A little bit of History, Part III

A Shareware Venture

In the early years of my company, I had (finally) purchased my own computer, a Commodore VIC-20, as well as the experience of two unsuccessful attempts at selling my own games, ShackJack and Gremmaray.

In addition to the games I tried to market, there were many other games designed, started, partially completed, and/or finished. Among these was a version of Pac-Man on the VIC-20 that went further than any other clone in replicating the look and feel of the original. Of course, the Commodore 64 (released just two months after I bought my VIC-20) had taken over the market and the prospects for selling my games had dimmed considerably, so much of my focus was on the development of games for my own enjoyment.

After high school, I took my third professional programming job, a full-time position that involved dBase programming, as well as some management responsibility. This curtailed the time I could devote to my game development efforts somewhat, but I continued to work on various game projects in the evenings. (It was also during the time on this job that I met and married my wife, which also had an impact.) In this position, I first heard about this concept, “shareware“, where one could try software for free before buying, and the idea of marketing my games via that method crept to the forefront of my plans.

In late 1987, I left this job for financial reasons. (Technically, according to the unemployment office, I was laid off, since my paychecks were significantly in arrears.) One benefit of that difficult situation, however, was that I was in possession of an IBM-compatible “luggable”, with 640K memory and two 5.25″ floppy drives, when the separation occurred, and I was able to retain that equipment for a seriously (i.e., more than 180 days) delinquent bonus payment. On paper, the computer cost me about double what it was worth, but a cash payment would not be forthcoming, so I “accepted” the in kind compensation.

While I did some consulting work to pay the bills, I worked primarily on two games: a chess game that had a decent, if unspectacular, computer AI, and a DOS rewrite of the earlier Pac-Man clone. Both of these were written for CGA systems, which meant that the latter product did not have as nice colors as the VIC-20 version, but the higher effective resolution provided for better detail.

A few few months later, when I got an interview at Quest Software (developers of Questron), my ability to show and discuss my fully working and playable Pac-Man clone helped me secure my first professional game programming job. While there I played a significant role in the development and release of the PC version of Legacy of the Ancients and was the primary programmer for the Apple ][ version of The Legend of Blacksilver. Those were exciting times (with lots of interesting stories… for future blog posts), but development of my own products ground to a halt.

In early 1990, the writing was on the wall for Quest Software, telling of its imminent demise. While I worked crazy hours trying to complete a near impossible task (yet another story), I realized that I needed to start planning what to do when the company closed. I (virtually) dusted off the Pac-Man program, added some (minimal) marketing and documentation, did more serious playtesting, and generally took the software from playable game to releasable product.

On April 22, 1990, I released Pacmania 1.10.

That was a Sunday, and one of those discount computer shows was happening just a few miles away. At the time, most of the tables were for either cheap import hardware or floppy disk vendors, three different kinds. The first type were media vendors who sold inexpensive blank diskettes, the second type were software vendors who profited from selling preloaded shareware disks, and the third was a hybrid type who would sell the blank disks and copy software onto them from their “library” as a service. It was the latter two types that were of interested to me.

I went to this computer show (paying admission!) armed with a couple dozen green 360K floppy diskettes, each containing a copy of Pacmania, and I walked up and down each aisle distributing them to every vendor who wanted one. I then returned to the office and had my own private “uploading party”, spending several hours posting PACMANIA.ZIP to every BBS in the area (which was dozens, at the time). Exhausted, but excited, I drove home as a bone fide shareware author.

The first registration arrived Tuesday morning, the earliest any registration could have been received; it was from a woman who I knew (only) through the local bulletin boards. Unfortunately, the software was not quite as successful as this great start suggested, but it did earn me some money. The standard registration was $10, while the preferred registration for $15 bought a diskette, and the commercial registration (for $30) bought a diskette for every version released. Looking back, though, perhaps I can claim a pioneering role in the concept of micropayments, as the documentation provided for the following:

“Finally, you may register by sending us a US Quarter for each and every game ever started on your copy of PACMANIA.”

There was only one bug ever reported in Pacmania, although I had seen, but could not replicate, a very rare graphical artifact. (As fate would have it, though, I found a typo in the documentation when I reviewed it to get the above quote.) Windows has advanced beyond being able to properly run a DOS game that writes directly to the CGA hardware and PC sound chip, but when launched on a supportive system, the game still holds up pretty darn well (if I do say so myself).

Pacmania 1.1 also received some media recognition. In 1994, it was featured in the book, Fatal Distractions, written by David Gerrold, subtitled, “87 of the Very Best Ways to Get Beaten, Eaten, Maimed, and Mauled on Your PC“. On page 38, he say “Pacmania captures most of the charm of the original game. It’s also one of the most playable Pac Man clones we’ve seen.” Screenshots were used (with permission) in a 1995 book on game development, and the May 1995 issue (#130) of Computer Gaming World featured it in a column about shareware games. This was all 4-5 years after the game was released!

