In 1998, a journalist for The New Yorker asked Bill Gates which of Microsoft's competitors he feared the most. "I fear someone in a garage who is devising something completely new," he replied.
Gates's belief was that there is no greater disruptive force than innovation. The biggest business rivals continually smash against each other in a war of attrition, but nothing has more potential to upend the entire system than a bold new invention.
Three years later, just months after Gates handed control of his software empire to Steve Ballmer, one such unknown garage inventor was knocking on the company's door with an idea that would change videogames forever. Microsoft declined his offer.
His name was Tom Quinn, a serial inventor based in California who, in certain obscure corners of the internet, is described as "the man who invented the Wii". That's not an accurate statement, of course, but it's not an entirely false one either.
In September 2001, Nintendo quietly bought a minority stake in Quinn's company, called Gyration. The reason was because the American entrepreneur had a worldwide patent on gyrometer-based motion control technology, and had researched the field for a number of years.
As part of the acquisition, Nintendo was granted licenses to use Quinn's motion control tech, as well as take advantage of his technological know-how. The business partnership, though momentous in retrospect, went largely unnoticed. Only one news outlet appears to have covered it.
"I pitched the Wii's motion control tech to Steve Ballmer first, he loved it."
Through this deal Nintendo embarked on a new chapter in the company's history - one that would result in unimagined commercial success along with a vitriolic backlash from its core community. But the story of the Wii began, in fact, on one day in the late '80s, when Quinn was flying a Cessna 172 private airplane across America. As his mind wandered while he was miles up in the sky, he began to assess the control systems he was using.
"I got to thinking how a motion controller could create a navigable three-dimensional space that we could use to move aircraft more effectively," he tells CVG in his first ever interview on his involvement with Nintendo.
"It took more than ten years to finally be awarded a patent on my motion control design idea, one that covered any physical motions in the real world that translate to linear motions on a screen. That was in 1999, and when it came through, everything changed."
Though his motion control concept had failed to make an impact in aeronautics, in early 2001 Quinn began to think about computer user interfaces, particularly in the context of videogames. Microsoft, which a year earlier had launched the Xbox, was the first games company Quinn had approached with his new idea.
"Through my business connections, the first games person I got in touch with was Steve Ballmer," he says.
"I pitched this motion control device to him and he loved it. He set me up with the Xbox team in Redmond [Washington] for a second pitch and I remember how incredibly excited I was about it. Things were happening so fast.
"But the meeting went terribly. The attitude I got from them was that if they wanted to do motion control, they would do it themselves and make a better job of it. I mean, they were just rude. In fact, the meeting went so terribly that one of the executives came over to me afterwards and apologised on behalf of others. I remember him saying how this was not how Microsoft should be engaging with potential partners."
Despite Gates's prophetic warnings about garage innovators, and Ballmer's apparent endorsement of Quinn's patented tech, the Xbox team turned down an offer that would have effectively blocked Nintendo from using the very motion control technology that the Wii is built on.
Seven years later, when Nintendo was working around the clock to produce more than 1.8 million Wii consoles per month to meet unprecedented global demand, the Xbox team was put in front of an Israeli inventor who had a different kind of motion control technology patent. That time, the Xbox execs were all ears.
BACK IN 2001, on the long and downhearted journey home from Microsoft HQ in Redmond, Quinn and his business partners remained convinced they could still sell the idea of motion control to a games company. Attentions eventually turned to Japan, and it quickly became clear who was the priority target to pitch the tech to. Sony.
"At the time, Nintendo wasn't doing well at all," Quinn says. "It was rich, but it wasn't generating any good business. There were rumours about the chairman stepping down and other things, so we felt Sony would be a better potential partner for us."
Quinn's company was fortunate enough to have an investor by the name of Larry Yoshida - a Japanese businessman who had strong ties across the entertainment sectors. Yoshida was such a prolific networker that he even personally knew Akio Morita, the distinguished co-founder of Sony, before he passed away in 1999.
"Through his connections, Yoshida got me in touch with a Sony guy that looks after games. So I flew to their offices and was given a meeting with a man called Ken Kutaragi."
Quinn was unaware at the time that Kutaragi was the most influential person in the entire games business. The "father of PlayStation". The man who broke a thirty-year curse and produced two market-leading consoles in succession. A visionary whose self-belief reached a critical mass when creating the PS3; a problematically ambitious and comically expensive machine that many games developers loathed coding for.
"I'll never forget that meeting at Sony," Quinn says. "We were in a tiny little room with a big PC projector and Kutaragi comes in, introduces himself, sits down and - I swear this is true - he closed his eyes the moment I started showing my pitch. He never opened them until I had finished.
"Kutaragi comes in, introduces himself, sits down and - I swear this is true - he closed his eyes the moment I started showing my pitch"
"It was awkward, very awkward, but I still asked him for feedback and he said, 'well, can you produce this for 50 cents?' I laughed and explained that would be impossible, so again I left empty handed and, to be honest, that time it got to me. I felt pretty let down. You have to remember that Sony and Microsoft were by far the two biggest console manufacturers. Nintendo wasn't doing well and we hadn't thought much about them."
In the summer of 2001, Quinn was informed that Nintendo's chairman and president, Hiroshi Yamauchi, was preparing to resign after 53 years at the company. Ever since PlayStation entered the fray, Nintendo had failed to reproduce the kind of winning market share that it had become accustomed to. The N64 took second place in a two-man race and the GameCube did worse still, finishing third after the Xbox launched.
But Yamauchi's departure, officially announced a full year later, was not a straight swap. Internally, Nintendo was making radical changes to its management structure. A board of six executives was appointed to take mutual control of all operations.
Atsushi Asada stepped in as new chairman while a man named Satoru Iwata was appointed president. Shigeru Miyamoto was also named one of the six.
This was more than a game of musical chairs; Command within Nintendo's Kyoto headquarters was no longer reserved for a single dictator but spread across a committee of its most senior staff. The biggest decisions would now be explored from six different perspectives, in theory allowing more radical ideas to be considered.
Quinn is one of the few people who has personally seen how this committee operates from the inside.
In another extraordinary spell of luck, his networking partner Yoshida happened to occasionally play golf with Asada before he became chairman. One final meeting was set up in early September 2001, this time with Quinn flying to Kyoto to pitch his motion controller to Nintendo.
"I'll never forget that week. I distinctly remember the company's beautiful board meeting room - a huge cherrywood table and flush carpeting and outstanding ornaments. Asada didn't speak much English, but he had an entourage of about eight executives, engineers and programmers. I didn't know who they were though.
"I was told that some Nintendo executives were resistant to the idea of motion control, while others were completely sold by it."
"About twenty minutes into my pitch, which was roughly the same one I gave to Microsoft and Sony, Asada stopped things and asked if he could have a moment to speak with his people. I was thinking, here we go again.
"They started talking and, right in front of me, it was growing into this really heated discussion. I was told by Yoshida, who was also in the room, that some executives were resistant to the idea of motion control, while others were completely sold by it.
"And then, in the middle of this debate that was getting louder and louder, Asada barked something and there was total silence. That was it. He decided to license our patents for motion control, as well as buy some of our company."