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Sega Stars: Joe Miller

There were an incredible number of individuals who made Sega the classic brand that we all came to know and love. From music to marketing, the creative input of people involved with Sega, particularly the Genesis, is something to be shared and honored. That has ever been our goal, and we are all too happy to play our part. For decades, Sega was a Mecca for talented young game designers, artists, musicians, and programmers. They made the company special, and they crafted that unique charm that many long for today. Those contributions deserve preservation and discussion.

One man who contributed heavily to that unique Sega charm was Joe Miller. Though he may not have been the most visible member of Sega of America’s executive team, as Senior Vice President of Product Development, he was deeply involved in all aspects of its game development strategy.  Virtually all software that went through Sega of America during the mid ’90s felt his touch, and he played a key role in launching major projects like the Sega Channel and SegaSoft.

Sadly, Joe Miller passed away from stomach cancer on July 27, 2014. In addition to his work at Sega, he leaves behind a legacy in the game industry of which few are aware. Long before he began to work with Sega’s little black machine, Joe Miller made his mark on the computer and early game industries, the effects of which are still being felt today.

Pioneering Game Development

Born in Columbus, Ohio in 1954, Joe Miller’s love of tinkering with technology began in childhood. He studied engineering at Purdue University and got involved with video games early on, jumping into developing new technology right out of college. His first taste of the industry came as a research scientist at the Battelle Memorial Institute, where he produced graphics software and worked on the developer training curriculum for the PLATO educational network.  Designed by Control Data Corporation in 1962, PLATO (Programmed Logic for Automatic Teaching Operations) was a computer-assisted instruction (CAI) system that offered over 200,000 hours of courseware – the largest collection of educational software available at the time – for tutoring employees.

One of his most noteworthy accomplishments at Battelle was the creation of NASA’s Interactive Launch Planning System, which was used to schedule all mission and launch activities. Miller was a major fan of NASA and everything space-related (he had once aspired to be an astronaut), so this was an incredible opportunity for him. His love of space was something that never waned. Former Sega of America CEO Tom Kalinske recently told Sega-16 how Miller’s interest in the space program was a constant at that company. “He had the NASA channel on in his office, like 24 hours a day. He absolutely loved talking about space and the shuttles and all the different missions we sent up there. He read about all of them and knew everything about every one of them” It was fitting that Miller was so fond of NASA, the government agency dedicated to breaking barriers and crossing frontiers. He took much of that with him wherever he worked and on whatever project he had before him.

It was at Battelle that Miller met John Powers, a senior research scientist and another Ohio native who shared his vision of a bright future for home computers. They developed a strong friendship at Battelle, and it was Powers who convinced Miller to strike out on their own to develop for PLATO.  Powers told Sega-16 how the important transition occurred. “We were in a cab leaving the hotel to fly back to Columbus, and just off the cuff I said ‘you know, we should just leave Battelle and develop CAI for PLATO full-time.’ And they said ‘that’s a good idea.'” Despite their agreement, weeks went by without the trio taking any action, until Miller brought the subject up again.

Sega Stars- Joe Miller 1With the decision made, Miller and Powers left Battelle Mermorial in 1977 and founded Authorship Resources Inc. They were soon joined by Ken Balthaser, a man with a background in broadcasting but a strong interest in computers. At the time, Balthaser was working for a small video production company that also sold audio-visual equipment. Miller and Powers, having been contracted by Warner Communications to build a monitoring system for its Qube cable television system, came to the company to buy a color track monitor. During conversations with the company owner, the duo mentioned that they developed software and were immediately hired to create an operating system for a new computer that he was going to present to retailer Montgomery Ward. The machine used audio cassettes as media, rolling media off one channel and data off the other, and Balthaser convinced Powers and Miller to hire him to work with the audio portion. Together, they created the operating system and almost 30 applications for one of the first home computers, the CyberVision 2001 (named by Miller himself), which was marketed through Montgomery Ward’s mail order catalog for $399. Miller recalled how things seemed to be going well at the beginning. “The product was released and sold nationally by Montgomery Ward in 1978. We had an order from Ward’s for 10,000 units of the initial product configuration that we fulfilled, and a new form-factor (model 3001) was released on a second round of orders from Wards. We also developed a prototype of a much sleeker looking 4001 model, which included an extended adaptation of Ron Cenker’s floating point BASIC in ROM. That model was never manufactured in quantity.”

