Robert A. Altman, Who Sold ZeniMax Game Studio to Microsoft, Dies

Robert A. Altman, the entrepreneur who recovered from a banking scandal to lead a popular video-game maker and sell it to Microsoft Corp., has died. He was 73.

Altman was co-founder and chief executive officer of ZeniMax Media Inc., whose Bethesda studio publishes celebrated game series like the Elder Scrolls, Doom and Fallout. Bethesda didn’t state the cause of death in a tweet.

The former high-powered Washington lawyer underwent a journey worthy of its own video game. He married actress Lynda Carter, star of the original “Wonder Woman” series, fought off charges in one of the biggest financial scandals of the 1990s and packed his board with a cast that included Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer, baseball great Cal Ripken Jr. and former CBS CEO Les Moonves.

“Robert’s always been known for his preparation,” said Harry Sloan, a longtime friend and ZeniMax board member, in an interview in September. “When you’re a lawyer, you have to put together a case. That’s what he did for video games.”

His business career culminated in a September agreement to sell ZeniMax to Microsoft for $7.5 billion in cash. Altman and Bethesda’s founder, computer-science professor Christopher Weaver, each owned about 30% of the business according to a 2007 court filing, although their stakes have been diluted by subsequent capital raises.

“I am incredibly saddened by the news that we have lost an industry icon, partner and close friend,” Xbox chief Phil Spencer said in an emailed statement. “Sending love and strength to his family and all the teams at ZeniMax/Bethesda during this very difficult time.”

ZeniMax, based in Rockville, Maryland, owns several other studios across the globe, giving Microsoft’s Xbox business a much-needed infusion of established game titles and developers. It’s one of the biggest privately held game companies, with 2,300 employees worldwide, according to Microsoft. 2011’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has sold more than 20 million copies, making it one of the top-selling games of all time, and enjoys a loyal following to this day.

Altman was known for putting on a luxe show at industry events. Several years ago Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter was attending a Bethesda Softworks exhibit where $100 bottles of Glenmorangie flowed freely, he recalled. A staffer told him that the ZeniMax chief insisted on the 18-year-old spirit, saying he’d never offer a guest something he wouldn’t consume himself.

In his earlier days, Altman seemed destined for a career in law. His father founded the Washington firm of Krooth & Altman. The younger Altman practiced on his own with Clark Clifford, a former defense secretary under Lyndon Johnson and a longtime Democratic presidential adviser.

The pair were indicted in 1992 on charges of trying to defraud regulators in connection with the U.S. investments of Bank of Credit & Commerce International, a Luxembourg-based financial institution that authorities claimed was laundering money overseas. Altman was acquitted in a jury trial the following year. Clifford, given his advanced age, didn’t stand trial. The two agreed to forfeit $5 million in 1998 to settle charges brought by the Federal Reserve in connection with the matter.

Bethesda Softworks was founded by Weaver, who used his programming skills to create a computer football game, Gridiron!, in 1986. Intrigued by the possibilities for merging entertainment and technology, Altman teamed up with Weaver in 1999.

One early investor was Robert Trump, the former U.S. president’s brother and a longtime friend of the Altmans.

Altman and Weaver’s relationship soured, however, in part because Weaver, who was chief technology officer, wanted to continue teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Weaver sued ZeniMax in 2002 to get a severance after leaving the company. In the course of the litigation, Weaver said he snuck in after hours to read Altman’s emails, according to a summary of the case.

A turning point for ZeniMax came in 2007 when Providence Equity Partners invested $300 million in the business. The video-game company then had a single office and one major franchise, Elder Scrolls, a role-playing fantasy title involving dungeons, scantily clad women and medieval combat. Lynda Carter voiced several of the game’s characters, like dragon-slaying warrior Gormlaith Golden-Hilt.

With the cash, ZeniMax acquired Id Software, an early pioneer of first-person shooter titles such as Doom, Quake and Wolfenstein, in 2009. The following year it bought Arkane Studios, which developed action-adventure game Dishonored.

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