MSN Games (also known as Zone.com - formerly known as The Village, Internet Gaming Zone, MSN Gaming Zone, and MSN Games by Zone.com) is an online games site devoted primarily to casual games, both stand-alone and multi-player online games. Games are available in free on-line versions, trial versions, and full feature pay-to-play versions. Stand alone games can be played on the Web, or downloaded to a personal computer or smartphone. Multi-player games require either internet or cell phone connectivity and access to an MSN Live Messenger account.
The numerous multi-player games that are available encourage a sense of community as players interact in online game rooms or lobbies, while playing games using Windows Live Messenger, and while on their cell phones when playing Windows Mobile versions of the games.
The first version of the site, which was then called "The Village", was founded by Kevin Binkley, Ted Griggs, and Hoon Im. In 1996, Steve Murch, a then-employee of Microsoft, convinced Bill Gates to acquire the small online game site, then owned by Electric Gravity. The site was rebranded to "Internet Gaming Zone" and launched in 1996.
It started with a handful of card and board games like Hearts, Spades, Checkers, Backgammon, and Bridge. It had a loyal following of players who formed friendships.
For the following 5 years, the Internet Gaming Zone would be renamed several times and would increase in popularity with the introduction of popular retail- and MMOG-games, such as UltraCorps, Age of Empires, Asheron's Call and Fighter Ace.
MSN's competition with AOL Games resulted in the creation of a Volunteer Program for the Zone, which AOL also offered. The idea was to have volunteers moderating chat lobbies, hosting tourneys, offering tech support, and interacting with the gamers to collect general feedback. Volunteer Moderators for the Zone were initially designated as members of the "Zone Team", or zTeam, with assorted tokens assigned to five different teams: the Gaming Team (!), Helproom Team (+), Tournament Hosting Team (%), zStar Team (*), and Tech Support Team (?).
Because of legal complexities when AOL was sued by their volunteers—and the volunteers won the case—MSN Games reformed their policy by contracting a third-party company to manage the program. In 2001, Participate Systems won the contract and would continue to lead the program until its official disbanding. During the volunteer program's conversion to its new management, all previous token designations were replaced with a single "+" token and a new name, the "Member Plus", or MPlus program. Participate Systems was acquired by Outstart.com in November 2004.
Citing MSN's statement regarding the closure of CD-ROM games on the Zone on June 19, 2006, the Member Plus program was also disbanded at that time, due to the removal of chat capabilities from game lobbies and the end of support for the ZoneFriends client.
- In 2000, the site started to be a target of continuous crack attacks. Crackers, script kiddies for the most part, targeted the Zone software. In 2004, the worst crack attack occurred through 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.
- After the dot-com boom, web sites claimed difficulties managing their finances. MSN Games changed its market strategy and left the retail market to focus solely on free and premium games, a decision that finally culminated in their decision to retire support for CD-ROM games and lobbies on June 19, 2006.
- Specialized programs, including the Fighter Ace and Allegiance teams disbanded during the Zone's transition to the Member Plus program, due primarily to the planned retirement of their associated games.
- Personalities such as Bill Gates and his friend, Warren Buffett, have played bridge on the Zone. Garry Kasparov, chess champion, played in a chess tourney organized by Microsoft. The Sheik of The United Arab Emirates invited a few backgammon players from the Zone to play in his "2nd annual Abu Dhabi Backgammon Championship".
- MSN Games is credited for assisting with the introduction of new games on Windows Live Messenger (formerly called MSN Messenger) and the development of Xbox Live Arcade.
- Writer Dorothy Rosencrans wrote a book about her experiences at MSN Games and her encounter with Bill Gates.
- MSN Games is credited with renaming DiamondMine to Bejeweled, which is one of the most popular casual games of all time.
MSN Games announced in early 2006 the retiring of support for all lobby-based CD-ROM games, chat lobbies, the ZoneFriends client and the Member Plus program, scheduled for June 19, 2006:
"...as of June 19, 2006, we will be retiring our CD-ROM matchmaking service, along with the original versions of several classic card and board games: Classic Backgammon, Bridge, Classic Checkers, Chess, Cribbage, Euchre, Go, Classic Hearts, Reversi, and Spades. We’ll be sad to see them go! These games are like old friends: they gave us our start, and helped us grow from an innovative little entertainment site to a truly stellar online gaming experience. But over the years, it’s become more and more difficult to maintain the aging hardware and software that supports them. We held out absolutely as long as we could, but it was finally time to make that decision."
In a series of public chats held with various administrators and developers of the Zone, MSN outlined its plan to shift its gaming environment into Windows Live Messenger, a more frequently updated client than the outdated ZoneFriends messenger used on the Zone. However, due primarily to MSN's inability to provide a timeframe for the expected replacement of chat lobbies, tournaments, and its Member Plus volunteer moderator program, thousands of players appeared at each session to express their discontent, and began an online petition in an attempt to stop MSN's scheduled changes. As with previous changes, however, MSN has continued to stand firm in its commitment to the retirement of its services, citing outdated hardware and lack of economic viability for the old products.
Although alternatives exist to the Zone for CD-ROM gameplay, many Microsoft game studios embedded Zone links and functionality into their games, including Angel Studios' Midtown Madness and Ensemble Studios' Age of Empires game series. Ensemble only began their switch to an in-game matchmaking system with the release of Age of Mythology, and are currently scrambling to find a solution to allow easy matchmaking for the thousands of players who continue to play their older games:
"We at Ensemble Studios were recently made aware of this and will be actively looking for possible solutions for this situation over the coming weeks."
Games as recent as Flight Simulator 2004, and Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds utilized the Zone's lobby system for matchmaking. For many such games, no replacement service has been announced. The first game in the Flight Simulator series to use in-game matchmaking is Flight Simulator X, released early 2007, leaving a gap of several months without MSN supported matchmaking services.
- Playing Around: My Adventures on the Zone.Com by Dorothy Rosencrans, ISBN 0-595-29481-2
- Acoustical Poetry: A collection of Writings by Lily Sparkletoon,1598002619 which can be found at http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1598002619.
- MSN Games homepage
- Article about MSN Games
- The book about MSN Zone by Dorothy Rosencrans
- Wiki focused on MSN Game Zone badges