Real Stories of Simulation Development

by Scott “Elf” Elson

 

When “guod” initially asked me to write up some anecdotes from when I was doing flight sims at first it was just going to be a collection of short little unrelated bits. As I wrote them down though it felt fairly dry and I wasn’t sure how interesting it would be to anyone else. During this time I was doing a little retro gaming and found myself wondering what it was like to develop games in those days and the stories they’d have. With this in mind I realized I could try to add some history as well. This would tie the stories together and give some idea of what it’s like to create these games.

This is going to be a bit biographical since I mainly have my perspective of things to pull from. With this being a sim site I’ll try to focus on things related to them when possible, but will hit other genres from time to time. If I’m not fairly certain how someone would feel about my using their name in a story I won’t identify them. In most cases it won’t detract from anything and I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable if someone comes up to them and says, “Hey, I thought it was really funny when you did…”. Also anything I think is really embarrassing will get completely skipped.

First some of the boring biographical stuff (but a lot less than I originally wrote). For those that don’t know me I’ve been in the computer game business for over 22 years. I started off at MicroProse as part of their coin-op group, and then brought over to sim group when coin-op (then a separate company) was shut down. After that I was one of 5 guys recruited to start up the Jane’s / Origin group in Baltimore, later moved under Jane’s / EA when Origin went MMO only. When that studio closed I went back to MicroProse, at the time part of Infograme US later renamed Atari, and thenBreakAway Games where I’m at now. There were no sims during these last two so I probably won’t bring up any stories from those times, even if some of the stuff at BreakAway was military oriented.

MicroProse

MicroProse logoSo first we’ll start with MicroProse. It was founded by Bill “Wild Bill” Stealey and Sid Meier in 1982. This is one of those legendary companies that started in a basement. Searching the web you can find various places where the early history is given but here’s a good one that comes from the front of The Official F-19 Stealth Fighter Handbook.

I started April 9th, 1990. Here’s a copy of my offer letter.

My offer letter from MicroProse
My offer letter from MicroProse

The headquarters and main studio was at 180 Lakefront Drive, Hunt Valley, MD 21030. Currently bringing it up on Google Maps, it doesn’t want to actually identify the exact location so I’ll give some extra information on locating the correct building. One end of Lakefront Drive intersects with Beaver Dam Road and the other is a dead end. MicroProse was the building where the dead end is. You’ll notice that the building is sort split into two parts, a lower/southern part and then the building shifts a bit and you have an upper/northern part that is slightly narrower. Coming from the East parking lot the main entrance is near the point at which the building shifts. While it doesn’t let you zoom in fully there is a street view from the front of the building and you can see it there. I also live close by so I ran by there and took a picture since it still looks about the same from the outside.

Main entrance to MicroProse Hunt Valley office

Main entrance to MicroProse Hunt Valley office.

If you came in from that entrance then you would be in the reception area where behind the reception counter it said, “MICROPROSE” in red letters. It was a typical reception area with a few couches and chairs and various awards on the walls and displays. The pictures below are from when the studio was getting shut down which is why you’ll see an “Atari” logo on the window looking out the front door.

Reception area. Left is Gary Spinrad, at right is Murray Taylor.

Reception area. Left is Gary Spinrad, at right is Murray Taylor.

Looking out reception area entrance.

Looking out reception area entrance.

If you turned left you’d see the doors to the conference room and continuing to turn you’d find the hall leading to executive row, with Bill having the first office on the corner. At the other end of that hallway was where Customer Service and the people running the MicroProse BBS were located. There used to be a setup where the guys who did QA for a project would then be moved to do customer service for it since they already knew a lot about the game. After that they would then be moved back to QA for another title. This was all along the side of the building facing the main parking lot.

The rest of this part of the building was the warehouse. At the time MicroProse was its own publisher so this actually took up a lot of space. I would guess it was about three quarters of that part of the building. A section of it also did double duty as a half court basket ball court. I heard stories of the games getting rather spirited and some people getting checked into the walls hard enough to leave dents. Bill supposedly was responsible for at least some of them and with his, “Type A” Fighter Pilot Mentality, I could easily see it. When MicroProse grew larger the warehouse area was built out and QA was moved into it.

