and education—a two-headed beast that would let you blow up evil aliens as well as surf the net on your TV.
In keeping with the clone program, Apple’s plan was to license out the Pippin design to third-party manufacturers who would then customize their own versions of the system. Video games, in particular, were considered the low-hanging fruit that Apple hoped to snatch.
Bearding the lions of the home-gaming den was no easy task. The PC market was exploding, and the console market was dominated by Nintendo and Sega, with the Sony PlayStation hitting stores in Japan shortly before the Pippin was launched. Apple’s fledgling console would essentially be going toe-to-toe with industry giants who had crushed any competition that came their way. (A decade later, the same could be said of the iPhone, although with a very different outcome.)
I recently spoke with Julian Wilson, a veteran of the tech industry who was a director in the New Media division at Apple during the Pippin’s development. “What you have to remember is that at that time, there were multiple different games consoles coming out. But the leaders, the big guys, were the Nintendo—and the PlayStation later—and the [Sega] Genesis product,” Wilson said. “And these guys had already sold twice as many games consoles, up to ’96, than the entire PC industry. And they had what appeared to be a very aggressive, dominant relationship with the developers, where the developers accepted that their software was redundant as soon as a new [console] product came out.”
The idea, then, was for Apple to cozy up to developers, offering a console that would allow them to create a single game that could—in theory—run on multiple consumer versions of the Pippin as well as the Mac OS. It was billed as being a win-win, offering more bang for developers’ buck.
Apple “was committing in a contract to give you a longer shelf life for your code,” Wilson said. “In the traditional games console model, the device is subsidized because of the cost of the applications and the fact that every time a new device comes out, a new license needs to be bought.” So Apple’s model should have been attractive to developers. “They were tired of having to redo things.”
With Apple facing financial turmoil and losing its standing in the marketplace, the Pippin quickly became more than just another in a long line of experimental consumer products. Spindler instead saw the device as a chance to generate serious revenue by breaking into a new market. There was a lot riding on the outcome of the Pippin, not only in terms of Spindler’s reputation, but also the future of Apple itself.
As Apple courted developers to produce games and content for the Pippin, the first to bite was the Japanese toymaker Bandai. Founded 50 years earlier by Naoharu Yamashina amid the ashes of post-war Japan, Bandai had grown into one of the world’s largest toy manufacturers.
When Apple began its preliminary discussions with Bandai, the company was under the control of Naoharu’s eldest son, Makoto. Unlike his father, the younger Yamashina had grown up with a life of privilege and luxury, typifying the Japanese “Keio Boy” and spending much of his time driving fast cars, dining at exclusive Tokyo night spots, and sailing his private yacht.
As Bandai’s CEO, Makoto clashed with his aging father. The elder Yamashina had run Bandai using an extremely bare-bones production model. A toy line could be shut down at any moment with only minimal loss of resources and revenue. Electronics and more complicated products, on the other hand, require more investment in design and tooling, making them a riskier proposition. Naoharu preferred a traditional approach that focused more on developing well-established brands rather than taking a risk with entirely new product lines.
For his part, Makoto Yamashina was determined to modernize the company and make Bandai more than just an action-figure assembly line. The young CEO dreamed of creating an entertainment company that rivaled Disney and could target young audiences on a global scale.
Under Yamashina’s tenure, Bandai had branched out into a number of risky but lucrative fields, inking deals with a number of entertainment companies. The company purchased the rights to the Sailor Moon and Power Ranger characters from Toei, a Japanese film and television production company. Yamashina also went into business with (and later purchased a large share of) the Japanese animation studio Sunrise, which produced a series of popular animated films featuring Bandai’s Gundam robot action figures.
By 1994, Bandai had become a force to be reckoned with, generating $330 million in the U.S. alone from the sale of Power Rangers merchandise, according to Anne Allison, author of Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys And The Global Imagination. Despite Bandai’s success, however, the two Yamashinas continued to butt heads. The company’s founder once publicly complained that his son had adopted a strategy of bringing out 10 toys in the hope that three would become successful.
Despite the internal squabbling, Apple viewed Bandai as an ideal partner. Bandai had some experience with game consoles, having created a number of systems in the ’70s and ’80s. The Nintendo Power Pad, a floor-mat controller for the NES, was originally a Bandai prototype. More importantly, Bandai had two things Apple coveted at the time: a portfolio of popular intellectual property, which could be licensed to game studios, and a lot of cash.
