Journalist Kyle Orland is writing a comprehensive book on the history of Minesweeper (opens in a new tab), which I suspect is a much more fascinating topic than it appears at first glance. Minesweeper is one of those games that feels somehow ubiquitous now, always there no matter what PC you’re on, even though its roots lie with Microsoft in the early ’90s and specifically the Windows 3.0 era. As part of the book launch campaign. Ars Technica presents a chapter on those early days (opens in a new tab)and a particularly big fan of the game.
Minesweeper first appeared on Microsoft’s internal network in 1990, where a number of employees were quickly (understandably) hooked. “It was, of course, a very well-proven piece of software at Microsoft,” said Charles Fitzgerald, product manager for the first Windows entertainment package to contain Minesweeper.
Many Microsoft employees picked up the Minesweeper habit during this period, and strangely enough, their reports to developers were often wrong. One claimed that it was impossible to finish on Expert difficulty. “Every time someone claimed to have found a bug, I would ask them to send me a screenshot, and then I would have to point out their logic error,” recalled Minesweeper coder Robert Donner.
Then Minesweeper caught Microsoft’s biggest fish. “Bill (Gates) became addicted,” Fitzgerald said.
“Originally, I think I got an email from Bill saying, ‘I just solved (Beginner) Minesweeper in 10 seconds. Is that okay?'” recalled product manager Bruce Ryan. “I responded to him and said, ‘Yeah, 10 seconds is really good. The record for us at the moment I think is eight.’ (I think it was me, embarrassingly.) Apparently, the fact that the record was very close to where he was led him to make (it) his mission (to beat it).”
Gates became so obsessed with the game that he removed it from his own machine. This being 1990, there was also an honesty system around high score records, which were in a plain text file, so any new high score had to have been seen by someone else. “So it was a Sunday afternoon, and we got (an) email from Bill saying, ‘Hey, I think I just got a new high score. It’s on the machine in[then Microsoft president]Mike’s office. Hallman.’ And like, ‘What?'”
“This was early at night,” Ryan said. “So we went there, at seven at night. (Hallman) was a former Boeing executive, and he was not a funny guy, so… the idea that Bill is sitting there after work, going to the office of the president to be able to play Minesweeper, it was just weird pictures.”
Gates’ love of Minesweeper has been around since the early ’90s, but what Orlando’s book discovers (opens in a new tab) it’s the almost obsessive depth he had reached, and at a time when Bill Gates was the most important figure in what was becoming one of the biggest companies in the world. This was a guy who had no time to waste.
“Melinda (French) was a level above me, but (we were) in the same group,” Ryan said. French would become Melinda Gates in 1994. She asked Ryan to do “the company a favor… Please don’t share Minesweeper registration progress with Bill.” Gates was playing too much and this was “not a good thing. Bill has a lot of big decisions to make, and this shouldn’t take up his time!”
The coda to this story is pretty amazing. Ryan decided that instead of taking Gates’ high scores, he would find a way to establish an unbeatable one. Decades before they became the right hand of most MMO gamers, Ryan used Windows’ Macro Recorder software to automatically click a corner of a new Minesweeper game and then start a new one. The idea was that in a particular random layout where all the mines were in the bottom right corner, this macro would “clear the entire screen in one or zero seconds. You’d only have to play billions of times to do this.”
“So I put it in there and then I went to a day of meetings,” Ryan said, “and four hours later he had won (in a second) while I was gone. I felt very efficient doing this while I was gone.” . even in the office.”
Ryan sent a screenshot of the new record to Gates, writing: “Sorry your five second record has been permanently eclipsed because I don’t think you can beat a second.” Note that Minesweeper’s timer starts at one and not zero.
Gates’ reply had the subject line “President Displaced” and explained to the staff that he had reported that Ryan’s macro had irrevocably broken his Minesweeper record.
“My critical abilities are being displaced by a computer,” Gates wrote, as recalled by Ryan. “This technology thing goes too far. When machines can do things faster than people, how can we retain our human dignity?”
Gates would go on to joke that maybe he should try the medium difficulty.
The sentiment in the email “sounded very poetic,” Ryan said. “This is a time when most of the emails were misspelled and incomplete. (Gates) actually spent time thinking about this. It was like he was writing his tombstone or something.”