From Borg to Boss

Before Halo, Gears of War, Games for Windows Magazine and even Xbox, Microsoft was a software company which had made its billions by doing the one thing it did best: buying other companies and, to quote Star Trek, assimilating their technological and biological distinctiveness into its own.

What we now know as the Windows Operating System had its humble beginnings in a place called The Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), which at the time was operated by Xerox. PARC invented the world’s first graphical user interface (GUI) which was appropriated by Apple and then from Apple by Microsoft. In 1995, Microsoft did it again, liberating a version of Marc Andreessen‘s revolutionary Mosaic code from Spyglass Software and transforming it into what we now know as Internet Explorer.

The company’s history is heavy with such acquisitions. From networking technology to ad services to media players, Microsoft has made one thing quite clear over the years: If they can’t beat you, they will buy you.

In the early’90s, free-thinking and independent technology enthusiasts began calling Microsoft “The Borg” after the Star Trek villains who wiped the galaxy clean of all opponents by literally “assimilating” them. To many, Microsoft’s slash-and-buy business practices appeared little more than a modern monopoly on all things having to do with computers, and one has to wonder, if the Congress and Supreme Court of that era were as pseudo tech savvy as they seem to be today, would Microsoft have escaped the 20th Century with only a single anti-trust suit to their name?

After 30 years, Bill Gates has seen his dream come very close to reality; today, there are computers in almost every home, on almost every desk, and around 90 percent of them run Microsoft Windows. Microsoft does not enter markets, it dominates them.

For this article, The Escapist spoke with two men behind the two companies key to Microsoft’s dominance of the game industry, Bruce Shelly of Ensemble Studios and Jordan Weisman of FASA Interactive. Both men and their companies were assimilated by Microsoft. Together, they laid the foundations for Microsoft’s emergence as possibly the single most successful game publisher in the industry, and, in the end, not a bad place to work.

“We Wish To Improve Ourselves”
“When we were looking for a publisher in 1995, Microsoft was by far the most proactive about making a deal work,” says Bruce Shelly, a manager and designer at Ensemble Studios, the creators of Age of Empires. “We were predisposed to work with them for several reasons. First, they had lots of resources; publisher bankruptcy was not going to be an issue. Second, they could command shelf space. If we developed a quality game, it would get a fair chance to succeed in the marketplace. And third, they were relatively new in games and looking for product. If we created a hit, it could be the foundation of a franchise for them.”

And it was. Age of Empires was an instant success, spawning two sequels and a spin-off franchise. Shelly characterizes the relationship as mainly a good one, stopping just short of crediting the merger for Ensemble’s survival.

“Getting acquired was not part of any plan I was aware of in 1994-1995,” says Shelly. “We were totally focused on creating a great first game and surviving long enough to get that opportunity. Only after the success of Age of Empires, when our short term survival was assured, did we begin thinking more strategically.

“[Microsoft] had been our only publisher at the time of the acquisition. We had to make some changes on the HR side, and we took on more direct responsibility for production, but otherwise, the transition went smoothly. I joke that the benefits were better but the network worse (security is tight).”

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“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.

“It makes sense to me that they want early warnings of issues rather than big unpleasant surprises way down the road. If we are slipping, they try to find ways to help us get back on track. I want to emphasize that these are positive relationships. We all have the same goals. We want very much to succeed, and they want us to also.”

“Microsoft is an engineering organization.” says Jordan Weisman. “It’s not an entertainment organization. And they were … applying all the same standard engineering techniques that they’d used for Office and operating systems to entertainment. And it doesn’t work.

“Entertainment is about a central vision. And everything has to be built to focus on that vision and make that vision come to life. … And the vision has to be, we call it ‘big ego and little ego.’ You have to have a big enough ego to put that vision out there and keep it alive, but you have to have a small enough ego that as people contribute to it, you’re able to encompass that and unify that and keep it with the larger vision.”