Although my first shareware venture did not make me fabulously wealthy, it did actually present several opportunities and valuable learning experiences.

Next: Part IV: Brushes with Destiny

Mission Accomplished!

The Association of Shareware Professionals emerges victorious.

For more than 20 years, the Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP) has worked to promote the “shareware” marketing concept, as well as the professionalism of those (primarily independent) developers who create the software. From a practical standpoint, some of the goals have been to encourage (among publishers) the usage of shareware marketing to sell software, and to advocate for the acceptance of shareware software with consumers.

On the usage side, one ASP members used to use the line, “Someday all software will be sold this way.” At this point, that vision is essentially realized, as most commercial (mass market) software products have evaluation versions to try before buying. Whether or not the word “shareware” is used, that is what this is.

As far as acceptance is concerned, the word, “shareware”, was the answer to a bonus question on QuizBusters, a broadcast television program (in its 20th season on the air) that is a version of high school quiz bowl competitions (or a trivia game show, if you prefer). I submit that this constitutes mainstream acceptance.

Here is a partial transcript of the questions on the Hartland Eagles vs. Charlotte Orioles episode, aired last weekend (and viewable via the link):

[MODERATOR is Matt Ottinger, the show’s host, and CAPTAIN is Cooper, the Hartland team captain.]

MODERATOR: …on these types of “wares”. First, this term is used to describe intangible programs, in contrast to a computer’s solid components.

CAPTAIN: Software.

MODERATOR: “Software” is right. This term, not to be confused with “freeware”, is used to describe software that is free to try.

CAPTION: Trialware?

MODERATOR: Not “trialware”. No, it’s rhyming: “Shareware“. “Shareware” is what I needed that time.

[Note: Not only was “trialware” incorrect, but it does not pass the spellchecker. “Shareware” does.]

So, as the departing Chairman of the Board of the ASP, I declare that the “shareware” portion of the organization’s mission has been accomplished successfully.

Nevertheless, over these years the Association of Shareware Professionals has grown into one of the most valuable community resources for independent software developers, as well as for the vendors who provide services to them. For a mere $100 US per year, one gets access to numerous resources, including access to the (very active) private newsgroups where one can ask and receive help from industry veterans who have dealt with the same issues and can give sage advice.

If you are in the software industry and are not a member of the ASP, Join Now!

Holy Cow, What a Race!

The last F1 Grand Prix in 2008 exceeds expectations.

No direct spoilers (yet), but the Brazilian Grand Prix was one of the most exciting races in years. It would have been a good race anyway, but adding a World Championship battle on top just increased the tension. Then, events conspired to leave the outcome in doubt until, literally, the last corner of the last lap (of 71). There was an amazing mix of total elation and crushing disappointment, and almost everybody got a taste.

If you missed it live, the race will be rebroadcast on Speed [warning: link contains a spoiler] next Wednesday, November 5, at 12:30pm Eastern time. I recommend watching it, even for people who are not (usually) racing fans.

Wow!

November changes everything

Fall back (one hour tonight).

Today begins an exciting month around here. During a busy Halloween last night, East Lansing High School won its first football playoff game at home (against Haslett), 13-7. It was obviously an exciting game, since I could hear regular cheering (from a couple blocks away) for the duration. This afternoon we all watched as the Michigan State Spartans football team took its first lead of the game with 7 seconds left, and then one play (and 4 Wisconsin laterals) later MSU won the game by a single point, 25-24. The atmosphere around here is electric.

Contributing to the enthusiasm, beyond costumes and athletics, is the fact that we are in the middle of a beautiful Indian Summer right at the peak of the fall color season. The scenery is just gorgeous around here, and the warm sunshine during the day is much appreciated. As always, this translates into an active party weekend in this college town. Fortunately, everybody gets an extra hour to sleep. Don’t forget to set your clocks back an hour tonight!

Tomorrow, the Formula 1 World Championship will be determined in the Brazilian Grand Prix at the Interlagos Circuit. As a bonus, this track is located in Sao Paulo, which is (rather, will be) only three hours different than from my time zone, so I do not need to either get up really early or stay up late to watch the race live. Lewis Hamilton (UK) leads Felipe Massa (Brazil) by 7 points, with 10 points available for a victory. Hamilton needs to finish 5th or better to guarantee himself the championship he lost last year (in his rookie season) by a single point. Massa is the local favorite, starting from pole position, and very good here at his home circuit. Given that I have a picture and signature from the British driver right in front of me, my bias is clear (although either driver would be deserving).

That is just the first two days of the month!