Heading down the hallway from the right of the reception area I believe it was Marketing on the right and coin-op, later console development, then QA (I think) and finally IT on the left. Then you’d get to a hallway running the width of the building with double doors leading into the last part of the building. We’ll get back to those doors in a minute. The hallway was how you’d get to the kitchen and the cafeteria which, along with coin-op, took up the back part of the center of the building. The cafeteria was also where we had our “Monday Morning Meetings” where we’d find out stuff that had happened during the week before.

These meetings were also where new people were introduced to the company. There was a running joke to ask them, “How tall are you naked?” Supposedly this started when it was asked by one of the execs to a new employee of the female persuasion who replied, “You’ll never find out“.

The cafeteria was also used for various other uses like parties, classes and at least one time Sid tested out a talk he was giving at CGDC (now GDC). There were also some arcade machines, including a Red Baron machine in honor of the start of the company and later an NBA Jam machine. A ping pong table and foosball table were eventually added as well. I believe the picture below is from when the studio was getting shut down and equipment was moved here to be inventoried.

Cafeteria and large meeting area. As mentioned above the picture all the computers are due to an inventory being done as the studio was being shut down.

Cafeteria and large meeting area. As mentioned above the picture all the computers
are due to an inventory being done as the studio was being shut down.

Now we’ll return to the double doors I mentioned earlier. On them was the MPS Labs Logo.

MPS Labs Logo

Entry to the PC Development area.

Entry to the PC Development area.

This was the start of the Development Group or the Blue Carpet Area since the carpet which had been “maroonish” in the rest of the building was now a blue grey. Sid’s office was in this section. Unlike the rest of the building where the back part was more open (warehouse, coin-op with cubes, cafeteria) most of this area was offices. This meant many didn’t have windows so when you were working crunch it was easy to lose track of time.

Sometimes climate control could be a problem. During Fleet Defender I had an office that was always cold. One time the receptionist came in to drop off some mail during the middle of summer and said, “Now I know why you’re always wearing a sweatshirt“. I brought in a thermometer and there were times it was 62 degrees. I later discovered the thermostat for my office was quite a number of offices away and the guy in that office had put his computer directly under it. Oops.

The only area that wasn’t divided into offices was an open area that ran most of the width of the building and was on the other side of the wall of the hallway that lead to the kitchen and cafeteria. QA was here when I first started. They just had a bunch of tables with computers on them. Later on this area would be closed off and made into two sections, one a meeting room and another became a sound studio.

After MicroProse went public they expanded into another building just up the hill behind where we were. We were subleasing and the building had “EOG” on the front. I’m not sure what it stood for. The console group moved up there and some coin-op build out took place in the back section. The rear section was also used for at least one Christmas party or the like. MicroProse also had studios in Chapel Hill, NC and Chipping Sodbury, England. I believe there was also an office in Japan but I don’t remember the details about that one.

OK, enough of a tour. Let me think of what amusing stuff I can talk about. First, being at a game company means sometimes there’s some cool swag. In one case the Sim Group had black t-shirts made that said, “We put the ‘late’ in simulate“. There might have been a plane on it as well. I wasn’t part of the sim group yet so only saw them being worn around. I know someone who has one so I’ll see if I can get a picture (no luck). I think anyone familiar with projects being delayed can appreciate this.

The next story is also swag related but in this case it deals with bonus stuff getting shipped with the game to encourage people to buy it. I’ve been seeing a resurgence of this though mainly for special editions. Well for one game, I believe “Jump Jet“, they wanted to put fridge magnets in the box. The thing to remember is that during this time games were still shipped on floppy disks and these two things don’t play well together. I think they went with aviator sunglasses instead.

