Microsoft: The "X" Men

Number of the Beast


While Jordan Weisman guided Microsoft’s game division to respectability, worked on the cutting edge with Virtual World centers, started a cool miniature gaming company and currently heads up a bleeding edge ARG design firm, he describes his background with a simple, “Let’s see. I was a college dropout who founded FASA.” Founded in 1980 by Weisman and a partner, FASA – short for Freedonia Aeronautics and Space Administration, after Groucho Marx’s fictional country in Duck Soup – was a tabletop gaming company known for legendary franchises like Shadowrun and Battletech before becoming one of the flagship developers in Microsoft’s efforts to legitimize itself in gaming.

Going back a little further, Weisman describes himself as “a severe dyslexic growing up, and [I] had bluffed my way through school until about age 16. I succeeded in never actually reading a book up to that age, as many dyslexics do. You become very good at cramming your way through that kind of stuff.” Dungeons & Dragons changed all that. “[When] I was a camp counselor up in Wisconsin, one of the other counselors discovered the game and brought it to camp and got me involved in it. It was a very eye-opening experience. It was this complex, immersive entertainment experience that really made you think, that made you collaborate with your peers, socialize and problem solve. It was like nothing else I’d seen.”

More importantly, “It also finally forced me to read, because there was no way to cheat through it. If I wanted to start telling my own stories and running my own games, I needed to read those damn books. And I also needed to read Tolkien, so I understood what the hell an elf was, and Sauron, and orcs. … It was part of a big turning point for me.” He says he “really fell in love with the concept of creating that kind of immersive social entertainment. I did that through what was left of high school and my abortive college career and then decided to go pro, if you will, [by] starting FASA.”

He describes the early days of FASA as “very small. It was [started], literally, around my parents’ kitchen table when we were playing a game that I was running. It was a system called Traveller, which was a system published by Game Designers’ Workshop. I said, ‘Hey, I’m going to start up a publishing company, initially to publish accessories for Traveller. Anybody want to come in on it with me? I need 150 bucks.’ Ross Babcock, from across the table said, ‘Yea, I’m in for $150.’ So we became partners, went down to the local quick print place and printed up stuff, and started hocking it door to door to the different stores in the Chicago area.” At those stores, he says, “We asked them where they bought their goods and developed a list of distributors and started sending stuff out to distributors. So it started with the two of us and my girlfriend and grew from there.” Two or three years later, they were “the second-largest company in that very small industry, after the guys who published Dungeons & Dragons.”

FASA’s success in tabletop and electronic gaming brought Microsoft knocking. The fate of the FASA team is covered more extensively in Russ Pitts’ “From Borg to Boss,” but his team experienced considerable difficulty adapting to Microsoft’s development culture, and one is struck by the sense that Microsoft’s by-the-book engineers didn’t quite know what to do with a bunch of free-thinking creatives. On a personal level, Weisman calls it a “mixed bag. I learned an enormous amount.” Each of the companies he’s worked with has “different strengths and weaknesses,” he says. “I get to be part of corporate America for a while, until I find my soul again and go back to the garage.” He picks his words carefully, saying, “For me, personally, I think [selling out to Microsoft] was the right thing to do. It gave me an opportunity to play, to have what is one of the dream jobs in any game designer’s world. … If you’re the Creative Director for a major launch platform in the videogame world” – in this case, the Xbox – “that’s a pretty darn cool position to be in.”

Recommended Videos

I was curious about what led to his decision to leave. “Well, you know, I started out in the paper games industry, and after 13 years of working with programmers, I think I needed a bit of a break,” he said, laughing. “But I also think that, as cool as being on top of the food chain for Xbox and Microsoft Games was, from a Creative Director’s standpoint, it also meant that I didn’t get to work on my own projects. I was babysitting everyone else’s. And, ultimately, that’s what I left to do. So in that period of time, there were only two projects that were mine.” Those two projects were Crimson Skies and The Beast. “The Beast I was sort of doing totally off in left field.”

