Oregon Trail: How three Minnesotans forged its path

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

"It lost the focus of, 'We're going to create good things for kids,'" says Studer. "The focus became, 'Is this going to make money?'"

Wave after wave of layoffs shrank the Minnesota offices until it was announced they'd be shuttered entirely in 1999. Tom Boe was one of the last to go, since he and a team of about 70 had been put in charge of the final version of Oregon Trail to come out of Minnesota—the fourth edition. As colleagues around them boxed up their belongings and disappeared, Boe's team pushed to develop the game's more realistic look and its 3-D video content, and add a fishing and plant-gathering game.

Although excitement over the game buoyed some spirits, the end of the week took on a grim ritual.

"Friday at 4, we had a little party. There'd be tequila," says Boe. "The building felt pretty empty and a lot of our friends were gone."

Once the game had shipped, project leader Mike Palmquist was the last one out. After carrying stacks of Oregon Trail manuals, CDs, and other paraphernalia to his car, he personally shut off the lights and locked the doors.

"It's like when you move out of a house," he says. "You seal the rooms and you have all these memories, but there's nothing there."

  

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT became an infamous historical footnote in corporate catastrophe.

The Learning Company was acquired by Mattel and its glamorous CEO Jill Barad for $3.5 billion. Mattel wanted to do Barbie on the Oregon Trail and other spin-offs. But almost instantly, it was clear a mistake had been made.

The Learning Company owned all of the most successful titles in children's educational software—Oregon Trail, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and Reader Rabbit—but had shed many of its most talented programmers.

"They created a nice balance sheet," says Boe. "In reality they ended up with boxes of aging software."

Some estimates put Mattel's losses at $1 million a day after the acquisition. Barad was ousted, and the shareholders sued and ultimately won a $122 million settlement, one of the largest investor victories in U.S. history.

O'Leary also left his board position at Mattel in the midst of the chaos. His bio at his current gig on the ABC entrepreneurial reality show Shark Tank touts the Mattel deal but neglects to mention that it is considered one of the biggest failures in corporate history.

After a fifth and final installment came out in 2001—a version with cartoon characters that former MECC programmers characterize as "ghastly"—the Oregon Trail went cold.

   

THE DEMISE OF MECC was not the end of its employees' lives. Several went on to illustrious and profitable careers in tech, although the rise of the internet put the final nail in the educational software industry's coffin. Many of the Oregon Trail programmers still live in the Twin Cities area, and keep in touch through an MECC employee listserv.

Two of the three creators still live here. Heinemann is now retired after working for decades as a computer programmer, though he fills up most of his free time teaching math and chess lessons at local schools. Dillenberger is entering his second retirement this year, from teaching math at St. Louis Park Junior High. Rawitsch lives in Chicago with his family and is an independent tech consultant.

Other than Rawitsch's salary while he was at MECC, none of the three saw a dime of the millions of dollars that Oregon Trail made over the years.

"And then your next question is, 'Does that bother you?'" says Rawitsch wryly. "I think the three of us would answer in unison, 'No.'"

Last year, Rawitsch went to visit his son, a student at Tufts. When word got out that one of the inventors of Oregon Trail was coming, a Facebook fan club at nearby MIT beseeched Rawitsch to give a talk. He obliged.

Afterward, the family went out to eat. When the waiter, a man in his 20s, asked casually what brought him to Boston, Rawitsch replied that he'd just given a presentation on the invention of Oregon Trail.

The waiter's eyes widened. Wordlessly, he slipped back into the kitchen.

When he returned, he told Rawitsch, "Well, I told the other waiters I'm serving the inventor of Oregon Trail. I'm now the king of the restaurant."

As he tells the story from his office in Chicago, Rawitsch can't help but laugh at what a long, strange trip the Oregon Trail has been.

"It was just a coincidence that three guys lived together, two were using the computer, and one was teaching about the westward expansion," he says. "It's been pretty amazing."

Oregon Trail: A Visual History [click to read]

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