I was delighted to discover that MicroProse, the military simulation game company that was once the backbone of the war game community, was born under the leadership of game developers David Lagettie and John “Wild Bill” Stealey.
Hoping to capitalize on nostalgia and the market hole left by the shortage of military strategy games, the new MicroProse announced that three games will soon arrive on Steam, and more are in the works.
This is another post for the crowd of geriatric players, like my interview with Joe Kucan of Command & Conquer Fame. I interviewed Kucan, who plays villain Kane, over two decades ago. The same goes for my first interview with Stealey, who was the co-founder of MicroProse. Stealey taught me how to fly WWII planes in the Warbirds simulation game iEntertainment (one of his later companies).
The original MicroProse was born in 1982, founded by Stealey and Sid Meier. But it was difficult. Meier left to start Firaxis, and MicroProse bounced between several business owners. In 2018, Stealey and Lagettie conspired to acquire the remaining assets of the company. Now they’re back, creating both classic games and new titles. Geriatric joke aside, nostalgia could be a good deal.
What prompted Lagettie to embark on this activity and ultimately buy MicroProse? It was a song, as you will see below.
Here is a revised transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It’s been a long time. We made a history with the Wall Street Journal a long time ago, at the time of the glory of Warbirds.
Bill Stealey: I was a little taller and leaner then.
GamesBeat: It was a fun time. I always thought it was an interesting business. It was sad to see him disappear.
Stealey: Hopefully it will be even more interesting. I am very excited. I just help wherever I can.
GamesBeat: How many people are currently in the business and where will most of them be based?
Lagettie: Currently there are approximately 70 people. We have a few remote teams. We have a team in Europe and a team in the United States. Our core team is here in Australia. It is a large team. It’s not three guys in a basement. But there are a lot of projects going on. We are also working with many external developers, not just Microprose, on projects that we have not yet announced. We have a lot of our artists and designers who jump between a few different projects here and there. She grows up. I try not to get much bigger than we are, because we have to focus on the games we develop and do them well.
It’s funny. Everyone feels that feeling of nostalgia when they see the Microprose logo, but I always get a kick out of the idea that Wild Bill, in his bedroom, designed the entire logo for Microprose. Having him with us throughout this story is great. I don’t think it would be the same if he were not there to guide and help and advise and laugh, make jokes and have fun. It’s a dream come true, really.
GamesBeat: Can you tell how microprose came back?
David Lagettie: You’ve probably read some of the interviews and seen some of the stories there. It really started around the early 2000s, when Infogrames acquired – I still remember seeing European Air War in stores somewhere with the Infogrames logo on it. I remember watching twice, thinking, “Wow. Why? “Then I discovered that it had been acquired and so on, and then it entered Atari, of course, and really disappeared after that.
At the same time that it happened, I was building what turned out to be one of the biggest military simulations in the world, which was VBS. I started doing it with Operation Flashpoint in 2000, 2001. Over the next two years, I remember many times, especially around 2004 and 2005, the reason I know it is that I I acquired another IP at the time, which we will announce in the coming months, a game that we are building in-house. It is a game that was published by Microplay, a company that belonged to Microprose at the time. It’s good that the game is coming back.
Anyway, going back to the story, I remember spending many late nights when I was developing the military simulation software, basically Flashpoint for the military, going and searching – when it comes back? They will surely not keep Microprose on the shelf. Someone will bring it back, or Atari will do something with it. But nothing has ever happened. I remember throughout, even in 2007, I really went looking hard, and again I think I would have found that he was sitting with Atari, nothing was happening.
Some time after 2010, when Atari got into trouble, it was then sold – you may remember there was a game called Special Forces or something that Microprose, or Atari, Microprose and another company released . The name appeared.
Stealey: There was a gun company involved, Cybergun. It was right here where I lived, here in Cary, North Carolina, which was incredible.
Lagettie: I used to make a lot of music, like the music that was behind Operation Flashpoint. I did the whole soundtrack. There were two, really, a classic soundtrack and a rock soundtrack for Operation Flashpoint, and I’m the guy from that original band, Seventh, who made this music for that. We ended up making the trailer for Operation Flashpoint, and I joined the business that way. I did a lot of things for Operation Flashpoint, and that’s how I got into the mil-sim side.