“I don’t recall a single concept that came down to us from MGS,” says Bruce Shelley, regarding Microsoft’s reputation for being control-oriented. “I can recall how they suggested in a few cases we change the topic for a concept. Even in that case, it was our decision to change or not. They left the creative process largely to us. I remember they asked us to include Asian civilizations in [Age of Empires] because they thought there was a good market there.

“It seems the more successful a studio’s games, … the better the transition looks. When things are going well, there is less desire to fix anything. [Although] being a first-party developer within Microsoft [does preclude] us from developing games for the PlayStation.”

Jordan Weisman, however, still has regrets. “At the time we joined the Games group,” he says, “it was about 300 people. And we represented about 10 percent of it. … I think everybody was a little scared and excited. In retrospect, the integration did not go well. … Let’s say, part of what they wanted from us was our development culture, because we’d worked very hard to have this collaborative, effective team, and they wanted to kind of build those kinds of teams and kind of capture that. In reality, … the machine of Microsoft, unintentionally, I believe, and inadvertently, ripped that apart. Rather than model itself around what we had done, our [culture] got forced into their model. … We lost that special sauce that we had built.

“What Microsoft wanted was a culture, and what it ended up with was 40 very talented people, which are two different things.”

“Resistance is Futile”
Today, it’s hard to consider the story of Microsoft Game Studios as anything other than a sterling success. The studio’s banner flies high over both the PC game space and Microsoft’s own Xbox console, and now claims ownership of some of the industry’s most innovative developers, including Rare (Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark Zero), Lionhead Studios (Black & White, Fable) and Bungie (Halo).

Yet for Jordan Weisman, the process of turning a successful business software company into a successful entertainment software company took its toll. “When I joined the organization,” he says, “the game design was something the producer, or what they call the program manager, [would] be doing at night. It wasn’t a discipline unto itself. And the same was kind of true at art. The organization didn’t really have an art ladder or a design ladder. And so … it was a lot of education on their part.

“It was really frustrating. The MechWarrior team had at least a year delay to reconstitute ourselves and bring that together.”

Bruce Shelley’s Ensemble, however, found their culture to be a more perfect fit, and is still making innovative strategy titles for Microsoft, most of which bear the “Age of” label (although the company’s latest, which is still in development, is set in the land of Halo). I asked him what it was like being known as the “House of Age.” “A year ago,” says Shelley, “Tony Goodman, our studio head, had an epiphany about our development plans. We had a second project underway. The team said it would be a really good game, but it was not their dream game. After thinking about that for awhile, he decided to stop that project because he felt it was critical that the leaders on a team at least be very passionate about it.

“We then put together two prototype teams containing some of our best people and told them to create their dream games. A third prototype is now in development. We are hoping that these will all turn into great new products, all very different from Age of Empires. Many of our people really want to do something different.

“If everything takes off, we will have to grow our studios substantially and our culture will have to adjust. MGS has strongly encouraged this new thinking. They would love to have a first-party studio launch some great new products that might become franchises. It is an exciting but daunting challenge, but at this point I don’t think our studio has ever had better morale or more excitement.”

For Weisman, the personal victories come in smaller sizes. Such as helping colleagues avoid the same fate as his FASA. “It was fascinating to me [in 2001],” he says, “when we were involved in the Bungie acquisition. … It was kind of eye-opening. We spent a bunch of time talking about how, if indeed we were going to go through with this acquisition, the best case was to leave [Bungie] in Chicago. If that fails, we have to create an isolated situation: They’re not a part of Microsoft HR; they’re not in the way of that part of the org chart; they’re in a totally separate, isolated room. There’s that locked box that you leave them in. Because otherwise the same thing will happen to their team that happened to mine.

“While I couldn’t convince them to keep it in Chicago, I did convince them to give them a private office and leave them totally alone, which is why I think the Bungie team survived in a much better state and was able to keep a lot of its own development culture rather than get absorbed into the Borg.”

Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He has written and produced for television, theatre and film, has been writing on the web since it was invented and claims to have played every console ever made.

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