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.


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.

Meaningful Play 2008, Day 2

The day begins with Play-Doh.

The first keynote of the second day, All Play Is Meaningful, was given by Leigh Anne Cappello, a “Play Futurist” and Vice President at Hasbro (who own both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley and, hence, have a dominant share of the US board game market). All of the tables had packages of Play-Doh, with which we were instructed to play; however, I opted out when the sound of opening containers made it harder for me to hear her. She said that their slogan is “Inspiring the Human Need to Play” (although I could find no references) and described fun well with a couple of dozen discrete words. Then the talk distilled the essence of play to being “appealing“, “healing“, and “revealing“.

What our keynote speaker (and futurist) did not say, however, is anything about the future. When asked directly, she explained that Hasbro would not allow her to comment. Having run into this litigious company in the past, I was not the least bit surprised by this. I will note that overzealous lawyers were never mentioned or included in any part of “fun”. Nevertheless, the talk was worthwhile, and it pointed me to the quote at the end of this blog entry and also alerted me to the fact that the United Nations (in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child), have recognized “the right of the child … to engage in play and recreational activities.”

During the next period, I attended a panel entitled, Suitable for all ages: Game design for the 60+ demographic. (I am not going to name all of the 13 presenters.) The session had several rapid-fire talks about studies and provided loads of detailed numbers, including:

  • 46% of people over 50 play games daily, and 62% play at least 5 times per week;
  • seniors preferred the PC, and 90% would not change platform;
  • more than 60% of seniors prefer card games (including solitaire);
  • in general, seniors enjoy games puzzle elements of games and are loyal to their current software;
  • seniors seem to prefer mouse over keyboard, ideally using only one button.

A member of the audience pointed out that the entire panel consisted of European researchers and questioned whether or not the findings could be extended to American senior citizens. Of course, in the current global marketplace, the study participants are a good portion of our audience.

The next session I attended was Making an Impact: Serious Issues in Non-Serious Games, given by Monica Evans (University of Texas at Dallas). This talk was basically an overview of some serious games and then a discussion of how serious topics were handled in three commercial games: Ratchet and Clank, Sim City Societies, and Beyond Good and Evil. One highlight of the talk was a pointer to an experimental game, Execution, which one can only play once (without cheating) and takes very little time. Give it a shot!

After that, I participated in the only roundtable of the conference, When Will Games Grow Up?: Handling Adult Topics In Video Games, moderated by author Damon Brown. I found the topic fascinating, especially given that I was one of the oldest people in the room, and the prevailing attitude among the mostly young and single was different than mine (even though I am closer to the median player demographic). Nobody, obviously, was offended by the idea of sex in games, but some felt that it did not provide desired escapism, failing to realize that not everybody may have such opportunities in the real world. This was a good session.

The closing keynote for the second day was Serious Gaming: Assumptions and Realities, given by Ute Ritterfeld (VU University Amsterdam). The talk discussed a three-part study, the first part being about the kind of serious games that are being made, the second about what qualities make a game succeed with game reviewers, and the third an experiment with applying the assumptions to actual serious games. This talk contained lots of interesting information.

In the first part of the study, 612 serious games (every one the researchers could find in May 2007) were examined, and it was found that more than half were academic, with social change being the second largest group. The largest target age group was middle and high school students, followed by elementary level, then (combined) college/adult/senior, and finally pre-school. Again, unfortunately, more than half of all the serious games of the time were just for practicing skills.

The second part of the study looked at game reviews and categorized the positives and negatives leading toward an overall score. These game characteristics were grouped into five categories (highlighted below) and when analyzed, it was found that there were three basic thresholds. An acceptable game (threshold 1) succeeded in the areas of technical capacity and game design. A good game (threshold 2) passed threshold 1 and, additionally, succeeded with aesthetics, visual and acoustic. For a game to be great (threshold 3), it had to pass both previous thresholds and also succeed in the final two areas of social experience and storyline (“narrativity and character development” is too long). Few games reached the final threshold.

The final part of the study took a playable serious game (for learning biology/human physiology) and did controlled studies of different levels of interactivity, including the full gameplay experience, watching a video replay of the game, limited interactivity, hypertext/graphical information, and straight text. The gist of the results were that the more interactivity involved, the better the learning and retention. The one deviation from this pattern was that the learning between full gameplay and replay only (sans control) were comparable, but followup showed that the latter group, without being able to directly interact with the game, did not retain the information as well. Conclusion: Interactive education can work.

