While Jordan Weisman guided Microsoft's game division to respectability, worked on the cutting edge with Virtual World centers, started a cool miniature gaming company and currently heads up a bleeding edge ARG design firm, he describes his background with a simple, "Let's see. I was a college dropout who founded FASA." Founded in 1980 by Weisman and a partner, FASA - short for Freedonia Aeronautics and Space Administration, after Groucho Marx's fictional country in Duck Soup - was a tabletop gaming company known for legendary franchises like Shadowrun and Battletech before becoming one of the flagship developers in Microsoft's efforts to legitimize itself in gaming.
Going back a little further, Weisman describes himself as "a severe dyslexic growing up, and [I] had bluffed my way through school until about age 16. I succeeded in never actually reading a book up to that age, as many dyslexics do. You become very good at cramming your way through that kind of stuff." Dungeons & Dragons changed all that. "[When] I was a camp counselor up in Wisconsin, one of the other counselors discovered the game and brought it to camp and got me involved in it. It was a very eye-opening experience. It was this complex, immersive entertainment experience that really made you think, that made you collaborate with your peers, socialize and problem solve. It was like nothing else I'd seen."
More importantly, "It also finally forced me to read, because there was no way to cheat through it. If I wanted to start telling my own stories and running my own games, I needed to read those damn books. And I also needed to read Tolkien, so I understood what the hell an elf was, and Sauron, and orcs. ... It was part of a big turning point for me." He says he "really fell in love with the concept of creating that kind of immersive social entertainment. I did that through what was left of high school and my abortive college career and then decided to go pro, if you will, [by] starting FASA."
He describes the early days of FASA as "very small. It was [started], literally, around my parents' kitchen table when we were playing a game that I was running. It was a system called Traveller, which was a system published by Game Designers' Workshop. I said, 'Hey, I'm going to start up a publishing company, initially to publish accessories for Traveller. Anybody want to come in on it with me? I need 150 bucks.' Ross Babcock, from across the table said, 'Yea, I'm in for $150.' So we became partners, went down to the local quick print place and printed up stuff, and started hocking it door to door to the different stores in the Chicago area." At those stores, he says, "We asked them where they bought their goods and developed a list of distributors and started sending stuff out to distributors. So it started with the two of us and my girlfriend and grew from there." Two or three years later, they were "the second-largest company in that very small industry, after the guys who published Dungeons & Dragons."
FASA's success in tabletop and electronic gaming brought Microsoft knocking. The fate of the FASA team is covered more extensively in Russ Pitts' "From Borg to Boss," but his team experienced considerable difficulty adapting to Microsoft's development culture, and one is struck by the sense that Microsoft's by-the-book engineers didn't quite know what to do with a bunch of free-thinking creatives. On a personal level, Weisman calls it a "mixed bag. I learned an enormous amount." Each of the companies he's worked with has "different strengths and weaknesses," he says. "I get to be part of corporate America for a while, until I find my soul again and go back to the garage." He picks his words carefully, saying, "For me, personally, I think [selling out to Microsoft] was the right thing to do. It gave me an opportunity to play, to have what is one of the dream jobs in any game designer's world. ... If you're the Creative Director for a major launch platform in the videogame world" - in this case, the Xbox - "that's a pretty darn cool position to be in."