Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

It's one of the most popular educational games of all time

"It was a fun environment," he remembers. "We were young kids and very idealistic."

With a six-color monitor now available, the hunting game gained a single deer that blipped across the screen. Colorful images of historical sites popped up on the screen when players reached landmarks like Chimney Rock or Fort Hall. Historically accurate music—albeit played in a slightly discordant set of beeps—was added.

By 1982, teachers all over the country were calling MECC to ask how to erase curse words from their students' tombstones.

  

THE '80S AND EARLY '90s were a golden era for both MECC and Oregon Trail. Under the mission statement "for the love of learning," the business continued to attract passionate young people from education backgrounds to come work for the MECC. Along with Oregon Trail, several other major successes were born, including Number Munchers, Word Munchers, Lemonade Stand, and Odell Lake.

In the early '90s, an American studies Ph.D. named Wayne Studer was tapped for a sweeping revision of Oregon Trail for CD-rom.

"My job was to be the lead designer and history expert," he says. "I lived, slept, and breathed Oregon Trail for about two years."

With a team of programmers and artists to back him up, Studer's research added two new possible routes to the Willamette Valley—including a way through Donner pass—a more challenging steering game down the Dalles River, and an elaborate point-and-shoot hunting game. It was MECC's first $1 million project, and in the first week of its release in 1995 it immediately made back its investment.

The early '90s also saw huge shifts in the videogame business. The industry was becoming increasingly competitive, with a shift from the classroom to the home PC. MECC, LaFrenz reasoned, had to take its games to the retail marketplace. And, he told Minnesota legislators, it was time for the state to cut MECC loose and let it be a private company. If MECC couldn't court potential customers by picking up a dinner check, it would never survive in the increasingly competitive market.

Lawmakers found the argument convincing. In 1991, the state of Minnesota sold MECC to a group of venture capitalists for $5.25 million.

Private ownership brought a perceptible shift toward capitalism. While the idealistic programmers pushed back on the idea that they should now consider the bottom line along with educational value, LaFrenz pushed his own slogan: "No margin, no mission."

Still, everyone was making more money, and with the release of Oregon Trail II, MECC had never been more successful. The whole operation moved into four separate floors of a swank corporate building in Brooklyn Park.

In 1995, the release of Oregon Trail II was celebrated at a huge gala event called the "Trailheads Jamboree" hosted at the Mall of America. For the first time, all three creators were publicly acknowledged as the original inventors of the game, and presented with jean jackets with the words "MECC Trailheads" embroidered across the back.

"I got a jean jacket and a copy of the game instead of owning an island somewhere," jokes Dillenberger.

As a live buffalo named Cody looked on, the three former roommates signed their names to a huge map of the Oregon Trail.

It was billed as the first annual Trailheads event. As fate would have it, it would also be the last.

  

LATER THAT YEAR, Susan Schilling, MECC's talented senior vice president of product development, returned from a secret meeting in California. She had just met with George Lucas, who was trying to lure her away to a position at his own educational software start-up.

Unsure of what to do, she returned to her office and found a pair of plane tickets on her chair.

The next day in Chicago, LaFrenz introduced her to Kevin O'Leary. O'Leary was the founder of an ambitious educational software company called SoftKey. Though SoftKey wasn't terribly big, it did have powerful investors backing it up. O'Leary told LaFrenz and Schilling that he was interested in acquiring MECC.

It was an attractive little company. Since the state had sold it, LaFrenz had taken the company public and its stock had skyrocketed from $12 a share to $25 in just a two years. O'Leary and his partners wanted in on what had become a billion-dollar industry.

"He had an interest in earning money," says Schilling. "I'm not sure he had a desire to help children learn."

Schilling returned to Minnesota and promptly took Lucas's offer.

Meanwhile, LaFrenz felt backed against a wall. SoftKey was clearly angling to buy up the industry, which was already consolidating. The three educational software giants—the Learning Company, Brøderbund, and MECC—were all being approached by SoftKey.

"They don't care whether you're talking about kids' software or toilet paper," says LaFrenz. "All they look at is the financials."

Concerned about a hostile takeover, MECC's board decided to sell. They agreed to a $370 million stock swap. But both Brøderbund and the Learning Company resisted. SoftKey took control in a hostile stock buy-up.

For MECC employees, the job quickly got corporate. Soon after the merger, people started to lose their jobs. The new owners chucked the MECC name in favor of the Learning Company. Then games started getting canceled. The new management was no longer interested in titles that couldn't return Oregon Trail-size profits.

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