I was delighted to discover that MicroProse, the military simulation game company that was once the pillar of the war game community, was reborn under the leadership of game developers David Lagettie and John “Wild Bill” Stealey.
Hoping to capitalize on nostalgia and the hole in the market left by the dearth of military strategy games, the new MicroProse has announced three games coming to Steam soon, with more on the way.
This is another post for the geriatric gamers crowd, like my interview with Joe Kucan of Command & Conquer fame. I first interviewed Kucan, who plays the villain Kane, more than two decades ago. The same is true for my first interview with Stealey, who was the cofounder of MicroProse. Stealey taught me how to fly WWII airplanes in the simulation game Warbirds from iEntertainment (one of his subsequent companies).
The original MicroProse was born in 1982, founded by Stealey and Sid Meier. But it had tough times. Meier left to start Firaxis, and MicroProse bounced around between a number of corporate owners. By 2018, Stealey and Lagettie conspired to acquire the company’s remaining assets. Now they’re back, making both classic games and new titles. Geriatric joke aside, nostalgia could be a great business.
What inspired Lagettie to get into this business and eventually come around to buying MicroProse? It was a song, as you’ll see below.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: It’s been a long time. We did a story with the Wall Street Journal way back when, in the glory days of Warbirds.
Bill Stealey: I was a little taller and skinnier then.
GamesBeat: It was a fun time. I always thought it was an interesting company. It was sad to see it disappear.
Stealey: Hopefully, this will be even more interesting. I’m very excited about it. I’m just helping wherever I can.
GamesBeat: How many people are in the company now, and where are most of them going to be based?
Lagettie: Currently, there’s around 70 people. We have a couple of remote teams. We have a team in Europe and a team in the states. Our main team is here in Australia. It’s a significant-sized team. It’s not three guys in a basement. But there’s a lot of projects happening. We work with a lot of external developers as well, not just with Microprose, on projects we have yet to announce. We have a lot of our artists and designers jumping between a few different projects here and there. It’s growing. I’m trying not to grow much bigger than what we are, because we need to focus on the games we’re developing and do them well.
It’s funny. Everyone gets that nostalgic feeling when they see the Microprose logo, but I always get a kick out of the idea that Wild Bill, down in his bedroom, drew that whole logo for Microprose. Having him there with us along this whole thing is great. I don’t think it would be the same if he wasn’t there to guide and help and advise and laugh and make jokes and have fun. It’s a dream come true, really.
GamesBeat: Can you tell the story of how Microprose came back?
David Lagettie: You’ve probably read some of the interviews and saw some of the stories out there. It really started back around the early 2000s, when Infogrames acquired — I always remember seeing European Air War in the shops somewhere with the Infogrames logo on it. I remember looking twice, thinking, “Wow. Why?” Then I found out it had been acquired and such, and then it went into Atari, of course, and really kind of disappeared after that.
At the same time this was happening, I was building up what turned out to be one of the biggest military sims in the world, which was VBS. I started doing that with Operation Flashpoint back in 2000, 2001. Over the next couple of years, I remember many a time, especially around 2004 and 2005–the reason I know that is I acquired some other IP at the time, which we’re going to announce in the coming months, a game we’re building internally. It’s a game that was released by Microplay, a company that was owned by 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 sim software, basically Flashpoint for the military, going and searching–when is this coming back? Surely they won’t keep Microprose on the shelf. Someone is going to bring it back, or Atari is going to do something with it. But nothing ever happened. I remember right through, even back in 2007, I really went searching hard for it, and again I think I would have found it was sitting with Atari, nothing happening.
Sometime again 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 popped up.
Stealey: There was a gun company involved, Cybergun. It was right here where I lived, too, here in Cary, North Carolina, which was amazing.
Lagettie: I used to do a lot of music, like the music that was behind Operation Flashpoint. I did the whole soundtrack. There were two, really, a classical soundtrack and a rock soundtrack to Operation Flashpoint, and I’m the guy from that original band, Seventh, that did that music for it. We ended up doing the trailer for Operation Flashpoint, and I went into the company that way. I was doing a lot of things for Operation Flashpoint, and that’s how I broke into the mil-sim side of it.
