MicroProse co-founder J.W. 'Wild Bill' Stealey is part of the team of industry veterans behind Thriller New Media, a new company dedicated to creating online multiplayer games in the military/spy genre.
What better man to help usher in a new generation of military espionage games than the man responsible for the first generation? While fellow MicroProse co-founder Sid Meier was creating strategy titles like Civilization, Stealey was creating some of the finest combat and flight simulations from the early days of PC gaming. From the first Tom Clancy video game, Red Storm Rising, to F-19 Stealth Fighter, which shipped the day the F-117 Nighthawk was announced to the public, Stealey had a hand in them all.
Now a retired United States Air Force Lt. Colonel, "Wild Bill" still maintains his love for flying and his love for video games. Now he takes that love in a new direction, teaming with fellow MicroProse veterans Fred Schmidt and Jim Bull to form Thriller New Media, a company delivering new online gaming experiences and social networking to military and espionage game fans around the world.
Kotaku spoke extensively to "Wild Bill" about his history in the game industry and the launch of his exciting new venture.
Bill Stealey's gaming pedigree goes back quite a bit before the 1982 founding of MicroProse with industry legend Sid Meier. Long before the then Air Force Major teamed up with the creator of Civilization, he was programming a completely different type of military simulation.
"I started out working as a High School student with the National Scientists Foundation designing helicopter simulations for the Army Signal Research and Development labs. Back then when we were programming games we were moving jumpers around boards, and that's how we did 1's and 0's - by moving the jumpers."
A fateful meeting with Sid Meier over a round of the Atari coin-operated arcade game Red Baron eventually led to the formation of MicroProse, and while games like Sid Meier's Pirates and Civilization might be the most fondly-remembered titles the company produced, its military games had quite a following as well.
"You knew the next military game coming from MicroProse was going to be good. So people lined up, signing up for two games at a time. Famous Hollywood actors would come up to me at the Consumer Electronics Show, asking me when the next flight sim would be out."
"Wild Bill" translated his military connections and expertise into creating a series of cutting edge military titles, including the aforementioned F-19 Stealth Fighter, which made the company $25 million despite the actual airplane being renamed the F-117 at the last minute.
"I was at the Pentagon, and I knew about the stealth fighter before anyone, because I was on active duty and had the secret clearance, and I thought "Hey, I can't tell anybody about it, but I can make a game about it, because that's my business." And the day that it was announced, I was sitting at the Pentagon, and I got an 8 o'clock call telling me they were going to announce the stealth fighter today at 1PM, and I went, "That's really cool, because we're shipping 100,000 units of F-19 Stealth Fighter today."
Stealey ran MicroProse until it was sold to Spectrum Holobyte in 1993, forming the iEntertainment Network in 1995, where he still functions as the CEO, maintaining his online flight combat game WarBirds, where he "really enjoys shooting down customers".
Now "Wild Bill" and his fellow MicroProse veterans form Thriller New Media, a subsidiary of Thriller Publishing, taking decades of experience in the military and games industry and putting them towards developing new online experiences in the military action/spy game genre.
"The whole purpose of Thriller New Media was to say, "Hey guys, we were the military sim company in the 80's." Electronic Arts didn't have any. Novalogic didn't have any. Activision was doing Little Computer People. The military stuff worked well for us, and I had enough friends in the military that we could put some realism into it, and that's what we're going to do with Thriller New Media."
The game plan, as it stands, is to create massively multiplayer online games that are serialized...episodic, in a way. Players run through one gameplay scenario and then transfer their character to the next upon release.
"One of the things we're going to do with Thriller, is every game is going to be Call of Duty 1 through Call of Duty 5. Every game is a series."
Stealey's idea is to take great stories and make them into great games. Several of the gaming projects that Thriller is currently working on involve the kind of serialized novels you find in the book sections of your local grocery store. Pulp spy stories and science fiction series, made into games that draw the player in, telling a different story each time with familiar faces carried throughout. "They're all trash, but they're all fun - sort of like a video game."
He cannot stress importance of story enough, even going as far as to cite Halo as an example of a game they wouldn't be doing. "Halo was terrific, but I think the story came after they figured out what they were doing. So we really said let's take some great stories and make them into great game series, and we'll do it all in the military because I read those trashy "I was a hero in the terrorist wars" books."
Thriller New Media already has several games lined up for the service, having already licensed 20 books already for translation into online games, including one science fiction series that Stealey's handler had to keep him from revealing too much about, such is his enthusiasm about the games they're working on.
So while the game prospects are looking good, the games are only half of what Thriller New Media hopes to achieve. Along the the games, Thriller wants to create a social networking site for the players.
"I'm excited about that. This is Fred's baby here, he did that for MicroProse - built a community that was always talking to us on our BBS. He came up with this idea of making this Thriller HQ website where we can have everything about military and action and first-person shooters. This is a place everyone will go to talk about it, to play, to compete for prizes, and to compete for glory. You know we military guys all like to have a Hero Wall, and they'll have great Hero Walls to show off their accomplishments and show off how they kicked Wild Bill's butt three times last week."
And Stealey will be contributing to the website as well, using his connections to provide the sort of inside scoop that
military fiction fans live for.
"I'm actually going to put out the Pentagon Daily. When we were at the Pentagon, every morning we would get a brief on the action around the world, and I've got the kind of sources where I can get that kind of brief now. All non-classified, obviously...I don't want to get anybody shot here or give the bad guys any of the good stuff."
So Thriller New Media is basically looking to regain the glory of the old MicroProse games, when people like J.W. "Wild Bill" Stealey created cutting-edge experiences that helped forge a whole new kind of computer warrior. It's an exciting, ambitious project, and "Wild Bill" himself is its biggest fan.
"I'm just excited about it. We've got a great team here. We've got good people behind us want to come join us, and we've got a great concept. Now it's just getting going, getting it in place, cause I want to start testing these games."
Yes, even after twenty-seven years in the video game industry, 62-year-old "Wild Bill" Stealey still has one overriding desire.
"That's it. I just want to play them and I want to be able to kick everybody's ass."