The details of the Apple-Bandai deal did not take long to hammer out. Bandai would be responsible for manufacturing and marketing the device, while Apple in turn would absorb all the research costs, collecting royalties for every Pippin sold and retaining the right to license Pippin to other companies. (Lacking the technical expertise to manufacture the device within their own production facilities, Bandai brought on Mitsubishi as a subcontractor to produce the Pippin.)
In March 1995, shortly after the ink dried on Apple and Bandai’s deal, the first white Bandai Pippin—christened the ATMARK—went on sale in Japan. Retailing for a costly 64,800 yen (roughly $650 at the time), the console included a dial-up modem and four bundled titles. Yamashina was betting big, predicting sales of 200,000 Pippin ATMARKs in the first 12 months.
A few months later, the black-colored Bandai Pippin—this model was called @WORLD—was released in the United States. At launch, it retailed for $600, three times the price of the popular Nintendo 64. The @WORLD bundle included a six-month unlimited internet account from PSINet at an additional cost of $25 per month. Yamashina was confident again: He forecast that 300,000 @WORLD systems would be sold within a year.
For Bandai, there was as much riding on the Pippin as there was for Apple. Yamashina was determined to dethrone Nintendo and Sega, cementing Bandai’s place as an international entertainment juggernaut. As such, he earmarked nearly $100 million for Pippin manufacturing and marketing. Even with Bandai’s war chest, a Pippin failure would mean a major blow to Yamashina, both from a personal and professional standpoint. For Yamashina, it was the chance not only to take Bandai into the future, but also to prove his father wrong.
Since the Pippin ran a stripped-down version of the Mac OS, the conventional wisdom on Apple’s Cupertino campus was that existing games and other software could be ported over to the Pippin with relatively little effort. One of the leading developers that Apple hoped to bring on board was Alex Seropian, the co-founder of Bungie Studios. Bungie had released Marathon, a hit first-person shooter, exclusively on the Mac—a rare triumph for Mac gaming at a time when computer game makers were focused on Windows.
Seropian, whose studio would later go on to create the Halo series, was directly involved in porting over Bungie’s Mac-exclusive title Marathon to the Pippin. “I remember us being kind of excited. We were focused on the Mac, and here was an opportunity to maybe reach more people,” Seropian told me in an interview. “I think we were somewhat skeptical but supportive at the time. It was something that Apple and Bandai really wanted us to do, and we had a really good relationship with them.”
With financial and technical support from Bandai and Apple, Bungie set to work on Super Marathon, a Pippin title that would contain both Marathon and Marathon 2: Durandal. Apple and Bandai were hoping to lure game enthusiasts with titles that were exclusive to the Pippin, and Super Marathon would spearhead that effort.
While their corporate patrons brimmed with confidence, Seropian and his team had mixed feelings. “My recollection of that whole experience—and the introduction to the Pippin, and the console space—was it was certainly made easier by the fact that it was Apple and we were big on Mac. But we didn’t have huge expectations out of it.” In fact, Super Marathon was fated for obscurity, barely remembered among the handful of titles that ever saw the light of day on the doomed console.
By the middle of 1996, it was clear that sales of the Pippin were catastrophically low, with no prospect for improvement on the horizon. Yes, Apple had Bungie on board, but developer interest was minimal otherwise. The resulting lack of software and the exorbitant consumer price tag were simply too much for Pippin to bear. Apple was also distracted by an internal crisis. Spindler’s attempt to reorganize the company was unraveling. Struggling to manage Apple’s numerous, disparate divisions, the discipline-focused CEO had implemented a more rigid structure that focused simply on product development, marketing, manufacturing, sales, and customer relations. The reorganization only muddled Apple’s structure further, however, and exacerbated Spindler’s lack of control. Moribund projects were allowed to limp along, siphoning away much-needed cash and resources, and employees struggled to reconcile conflicting messages from the marketing and sales teams. Spindler was losing his grip on Apple.
Despite this chaos, and despite the console’s dismal sales, an increasingly desperate Spindler took every opportunity to calm investor fears with his vision of the silver-bullet Pippin. In Business Week magazine, a financial analyst said that Spindler talked about Pippin “like it would be the savior of the company”—and, implicitly, the savior of Spindler himself.