Unfortunately, strong competition from other platforms released in 1978, namely the Tandy Computer and the Atari VCS, hurt its early growth. Manufacturing problems, the lack of a true electronics department at Montgomery Ward, and other factors also affected sales. The machine was unable to catch on and was soon discontinued. Powers headed to Silicon Valley, where he went to work for Atari, while Miller stayed in Columbus with ARI for short time.

Eventually, Powers convinced Miller to join him at Atari (Balthaser would make the transition as well). The company was at the top of its game, and there was a strong interest in its line of home computers. Miller’s work at Battille and his experience with the CyberVision made him a perfect fit. As the manager of Atari’s operating system software, he oversaw the development oof its entire line of computer products and peripherals. Among his accomplishments was his work on a backward-compatible operating system for the 600/800/1400/1450 line of machines, as well as collaborating on the PLATO terminal emulator for the Atari 800. As the terminals used to operate PLATO were immensely cost-prohibitive (it cost $50 an hour to connect and use), only large companies could afford to use them. As the technology expanded to universities and corporations across the globe and home computers advanced, CDC created emulators so that people could access PLATO from home for as little as $5 an hour. Atari’s emulator gave owners of the 800 series access to email, bulletin boards, interactive games, and much more – almost two decades before the Internet.

After leaving Atari, Miller spent time at Koala Technologies and Convergent. At Koala, he worked on creating peripherals for Apple computers, such as the Muppet Learning Keys Keyboard. Koala also created innovative products like the KoalaPad Touch Tablet, which gave computers users the ability to give commands and select from menus, and control images onscreen with their finger. Miller’s work at Koala was his first experience with educational technology, something he would continue to pursue and develop for the rest of his life.

In October of 1987, Miller found himself at game developer Epyx, makers of classics like Jumpman and California Games. Here, he was in charge of product development, and he put his talent for innovation to excellent use. For instance, in 1989 he approached designer Chris Crawford about making a game to about environmentalism that would be released for Earth Day, 1990. Though he was wary of working on licensed games, Crawford’s trust in Miller convinced him to go ahead with the project. He came up with an intricate and complex title called Battle for the Planet. When Epyx was forced to abandon the project due to financial problems, Crawford decided to publish the game on his own and credits Miller with making that happen.

Miller brought in Balthaser to direct internal software development. The continuation of their professional collaboration was both a continuation of the excellent dynamic they developed at ARI and Atari and a seed of future innovation. Many of the European developers contracted by Epyx would be hired years later when Miller and Balthaser were at Sega. There, they worked on the first games developed and released by Sega of America (SOA). Balthaser knew that he would have to convince U.S. developers to come aboard the fledgling Genesis console, and he needed a quick supply of games to show them that signing up as licensees would be worthwhile. He turned to the developers in England and France that he had worked with at Epyx to provide software. The result was M-1 Abram’s Battle Tank (Realtime Games Software in England) and Fantasia (Infogrammes in France).

Establishing and maintaining enduring professional relationships was something for which Miller distinguished himself. Moreover, the desire to always be at the forefront of new technologies and ways to apply them endeared him to many of those who worked with him, such as with producer Chris Bankston, who considered Miller to be his mentor. “He is one of the best executives that I have ever worked with to date,” Bankston told Sega-16 in our 2009 interview.  It was Miller’s genuine interest in his staff’s work and his desire to produce the best possible product that made him so respected among them. Bankston would later join Miller at Sega, where he would produce the TruVideo line of full-motion games for the Sega CD. Hugh Bowen, a product manager at Epyx also remembers Miller fondly. “I was sitting down with Joe in his office for a meeting,” he recalled, “and there were what looked like hundreds of pink phone message slips on his desk and some other extraneous papers.  Joe looked down at them, sighed, and took his arm and swept the whole mess onto the floor.  ‘Now there, that’s better,’ he said with a smile, and we started to work.  One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in ‘corporate’ life.'”

