Today is Bill Gates‘ last day on the job at Microsoft, and I find it a little sad and nostalgic. Believe it or not, there are very few people in the world that have been more influential on the game industry than Bill. Probably Miamoto, but I can’t readily think of any body else. Of course, Bill has never designed a game or even played very many, but he has always supported them and felt they were important, so his platforms have been supportive and open to them, thus allowing thousands upon thousands of game developers and publishers to grow and prosper.
From the earliest days, Microsoft has supported games. Initially by publishing them. Probably the first computer game I ever played was Olympic Decathlon published by Microsoft. Colleen and I practically wore out the keyboard on my spanking new Apple II with that game. And, of course, no story of Microsoft and games is complete without mentioning Flight Simulator, which was always at the top of the best seller charts back in the day.
To show the importance of the PC for game developers, it is necessary to start somewhere else. When I first started making games pre-Dynamix, we supported the Apple II. It was open, and the graphics system, while convoluted, was well supported and documented by the community in magazines, etc. (pre-Internet, of course), and it had the most user penetration of any system at the time. When the Commodore 64 eclipsed the Apple in sales, we targeted the C64 and ported to Apple which was feasible because they both had 6502 processors. Then one day the sky parted and we were working on a pre-release version of the almighty Amiga with its awesome 16 bit CPU, 32 colors (more in weird modes), sound chip, input devices, etc. ArcticFox for Electronic Arts was on its way!
While we were working on the Amiga, Apple, and C64 we used a cross compiling system that worked on the PC, but we never even considered making games for that platform. Why would we want to learn a completely different architecture to support crappy four color CGA graphics and no sound system? For us, it was Amiga or nothing!
My friend Greg Johnson (of Toe Jam and Earl fame) was working on designing Starflight, which was targeted to be released on the PC as its first SKU. I thought it was going to be a failure. Starflight’s huge success shows that I’m certainly not right all the time! Even though it only had four color graphics Starflight showed just how powerful the PC was plus it showed that the huge audience on the PC wanted to do more than just make spread sheets with Lotus 1,2,3.
The Amiga basically failed as a platform, so we jumped feet first onto the PC as did the entire game industry. It was not easy. First came 16 color EGA boards, then clunky sound cards, then 3 1/2″ floppies, then 256 color VGA cards and Roland MT-32 synthesizers, then Sound Blaster cards, then CD-ROM’s, then dedicated 3D graphics cards, etc. Along the way, we would ship games with 5 1/4″ and 3 1/2″ floppies that supported graphics modes from CGA to VGA, sound cards from the single beep internal speaker to the incredible sounding MT-32, and 3D graphics from software rendering to Voodoo.
The early Nineties were the absolute heyday of PC games. It was heady times with publishers like Sierra, Broderbund, Electronic Arts, and Microprose filled with great developers like Origin Systems, Westwood, and Dynamix (even if I do say do myself) making cool games like Command and Conquer, Wing Commander, F-15 Strike Eagle, King’s Quest, and The Incredible Machine (!!). The big got bigger and went public, supplying enough money to the industry to make innovative games and create new genres. Game development risk was not so large yet that risks could not be tolerated.
Through out these changes on the platform Bill was always right there giving the development community encouragement and direction as well as making changes in the MS-DOS and Windows operating systems to support games. Behind the scenes Microsoft was moving the industry along from the C prompt to Windows while figuring out how to address all of the needed technologies within the operating system, e.g. we would need more more memory, put in hacks break it, then MS would figure out how to rein it back in.
Meanwhile the console industry was growing too, but it was kind of a different set of publishers and developers working on relatively “closed systems”. Initially, it was difficult for PC based publishers to make the jump to success to both platforms. But, as the PC platform became more convoluted, more publishers and developers were making the jump, so Bill listened to his constituents and developed the Xbox and Xbox 360 platforms, which brings us up to date.
All along this journey, I don’t think Bill made these investments and bets because he liked games. I think it was because he understood that people using his operating system and the hardware it ran on liked them. What ever the reason, it is a long way from publishing Olympic Decathlon on the Apple II to the awesome, connected, wireless input Xbox 360. It helps to have billions to invest to make it happen. All I can say, is I’m glad he did it.
Thank, Bill. I’m looking forward to you making the world a better place with the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
-Jeff Tunnell, Game Maker
Make It Big In Games