I’ve had a connection with games ever since I was a kid, and I grew up with all the Microprose titles. In fact, those Microprose titles are definitely what influenced me to build the two biggest mil-sims in the world today. It wasn’t just a whim to go back a couple of years and buy this label to try it. This is something that’s been in the works for a long time. I don’t think a lot of people realize that. It’s not just a thing that happened two or three years ago. It’s something that started when I was a kid, really, and then when it all went away in the early 2000s, it lit this spark in me. How come no one’s doing anything with it?
When that game came out in 2010 — I don’t think it ever got released, actually, from what I remember. Atari went into some money troubles. The Cybergun company acquired the name from them for the military rights to build weapons and such. My connection was through that company. It took a long time, lots of negotiations. We were just trying to license initially, and then let’s just say that a third party came back to try to reacquire it back again. There was a bit of a battle going on for a while. I was fortunate enough to be in a position to acquire it.
At that time, I was building Titan, which is world-rendering mil-sim software. I definitely had ambitions to build that into a game, and that’s something that’s on the drawing board right now. I’d want to do that under Microprose. I thought it would work out really well.
Stealey: David was not classically trained as a programmer or a development guy. He’s just good at lots of things. He started in a completely different career field. Did you do a game or two before Flashpoint, or was that your first game?
Lagettie: Flashpoint was really the first game I was involved with. I was writing for the sequel to Flashpoint as well. We also started what ArmA is today. That was begun in Australia, when it was called Solid Strike. VBS had taken off, and it divided out in 2005. The software we developed off the original Flashpoint is still used today. It was tough in those days, because no one, but no one ever thought games could be used for training. It was a very hard thing to sell to the military. They’d normally laugh. “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, I wrote a paper before this happened that was called “Serious Games,” and it’s basically what it’s all 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 dry fly the missions. I kept telling them, “Guys, we could do this on a computer.” Then, in the mid-’80s, the Air Force actually used Strike Eagle to check people’s reflexes. I never got paid for it, but they tried it, and they were afraid they would lose flying time. Can you believe it? They were afraid they might not get flying time if sims came along. So it took a long time, until David came along with this brilliant software, before they actually started doing it. Now they’re falling all over themselves to do it.
Lagettie: There definitely was that fear in the early days, especially when we were doing helicopter crew simulation. They were always afraid of losing their flying hours. What they didn’t realize is that they could do more rudimentary training on these simulators, and then use the flying hours for more things they wanted to do, free up the aircraft to do other things. In fact, when we had big floods here in Australia seven or eight years ago, they had to use two Blackhawk helicopters up in the floods, and they had no way to train here, so they put in another 100 or 200 hours on the simulators while those aircraft were operational, and they saved $3.6 million on those hundred hours. It’s a massive cost savings, and you can train things you can’t do in the real world.
Stealey: While David was doing the acquisition of Microprose, I went to the United States Air Force Air Training Command, and the commanding general had me get in front of 40 people and show them how we could make a pilot training for them. They all loved it, but they worried they’d get sued by somebody who got more computer time than somebody else. I’m saying, “You guys are nuts.” I’m glad we broke through this whole idea, because now they’re all going for it. I tried to fight that fight, David had to fight that fight. He was successful and I wasn’t, but what the heck. And now we’re bringing games back.
GamesBeat: How did the final transaction happen? What made them give the Microprose brand over to you?
Lagettie: I was in negotiations for a few years in relation to this. In the end it came down to numbers. I was lucky to be in a position where I could — let’s just say that it was a very colorful battle between myself and another major player.
GamesBeat: Did you have to raise money for this, or did you have your own?
Lagettie: No, I had my own money.
GamesBeat: It felt like military simulations and military strategy had a heyday during the time of Microprose. Things like Call of Duty and Battlefield came along and changed the picture there, the interest level. It felt to me like simulations got kind of superseded by the first-person shooter business, and maybe that was why they declined.
