The Fierce Microsoft Battle That Led To One Of The Biggest Video Games Of All Time

The Fierce Microsoft Battle That Led To One Of The Biggest Video Games Of All Time

The sixth season of Boss Fight Books is currently funding on Kickstarter. Among the books in this season’s offerings is Kyle Orland’s tome on Minesweeper. A gripping read that tells the wild story of how Minesweeper became one of the most ubiquitous games in history — a tale that saw Microsoft CEO Bill Gates himself getting hooked on the game — it also involves profound internal strife at the company, where many were resistant to the idea of the office software maker creating and publishing games.

Today, of course, Microsoft is a gaming powerhouse. With the book excerpt below, let’s go back to a time when, following the success of Solitaire, a group within Microsoft was tasked with making a suite of casual Windows games — called the Microsoft Entertainment Pack or Windows Entertainment Pack — that could help sell the idea of computers as something that belonged in the home.

Despite Gates’s direct attention, the first Windows Entertainment Pack wasn’t enough of a priority to justify taking any coder’s time and attention away from development of the company’s core productivity software. “All these guys had day jobs, too. At that time, it was a day job and a night job — trying to write [games] on top of [our main responsibilities],” product manager Charles Fitzgerald said. “So getting those things done, getting the bugs fixed, everything, getting the art up to par, getting it into the common installer — it was a big push for these guys.”

“It bothered me when other people started spending company time trying to create games specifically for the Entertainment Pack,” Minesweeper co-creator Robert Donner told me.

Employees that had their games chosen for the first Entertainment Pack were compensated with ten shares of Microsoft stock and an NEC TurboExpress handheld game system, according to Donner, Ryan, and Horne’s recollections. At the time, that stock was worth just under $US650 ($902). As of this writing in January 2023, though, that payment would have split into 720 shares of stock worth over $US173,000 ($240,159).

That’s not a bad payday for games that were reportedly written in employees’ spare time, without any real thoughts of monetisation. But that’s only if they held onto the stock; Horne recalled that he sold the shares he got for Freecell at some point to buy a pair of high-end stereo speakers worth over $US10,000 ($13,882), according to Brian Dear’s book The Friendly Orange Glow.

On the other hand, even with decades of stock inflation, $US173,000 ($240,159) is a pittance of a payment for a game as widespread as Minesweeper. Divided over roughly four billion Windows installations over the decade, that current stock value comes out to about $US0.00004325 (i.e. four thousandths of a penny) per pre-installed copy of the game. What a bargain!

Most of the other games and applications collected for that first Entertainment Pack ended up being much more forgettable than Minesweeper. Cruel and Golf provided two minor variations on the card sorting in Windows Solitaire. Neither holds a candle to single-player card games like Freecell, Tripeaks, or Spider Solitaire, all of which would later become more enduring parts of Microsoft’s casual Windows game portfolio.

Pegged, a one-player peg-jumping game of the type you might find in a Cracker Barrel restaurant, loses most of its appeal once you figure out the basic winning strategy. TicTactics is a simple 3D version of tic-tac-toe whose only real claim to fame is that it was the other game by Donner in that first Entertainment Pack.

Of the other original Microsoft creations for the first WEP, Taipei had the most longevity. A tile-matching game with a distinctly Asian visual flavour, the game would later be renamed Microsoft Mahjong (not to be confused with the Chinese competitive tile game, also called mahjong). Microsoft continues to develop Mahjong to this day, and has even expanded into versions for iOS and Android in recent years.

IdleWild, the only non-game on the first Windows Entertainment Pack, filled in a feature that was surprisingly missing from Windows 3.0: screensavers. And for some customers, that one feature was the core part of the collection’s appeal.