Miller departed Epyx in September of 1989 and co-founded Tidemark, a start-up that made software for DOS, Windows, and Mac. There he served as the company’s vice-president and chief technical officer. Already vastly experienced in programming and development, Miller was eager to put his skills to something big. Soon enough, he would get his chance. It was where he headed to next that video game fans most remember him, and where he helped turn a struggling underdog into an industry juggernaut.

Sega of America

Joe Miller came to Sega to take over for the departing Senior Vice President of Product Development, Ken Balthaser, who was leaving to start a company with his son. Balthaser hand-picked Miller to succeed him. Both men had already spent a good deal of time in the gaming industry, having worked at Exidy and Atari, and Balthaser was well versed in what was needed for the American market. By choosing Miller, he wanted to ensure that things continued along those lines. Miller’s shared history in those companies, as well as his work on the Cybervision and other computer projects, made him a natural fit.

In truth, by the time he was tapped for the product development position, Miller had already been around Sega of America’s offices for some time. He started as a consultant for Balthaser in 1991, helping to organize the new internal studios that would fuel Sega’s western game development. After recruiting Tom Reuterdahl as internal director, Miller moved on to other projects until Balthaser left Sega. In October of 1992 and on Balthaser’s recommendation, Sega of America COO Shinobu Toyoda and Senior VP of Finance Paul Rioux urged Tom Kalinske to hire Miller. Kalinske convinced him to take over for Balthaser, and thus began almost a half-decade of innovation that Sega had never before seen or has since experienced.

For the next four years, Miller oversaw internal development and the original ideas that came out of Sega’s own teams, as well as manage software coming from second party developers. He was highly regarded for his ability to place the right producers on the right projects, and he continued to research each one during the development process in order to ensure the highest possible quality. Some of Sega of America’s most acclaimed producers worked under him, including Ed Annunziata (Ecco the Dolphin, Chakan the Forever Man, Kolibri), Bert Schroeder (ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron, Batman Returns CD), and Steve Apour (Bug!), and they appreciated how he fought for resources for those games that pushed the envelope of design and opened new genres.

During his tenure at Sega, Miller was at the heart of some of Sega’s most important projects, such as the Sega Channel.  Tom Kalinske recalls how Miller saw the inevitability of video games going online. “I remember him talking early, early on about how we were all going to be playing video games across the country,” he told Sega-16. “Of course, in the early ‘90s, no one was talking about that.” This lead to Miller’s direct participation in the creation of the Sega Channel. The vision he had about people playing video games over long distances was something he felt Sega was primed to achieve, and the Genesis and cable television would be the instruments that would make that vision a reality.

Many today take the technology involved for granted, assuming that piping video game data over a cable TV line was a simple thing by the mid ‘90s, but they would be far from correct. New technology is often accompanied by significant hurdles, about which the consumer is never made aware at the time. One of the biggest problems Miller encountered with the project was finding a way to get the different cable boxes to all work equally. Time Warner, TCI, and other companies each had their own hardware, and it was not an easy task to get make them run the Sega Channel the same way.  Kalinske remembers when he learned about the inherent difficulties of providing a universal service through several different cable providers. “One day, Joe invited me over to the R&D area, and in this enormous conference room there were all these different set-top boxes. He said ‘do you see what you’re making us do? We have to figure out every one of these different boxes from all over the country!'” In our 2013 interview, Miller himself told us about the problems faced in getting each box to work the same way. “What we were doing, essentially, was inserting our data (a repeating stream of Genesis cartridge images and metadata) into bandwidth that was either unused or underutilized in various forms of head end distribution systems. I had to weigh in on that, in terms of optimizing it… making sure that we were not going to find ourselves in a situation where we’d only be compatible with a small subset of the total available cable systems we were marketing to.”

