by Richard Sheffield
The MicroProse Story
Las Vegas, 1982. Another boring sales meeting would mark a drastic change in the lives of two very different men. Sid Meier and Bill Stealey were both working for the electronics giant, General Instruments Corporation. Stealey, the outgoing strategic planner, was directing the company's Business Development. Meier was an engineer and programmed minicomputers for the company's Business Systems division.
After a brief losing stint at the gaming tables one night, the two gravitated to the computer game arcade. The Atari 800 was a hot machine in the early 1980s, and both Stealey and Meier were avid computer gamers. As fate would have it, they found a stand-up Atari-based machine, Red Baron—an early, coin-operated flight simulator.
"Finally" thought Stealey, a former Air Force fighter pilot, "something in this town I can win at." But he was to be disappointed again. The confident fighter pilot challenged the quiet engineer to a couple of games. It didn't take the crafty Meier long to figure out the programming algorithms and top the fighter jock's scores. A frustrated Stealey, whose business cards still read "Fighter Pilot Supreme," complained the game was not realistic. Meier agreed and said he could do better than that in a week. Aware of a fighter pilot's love for fun and action, Stealey told Meier, "If you can, I bet I could sell this to every officers' club around the world."
Well, it took a little longer than a week (even this very first release was a little late due to Sid's insistence on perfection, a MicroProse tradition), but a couple of months later a smiling Meier walked into Stealey's office and handed him a disk. "Here it is; it's called Hellcat Ace," he said, and MicroProse was on its way.
The two men are totally opposite in personality, but they couldn't have made better business partners. To really understand how MicroProse has moved from the basement of Bill Stealey's house to a multimillion-dollar-a-year company, you need to take a closer look at the two founders.
You never have to look around to know if Major "Wild Bill" Stealey is in the room with you. He always makes his presence known. Loud to the point of exuberance but not obnoxious, Stealey usually greets a newcomer with a big smile, a stiff handshake, and a challenge. Competition is a way of life for this young company president. Whether at trade shows or in the MicroProse offices in Hunt Valley, Maryland, Stealey seems always ready for quick session with their latest release. He's not only the president of MicroProse but the biggest fan of its games. Hours spent with a joystick in the evenings assure that he is always one of the best players of any game they release—and probably a few they don't. Stealey sets high goals for his products. If they don't live up, they don't go out.
He has always set high goals for himself, also, and seems to have a hard time understanding the word no. His military career is a good case in point. Early on he decided, like many young men, that being a fighter pilot looked like an exciting life. So he made up his mind he was going to be an Air Force fighter pilot and a general. But Stealey wore glasses, an instant disqualification for Air Force pilots. Most kids would have given up in the face of such a strict rule. I did. But he was more determined than most. While attending the Pennsylvania Military College, he kept after Air Force officials until he was given a rare waiver by the Air Force Academy. A minor slip-up in his final days dropped him to sixth in his class and out of the running for the fighter assignments. In consolation he took a post as a flight instructor, teaching young recruits to fly the T-37 jet fighter trainer.
Stealey had often bragged to his friends that he would make general by age 35. Several years in the service, however, showed him that if he was to make general, it would take a little longer, like 20 years or so. Impatient as always, his interests drifted to the business world, where he could run his own show a little sooner. An MBA from the Wharton School of Business soon followed, as did a job with one of the world's largest management consulting firms., McKinsey & Company.
While in business school, he finally reached his goal of being a fighter pilot. Many weekends were spent joyfully dropping bombs and firing missiles over the countryside of Pennsylvania and New Jersey with the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. During our first telephone conversation several years ago I mentioned that the Georgia Air National Guard unit near where I worked was transitioning from old F-4 Phantoms to sleek F-15 Eagles. Having piloted O-2 Skymasters and A-37 Dragonflies with the Air guard, he said that being able to fly an F-15 might be enough to tempt him to give up the president's chair for the ejection seat again. Spoken like a true fighter pilot.
While working at General Instrument directing company acquisitions, he met Sid Meier. Stealey had purchased an Atari 800 mainly to play Star Raiders, but he became more interested and joined Sid's newly formed users group. His association with Meier would eventually help him to achieve his second goal, that of becoming a general by age 35. Using the leadership skills pounded into him at the Air Force Academy and the business skills acquired at Wharton, he has developed MicroProse into a force any general would be proud to lead.
Sid Meier seems destined to work on computer games. Even as a child, his interest in science and history led him to dream up one game after another. His fascination with technology led to a Computer Science degree at the University of Michigan.
In 1980, Meier got into home computers when he purchased an Atari 800. He had taken an immediate interest in this computer because it had great graphics capabilities and supported a number of interesting games. Later that year he formed an Atari users group which eventually became known as SMUG, Sid Meier's Users Group. Later when Meier and Stealey were trying to decide on a name for their fledgling company, they almost chose Smuggers Software after Sid's group.
