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Microsoft Ants was a free multiplayer strategy game for 2-4 players on the Microsoft Gaming Zone. The objective of the game is to get the most points by eating or stealing food, and making use of the various powerups available. Each player begins at a nest with a pre-programmed number of ants, whose goal is to scurry around the gamefield and bring back to their home nest various pieces of food such as candy, cookies, twinkies, etc. with each piece worth 15-30 points. When time runs out, the highest point score wins. On January 31, 2006, Microsoft's Zone retired Ants because of the lack of players.
Ants was created in 1996 as a proprietary game for Microsoft's MSN service. At this time, MSN was the online service that was integrated into Microsoft Windows and could be accessed by selecting the MSN icon on the desktop, which would open a "My Computer" type window where the service could be accessed.
After AOL releasing newer versions of itself, and Prodigy Internet, which was a giant upgrade of the popular online service Prodigy, Microsoft took MSN in a new direction by upgrading its own service with a flashy new layout powered by ActiveX called "onstage". Part of this service included a brand new section for kids and game fans. It was called "Spike's World of Games," or "Spike's World Online Game Magazine."
Spike's World featured games such as Scrawl, a popular game-show type game, and Ants. Ants premiered in early 1997 as a real-time strategy game, which were uncommon at the time. Ants displayed the latest in Microsoft's game technology and it was paired for download along with Direct X 3.
During this time, Steve Murch, a then-employee of Microsoft, convinced Bill Gates to acquire a small online game site (then owned by Electric Gravity). Between 1996-97, Murch worked on modernizing the site and adding—and sometimes remaking—new games. Joshua Howard, also an employee at Microsoft in what would later be the MSN Gaming Zone department, petitioned Microsoft to make the movement of Ants onto their servers a priority, and eventually "Microsoft Ants" became one of the original games to be tested and officially inducted (though slightly manipulated) into the newly remade Internet Gaming Zone. This was done primarily as a result of its easy interface and its cute characters, who both spoke to and interacted with each other at the whim of the user.
In the late summer of 1998, the Internet Gaming Zone was taken over and made a part of MSN while being renamed the Microsoft Gaming Zone. At this point, since the "onstage" part of MSN was gone, Spike's World was gone too. There was no way for anyone to play games on the site, Ants included. Finally in October 1998, after several code changes which included modification to images and existing maps, Microsoft premiered "Microsoft Ants" as one of the games available to play on its servers. The game was free and available to play online after a quick download of integrated software for anyone who wanted to play it. Shortly after Ants was officially on Microsoft servers, Joshua Howard left Microsoft to work elsewhere, and would not become involved in Ants again until returning to MSN Gaming Zone several years later.
As soon as it appeared, Ants became an instant hit for the Internet Gaming Zone, or "the Zone" as it would quickly be dubbed by its more die-hard users. This was due in part to loyal fans having followed it from Spike's World. However, because the Zone was still in its infancy players wanted a game that would be simple, easy to use and understand, and could almost guarantee that there would be little to no problems in playing it. "Ants" easily met these criteria. A single game could take no more than twelve minutes. It was easy and clean enough for children to play, but addictive and strategic enough for adults to enjoy it too. The popularity and population soared, reaching almost record levels in a short period of time, sometimes hosting over 500—or more—players in four to six game rooms at once.
Initially there were six original maps, varying in difficulty:
- Tiny - A very tiny map, 6 minutes in length, with no powerups, just food.
- Small - An 8 minute map, smaller in size than most others, but contains a few powerups.
- Gauntlet - A 10 minute map, contains two clusters of powerups, and a powerup flower to the top left of the map. There is only one source of food, and that’s a jelly at the bottom right of the screen.
- Medium - A 10 minute map, mainly associated with fighting and battling, even though there is 4 sources of food, there is only 1 powerup flower; hence the immediate decision is to get to the middle and get powerups, since if someone gets a fire-powerup, the player could be in trouble.
- Treasure - Probably the most popular original map, this 12 minute map is varied and balanced for many different strategies and styles of play, there are 20 powerups symmetrically placed across the map, with food positioned in the middle, and around the outside.
- Islands - Considered the expert map, this 12 minute map is centered around the first minute, where players have to get to the swimant powerups, otherwise players could be in trouble.
