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Microsoft's checkered history of gaming acquisitions, from Bungie to Minecraft

pour one out for ensemble

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Microsoft has just generated the biggest gaming story of the year, buying indie behemoth Minecraft (and its accompanying developer Mojang) for $2.5 billion. To try to put this purchase in perspective, we took a look at Microsoft's 15-year history of picking up developers to see how previous acquisitions have fared.


FASA Studio (1999)

In 1999, Microsoft bought FASA Interactive, a company spun off from board game creator FASA Corporation. The developer was converted to a component of Microsoft Game Studios called FASA Studio.

FASA focused predominantly on mech games, creating MechCommander 1 and 2, MechWarrior 4, Mechassault 1 and 2. It briefly broke free from walking armor in 2003 to create action arcade flight game Crimson Skies.

In 2007, Microsoft released what was to be FASA's swan song: A first-person shooter reimagining of RPG Shadowrun. FASA was shuttered three-and-a-half months after its release.

Microsoft later licensed the rights to the FASA-owned IPs to original company founder Jordan Weisman, who has since re-rebooted Shadowrun with his new studio Harebrained Schemes.

Halo Reach

Bungie (2000)

Bungie is perhaps best known for first-person shooter franchise Marathon, the Myth strategy series and a one-off actioner called Oni.

Oh, yes, and Halo.

Microsoft swooped on Bungie just before the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, keeping that landmark game — and its follow ups — as Xbox and Windows PC exclusives. After the sales of more than 46 million Halo games (good for $3 billion in revenue) Bungie regained its independence in 2007, though the rights to its seminal series were retained by Microsoft.

After creating two more Halo adventures, Bungie moved on and entered into an exclusive relationship with Activision, the fruits of which have just begun to bloom with the recent release of Destiny.


Digital Anvil (2000)

Formed in 1996 by Wing Commander create Chris Roberts, Digital Anvil didn't release its first game, Starlancer, until 2000, the same year it was purchased by Microsoft. Roberts left the company after the acquisition, but stayed on to consult on Freelancer, the next Digital Anvil release in March of 2003.

Digital Anvil's next project was just a few weeks away as third-person actioner Brute Force hit store shelves in May of that year. Despite solid sales for both, Digital Anvil never shipped another game. Its employees were redistributed in 2005 and was closed for good in 2006


Ensemble Studios (2001)

Founded in 1995, strategy was the bread and butter of Ensemble, the studio behind Age of Empires, Age of Mythology and Star Wars: Galactic Battlegrounds. Ensemble was purchased by Microsoft in 2001 and brought into the Microsoft Game Studios fold.

Microsoft announced the closure of Ensemble in September of 2008, but its final project, real-time strategy spinoff Halo Wars, wasn't released until March of the following year.

Speaking at GDC in 2010, 12-year Ensemble employee Paul Bettner wouldn't blame Microsoft for the wheels falling off. "The reality is that every single game we shipped took twice as long as we said it was going to take, and cost twice as much to make," Eurogamer quoted Bettner as saying. "Microsoft is a public company, they answer to their shareholders, and we were simply too expensive."


Rare Ltd. (2002)

Rare has a long, staggeringly diverse history in gaming that includes Battletoads and Wizards & Warriors on the NES, Killer Instinct and the Donkey Kong Country series on the SNES, GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark and, yes, even Conker's Bad Fur Day on the Nintendo 64.

The studio was bought outright by Microsoft in 2002 for $375 million. (Adjusting for inflation, that figure is one fifth the amount Microsoft just paid for Mojang.) After the acquisition, Rare released two Xbox games (Grabbed by the Ghoulies and a remake of Conker subtitled Live and Reloaded), two Xbox 360 launch games (Kameo: Elements of Power and Perfect Dark Zero) and the Viva Piñata series. Despite being wholly owned by Microsoft, Rare continued to publish games on Nintendo's handhelds, as Microsoft isn't a player in that space.

