Many startups bootstrap and reinvest earnings to build their organizations, but you did things very differently with Ensemble Studios. How did that impact the company's ability to move forward?
TG: Ensemble Studios began as a pet project of mine while I was running my first company. I originally did this to mitigate risk, but it turned out to be absolutely critical to our early success. Before the days of digital distribution, the only way to sell your game was through the major retail chains. Those stores only purchased games from the big software publishers, such as Microsoft, Electronic Arts, and Activision. This meant that you had to negotiate a deal with one of the big publishers.
However, a common tactic of publishers was to drag out negotiations until developers ran out of money. Sooner or later, a developer would have to sign a deal just to keep the company afloat. A deal signed under those circumstances will result in very unfavorable terms. The big publishers knew they had game developers over a barrel.
The only way to successfully negotiate with a publisher was to have enough money to last as long as the negotiation might last, which could be anywhere from two months to two years. Having the financial backing of my first company afforded us the ability to negotiate with publishers on our own terms.
We didn't have to take the first deal that publishers offered. We were determined to beat them at their waiting game. Eventually, Microsoft tired of negotiating and gave us the deal that we wanted. This deal, in turn, laid the groundwork for the next decade of deals we did with them.
What other publishing options did you consider?
TG: I briefly considered self-publishing Age of Empires. Self-publishing enterprise software had taught me valuable lessons about the advantages and disadvantages of publishing. In order for our game to be as successful as I wanted it to be, we needed to have world-class software distribution. That is why, in the end, we chose Microsoft. They were the world's largest seller of consumer software with incredible distribution muscle.
Microsoft had distribution channels established in Germany, France, Spain, Asia, South America, and Japan. In the United States, they had strong relationships with American retailers, such as Best Buy, Toys R Us, and Walmart. No one could put together a marketing campaign as strong as Microsoft could when they were motivated to do so.
Self-publishing is a good option for those who want to create a very small yet highly profitable business inside the United States. But I didn't want to create just a successful game. I wanted to create a worldwide phenomenon. I wanted everyone who had Microsoft Windows to buy Age of Empires. For that we needed the global power that only Microsoft could provide.
What else did you need? Did you have a strategy for creating a phenomenon? Is there a formula for a successful franchise?
TG: To create a phenomenon, I had to do three things. I needed to convince my employees they would create the most amazing game ever made. I needed to convince Microsoft that Age of Empires would be the most amazing game they've ever sold. And I needed to convince the world Age of Empires would be the most amazing game they've ever played.
So, first, putting together this core team was the most important step in the process. This was my first game, so I got to hire each team member with love and painstaking care. I asked esoteric questions like, "What are your life's dreams and goals?"
I sought seekers. I looked for brilliant young programmers and artists who wanted to pursue a grand vision. I hired dreamers who believed they could change the world. Each member had to be both a follower and a leader. I needed followers who were naturally attracted to my grand and crazy leadership style. They were also the future leaders who'd be teaching, by example, new employees to do the same.
As the initial team came together, I settled on the high-level vision for a product that I believed would capture the imagination of gamers.
The idea was that you would get to play a game that looked like the epic Greek, Roman, and Egyptian war movies, such as Spartacus and Alexander the Great. From a bird's-eye view, the players would get to build the Great Pyramids or command realistic armies through exotic locations while building their own empire.
This vision was the perfect high-level goal for the team I hired. They got it immediately. They didn't require a lot more detail to be inspired into action. At this point, forward progress took on a life of its own. That's not to say the process was easy. It was almost never easy. But even in the hardest times, we were riding a relentless tidal wave of momentum.
Second, at this point in time, Microsoft was having difficulty breaking into the game market. They had a few respectable products, but they had no real hits. I needed to convince Microsoft that Age of Empires would be the game that would make them a major player in the video game industry. I knew that once they believed this, they would throw all their global resources behind it, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. Microsoft may not have the most creative marketing, but when they are organized and determined, they are unstoppable.
Bill Gates was instrumental in solidifying Microsoft's support for Age of Empires. Microsoft was already very eager to have their first blockbuster game. Many Microsoft execs were happy to jump aboard with our product, but some, including Bill Gates, had reservations. Eventually though, opinions unified when Gates declared, "This is a product that we will do everything we can to make a classic, like Flight Simulator, so the popularity goes on and on."
The main concern about Age of Empires was the game's depth. Some were worried that Age of Empires was too complex to become a mainstream hit. Gates' commitment paid off. He stated, "Age of Empires is an amazing product. It is so deep that I wondered if the mass market would get into it, but they did in a big way."
And, finally, magazines like to report massive blockbusters or colossal failures. Everything in between is not news. I don't like leaving marketing and public relations to chance, so while Microsoft was doing their public relations campaign, I did mine. The key was to get a "first follower" -- a well-known opinion leader who is an early advocate of your product.
I built relationships with the most recognized game magazines. Microsoft had dozens of public relations specialists, but the press prefers to speak with the game creators, not software publishers. I invested a lot of time with key editors, seeding the idea that Age of Empires would be "revolutionary" and would become a "phenomenon." They may not have believed me at first, but my goal wasn't to convince them. My goal was to plant wondrous possibilities in their brains and create anticipation, like Christmas for kids.
When the first early previews began appearing, they were using the terms that we seeded: "revolutionary" and "phenomenal." These early opinions were then picked up and echoed by other publications, creating a snowball effect. Eventually, all the publications would get on board with this message just so they didn't look out of touch.