While The Beast was not the first alternate reality game, it is a major reason for the genre’s popularity today. Not only was The Beast a highly successful game on its own, the many players it drew in – especially a dedicated group called the Cloudmakers – contributed to many new up-and-coming ARGs and continue to breathe life into the genre. Microsoft’s contribution was, Weisman says, almost entirely accidental. “Microsoft had acquired a license to do games based on Spielberg’s film Artificial Intelligence, which is a tall order, because it was not a movie that anybody was going to walk out of saying ‘Gosh, now we get to play the game.’

“Whether you liked the movie or not, it’s a very private, emotional story, not a classic game-setting type of story. But the universe in which the movie was set had some game potential. It was a dynamic universe with interesting technology and some interesting central conflicts, which could be used as an interesting backdrop for games. Microsoft had a need to be able to effectively bring the backdrop of the movie to the forefront and use it as a context to set our games against.”

As Creative Director, Weisman says, “I was looking at ways to do that, and we used the platform to experiment with some of the storytelling techniques that I’d been wanting to do on the web. [I was] looking for a story format that’s dynamic for the web. Because in my mind, every communications technology eventually develops a narrative format that takes advantage of that communications technology.” He uses examples, like the novel existing because of the printing press, movies existing because of film, and so on. The web, however, “didn’t have a storytelling format that was developed specifically for the web.”

At the time, the web “was used to transmit previously created formats of linear and branching concepts. So I kind of stood back and said, ‘Well, what do we do on the web every day?’ I really looked through a ton of crap trying to relay information in a way people would care about,” be it an article or photograph or whatever. He likens the way people look for information on the web to “an archaeologist looking through a lot of sand for a piece of pottery, for a shard of pottery. And if they find the shard, they find more shards of pottery, and if they find enough, they can not just reconstruct the pot, but the entire society that left that pot behind thousands of years ago. I thought that would be an interesting way to tell stories, what we call the deconstructed narrative.

“I thought about, given the communication technologies and tools at our disposal. … Would there be a way to form what we called The Hive Mind, and focus [the players] on the telling of the story … rather than us telling the story to them?”

As he began to explore that idea, “it turned out that Warner Brothers was also looking for a way to raise exposure for [A.I.].” This was largely because, he says, “[Spielberg] was not giving them any film to work with. He likes to keep the story really close to his chest and not have the entire story revealed in the trailers, which is something I [can] appreciate.”

The challenge came when he tried to explain to the marketing division the idea of building an elaborate game and then not telling anybody about it. The reaction was, Weisman says, “‘Wait a minute, we build a ton of expensive content and don’t tell anybody it’s there? That’s not marketing! Marketing is about telling people.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but I think the rules are changing.’ And I think, now, the demographic we’re talking about, the bigger the neon sign, the faster they run the other way.

“Luckily, Steven Spielberg and Kathleen Kennedy [A.I.‘s producer] fell in love with the idea when we presented it to them. Steven loves storytelling, and the idea of being part of an experiment in a new form of storytelling was very exciting to them. With their support, Warner Brothers had no choice but to sign on.”

Getting back to the reason he left Microsoft, Weisman tells me he left because “I’d started a company called WizKids. It was initially just designed to be kind of a relief from the bureaucracy of Microsoft, a little hobby because of this game idea I’d come up with. … But that little hobby took off at this incredible rate, and was growing really fast, and I needed to leave Microsoft and run it full-time. … And that company grew very quickly, and we sold that to Topps in 2003.” Prior to the acquisition, he’d started up another company called 42 Entertainment, which dealt in ARGs and other forms of new marketing. “After the acquisition, I was able to devote more time to 42 as I was fulfilling my obligation to Topps, and [I] left Topps earlier this year to be full-time with 42.”

And then to bring it all full circle, 42 wound up working with Microsoft again, through Weisman’s prior ties there. I asked him how he happened to leave a good enough impression on Microsoft’s internal marketing teams to be hired on as a third-party ARG developer.

“In entertainment, marketing and product development have to be completely hand in glove, because the entertainment experience starts at your first exposure and goes through the final credits, and your first exposure is usually via marketing,” he says. “So, in my mind, that should all be one organic whole, right from the beginning, right to the very end.”