Sega Stars- Joe Miller 3As he did with every other challenge presented to him, Miller found the best possible way to make things work. Though it was not the first attempt to bring games to homes via a download service, the Sega Channel was the first console-based, dedicated subscription service that offered gamers a chance to preview new software before it was released and enjoy features not open to the general public. The model set a standard that was later emulated with what is today Xbox Live and the Sony Entertainment Network.

Miller was also very deeply involved with Sega’s move to optical media. Sega of America was firmly behind CD-ROM technology as the media of the future, and it put much of its resources behind the struggling Sega CD. Miller was a proponent of moving away from cartridges and saw the CD add-on as a necessary step to that end. The Sega CD served as a sort of living laboratory for the company’s next hardware, which he was convinced would be CD-ROM based. At the time, SOA was deeply involved in full-motion video games (FMV), which were quite popular. In addition to tiles published by companies like Renovation and Digital Pictures, Sega itself released a line of FMV games under its TruVideo label.

Christopher Bankston had first met Joe Miller when he came to work for Epyx in 1987. Bankston eventually moved on to Accolade and then SOA, focusing on FMV titles for the new Sega CD. It was Miller who recruited him. From the time he had left Epyx, Bankston maintained regular contact with Miller, tossing ideas his way and getting his expertise for different projects. “I kept in touch with Joe about my ideas to build movie games,” he told Sega-16, “and when he joined SEGA as the Senior VP, he called me immediately to come on board and make my ideas a reality.” Bankston enjoyed Miller’s style of management, which strove to encourage producers to come up with new and original ideas instead of confining their creativity. His love of technology fit in perfectly with SOA’s growth and move to new media like CD-ROM and downloadable content, and he would make time to personally examine each project under development. For instance, he once made the time to fly out to Los Angeles to meet with Bankston and tour the studios used for filming FMV games. More than just a follow up trip, Miller used the experience to learn more about how the games were made and how to improve them. He was fascinated by the whole process, and Bankston was very impressed by his attention and interest in the product. Those around him great appreciated his open personality and friendliness. “Joe’s door was open to everybody.” Bankston said. “Literally anyone could walk in his door and talk to him. One thing is for sure, everyone wanted to be around him. He had this persona that just made you want to like him.”

Much of what Miller oversaw was directly tied to other aspects of SOA’s business, like advertising. The ’90s was a decade of mascots and marketing, and Sega tried very hard to turn each new property into something big. For this reason, Miller worked closely with SOA’s marketing department, and he forged a solid relationship with those involved with promoting the software of which he was in charge. Former SOA Sr. Director of Entertainment and Consumer Products Michealene Risley has fond memories of working with Miller on all the new software under development, and she recently shared them with Sega-16. She remembers how accessible Miller was to her and her staff, and how he always had his office door open for anyone needing advice or wanting to discuss the latest software developments. “All of Joe’s product development team worked closely with our licensing and entertainment team. If they needed a license for a game, we did that.  If they had an original IP that we could expand into merchandise or entertainment, we did that as well.”

While he didn’t actively seek the limelight, Miller was always open with his colleagues and subordinates. His tall frame and bass voice may have intimidated many at first, but it soon became clear that he was very approachable and interested in what those around him had to say about products and how to improve them. He was also a lot of fun to be around outside of the office. Ken Balthaser and John Powers both describe him as “intense,” and Balthaser explained how Miller made a strong first impression that quickly melted into friendliness once a person got to know him. “When you got to know Joe,” he explained via telephone, “you found that he was really a very, very nice guy. I would also say that he was an honorable man; that’s how I’d characterize him, and I think that truly came through with the people that he managed.”

Risley and others have many memorable stories of their time with Miller outside of the Sega offices.

One time, when Joe and I and a few of the team were in Park City, I talked Joe into going fly-fishing.  We had to put the whole fly fishing out fit on, as the water was chilly. So, we are in waders in the water and our fishing lines our out, and Joe drops his pack of cigarettes in the water.  We both looked to see them floating away.  So, Joe reaches over and tries to pick them up, and just as he grabs them on the tip of his fingers, the water hits his waders.  We didn’t fish much after that, but boy did I laugh.  I can still see the look on Joe’s face when the ice cold water hit his body!

