"To Facilitate Our Introduction ..."
Near the turn of the century, with Microsoft's Xbox project nearing the final development stages, the company turned its eye again toward expansion of the Game Studio. This time, however, the eye turned inward.

"The games being produced [internally] were not really good games," says Jordan Weisman, founder of FASA Interactive, creators of the BattleTech universe. "The majority of developments were external. The only internal team when we joined was [Flight Simulator], which is more of a hobby than a game, so we were [essentially] the first internal team. Everyone else was external around them. And they had specifically reached out to quality development houses."

Microsoft acquired FASA in 1999.

"MechWarrior 2 had been in development, with us trying to help [Activision] with development for several years," says Weisman. "And due to the development of ... the location-based entertainment centers that we had built, we had developed the knowledge and competence - more than competence, we were one of the best of breed groups for doing 3-D games. And, so ... the license was coming up. ... We approached Activision and said we'd like to change the relationship, such that we'll actually develop the product, as well, and you guys distribute it." Activision declined, so Weisman took his proposal elsewhere, initially signing a distribution deal with MicroProse.

A few years later (after MechWarrior 2 "went crazy, and doubled the size of Activision overnight"), the phone rang - it was Microsoft. "Talking to the guys at Microsoft and seeing kind of what their objectives were, the growth they wanted to go through, and the resources that were there, that was pretty seductive. And so, ... we left Chicago and moved to Washington.

"Xbox was a challenge. It was a real challenge, because when Xbox came along, Microsoft Games had gone from being a laughingstock to being the number two or number three publisher of PC games in just a few years. It had become a significant player in the PC market, and well-respected and, frankly, that got put seriously at risk by the mandate that we go out and pursue Xbox.

"We went from 300 people to 1,500 people in about 24 months. And that's a huge amount of growth. Obviously, that was a totally different field, a totally new field, a much more mass-market field. The original premise of the Xbox was sold to senior management that our PC game designers could port over the videogame concepts. It was wrong. They're totally different game design philosophies; the living room versus the den. The interaction models are different. The timing cycles are different. It's a very different model. So it was a real challenge. It put a lot of strain on the organization, as you can imagine."

"Your Culture Will Adapt"
"Once we reached an agreement, we integrated very well on the production side," says Ensemble's Bruce Shelly, describing Ensemble's assimilation into Microsoft. "I think, together, we learned more about what was a realistic expectation for costs and time when creating A-title games. We learned more about the value of extensive testing. We were committed to the 'design by playing' process, and they recognized that it did work for our games.

"I don't know how it works for other studios, but we work to a multi-year product schedule for our studio that is reviewed and adjusted at least once per year, both internally and with MGS. We have usually [have] one major game in production and at least one prototype underway.

"We have to demonstrate to them a business case for what we want to do and the technical ability to do the work. Any proposed product has to fit within the strategic plans and portfolio for all of MGS. There is plenty of room within those restraints to make great games that we are passionate about.

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