A little bit of History, Part II

The Early Years

In early 1982, I had officially formed Sophisticated Software Systems. Prior to that I had been programming games (or parts of games) for several years. However, with the founding of a company, I now needed a first product, so I focused on a BlackJack game for the TRS-80: ShackJack.

Having had to beg, borrow, and (not quite) steal computer time, my best opportunity was while I was helping to run to computer lab at East Lansing High School, which at the time consisted of 13 diskless TRS-80 Model 3 (16K) computers “networked” (via a switched cassette port connection) to a master Model 3 (48K) with dual floppy drives. (This was the early incarnation of the computer lab that Larry Page would have used almost a decade later before going on to found Google.) I was able to spend up to an hour and a half per weekday, minus (considerable) time spent helping other students learn programming and debugging, working on my game.

Finally, when I had completed and thoroughly tested what was certainly the best BlackJack program available on that platform, I took out an advertisement in Computer Shopper, which was at the time merely a collection of classified computer ads on yellow newsprint. Regrettably, I did not keep an original copy of the (single) issue in which the ad appeared, so I do not have the publication date, but the copy read as follows:

BE A WINNER WITH SHACK JACK the best Black Jack program yet! Just like Vegas. Seven players, multiple decks, splits, insurance, double down. Start with any amount of money, computer keeps track of your winnings (?) It’s no gamble at $14.95 (plus 4% for Michigan residents). Specify 16 or 32K, tape or disk.

I only ran the advertisement once, and subsequently got only one “order”. My father received the envelope before me and bought pizza for dinner to celebrate. Alas, that double-cheese and pepperoni was my total income from that product. The order, from a church of all places, was for a model and media type that was not supported, so we could not fulfil it and, of course, never cashed the check.

Shortly thereafter, I got my first professional programming job, which over a couple of weeks in the summer netted me a grand total of $500, which was a lot of money for me at the time. Although it was nowhere near enough for an Apple, it was enough money to buy a Commodore VIC-20 and a tape drive. I did my research and discovered that the VIC-20 had a programmable character set, which was an exciting feature, so I decided to purchase one, along with a “machine language monitor” cartridge that worked as a single-line assembler. (I still have that computer in the original packaging, and it still works great.)

Over the second half of 1982, having my own computer for the first time in my life, I learned the VIC-20 inside and out and wrote several games for it. I chose one game, Gremmaray, to market first. This game was based on an old (1978) black and white video game, Blasto, by Gremlin. As one can see on the game flyer (not the flip side), the cabinet instructions talked about firing your “dreaded Gremmaray”, which amused me, so I used that as my product title.

For me, the defining characteristic of Blasto was its mine explosions, which could cause incendiary cascades that would clear whole areas of the playfield. (That was viscerally satisfying beyond anything in Minesweeper.) I maintained that prominent feature while implementing similar gameplay, adding color and keyboard (along with joystick) control, and introducing a third mode of play, in which the player could compete against a computer controlled (AI) opponent. I also created three versions, saved on one tape, for different game speeds. Remember, too, that the entire game, including character data, fit into only 3.5K (merely 3584 bytes!) of an unexpanded VIC-20.

With a product ready to go, I undertook (this time) to sell the game into retail stores which carried software for Commodore computers. I started with a handful of large companies, including Kmart and Meijer, that were headquartered in Michigan. My father and I produced a game flyer and cover letters using desktop publishing software on a Xerox Star (the original Macintosh), and printed them using the very first laser printer I had ever seen.

On May 24, 1983, I mailed out several free copies of Gremmaray along with this flyer and cover letter. [PDF, 158K]

Needless to say (for those who know the business), I received no responses to this contact. Still being only 16 at the time (my primary excuse for the naivete), I was slightly disappointed, but I moved on to programming other games, finishing high school, and entering the workforce in my chosen profession. I never sold a copy of either of my first two attempts, although both are games of which I am still very proud today.

Looking back, there are several lessons learned:

First, advertising is a matter of getting noticed. Placing only a single ad in one newsprint weekly is certainly not enough to get started. It was all I could afford at the time, and with no valid orders, I could not bootstrap anything, and ShackJack never really got out of the gate.

Second, sales is not a matter of one cold contact and then waiting for the phone to ring. At the time, I thought that a purchasing agent would simply play the game, enjoy it, and place and order, but now I know that it is unlikely that any of the cassettes ended up anywhere but the “circular file”. Certainly, followup calls would have been a necessity under even the best of circumstances.

Third, retail is not a game that independent developers are going to be able to play (directly). Almost all retail stores buy through distributors who command/demand large quantities of cash and/or product (usually both) just to be listed, and only then does the battle to get onto shelves even start. The system may have been more open 25 years ago, but I was too naive to know that retailers would require at least a 50% margin (where I was only offering 35% in the best case). In retrospect, Gremmaray was never destined to be on a store shelf.

Finally, to tie all of these together, one really needs sticktoitiveness (definition: dogged perseverance; resolute tenacity) to succeed. In my first two real attempts, I was able to bring a program to fruition, but not a product. Had I continued to advertise ShackJack and market the game to locally-owned Radio Shack stores, I may have been able to succeed with it. Had I followed up with telephone calls to purchasing agents, while pursuing other possible channels for selling Gremmaray, that may have been a breakout success. As it was, I did not get much beyond completing the programs (an achievement in itself), but they were never seen and enjoyed by more than a few people.

Of course, I was not finished yet.

Next: Part III: A Shareware Venture