In a rare move (and probably due in part to the constant complaining from Ants players), in early 2001 Microsoft Gaming Zone released a brand new original map, Ocean. Ocean was essentially a combination of Islands and Treasure squashed together and spread out over a much larger surface. This was cheered by the Ants community.
In late 2001 with the leaking of the normally heavily guarded Ants code which was used by Microsoft to create the Ocean map, several regular players began dissecting and analyzing the code, with the goal to create their own maps and eventually their own map packages. Soon, in early 2002, the code for map creation had been decoded and circulated among a few players. This resulted in an explosion of "homemade" maps and a release of the "Ants Map Wizard," courtesy of Ants player FCouples. Later, more Ants Map programs were created, including the Map Designer Program from Slayer. FCouples later improved his Map Maker, giving it better compilation facilities and larger map sizes, among other features.
The Ants Map Maker was a treasure trove for Ants players, who would collectively go on to create over 850 known maps, all from the original code. Once the average player was able to easily create their own map, however, most "new" maps ended up as unoriginal knock-offs of the six original maps and Ocean. Many of these maps contained bugs within the code which would cause a player's game to crash or to not start at all. One notable exception was the Popcorn map, a map 14 minutes long that combined the fun of Treasure with the skill level of Islands with an entirely new map layout added in, complete with barriers, additional food, and additional ants. Despite the increase in maps, and thus an increase in players to the site, Microsoft still publicly refused to acknowledge any of the new maps as "official" maps. By this time however, it was too late. Maps were everywhere, and the surge in availability of new maps, no matter how poorly constructed, once again caused a temporary increase in popularity and player population for Microsoft Ants.
In 2000, Microsoft Gaming Zone started to become a target of continuous hack attacks. Hackers—and for the most part, script-kiddies—both targeted the Zone software. Hackers and script-kiddies mostly left Ants alone to concentrate on Member plus frequented chat rooms and game rooms. This continued sporadically for the next several years, until 2003 when the worst hack-attack occurred by the use of social engineering, giving the intruders access to the administrator tools. The intruders used their new-found tools to ban players and other site volunteers. This meant bad news for Ants, as it soon found itself a vulnerable target because it was free, outdated (no major code changes had occurred since early 2000), and the fact that several of the "script-kiddies" behind the attacks were regular Ants players. This led to Ants being used as an occasional testing ground for newer and more malicious assaults on Microsoft servers while the script-kiddies & hackers attempted to stay one step ahead of the Microsoft administrators and system operators.
Despite all of the troubles, representatives from Microsoft Gaming Zone, when publicly peppered in chats by Ants players, would refuse to give a direct answer on the future of Ants. Ambiguity ran rampant, with crisp one or two sentence responses becoming standard. Finally in early 2004 Joshua Howard announced that Ants would eventually be taken off Microsoft Gaming Zone servers, and not released to anyone else or the general public. News of this created distress within the Ants gaming community, and an independent attempt by an Ants regular to begin creation of an "Ants 2" code ended with Microsoft threatening legal action towards the player. Refusing to back off despite attempted negotiations, Microsoft continued its threats and eventually the project was scrapped and the code hidden away.
To prepare for this eventual demise, Microsoft moved Ants to a different section of its Zone; until January 2006, Ants still remained on Microsoft servers. It could be found once signed into a .NET Passport.
Due to users being booted offline, lagged, hung up, frozen, or attacked many Ants players left to find other sites to spend their time on; or migrated to other games on Microsoft Zone with less frequent interruptions from Denial of Service attacks. Collectively, Ants suffered a drastic decline in population starting in early 2003 which continues to this day. Where game rooms used to be filled on a Friday or Saturday night, there now resides only a handful of players. Many users also had issues when using internet routers with Microsoft Ants. Since the game was not designed nor coded for the new wave of cable and DSL connections with people sharing their connection, the actual computer name instead of the signed-on MSN/Passport name would appear in the game's start screen. In most cases, players were unable to connect to each other while using a router, even after trying to open router ports and the like. This further lead to a decline in players.
On January 31, 2006, Microsoft's Zone retired Ants because of the lack of players.