Weird Wednesday is a chance for us to dive into the stranger PC games and stories from the last few decades. This week, we take a look at developer Softie, Inc., one of the earliest examples of companies that made video game adaptations for various game shows including Family Feud, Double Dare, and Wheel of Fortune. It also created DOS platformers based on The Flintstones and The Jetsons.
Where the story gets weird, though, is with Softie, Inc.’s president, Arnold Zaler. Over several years, Zaler conned his way into millions of dollars through multiple business enterprises spanning from video games to, well, hot dogs. Some people called him the “Bernie Madoff of Denver” — a brilliant criminal who almost got away with innumerable riches.
Before the internet, no one could hear you crime
Very little information exists today about developer Softie, Inc. The company popped up around 1987, developed games for about five years, and disappeared without making a noise. Even the games ended up being forgettable.
A handful of employees had successful development careers, including Rob Wallace (music designer for the DOS version of The Miracle Piano Teaching System), David Mullich (Activision’s producer for Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines), and Michael J. Riedel (creator of the MAD magazine game Spy vs. Spy). However, most received no credits for their roles. Those who did receive credit were usually young, new faces in the field.
And I don’t think that was a coincidence. Over the past few years, developers have revealed scandal after scandal in the gaming industry, most of them spanning years or even decades. Many junior developers do not realize that something happening in the workplace is wrong; if they do realize it, they’re much more likely to keep their mouths shut. Simply put, speaking out against your employer could land you in hot water — most people don’t want to kill their career before it has begun.
Remember, too, that a majority of Softie, Inc.’s games came before the internet boom of 1991. Most developers had no way to contact each other, and social media didn’t become mainstream until the founding of Myspace in 2003. And even then, it was more of a hobby than something that people took seriously. As much as we hate Facebook or Twitter drama, these sites have been essential in uncovering scandals in the gaming industry.
It’s no surprise, then, that the internet has mostly forgotten one of the largest criminal schemes in video game history.
Big names, big moves
Before we had the unforgettable faces of Reggie Fils-Aimé or Gabe Newell, we had Arnold Zaler. Arnie was a likable, charismatic guy. In college, as a leader for the Students for a Democratic Society, he protested the Vietnam War by publicly (and dramatically) burning his draft card. He pushed for the state of Arizona to recognize Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and he worked as an active member in the Phoenix Jewish Federation. There was even a point when people suggested he run for Congress.
It’s hard to tell exactly when Zaler shifted to video game development, but when he did, he used all those connections he had to raise money for Softie, Inc. And from what he said, TV studios from MTV to Nickelodeon wanted his company to make games for their shows. From all of Softie’s records, the company was booming!
More than a typo
The problem, though, is that all of those records were false. Zaler showed purchase orders from a customer totaling $900,000 USD. But that document had been forged; the original order was for $900. In 1994, Softie reported sales over $10 million USD in 1994; in reality, the company barely broke half a million. He even solicited help from David Hans Schmidt, the so-called “Sultan of Sleaze” who would eventually attempt to blackmail Tom Cruise for over $1 million USD. Prosecutors claimed Zaler scammed people out of more than $15 million USD.
Time after time, Zaler lied to investors, often using political or religious connections for extra leverage. But at the end of the day, he rarely had been genuine at all. Sure, he led protests against the Vietnam War, but away from the spotlight, he seemingly didn’t believe everything he said. Paul Roasberry knew Zaler, who was a student at the University of Colorado. In 2009, Roasberry wrote: “I recall how saddened I was at his quick conversion from radicalism to mainstream politics, as though the entire corrupt political system had somehow become palatable.”
In January 1996, Zaler was supposed to appear in court. But the day before the trial, he claimed his father passed away, possibly as a last-ditch attempt to stay out of the slammer. The police called the father and found him very much alive. In the end, Zaler would be found guilty of more than 50 crimes including securities violations, fraud, forgery, theft, and illegal conduct of an enterprise. He was sentenced to 14 years in prison, receiving parole after six.
And with that, Softie, Inc. disappeared, leaving only a small impression on the course video games would take over the next two decades.
Old habits die hard
After his release, Zaler moved to Denver, opening a kosher food business in 2004, which focused on selling hot dogs at various baseball stadiums. Yet again, he falsified purchase orders; this time, though, he managed to flee the country. In 2009, he agreed to return, surrendering himself to the FBI in Atlanta. Sentenced to 15 years in prison, Zaler served up through December, 2021. At 73 years of age, Zaler’s crimes have likely reached their end.
It’s hard to say exactly when Arnie crossed the line from entrepreneur to criminal. He had always been a showman, taking advantage of the spotlight as long as it made him rich. I doubt he had any passion for video games when he worked with Softie, Inc., and if he did, he cared more about himself, anyway.
But if you do stumble across an investment opportunity involving hot dogs and video games, take a minute to research the names behind the business. You’ll thank me later.