Shortly after the second keynote, a Happy Hour Gathering was held at a local brew pub (Harper’s) where pizza and beer were supplied. I had some great conversations with several local (Michigan and its neighboring Canadian province, Ontario) attendees. I talked more than I either ate or drank, but my mind was full of ideas and my spirit was overflowing when I left (though my throat was a little sore).

Finally, I attended a local book reading and signing with Damon Brown (the roundtable moderator), who is promoting his new book, Pong & Porn: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, and Other Sexy Game
s Changed Our Culture
. The reading was followed by a discussion that dovetailed nicely with the earlier roundtable, and I also learned from chatting with him in both venues that he attended high school in Lansing and (although he is younger) we share some common area references. I was too tired to read beyond “Foreplay” (the forward), but I plan to post a review later.

This was a busy day from start to finish (as the length of this post attests), so I will just leave you with the promised quote:

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
— Plato

Meaningful Play 2008, Day 1

International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play

This was the first day of Meaningful Play 2008, and armed with my name tag and program schedule, I went to the Student Union at Michigan State University. I left behind the “goodie bag” itself which was, in fact, a cool laptop bag, the rest of the contents, including a 1G USB drive/pen, and the conference shirt (in black). I guess that “regular attendee” conveys some tangible benefits.

The first keynote, The Game Designer as Change Agent, was given by Richard Hilleman, Chief Creative Officer for Electronic Arts. Honestly, it was not what I expected based on the title, but rather was more about some internal EA processes for identifying and training executive producers (or perhaps for developing lists of confusing and pointless acronyms). Nothing inspired me to yearn for such a position. However, the talk did yield three noteworthy facts:

  1. Larry Probst still holds the EA record for largest hotel repair bill;
  2. Pogo “casual” gamers are predominantly women aged 30-40 and average 20 hours/week of play; and
  3. Flash (“a ubiquitous platform”) has recently surpassed 1 billion installations.

The first actual session I attended was the presentation of three academic papers on Emergent Gameplay. All three were interesting, but the paper by Felan Parker, The Significance of Jeep Tag: On Player-Imposed Rules in Video Games (PDF), was the most interesting presentation. The other two papers were on UML diagrams of game play interaction (a different way to look at games), and using games to generate new game ideas (of which I already have more than I can use).

After lunch, I went to the Talent, Incentives, and Infrastructure: Growing the Game Industry in Michigan panel, with Gjon Camaj (Image Space), Matt Toschlog (Reactor Zero), Tony Wenson (Michigan Film Office), and Brian Winn (moderator). The verdict is, quite simply, that this state is a great place to do business as a game developer: we have the development talent, we have the infrastructure, and now (since April), we have tax credits of up to 42% of expenses for building games here in Michigan.

I stayed in the same room for the next presentation, The Emerging Flash Game Industry and the Opportunities for Meaningful Play, given by Jared Riley of Hero Interactive. This talk was the most practical and directly relevant to our company and future plans. In his PowerPoint presentation he discussed the revenue sources and business models for Flash game developers, which was particularly interesting. The use of an example figure of $50K as a potential maximum income of a hit game, however, did hammer home the point that profitability in this area requires fast turnaround of product.

The second/final keynote of the day, The Unknown Possibilities of Existence, was given by Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games). In the talk, he attempted to define a term for which he admitted dislike, “artgame”, and then explored which games, in his opinion, fall close to this category. I found it interesting, although some of the initial discussion was lost on me, as it built on understanding of certain traditional artwork concepts/genres with which I am unfamiliar.

After the completion of daytime activities (plus enough of a break to return home for a bit), there was a conference reception at the brand new East Lansing Technology Innovation Center (ELTIC). There were poster presentations as well as software exhibitions, which included several interesting titles. Among these were Brain Powered Games, a suite of games designed to “energize your mind”, including Headline Clues, an original word game with puzzles generated dynamically from RSS feeds from news sites, Two Men and a Truck Game, sponsored by the eponymous moving company, which helps children deal with the stress of relocating, and Pebble It, an abstract puzzle game which seeks to harness the innate ability of the human brain to solve graph pebbling problems better than existing computer algorithms.

The conference organizers, Brian Winn, Ethan Watrall, and Carrie Heeter, are to be commended on a very well-organized show. Everything (including registration) has run smoothly and on time, and the content so far has been first rate.