After his initial success with Hellcat Ace, Sid designed one game after another. With each release he honed his design skills and made the games more interesting and complex. During a time when everyone in the computer game industry was designing arcade style games, Meier continued to produce simulations with an emphasis on realism.
Sid's jet fighter game, F-15 Strike Eagle, was really the breakthrough release for MicroProse, It was an inspired design. Not only could the player fly a jet fighter, but now he could do battle against real countries. Flying missions against North Vietnam, Libya, and countries along the Persian Gulf kept players coming back again and again. This idea of using real geographic locations and enemies was to become a MicroProse trademark.
Sid's Silent Service, a World War II submarine simulation, was also a huge hit. In 1986 it was named the best simulation game in the U.S., England, West Germany, and France. In all, Sid's games have sold well in excess of two million copies world wide. When I asked Bill Stealey why he thought MicroProse had been so successful, he was quick to answer, "That's easy—Sid Meier."
The Making of F-19 Stealth Fighter
F-19 can trace its heritage back to a similar but different game MicroProse developed for the Commodore 64, Project Stealth Fighter, This game was popular on the Commodore, and the management at MicroProse had it scheduled for conversion to other machine formats. Previous conversions had led to minor improvements in the game play or graphics, but the games were basically identical across the various formats. But F-19 Stealth Fighter would be different.
About this time, it became obvious the game market was shifting in favor of the IBM compatible format and away from the Commodore 64/128, which had dominated the home market for years. This being the case, MicroProse was looking for a new hot game to really break into this format. So when Sid Meier (Senior VP and master game designer), Andy Hollis (3-D graphics ace), and Arnold Hendrick (game designer and documentation writer extraordinaire) came to Steve Meyer (VP of Product Development) and wanted to make some rather large improvements to Stealth Fighter for the IBM conversion, he was ready to listen. They wanted to improve the graphics, the game play—actually, just about everything.
It was a game designer's dream come true. They were given an already finished and popular game and given the chance to "do it over again," this time with more speed, power, and memory. It wasn't long before this previously minor conversion became a major development project. The team quickly grew as Jim Synoski, who helped design the C64 version, and David McKibbin were added. David's extensive IBMcompatible experience was a great help. He was able to write a number of graphics and operations "libraries" so the other programmers didn't have to know how all of the various IBMcompatible systems worked, they could just call the proper library file.
Other people were brought in, and the project grew and developed its own momentum. It was beginning to be obvious this game was something special. The 3-D databases for the "worlds" you fly in were redone and beefed up by Max Remington and Bruce Shelley, who managed to cram a lot of scenery into a small amount of memory. Murray Taylor added his expertise to the graphics as well. Ken Lagace came on board and did a superb job getting accurate and believable sounds out of a little speaker that was never intended for such things.
By this time, all of the top people at MicroProse from every department were working on this one project. Management was more than a little worried. But this was one of those situations where they just had to trust the team to do their best work and leave them alone. When there was something solid to work with, Al Roireau, Chris Taormino, and Russ Cooney started their Quality Assurance bug hunt, and Barabara Bents tried in vain to finalize the layout for the keyboard overlays.
The team had grown so large that Steve Meyer was forced to have regularly catered lunches so he could get the whole team together in one room to discuss progress and problems. The year they had to finish the project came and went, but they were allowed to continue work for several months before finally being forced to wrap the project up. So many things had been changed from the original C64 version that they decided to change the name and packaging to further distinguish it.
When F-19 Stealth Fighter hit the shelves in November of 1988, it was quickly apparent all of the hard work had been worthwhile. In its first 60 days on the market, F-19 sold over 100,000 copies worldwide. Not only was it a hit, but it was well on its way to becoming one of MicroProse's biggest hits ever.
Rarely has a computer game attracted so much attention. Not only did it get rave reviews in the computer press, but it received wide coverage in publications such as Time magazine and Popular Mechanics. Even best-selling author Tom Clancy gave it a big thumbs up.
At the 1989 Software Publishers Association awards ceremony, F-19 did what no other MicroProse hit had ever done: It won the Best Simulation of the Year award, an honor which many in the industry felt was too long in coming.
As if that wasn't enough, a modified version of F-19 was the only computer game selected to be part of the exciting new exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington D.C. Entitled "Beyond the Limits: Flight Enters the Computer Age," this new exhibit will feature computers in aviation. The F-19 simulator is one of the highlights and offers visitors a true hands-on experience. Placed strategically next to the Space Shuttle Simulator, the F-19 exhibit will surely become one of the most popular attractions in America's most popular museum.