- Nov 6, 2010
Say what you will about Zenimax but based on what I've read over the years, he was a pretty chill guy and awesome to work for. Never heard anything bad to say about him. Pretty sure he's the third or fourth Zenimax executive to die this year (along with Donald Trump's brother Robert).
Never heard anything bad said about Altman? Surprising.
Let's get started, then.
Calling Altman the founder of ZeniMax wouldn't be exactly correct, as he was a co-founder. But calling him the founder of Bethesda is plain false, and it surprises me to see that said on Bethesda's own Twitter account. But I guess power can command respect even when it isn't due.
Christopher Weaver is who founded Bethesda, in 1986. And in 1999, Weaver brought Altman, who had previously been involved in what Bloomberg calls "one of the biggest financial scandals in the 1990's", into the company for the founding of ZeniMax, which they co-founded together. But despite the creation of ZeniMax as Bethesda's parent company, Weaver emphasized that Bethesda and ZeniMax were essentially one-and-the-same thing and that they operated as one unit.
In 1999, Christopher Weaver asked Washington D.C. lawyer, Altman, to be the CEO of Bethesda and take care of the business (legal and financial) side of things, while Christopher Weaver would then be the company's CTO and focus on the game design side of things. Altman accepted, and within a few years he stabbed Weaver in the back and pushed him out of his own company, effectively seizing ZeniMax / Bethesda for himself.
Altman, who, from available information, had no particular interest in games, then ran ZeniMax / Bethesda in a ruthless fashion, engaging in nickel-and-diming DLC monetization (Bethesda pioneered this), vicious hostile takeover attempts (which destroyed at least one developer, Human Head, and resulted in the amazing-looking-and-sounding original Prey 2 not getting released), lawsuit after lawsuit (most of which ZeniMax / Bethesda lost), paid-mods, and just recently selling the company to Microsoft. A list of thuggish actions by ZeniMax / Bethesda over the years is here.
Reading the letter written by Altman's son about his father, I feel that it gives affirmation to my impression of Altman. There's no mention of any personal interest of his in games. Just his focus on hard work, business, the pride in having a large number of employees - who he was glad got to do what they like doing, which is making games, and his satisfaction in selling the company to Microsoft. The letter says that Altman de-emphasized talent and instead emphasized discipline and hard work. So, he wasn't a creative type of person, but a hard-working businessman. And his ruthlessness seems represented in the letter's mention that the company had an annual seminar on how employees should give presentations to Altman.
The story of Altman before and up to when he was brought into ZeniMax is covered in this video, which refers to Altman as a "corporate shark" and a "shark among sharks":
The video is worth watching / listening to. But a summary of Atlman's pre-ZeniMax history is this:
Altman was a Washington DC lawyer who started his career working at a law-firm with a former US Secretary of Defence for Lyndon Johnson, before starting his own law-firm which he used to represent and defend multi-billion-dollar companies embroiled in scandals and that were being investigated by US Congress and other committees.
In 1978, Altman was approached by some unidentified Arab international businessmen who wanted to purchase a large US bank, and who, for some reason, made Altman the president of the bank after the purchase was done, despite that Altman was a lawyer and not a banker. By 1991, people were coming forward with suspicions that the bank hadn't been purchased legitimately, and federal investigations were launched and it turned-out that the bank purchase had been done fraudulently, using false information and defaulted loans. It also turned-out that the British bank which had been used to purchase the US bank was involved in lots of sketchy purchases.
The Arab businessmen refused to come back to the US for questioning. While Altman, who was accused as being a part of the scheme, played dumb, like he had no idea of what had been going on. He managed to escape the many state and federal charges against him which included bribery charges which the judge dismissed on the grounds that there was insufficient evidence, federal charges for which there were insufficient evidence, and other charges which a jury declared him innocent of on the grounds that there wasn't sufficient evidence that he knew about them. Altman accomplished this with the help of defence lawyer, Gustave Newman, who was well-known for getting high-profile people and groups out of trouble.
Despite not being convicted of any of the charges against him, Altman was prohibited from ever working in the banking industry again.