Meaningful Play 2008

Designing and Studying Games that Matter

We now interrupt your program to bring you breaking news…

For the next three days, Michigan State University is hosting the first edition (of many, I hope) of Meaningful Play here in East Lansing. Meaningful Play 2008 is about “exploring meaningful applications of games” and “issues in designing meaningful play”. In other words, it is about why games matter to us and how to achieve significance in our game designs, whether for “serious games” or those developed primarily as entertainment.

This game conference will feature six keynote speakers (one to open and close each day), as well as eight periods in which there will (each) be a speaker session, two presentations of academic papers (on different topics), and a discussion panel, so there is plenty of information to be presented. I expect that the format will be similar to Future Play 2005 (held at the same venue), as some of the organizers are the same. Since attendance is limited to 250 participants, it should be a good opportunity for networking, too.

Looking ahead, I am intrigued by the keynote entitled, All Play is Meaningful (Friday morning). I have not been able to decide on where I want to be for each session period, but I expect that I will be attending the panel (excessively) named, Talent, Incentives, and Infrastructure: Growing the Game Industry in Michigan. That has been an important goal of mine, and I like to think of myself as part of that Michigan “talent”.

Early registration begins today at 6:30pm and, wonderfully, is within easy walking distance of my home. If you attend Meaningful Play, be sure to introduce yourself (if necessary) and say, “Hi!”

Check here for daily updates during the conference.

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

A little bit of History, Part I

The Founding

It all started for me back in 1978, when I had my first programming experience with personal computers. Earlier that year, my good friend Brennan Hildebrand and I had each moved away from East Lansing during the summer. His family moved to Southfield, Michigan (near Detroit) and I went to Houston, Texas, but we visited each other whenever possible.

During the next couple of years, although I did not have a computer of my own, Brennan and I used the Apple ][+ that was in his house to learn programming and play computer games when we were there. I bought him a copy of More BASIC Computer Games, by David H. Ahl, for his birthday, and we spent untold hours, and many late nights, typing in listings and modifying them for our own amusement.

While in Houston, I met and became friends with Eric Comstock, who had a TRS-80 at home, and we also spent time writing programs and playing games on that computer. Perhaps more importantly, though, we worked together to encourage The Awty School, which we both attended at the time, to purchase its first (three) Apple ][ computers. The computers only arrived a few months before we both left (in 1981), but we both made great use of them during that time.

Throughout these years, we all talked about how we could program and sell computer games ourselves. Remember, this was back in the day that games and other software often were little more than a floppy disk and a thin manual inserted into a plastic bag that computer stores stocked by hanging on a peg board. Even when I did not have access to a computer, I “programmed” in pencil, writing out long BASIC listings on paper. Finishing and distributing one of these games seemed within reach.

I finally decided that it was time to stop talking about how cool it would be to sell the computer games we created. In late 1981, I decided that we needed to finally take action, so Brennan and I brainstormed about the first step to take: decide a name. We came up with and decided upon the alliterative name, Sophisticated Software Systems, and also sketched out several “logo” ideas, one of which did actually end up on our first letterhead many years later.

Unfortunately, there were two marketing problems with the original company name that I only learned several years later. First, there were a few “Sophisticated Software” companies that sprung up over the years. We very well may have been the original (and the only one with “Systems”), but that did not prevent the occasional support request for software we had never heard of, and as late as 1999 we received letters demanding that we certify that programs from a different company were Y2K compliant. The second issue, simply, was that we wanted to make games, yet the name gave no clue to that at all.

I did the research to find out how to create a company, which turned out to be much easier than I had imagined. So, I picked up the paperwork for creating a partnership at the county clerk’s office, read it through, and then waited for the next opportunity when my friends and I would be together to sign it. It was at this point that my father gave me my first piece of excellent business advice: Don’t wait!

Acting on this advice, I instead filled out the paperwork for a sole proprietorship, got it notarized, and on January 13, 1982, walked into the office of the Ingham County Clerk, paid my $10 (after waiting for the couple before me to be married), and formed Sophisticated Software Systems.

Sophisticated Software Systems

As it turns out, Brennan and Eric never ended up joining me at Sophisticated Software Systems, but both are successful software entrepreneurs in their own rights, albeit not in computer games.

Next: Part II: The Early Years