Microsoft, “like a lot of large companies, has this giant, spiked Berlin Wall between marketing and product development, and [there was] a huge amount of animosity between the groups, which I thought was very counterproductive, and so one of the big agendas I had when I joined the company was to try to tear down that wall.” Part of that process was simplification, requiring “our game designers and our producers to be able to … sell their product in 50 words or less.” The reaction of product development was, predictably, “‘This is crazy! The game has so many levels of subtleties!’ And I’m like, ‘Look, if you can’t do that now, why, $5 million and two years later, is some schmuck in marketing going to be able to do it?'”

“There were a few groups that really got it, you know, so I built very good relationships with them over the course of this process.” Some of these groups were eager followers of what Weisman and his team did with The Beast, and when one of these groups was building the campaign structure for Halo 2, 42 was tapped to put together another ARG. “The goal for us was to take it from what it was already going to be, which was the largest videogame launch, and turn it into a pop culture event.”

The basic idea for what would become the ARG I Love Bees came from a very classic source, he says. “The mainline marketing campaign for the product goes around the theme of War of the Worlds. That was their kind of inspiration point, you know? Because the Covenant was going to attack Earth in the beginning of the game. So our team sat down and thought, ‘So, in a War of the Worlds context, what’s the right sort of jumping off point for us?’ And we returned to the Orson Welles broadcast from the 1930s.”

The idea evolved into taking a “six-hour radio drama and then breaking it into one-minute pieces and sending [them] to pay phones around the world.” Once the basic concept was in place, he had to “sit down with a bunch of teams, who, luckily, I knew well. … They let us play in their playground and create a story, which has a great twist at the end of it, in that the players, ultimately, inadvertently, are the ones who call the Covenant to Earth. So it had that sting at the end of it.”

While pinning down the number of players in an ARG is notoriously tricky business, I Love Bees was, at the very least, an Internet culture phenomenon, with signs showing up in presidential debates and one enterprising player driving into the heart of a raging hurricane to answer a game-related phone call. Did it come as a surprise to Weisman and his enterprising team of Puppetmasters? “You always dream that people are going to really appreciate it and get involved and love it, but at the same time, you’re never really prepared for when it really connects.”

Since the Shadowrun debacle was still fresh on our minds, and we had one of the guys behind Shadowrun‘s initial incarnation on the line, I felt I had to ask what he thought about FASA and Microsoft’s activities since he’d left. “I’m disappointed that they aren’t continuing, or they don’t have an active MechWarrior project in development. I think there was, and continues to be, a big audience and it continues to build well.”

Regarding Shadowrun, he picks his words carefully, saying, “I know a lot of the development cycles that that went through and some of the challenges the team has faced. I think, also, there are some unfortunate things that they changed in the fiction and, frankly, they’re correcting. I think they’re reaching back out to the fans, and in a way that I think the fans will respond positively to. You know, it’s hard, because there’s a lot of issues that they can’t talk about externally, the fans only see the outside stuff and wonder what logic could’ve resulted in that and what was done. I think there are some very interesting gameplay dynamics they’ve introduced into that game. Would a first-person shooter have been my first pick for Shadowrun, personally? Probably not. Do I think the first-person shooter that they’ve developed is an interesting one? Yeah, I think it is. I think some of the fictional faux pas are being addressed.”

With a resume like his, Weisman could work anywhere. With that in mind, I asked him why ARGs, what the draw was to him there? “I love telling stories. And I love working with other storytellers. And I love trying to tell stories in new and different ways. So, ARGs are just the latest in a series of new ways to tell stories that I’ve been experimenting with over the God knows how many years I’ve been doing this now. And I don’t think we view what we did in The Beast as … like, the early movies, you’ve seen in movies like The Great Train Robbery, we haven’t even gotten the basic cinematic tools yet … . And I think every year we’re moving that forward and learning more and more about this art form, and the stuff we have in development now is sort of taking it to the next level. So it’s exciting to kind of be out there and experimenting and discovering where the boundaries lie. We’re enjoying it. We love doing that. It’s all about, you know, screwing with people’s minds. That’s what’s fun.”

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

About the author