Despite being critically well-received, Rare's Microsoft games weren't the runaway sales successes of its Nintendo years. The company was restructured in 2009 as a Kinect-focused studio, two years after the departure of founders Tim and Chris Stamper.

Rare had another hit with 2010's three-million-selling Kinect Sports, but a poor showing from follow up Kinect Sports Rivals (and a reduced emphasis on Kinect from Microsoft) led to layoffs at the company, as reported by Eurogamer.

Its next project (which would presumably be its first non-Kinect Sports title since 2008) has not yet been announced.

Fable Legends screenshot 1920

Lionhead Studios (2006)

Lionhead Studios was founded in 1996 by Peter Molyneux, breaking away from Molyneux's previous studio, Bullfrog, after it was purchased by Electronic Arts.

The studio is responsible for cinematic business sim The Movies, god sim series Black & White and, most notably, the Fable franchise. In fact, since it was purchased by Microsoft in 2006, Lionhead has exclusively made games in that action RPG series.

The only non-Fable work Lionhead has made public since its acquisition is "Milo & Kate," a 2009 experiment that helped to sell Kinect, even though it never came to market.

Molyeux left Lionhead in early 2012, saying he wanted to attempt the sort of experiments that were difficult inside a large company (read: "make something that isn't Fable").

Eurogamer reported earlier this year that Lionhead may soon get the opportunity to do just that, as it is currently working on an unannounced project outside the Fable brand.


BigPark (2009)

Founded in 2007, BigPark was acquired two years later before the release of its first game, which was intended be a free casual racing game called "Joy Ride."

"We are delighted by the opportunity to welcome the BigPark team into Microsoft Game Studios," said general manager Phil Spencer at the time. "The team is composed of some of the most experienced and creative minds working in the industry today. The combination of the BigPark and Microsoft Game Studios talent pools will be an accelerant for growth and innovation. We believe BigPark has tremendous potential to create new properties and innovative gaming experiences for our platforms."

After the announcement of the Kinect, the debut BigPark game was rebranded as Kinect Joy Ride, and was released in 2010 as a launch title for Microsoft's motion sensor. BigPark followed that up with work on Kinect Sports: Season Two and Joy Ride Turbo, a 2012 sequel that stripped its predecessor's motion control.

Since the release of Joy Ride Turbo, BigPark appears to have been refocused on Xbox One apps like NFL on Xbox and a Bonnaroo companion.


Twisted Pixel (2011)

Twisted Pixel is a company that is practically defined by its refusal to stick to a certain genre. It has dipped its toe into platforming action with The Maw and Splosion Man, side-scrolling action in Comic Jumper and even a motion-controlled shooting gallery called The Gunstringer.

Twisted Pixel was picked up by Microsoft in 2011 after the release of the critically well-regarded Gunstringer and went on to create an Xbox One launch game, the motorcycle combat title LocoCycle. What comes next for the developer remains to be seen.

Max: The Curse of Brotherhood review

Press Play (2012)

Copenhagen's Press Play put itself on the map with Max and the Magic Marker in 2010. Its been busy ever since, with the release of several games including a follow-up to its debut game, Max: The Curse of Brotherhood in 2013. The year before brought with it an acquisition of the developer by Microsoft.

Next up for Press Play is a co-op puzzle game currently codenamed Project Totem in which players control a totem pole.

minecraft mining diamonds

Mojang (2014)

What the future holds for the Minecraft developer under the Microsoft banner remains to be seen. The company is losing its founders, but those are waters Microsoft has navigated before. The real question would appear to be how Microsoft can capitalize off a game that appears to have already hit its stride in terms of penetration. Is it time for Minecraft 2? Minecraft Gold subcriptions? A more aggressive release schedule and pricing model for DLC?

Whatever Microsoft decides, it's now in sole control of the most powerful gaming franchise of the 2010s, and the how it decides to steer that ship will leave a wake that impacts the entire industry.

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