I have been connected to games since I was a child, and I grew up with all the titles of Microprose. In fact, these Microprose titles are definitely what influenced me to build the two biggest mil-sims in the world today. It was not just a whim to go back a few years and buy this label to try it out. This is something that has been in the works for a long time. I don’t think a lot of people realize it. It is not just something that happened two or three years ago. It was something that started when I was a kid, really, and then when everything disappeared in the early 2000s, it sparked that spark in me. How is it that nobody does anything about it?
When this game came out in 2010 – I don’t think it ever came out, in fact, of what I remember. Atari had money problems. The Cybergun company acquired them the name for the military rights to build weapons and others. My connection was through this company. It took a long time, a lot of negotiations. Initially, we were just trying to issue a license, and then say that a third party came back to try to re-acquire it. There was a bit of a battle going on for a while. I was fortunate to be able to acquire it.
At that time, I was building Titan, mil-sim software for global rendering. I definitely had ambitions to integrate this into a game, and it’s something that is on the drawing board right now. I would like to do it under Microprose. I thought it would work really well.
Stealey: David was not traditionally trained as a programmer or developer. He’s just good at a lot of things. He started in a completely different career field. Did you make a game or two before Flashpoint, or was it your first game?
Lagettie: Flashpoint was really the first game I was involved in. I was also writing for the rest of Flashpoint. We also started what ArmA is today. It started in Australia, when it was called Solid Strike. VBS had taken off and split in 2005. The software we developed from the original Flashpoint is still used today. It was difficult at the time, because no one, but no one had thought that the games could be used for training. It was a very difficult thing to sell to the military. They laugh normally. “Well, we can go out and do it for real. Bullets are cheap. Fuel is cheap. “But now, that’s all they use. In fact, before that, I wrote an article called” Serious Games “, and that’s basically what it is called today They call it serious games, using the games industry to train people.
Stealey: I was training student pilots in 1971. I gave my student pilots a shoe brush and a plunger, and they would sit there and fly the missions dry. I kept telling them, “Guys, we could do this on a computer.” Then, in the mid-1980s, the Air Force actually used Strike Eagle to check people’s reflexes. I was never paid for it, but they tried it and they were afraid of wasting flight time. Can you believe it They were afraid of not having time to fly if the sims came. So it took a long time, until David came up with this great software, before he started doing it. Now they fall on themselves to do it.
Lagettie: There was certainly that fear at the start, especially when we were doing a helicopter crew simulation. They were always afraid of losing their flying hours. What they didn’t know was that they could do more rudimentary training on these simulators, then use the flight hours for more things they wanted to do, free the plane to do other things . In fact, when we had a big flood here in Australia seven or eight years ago, they had to use two Blackhawk helicopters in the flood, and they had no way of training here, so they put in another 100 or 200 hours on the simulators while these planes were operational, and they saved $ 3.6 million on those hundred hours. It’s a huge cost savings, and you can train things you can’t do in the real world.
Stealey: While David was acquiring Microprose, I went to the United States Air Force Air Training Command, and the commanding general asked me to meet 40 people and show them how we could train them to be a pilot. They all loved it, but they feared being chased by someone who had more computer time than someone else. I say, “You guys are crazy.” I’m glad we broke up with that idea, because now they’re all going for it. I tried to fight this fight, David had to fight this fight. He succeeded and I did not succeed, but what the hell. And now we bring back the games.
GamesBeat: How was the final transaction? What made you give yourself the Microprose brand?
Lagettie: I had been negotiating for a few years on this subject. In the end, these were numbers. I was lucky to be in a position where I could – let’s just say it was a very colorful battle between me and another major player.
GamesBeat: Did you have to raise money for it, or did you have yours?
Lagettie: No, I had my own money.
GamesBeat: It felt like military simulations and military strategy had their heyday in the days of Microprose. Things like Call of Duty and Battlefield happened and changed the image, the level of interest. I had the impression that the simulations were replaced by the first person shooter game, and that is perhaps why they refused.
