Microsoft: The
From Borg to Boss
by Russ Pitts, 28 Nov 2006 12:00

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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Issue 73: Microsoft: The "X" Men