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

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