Miller’s last major effort at Sega was with SegaSoft. Conceived as a stand-alone company that would bring Sega’s software to other platforms, such as PC, SegaSoft grew to around 150 employees and saw a first year revenue of $80 million. The design was very much like the “platform agnostic” strategy Sega finally adopted after leaving the hardware business in 2001. SegaSoft was part of the vision held by Sega Enterprises chairman Isao Okawa. Long a believer in technology and its potential, Okawa believed deeply in expanding video games on PC. According to Okawa, game consoles were fading, and home computers would soon be the central place for gamers to enjoy their hobby. To prepare Sega for that future, he directed that the best possible team be assembled. Okawa wanted to ensure that Sega would be at the forefront of any transition from consoles to PC, and Sega of America would play a large role in making that happen, as its California location better positioned it to take advantage of the entrepreneurial climate of the U.S.

Miller was tapped in November of 1995 to head research and development. As this would allow him to explore new ways of bringing gamers across the country together, something he only tasted with the Sega Channel, Miller was eager to join the project, and he was very much involved with the discussions to spin SegaSoft off from SOA. He also brought aboard those he knew would be up to the task of moving this new concept forward, and one of the people he hired was Steve Payne. Payne first met Miller in 1989 when he was hired to head marketing at the Tidemark Corporation. Miller, had impressed Payne with his command of hardware design and networking. Payne recently commented on his admiration for Miller to Sega-16 via email. “He could hold his own in any technical discussion. Joe always came across as VERY credible.”

Moving to Sega Soft meant that Miller had to leave SOA, though his new boss, Nobee Mii, shared the title of CEO with Tom Kalinske. This allowed Miller and Kalinske to continue their friendship, which would last long after they departed Sega. In fact, many of those who worked with Miller while at SOA continued to seek his input and friendship long after they parted ways professionally. Annunziata, Balthaser, and many former SOA alumni maintained close ties to Miller long after leaving Sega, a show of appreciation and friendship that was very warmly regarded by him.

Life after Sega

When Tom Kalinske left Sega in 1996, he became president of Knowledge Universe, a company dedicated to creating or investing in educational companies around the world.  In 1997, the group formed the Knowledge Universe Interactive Studio (KUIS) that was dedicated to increasing the effectiveness of personal learning systems, such as those made by LeapFrog. Miller was asked to head the studio and did so, shortly after leaving Sega Soft in January of that year. Clark Quinn, who was the Director of Cognitive Systems at KUIS, remembers what kind of leader Miller was. “He was quite reserved, not only personally but professionally, but he did share his thinking.  It quickly became clear that not only did he have the engineering chops of a true techy, he also had the strategic insight of a visionary executive.  What I learned more slowly was that he was not just a natural leader, but a man with impeccable integrity and values.” These attributes were well recognized by many who had worked with Miller. Some, like Steve Payne, joined him at Knowledge Universe.

Shortly after leaving Knowledge Universe, Miller’s consulting group, Perilux, was hired by LeapFrog Enterprises to create a new multimedia learning system. Together with Leapfrog Engineering Director Richard Hamilton, he was part of the team that created the Leapster in just 18 months. The product won Toy Industry Association awards for Educational Toy of the Year and Innovative Toy of the Year. Miller continued as the managing director of Perilux until his death.

In 2005, Miller became Vice President of Platform & Technology Development at Linden Lab, a company that specializes in creating virtual worlds. Miller worked on recruiting engineering talent needed to grow Linden’s flagship product, the virtual world game Second Life. Under his leadership, the team grew from 20 to 200 members. New development centers were opened around the country, in cities like Boston, and Seattle, as well as an international one in Singapore. Miller was also instrumental in bringing 3D voice to Second Life in 2007, a major advancement in in-world communication.