This week, Goodsol Development will be releasing our latest solitaire game for Windows. This particular product involves significant technical innovation and will be the first release using a new engine, under the covers, while maintaining (and improving) the gameplay experience that untold thousands of players enjoy. Another product we have been developing will follow shortly, and more games will be forthcoming thereafter.

November is also the last fully productive month in my tenure as Chairman of the Board of the Association of Shareware Professionals, a position I have held (this second time) since October 2007. My term on the Board of Directors runs only until the end of 2008, and I have declined a nomination to stand for (yet) another term. While I have been happy to volunteer my time for the ASP for many years, I have committed to other projects that will require that time in the future.

Obviously, here in the United States, Tuesday is Election Day and will, necessarily, produce a new President-elect for our country. After eight years of the current administration, the results will be yet another major change (only four days into the month) and have the potential to dramatically affect issues far beyond the scope of this blog. However, I feel that it is important that voters get informed on the candidates and on the issues (hint: from multiple news sources). If you are in the US… Get out and vote on Tuesday, November 4!

The forecast here calls for absolutely beautiful weather (sunny and approaching 70 degrees) for the next several days, so I plan to get out to enjoy it as much as possible before the winter settles in here. Once that happens, though, there will be no lack of exciting development here, not to mention indoor soccer (I scored a goal last Thursday!), ice racing, and the inevitable snow shoveling.

We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
— Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Meaningful Play 2008, Day 3

The conference draws to a close.

Thankfully, the final day of the conference was a “half day”, though it only lacked one session relative to the previous two days, and added a catered lunch (instead of a longer break at that time), plus a short period at the end for game awards and conference closing.

The morning keynote was The Play of Persuasion: Why “Serious” Isn’t the Opposite of Fun, by Nick Fortugno of Rebel Monkey. He began his speech by addressing the myth that “serious” means that a game is not fun, compelling, or engaging. Then, he set about dispelling this myth through analysis of three representative games: Shadow Of The Colossus, an artgame which implements a classic tragedy; PeaceMaker, a serious game that presents a message; and McDonalds Video Game, a propaganda game with a statement to make.

The next two periods were devoted to an extended paper session, From the Keyboard to the Game Board (Parts 1 and 2), which ran non-stop for 135 minutes and still was running short on time. However, all seven papers were worthwhile, and the session as a whole was excellent. Better, the audience was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about board games, in addition to digital games. Briefly…

Brian Magerko discussed the work of The Digital Tabletop in analyzing the game mechanics of designer board games, presenting case studies of some popular board games.
Brian Hayden detailed the development process of his board game, Pigs in the Poke, which applies anthropological and archaeological data about tribal cultures in Southeast Asia to game mechanics.
Ben Medler stated that all games are based on conflict, and then compared conflict mechanics in digital games and board games, subdividing the types into mechanic/social and anonymous/tacit categories.
Ethan Watrall presented a study (conducted locally) that surveyed HeroClix players and determined that those who played primarily for enjoyment were likely to involve themselves in the “storyworlds” for the characters, existing in books, comics, movies, and other media, while those who played for the competition were unlikely to do so initially.
Scott Nicholson, of Board Games with Scott, discussed the relationship and history of games and libraries and presented loads of information, some of which can be found at Library Game Lab of Syracuse and Games in Libraries.
Francisco Ortega-Grimaldo talked about his design of a series of games that present the issues of immigration (between the United States and Mexico) in board game form, in order to encourage discussion.
Michael Ryan Skolnik (with whom I had a long conversation during and after the Happy Hour Gathering) presented his ideas on theatrical aesthetics in games and why eschewing immersion, or “presence”, may produce a more meaningful experience.

With no time for questions, we moved quickly toward the ballroom in order to pick up our “old fashioned BBQ lunch” before the final keynote. I got the very last hot dog, despite there being many more buns available, so those behind me had to make due with hamburgers, chicken breasts, and a whole host of supporting food items. Everything I had was tasty, including some excellent brownies.

The closing keynote was The Great White Whale of Meaningful Play, given by Tracy Fullerton of the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC. She discussed two games under development where the team is seeking to create a meaningful, almost spiritual, gameplay experience: The Night Journey and Walden, a Game [trailer]. The former is being developed with the help of artist Bill Viola, who contends that half of an art experience is in the viewer (or player, in this case). The speaker did admit that this kind of project is probably only feasible (currently) in an academic and/or experimental setting, and not as a commercial game product.

The last item of “business” was the announcement of the awards in the game competition, which were:

Note that the Best overall game pick has been featured on Gamasutra in the article, Persuasive Games: Videogame Vignette.

So, Meaningful Play 2008 came to an end with no definite plans for next year. However, the organizers will be conducting a survey of attendees to determine when and where to hold the next edition. The one thing that is certain, though, is that this conference was worthwhile.

I have three goals when attending a conference: to learn, to network, and to be inspired. Meaningful Play provided ample opportunities for each.