“It was funny because at one point after we launched the product, I remember Reuters coming to us and asking if they could buy a licence to the Entertainment Pack,” Bruce Ryan, also a product manager on the package, recalls. “And we thought, ‘That’s really weird, they want thousands of copies of the Entertainment Pack?’ But they wanted a special version with all the games removed. They would pay us the full price but they just wanted the screensaver. So you’re like, ‘OK, sure, I guess I’ll sell 20,000 units or whatever.’ […] We said, ‘Sure, we’ll give you less for the same [price].’”

Then there was the one game on the original Microsoft Entertainment Pack that didn’t come from the bowels of Microsoft’s company network: Tetris.

The tale of Tetris’s byzantine licensing journey in the late 80s and early 90s could fill — and has filled — entire books, such as Box Brown’s Tetris: The Games People Play and Dan Ackerman’s The Tetris Effect. From Microsoft’s point of view, the important part of that history involves Spectrum HoloByte and Mirrorsoft. Those companies thought they had acquired the worldwide PC rights to the game from Russia and together published an MS-DOS version in 1988.

Photo: Microsoft
Photo: Microsoft

In 1990, Microsoft was planning to sub-licence the Tetris rights from Mirrorsoft to include a new Windows version in the Entertainment Pack. During the development of the collection, though, Mirrorsoft’s claim to Tetris started to come into question. When Elorg, the Soviet outfit responsible for licensing and exporting electronics from the USSR, was made aware of the MS-DOS version of the game, they said they had no knowledge of the deal Mirrorsoft had allegedly made with Tetris creator Alexei Pajitnov. Elorg also said it hadn’t seen any royalties from Mirrorsoft, which angered the Soviet bureaucracy.

Ryan recalled that Tetris was supposed to be the “flagship game” in that first Entertainment Pack, “and then a month before we shipped, the Russian guy [Pajitnov] […] blows up the worldwide rights. The company we had to licence it from […] no longer had rights.”

Microsoft was eventually able to take advantage of the confusion and swoop in to licence the Windows rights directly from Elorg. During the rushed creation of the Entertainment Pack, though, it was far from clear that Microsoft would be able to secure that deal in time for a late 1990 release.

That was a problem for those in charge of planning the packaging and marketing for the upcoming Entertainment Pack. “We had to scramble to go get the rights, but we had to go get the boxes printed up early,” Fitzgerald remembers.

“We went back and forth: Do we put Tetris on the box? What are we going to do?” Ryan added.

In the end, the team decided to print up two sets of stickers to slap on the box depending on the outcome of the complex licensing negotiations. “The first set of boxes, instead of having the ‘with Tetris’ [stickers], […] had the ‘makes a great gift,’” Fitzgerald said. When the Tetris rights cleared, updating the package was simply a matter of slapping on a new sticker.

“Charles [Fitzgerald] was going down to the last minute with that, that’s why we had the crazy sticker,” Ryan said. “I think I was the stupid person that came up with the idea [of the sticker]. Then we [could] decide at the very last minute!”

While Microsoft’s Entry Business Unit was enthusiastic about a simple Windows gaming collection, selling the Microsoft bureaucracy on the idea was far from easy. “At the time, Microsoft was not filled with gamers,” Ryan points out. “Microsoft was filled with super-serious people. […] I remember sitting in a meeting with one of the Windows execs who proudly proclaimed, ‘I don’t waste my time reading fiction. I only read nonfiction.’ As if this was a badge of pride!”

According to Ryan, Gates didn’t watch TV or play video games (with the exception of Minesweeper). Neither did future Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who was then Vice President of Systems Software at the company. “There was nobody at any senior level of the company,” Ryan said, “that spent any time playing games.”

Microsoft was of course aware that third-party developers were creating a sizable niche of games for MS-DOS. But inside Microsoft itself, there was little to no interest in helping to fill that product category directly, even after the success of Solitaire. “As a company at that time, we were very much more focused on these machines as business machines,” Duzan said. “Windows and Office were absolutely our bread and butter.”