Then there were the Airborne Ranger standees. As you can guess these were made to promote the Airborne Rangergame and were a life size image of ranger in full camo gear in a ready pose. If you happen to bump into one unexpectedly it could be a bit of a surprise. As you can probably guess I had my own particular encounter with one. I was working some crunch when I was in coin-op and went to get a soda from the kitchen (only $0.25 to get one from the machine). On the way back I heard what sounded like voices. As far as I knew I was the only one in the building so I was a little concerned. Right before I got back to the hall leading to coin-op there’s a side area with a copier and one of the rangers was in there. Yeah, I freaked when I saw it. I didn’t imagine the talking though. Someone in coin-op had a clock radio and had accidentally switched it to “Alarm” and because they were never around to hear it they didn’t know it was set around 1:30am which happened to be during a talk show.

I didn’t feel so bad though when I found out about someone else’s encounter with one of these things. My friend Quentin who ran the BBS was a 6th degree black belt in American Kenpo (not sure what he is now) who had trained with Ed Parker. He also had been in the Navy with that training. One of the rangers was in his office. He went into it once when it was fairly dark and just saw enough of the standee to make out that it was a threat but forgetting what it was. Next thing he knew he had snapped the head back so it was folded against its back. There will be more standee stories but they’ll come later.

This next part isn’t a story but just an FYI for those that might not know that MicroProse had its own plane. Well really it was Bill’s. It was a T-28 called “Miss MicroProse”. While looking for some photos I found this ad for a contest I had forgotten about.

When it started out it had a very different paint job.

MicroProse T-28 before MicroProse paint job. I think this is around the time they were getting the plane and was around October 1987. I'm not sure who the people are.

MicroProse T-28 before MicroProse paint job. I think this is around the time they were getting the plane
and was around October 1987. I’m not sure who the people are.

After Bill’s time with MicroProse the plane has been associated with other things he’s been involved with. First was as “Miss Spirit” named after the indoor soccer team that Bill owned. You can also find pictures on the net with it having an Interactive Magic logo on it and there might be others. I never had a chance to go on a ride on it and while I’ve heard snippets of tales of some interesting flights I don’t know them well enough to feel I can pass them along.

Miss MicroProse did show up in a few games. In Fleet Defender, which we’ll get to in a bit, it would sometimes show up in the training missions flying over the area where the Hunt Valley Studios would be. Double checking with the strategy guide we did put it in as an enemy so it will engage you and it has been upgraded with guns. I could see Bill having fun dogfighting against an F-14.

The other place where I know it was used was in the F-15 Strike Eagle arcade game. It would randomly replace one of the enemy aircraft though I believe it was just a cosmetic change. When it was first put in the orientation was wrong, with the X and Y axis swapped so effectively the model had a 90 degree rotation. With the “nose” bobbing up and down as the plane rolled it looked like the pilot was drunk. Bill saw it before it could be fixed and he joked that he didn’t think much of the pilots flying abilities. You can see it in the targeting window of one of the screens below:

F-15 Strike Eagle Arcade advertisement.

F-15 Strike Eagle Arcade advertisement.

Another amusing bug in the game dealt with a sub that showed up in our Arctic level. The idea was the sub would submerge every once in a while so you had to attack it while you had the chance. I guess the sub felt it wasn’t getting enough action since for a while it would also show up in another level. Having it surfacing on dry land was memorable enough but it was also surfacing in the middle of a runway. Fortunately it also made it rather obvious so it was caught fairly quickly.

Now since I came in towards the end of the F-15 arcade game my original task was to set up the Operator Screens. These are the screens they use to change settings, check statistics and test the machine. Once they were done there wasn’t much other programming I could help with since I wasn’t familiar with the code and so I got to play test the game… a lot. As far as I know I’m the only person to roll the score over, which did cause a crash. I forget how many hours that took. That might have also been the night where when driving home I kept expecting the targeting reticule to show up on cars driving the other direction.

As I continued to test it started to have a negative impact on my right hand. To withstand the punishment of arcades the joysticks were rather sturdy and stiff to move and squeeze the trigger. Add in that I was constantly moving my thumb from the target select button on the side to the missile button on the top and then having to wrap around the joystick to squeeze the trigger and just fly in general the area between my thumb and forefinger started to become very unhappy with me.