Lagettie: I think you’re right. For myself as a gamer, a lot of those games don’t really appeal to me too much. Maybe I’m getting older, but there was no real magic in those games for me, the games you just mentioned. They’re fantastic games, fantastic achievements at what they’re doing, but a lot of people want those days back, when games would reward you. You wanted to get home from school and fire the computer up and start the next mission and get the next award. These days it seems to be 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’ve got around me. We all have a consensus that we want to bring that bit of magic back into games.
Stealey: I think that nobody was doing the Microprose kind of games, because they found out that they could get kids, younger people, and they just left us behind. I don’t think the development companies–there wasn’t a Microprose out there. EA was doing great with whatever they were doing, THQ, and none of them were doing the kind of games we did at Microprose way back when, where we gave you a manual and expected you to do something to get results and get rewarded for it. They found other games that they could make. That’s great, and I’m glad they did. But now David and his group and me playtesting the heck out of them, we’re going back to what we did back at Microprose. The market is still there. It might not be the Fortnite market, but it’s certainly a great market.
Lagettie: We know the landscape has changed, with Call of Duty and all these things coming out, and they’re great games. But to me — even my son, my 15-year-old son, he doesn’t play a lot of those games. 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, back to what Bill was saying, I don’t think anyone is building the kind of games Microprose was building at the end there. Your B-17s and Grand Prixs and all these things. You don’t see those types of games today.
GamesBeat: I used to play a lot of the TalonSoft games. Jim Rose was saying things like, “We’re OK if we make a game that sells 20,000 units.” Then the game industry eventually looked at that and decided it wasn’t the way to get rich.
Lagettie: That’s absolutely true. If you’re just trying to make money and there’s plenty of other games you can make — but that’s not my goal. My goal is to make quality games. I want to bring back the manuals, the boxes. With all of our games we’re going to be able to have a box and a properly produced manual. These are things you’ll see again from Microprose. Even the first three titles we’ve announced, they’re very much in line of what you’d expect from Microprose. The games that are coming to follow are even more so.
Stealey: When we were in our heyday, everyone who was a fan of ours bought all of our games. The games David is working on, they’re going to build a following. You’re going to want the next one and the next one. It’s going to bring you a reward, because you sat there and you learned something. I’m excited about that.
I do have a bit of bad news. I don’t know if you ever met Arnold Hendrick, who did game design for most of the early Microprose games, just passed away yesterday. If you don’t know the name, you can look him up. He came from the role-playing world, but he probably did five of the very best early Microprose games. I was sorry to hear it, because I was going to call him and have him come help me playtest David’s games. He was quite a leader in the industry.
GamesBeat: I do think there’s something interesting here in that the whole retro craze has turned into something huge. The Final Fantasy VII remake was the biggest game in April. We have retro consoles, Atari and Intellivision coming back. It seems like there’s an opportunity here for a good business.
Lagettie: I think it is. It’s definitely not the motivating factor, because trying to reacquire Microprose happened a long time before this resurgence. But it’s certainly–if you ask why retro is coming back, I believe it’s coming back because a good game is a good game, regardless of how it was made. They’re good games and they trigger this nostalgic feel in people, even myself. We’re developing some games at the moment — again, I can’t tell you much about some of them — but a couple of them are very nostalgic. Let’s say they’re to do with flight. They trigger things in me all the time.
I’ve found myself going back many times–I have every game from Microprose here, and I’ll pull those games out and it triggers these memories of when you’re growing up. They’re fun games. You didn’t have to jump in and get power-ups for this or go monetize that. It was a great game, a fun experience. You got promoted. Sometimes you got demoted, in some of the titles. But there was a real goal in the games. You felt part of it. You had an emotional connection with wingmen and all these different things.
There’s still some very good games out there. I follow a lot of games in development. But the majority of games I find, especially in the last seven or eight years, it’s about monetization. I don’t want to get stuck in that side of it. I don’t think you’ll ever see Microprose go down that side, ever. We always want to put out a good solid game that people will enjoy, and if they go buy Task Force Admiral, they’ll go 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’ve read through the Gunship manual front to back, many times. I think it’s extremely important. Getting back to the retro side of things, I think people miss how it used to be. I tell my son, “This is how games were.” They only know what they see now. And Fortnite is incredible, the revenue they generate, but it’s certainly not the type of game we’re looking to build.