It wasn’t. In 1996, Spindler was ousted from his position as CEO and replaced by Gil Amelio. The demise of the Pippin was the final death knell for Spindler’s career at Apple.
The Pippin was a financial disaster for Bandai, as well. The Japanese company failed to recoup practically any of their investment. As the elder Yamashina had predicted, the cost of developing and marketing the Pippin had been astronomical. The lean production model that had made Bandai’s fortune simply wasn’t practical for complex electronics. For both Spindler and Makoto Yamashina, the Pippin was a disastrously bad gamble.
As the Pippin continued to implode, Apple made a last-ditch effort to lure in manufacturers for the device. Unfortunately, the only other company to express any interest was a little-known Norwegian software company called Katz Media, which signed an agreement in June 1996 to produce its own version of the Pippin. Faced with the same lack of interest that Bandai had faced, Katz desperately attempted to repurpose and repackage the Pippin—as an interactive kiosk display, as an internet appliance for hotel rooms, and as a low-cost computer for hospitals, among other schemes. None of them caught on.
By 1997, the Pippin was dead. The device was a complete flop in Japan, Europe, and North America. (Apple’s diligence had ensured that Pippin failed in every market possible.) Sales were particularly dismal in the U.S., with Bandai shipping thousands of unsold units back to Japan. Exact sales figures of the device are hard to find, but estimates from several sources suggest that in all likelihood, only 12,000 to 42,000 @WORLD units were sold in North America. A far cry from Spindler and Yamashina’s lofty projections.
So what went wrong? “You could do a PhD on deconstructing what happened,” said Wilson, the former Apple manager. “I learned a lot at Apple, but one of the things that sticks with me is the importance of a vision. A vision provides a context for every decision.” He regards Pippin as a project that was never given a chance to succeed. “It was a distraction at the time, Apple had other things to consider and it was probably right that it didn’t spend too much time on Pippin.”
For Seropian and his fellow developers at Bungie, the death of the Pippin was a blip. They would soon go on to develop Halo for the Xbox in partnership with another tech giant, Microsoft. But when Apple was developing the Pippin, “we didn’t think too much of console gaming,” Seropian said. “Console gaming was a whole other industry that had its own jargon, and having Apple show up with Bandai—it was sort of like meeting a girl who went to school on the other side of the tracks, but we had a mutual friend, so we went on a couple of dates. But we didn’t have an expectation we were going to get married or anything. And I guess you could say she turned out to be a drug addict that ODed, and we never hung out anymore.”
When Steve Jobs became Apple’s CEO again in 1997, one of his first orders was to dismantle the clone initiative. That meant shelving the Pippin project once and for all, with Bandai stopping all production of the machine. Bandai felt the ripples of the Pippin disaster that same year, as the financially troubled company was briefly courted by SEGA, who hoped to absorb Bandai into its fold. The deal fell through, with both sides citing “cultural differences.” Some speculated that Bandai’s executives still had a sour taste in their mouth from their ill-fated dealings with Apple, another powerful tech company that approached Bandai with big promises.
Yamashina resigned as CEO of Bandai shortly after the SEGA deal fell through. His dream of elevating his father’s company into a global entertainment brand was over. Yamashina faded into the background, later dabbling in film and television production.
Officially, Bandai continued to support the Pippin until 2002. By that point, the damage had been done, with the Pippin effectively draining hundreds of millions of dollars from Apple and Bandai—and contributing to the downfall of both its chief executives.
Today, Apple maintains almost obsessive control over its hardware and software. The third-party wheeling and dealing that gave birth to the Pippin is a thing of the past. What’s more, the once-dominant console makers have felt the sting of Apple, as the company continues to attract consumers’ time and money with countless easily digestible games developed for the iPhone and iPad.
As for the Pippin itself, Apple acknowledges it with a single product information page buried on their corporate website. A financially ruined Katz Media later sold off its remaining Pippin stock to a company called DayStar Digital, which sold several thousand units before shelving the remaining stock. Thousands more Pippins remain unaccounted for, presumably lost, destroyed, available for sale online by niche collectors, or cluttering dusty thrift store shelves like the one I discovered in Montreal. The final resting place for a video game dream project that simply wasn’t meant to be.