Lagettie: I think you are right. For me as a player, many of these games don’t really appeal to me too much. Maybe I’m getting older, but there was no real magic in these games for me, the games you just mentioned. These are fantastic games, fantastic achievements in what they do, but many people want these days to come back when the games would reward you. You wanted to come home from school and turn on the computer and start the next mission and get the next price. These days, it seems like it’s more about power ups and – I think that’s the thing that’s missing, and the thing that myself and Bill and the great team of guys I have around me. We all agree that we want to reintroduce that little magic into games.
Stealey: I think no one was making the kind of Microprose games, because they found out they could have kids, kids and they just left us behind. I don’t think development companies – there was no Microprose. EA was doing very well with everything they did, THQ, and none of them did the kind of games we did at Microprose a long time ago, where we gave you a manual and we expected that you do something to get results and be rewarded for it. They found other games they could create. It’s great, and I’m glad they did. But now David, his group and I try to play with them, we go back to what we did at Microprose. The market is still there. It may not be the Fortnite market, but it is certainly an excellent market.
Lagettie: We know the landscape has changed, with Call of Duty and all these things coming out, and these are great games. But for myself my son, my 15 year old son, he doesn’t play these games much. I find him going back and playing even older games, like Counter-Strike. They were playing Fortnite for a while, but none of my kids play it anymore. Again, to go back to what Bill was saying, I don’t think anyone is building the kind of games that Microprose was building in the end there. Your B-17 and Grands Prix and all these things. You don’t see these types of games today.
GamesBeat: I played a lot of TalonSoft Games. Jim Rose used to say things like, “We’re fine if we make a game that sells 20,000 units.” Then the gaming industry finally looked at this and decided that it was not the way to get rich.
Lagettie: This is absolutely true. If you are just trying to make money and you can create many other games, but that is not my goal. My goal is to create quality games. I want to bring back the textbooks, the boxes. With all our games, we can have a box and a manual correctly produced. These are things you will see again from Microprose. Even the first three titles that we announced, they match what you expect from Microprose very well. The games that follow are even more so.
Stealey: When we were at our peak, everyone who was a fan of ours bought all of our games. The games David is working on, they’re going to build a sequel. You’re going to want the next and the next. It’s going to bring you a reward, because you sat there and learned something. I’m excited about it.
I have some bad news. I don’t know if you’ve ever met Arnold Hendrick, who did game design for most of the first Microprose games, just passed away yesterday. If you don’t know the name, you can search for it. He came from the role-playing world, but he probably made five of the best early microprose games. I was sorry to hear it, because I was going to call him and have him come and help me play David’s games. He was quite a leader in the industry.
GamesBeat: I think there is something interesting here since all the retro craze has become something huge. The remake of Final Fantasy VII was the biggest game of April. We have retro, Atari and Intellivision consoles coming back. There seems to be an opportunity there for a good business.
Lagettie: I think it is. This is certainly not the motivating factor, as the attempt to re-acquire Microprose took place long before this resurgence. But it certainly is – if you ask why retro comes back, I believe it comes back because a good game is a good game, no matter how it was made. These are good games and they trigger that nostalgic feeling in people, even myself. We are currently developing games – again, I can’t tell you much about some of them – but a few are very nostalgic. Let’s say it’s about theft. They trigger things in me all the time.
I have found myself on several occasions – I have all of the Microprose games here, and I’m going to remove those games and it triggers those memories of when you grow up. These are fun games. You didn’t have to step in and get power-ups for it or monetize it. It was a great game, a fun experience. You have been promoted. Sometimes you have been demoted to certain titles. But there was a real purpose in the games. You felt part of it. You had an emotional connection to the wingers and all these different things.
There are still some very good games. I follow many games in development. But most of the games I find, especially in the past seven or eight years, have been about monetization. I don’t want to get stuck in this aspect. I don’t think you’ll ever see microprose coming down this side, ever. We always want to come up with a good solid game that will appeal to people, and if they buy Task Force Admiral, they will buy Sea Power. This is what we want. We want to run our own race.
I love, more than anyone, a good box and a great manual. Many times I have read the Gunship manual back and forth many times. I think this is extremely important. Going back to the retro side of things, I think people regret what it was. I said to my son, “This is how the games were.” They only know what they are seeing now. And Fortnite is incredible, the income they generate, but it is certainly not the type of game we are looking to build.