To fit a product like the Entertainment Pack into that Microsoft mould, the Entry Business Unit had to get creative with their internal marketing pitch. “I remember vividly [that] our marketing plan […] asked, ‘What is your target market?’ and we wanted to say, ‘Slackers at work.’ But we knew ‘slackers at work’ wasn’t going to be an effective target market, so I created a euphemism for it,” Ryan said.

“Our target market was the ‘loosely supervised businessperson.’”

Microsoft’s internal scepticism about releasing a Windows game collection came to a head when the project had to go in front of the Product Review Board. After months spent putting the Entertainment Pack together, Ryan said he was surprised to find he had to convince this final group of high-level sales executives to give it the green light to go to manufacturing.

When Ryan first went in front of the review board, he said that they “couldn’t have been more disgusted” with the project. “At the very last minute, this group of more traditional Microsoft people wanted to crush us like a bug[…] My blood pressure must have been completely off the charts, my face must have been bright red, because we [were] one stamp away from going to manufacturing.”

Ryan recalled two sales executives on the review team, in particular, “not only felt that this was going to be a problematic thing to release, [but that] this product should never see the light of day. They were convinced we were going to destroy the reputation of Microsoft.”

Apparently, there was a real fear that launching a single casual gaming collection could seriously damage a multibillion-dollar business behemoth. Ryan summarized the argument he faced: “‘Microsoft is a serious company that does serious things and you, by releasing this product, are threatening our entire Microsoft way of life.’”

Among all the objections that Ryan remembered the Review Board trying to throw at the Entertainment Pack, the problem of product support highlighted the gulf between this and other Microsoft products. At the time, Microsoft provided free phone support for all its products. But as Ryan recalled, Microsoft’s operators were already swamped with customers calling with Windows questions. “It [was] like calling your cable company [and] waiting two hours for an answer about an Excel problem,” he said. “And they [were] like, ‘We don’t have people to take care of this [Entertainment Pack].’”

Even if bandwidth hadn’t been an issue, the economics of Microsoft’s enterprise-level support system would have been. “We couldn’t afford to take care of [tech support calls], because [our department] would get charged back if a product support call came in,” Ryan said. “And we [were] selling our product to retailers for $US15 ($21). I think [it] would have cost me $US25 ($35) for a call.”

There was a real risk that “the product [would] get yanked because product support calls [would] exceed our revenues,” Ryan said. “So basically I never wanted them to answer the phone.”

That economic reality led to Ryan cutting what he called a “Brer Rabbit deal” with the Review Board, volunteering a seemingly painful solution that he secretly wanted. Ryan suggested that support calls for the Entertainment Pack might only be answered if the rest of the Microsoft support queue was completely empty. “So if the entire rest of the world has their questions answered, then you can answer Minesweeper calls,” Ryan said. “They go, ‘OK, I guess we can do that.’”

The deal ended up working out for both sides, Ryan said. “They go, ‘We’ll show them, we’ll never answer their calls.’ I’m like, ‘Good, please never answer our calls!’”

Despite all the internal pushback, the Entertainment Pack was able to find some champions in Microsoft’s upper management. “I remember one Word project manager saying, ‘I don’t think we should be selling games!’” Fitzgerald recalls. “Rich Macintosh, who ran sales for Microsoft at the time, said ‘Y’know, just ease up, these guys are just trying to ship some software.’”

Ryan also remembers the longstanding support from happy players throughout the company, including Gates, as being instrumental in overcoming the review board’s objections. “‘We’ve been on the product list for months,’” Ryan recalls saying. “‘Bill knows about us… everybody knows about us… people have been testing these games. We’re not a secret product. We’re not slipping anything by anybody. For six months now you’ve had the opportunity to tell us to stop, and no one has told us to stop, including Bill.’ That fortunately pushed them back a little bit.”

In the end, the Entry Business Unit had to settle for grudging acceptance from Microsoft’s old guard. As Ryan put it, “Most of the company sort of looked at us like, ‘We don’t understand what you guys are doing, you seem like a waste of time, seems like [Gates] should wake up one day and jettison you all.’”

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