Sega Stars- Joe Miller 2Miller’s final position was as Vice President of Engineering at Sportvision, a company dedicated to digital sports content and enhancing televised sporting events. The company provides digital services for virtually all major sports broadcasts, including the NFL, NASCAR, and MLB. For instance, Sportvision created the 1st & Ten line seen in all NFL games, as well as the blue halo that tracks the puck in NHL games. Miller’s job covered a wide breadth of functions, including directing the engineering staff, seeking new technological partnerships, and data acquisition and management. Miller had served with Sportvision for just less than four years at the time of his death.

Even as his executive career began to take off, Miller never essentially changed who he was. He still loved space, he never adopted the corporate career-driven mentality, and he still believed that a quality of a product spoke for itself. Most of all, he never lost his love of programming. Even after achieving success in management at companies like Exidy and Sega, Miller still continued to program. His home office was filled with machines that he used to this end. Ken Balthaser recalls the programming set up Miller maintained at home, which Balthaser called “command central” due to the numerous computers and servers he had running. “It was a beautiful office, and he had three or four Macs, huge monitors, a couple of PCs, servers – he was into it. You’d go in there, and you could feel the heat from everything.”

A Star That Shines Forever

Joe Miller’s career in video games spanned four decades, and he was at the forefront of many of the technologies that later became standard in the industry. Through it all, he mostly remained in the background, speaking only when the company required he do so and never seeking the limelight. Despite his many accomplishments, many gamers are unaware that he had such influential roles in so many areas. Somehow, we think that’s just how he would have wanted it.

As esteemed as he is for his technological prowess and intelligence, Miller is most fondly remembered for his humility and openness. Every single person Sega-16 spoke to for this article mentioned these qualities as what stood out to them the most about him. He was considered a mentor by many and a friend by many more, and the way he touched so many lives within the gaming industry stems far beyond the relationships he had at his many different positions. In a very direct way, Joe Miller influenced the engineers, designers, producers, programmers, and management specialists who created many of the wondrous gaming products we have enjoyed over the past 30 years. His influence and wisdom reflects in each of them, so even though he may be gone, it’s good to know that there’s a little bit of him in every LeapFrog Leapster our kids play, every Sega Genesis console we treasure, and so much more.

Sega fans are saddened that one of the most influential people at Sega of America during the 16-bit era is gone. From full-motion video to the Sega Channel and taking a chance on video games that most other companies would have never given a second look to, he was at the center of what made SOA so great during its golden years. Without him, there may never have been a SegaSoft or Ecco the Dolphin, and Sega might have never taken that step into online gaming. The 16-bit generations would have indeed been quieter without him, and Sega would have been a lot less interesting.

Thank you, Joe. We’ll always have a second controller for you.

Miller’s family has set up a memorial site for him, where more images can be seen.

Discuss this article in our forum.

 

Sources

  • Bowen, H. (n.d.). Memories. Bowen Research.
  • Crawford, C. (2003). Chris Crawford on game design. New Riders Publishing.
  • Horowitz, K. (2014, Sept.). Personal communication with Tom Kalinske.
  • Horowitz, K. (2014, Oct.). Personal communication with Chris Bankston.
  • Horowitz, K. (2014, Oct.). Personal communication with John Powers.
  • Horowitz, K. (2014, Oct.). Personal communication with Ken Balthaser.
  • Horowitz, K. (2014, Oct.). Personal communication with Michealene Risley.
  • Horowitz, K. (2014, Oct.). Personal communication with Steve Payne.
  • Horowitz, K. (2013). Interview with Joe Miller. Sega-16.
  • Horowitz, K. (2009). Interview with Christopher Bankston. Sega-16.
  • Linden Lab. (2014). Remembering Joe Miller. Second Life.
  • Markoff, J. (1995, Nov.15). Sega’s opening move in multiplayer games. NY Times.
  • Powers, M. (2014). A brief history of video game development. Gamasutra.
  • Powers, M. (2014). The history of a forgotten computer. Gamasutra.
  • Quinn, C. (2014). Vale Joe Miller. Learnlets.
  • Toy Industry Association. (n.d.). 2003 Toy of the Year Winners. Author.

1 Comment

  1. TG16jturbo says:

    Totally Shocked Talked to Joe a few months back.

    He was an inspiration to me.

    Very Sorry to hear he’s Gone.

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