To counter this I start flying the game left handed with my arms crossed since I couldn’t change which side the throttle was on. The target select button was also a bit of a hassle but not too bad. I actually got pretty good that way and one day Bill came by while I was flying through the canyons on the last level at full mil while talking to someone. He told me to stop showing off. I wanted to explain why I was flying the way I was but he was heading somewhere so I didn’t get the chance.

I think what really bugged him though was that I could fly the game better than he could. Of course he had that fighter pilot competitiveness so I could understand that and having a lot more stick time on it than he did gave me an advantage. It was a complete shock when he actually told someone else I was better than he was. I think that was when Tim updated the high score screen so my entry was “Elf ‘the Ace'”. My mom wonders if Bill thought it was genetic since he seemed surprised she didn’t pick it up faster when she played it for the first time.

This next part actually deals with something that took place outside of the office. For a while we had our own variation of “shotgun” to determine who would get to sit in the front passenger seat. For those not familiar with this method of seating determination it came down to the first person to say “shotgun” as you headed to the car was the one who got to sit in the coveted seat. I believe this comes from the stagecoach days where a guy would sit up next to the driver with a shotgun in case they were attacked. Being gamers though this was a little too basic so we started adding our own twists.

Our variation was this, instead of “shotgun” someone would call out one of the air to air weapons of the F-15. AIM-9, AIM-120, AIM-7, Sidewinder, Sparrow, AMRAAM, and guns were all valid. If someone was fast enough they could call out the correct counter measure and then “fire” off their own weapon. For guns I think “Evade” was the usual reply though “Break right/left” would probably be valid. This would go on until someone took too long to reply and then the last person got the seat. Of course you could always add in other A2A weapons if you wanted to make it more of a challenge.

Now some people hedged their bets in the other directions. After the “shotgun” seat had been won, and I think sometimes even before, the mystic words, “Not trunk”, would be spoken. Hey, sometimes you just want to be sure….

There was another thing that happened outside of the office but this one was work related. Just up the road from us was an arcade and on at least one occasion someone from management or marketing went to see if some of the kids might want to come back to the office to try out what we were working on. While completely understandable when we heard about it there were visions of the police getting called in about the strange guy wanting to take kids back to his place. It never happened and they might have checked with their parents first but sometimes the little details would get forgotten.

Another time where little details were important was when a kid’s program called, “Not Just News” stopped by to do a story. We later found out it was supposed to have been on some other game being done at MicroProse but there was some issue and they switched over to doing a story on the Coin-Op group. We had just finished up one game, probably B.O.T.S.S., but they shot some footage of us having a “planning” meeting discussing what we needed to do for the game.

They also spent some time interviewing us in our cubes. My cube had a poster by the Brothers Hildebrandt of a woman who’s only covering was strategically placed hair with a Pegasus rearing up in the background. All quite tasteful but there were questions on if I should take it down or they wanted to change the angle of the shot. In the end they just left things as they were. While they were talking to me they cut to a shot of Alan Rock’s hands typing gibberish on his keyboard. If you didn’t know better you would think they were my hands. I was waiting for the questions from my friends about when I got married, not to mention finding a girlfriend, since his wedding ring was quite evident.

All this was fine. The part where things got questionable was the last set of shots they wanted to do. They went and found a couple of kids from the arcade up the street and brought them back to our cafeteria where one of the games was set up. No, the police didn’t get involved this time either. Well someone had the idea of dumping a bucket of water on the kids’ heads while they were playing the game. They told us this and we asked them if they were out of their minds. OK, we were probably more polite than that but I know that’s what I was thinking. We pointed out that in general electronics and water were a very bad combination. Destroying a game would be bad enough but the potential of electrocuting someone wouldn’t be the sort of rating generator they wanted. They were still really sold on this dumping idea so after some brainstorming they jury-rigged a tarp with a bunch of packing peanuts in it that they could dump instead. It went off pretty well but the kid only noticed it for about a second before going back to playing which the host said just proved how good our game was.

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