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

A little bit of History, Introduction

All things considered, I guess a lost week is none too significant.

Going to a new accountant, we have recently (up to the present) been going through seven and a half years of corporate paperwork, which reminds us of how long that has been and how much has happened during that time. That extends back to when our association with Goodsol Development involved piecemeal artwork and no programming, and the word “terrorism” was not uttered in every news broadcast.

Thinking back, though, it is somewhat surprising to realize that this company had so many years of history before 2001, with so many projects and stories having already occurred by that time. My personal programming history goes back 30 years (later this year). The history of my company reaches back more than 26 years, and we have been full time for 13.5 years. The corporation itself has been around since March 1996, and we have outlasted almost every employer I previously had, not to mention the vast majority of companies in the game industry.

This has been my full-time employment since I resigned from Spectrum HoloByte in December 1994, which was over 700 weeks ago, so a “lost” week here or there, representing less than 0.15% of this time, is probably not a disaster.

As we all (should) know, though, one cannot make up for a slipped schedule solely by working harder, especially when a deadline has already passed, so we realistically redefine our schedule and continue to work intelligently and diligently.

Next: Part I: The Founding

The Week that Wasn't

Good Riddance to the past 7 days.

Have you ever had one of those days where you seem to be going in several directions, always doing something, but then at the end of the day find yourself unable to pinpoint what you actually accomplished? Have you ever had it extended to a full week? Well, now I have.

This was supposed to be a very productive week, with most of the family out of town, but what started out promising resulted in a whole bunch of… I am not really sure.

Perhaps it was the spam. I received more than 21000 spam messages in only 10 hours. (I stopped tracking it after that point.)

Perhaps it was the slipping deadline. I have been feeling an unhealthy amount of stress lately, which is not exactly conducive to productivity.

Perhaps it was the partially fallen tree. We finally had all the dangerous parts removed, but there is a reason that the sounds of chainsaws and heavy machinery (just outside the office window) are not featured on relaxation tapes.

Perhaps it was the uncertainty. Several things in which I am involved (often peripherally) have had crises arise (some real, and some manufactured), including one that is affecting several thousand of my dollars.

Perhaps it was the damn telephone. Every professional person (lawyer, accountant, etc.) we have had contact with in the last few months, and then some, chose last week to telephone. Throw in five more important calls, some technical support for extended family, and a healthy dose of telemarketers, and I am ready to throw out these phones.

Perhaps it was the lack of my usual support “staff”. The post office box did not empty itself, and the bank failed to anticipate and handle my financial needs alone. Meals required effort on my part.

Perhaps it was my commitment to quality. It seemed like every time I had something almost completed, there was a niggling little issue that required a minor change, and another, and then another… I cannot abide shoddy code. Of course, this is one thing I do not intend to change.

Whatever it was (probably a combination of everything above and more), last week was a wash. I am drawing a thick vertical line right here after the month of June. From this point, I simply move forward.

One crisis at a time…

Summertime…

… and the doing is busy…

As of last Friday, at about 7:59pm local time, we have either started summer or, as I prefer to view things, moved into the second half of summer. In any case, we have entered into a period where business, and life in general, tends to be a little slower.

If only.

Although I would dearly love to take some much needed time away, our projects are just coming to fruition during the next month or so, leaving precious little time for relaxation. It is getting fairly exciting around here, not only due to products taking shape, and the introduction of new development platforms, but because of the extracurriculars of the seasons.

At our “Delton office”, Winter took out not one, but both toilets, and the plumbing underneath the kitchen sink. Spring saw the demise of the front steps (which makes moving new ceramic fixtures rather interesting). [The high scrap metal prices also led to the disappearance of my ice racing car around the same time.]

The first part of summer saw fit to drop a huge tree limb outside the back steps at the main office, after being redirected through contact with the roof above my head. This lead to “emergency” removal of the larger, cracked limb that threatened the desk at which I currently sit. [Because of all the storm damage in our area, this actually took nearly two weeks to start, and we still have to wait another week for the rest of the (now unbalanced) tree to be dismantled.]

Nevertheless, despite the distractions, morale and development progress are quite good here. We officially doubled our staff to get some part time and piecemeal help for advancing a project that has been planned/stalled here for many years. We hope to launch a new web site on August 1st.

Before then, however, there is another project for Goodsol Development that should be announced fairly soon as we prepare to begin beta testing. This will be our first launch of a product on both Windows and Mac platforms in rapid succession. (In truth, it could be a simultaneous release, but because of the marketing required to accompany each SKU, one will probably proceed the other a bit.)

Three and a half platforms are in action at once. We are doing some PHP/MySQL development, C++ (native) development for Windows, C++/Carbon development for Mac OS X, plus a minuscule amount of using XNA Game Studio 2.0 (Windows and Xbox 360) when I can find a spare minute.

The fish may be jumpin’, but I wouldn’t know…

Jack Thompson on the Express Train to Disbarment

Schadenfreude!

On Wednesday, the Florida Bar requested that publicity mutt and raging loony, Jack Thompson, be disbarred for at least 10 years. This follows disciplinary proceedings (similar to a trial) late last year in which he was found guilty of 27 acts of professional misconduct, including “knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal” and “engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation“.

For many years, this [censored] has manufactured controversy about video games and put himself at the forefront. Unburdened by facts or even relevant knowledge of the games in question, he has blamed video games for what seems like every violent act in this country in the last decade or more. I note that NPR recently [Talk of the Nation, May 1st] dismissed him quickly when he admitted that he had not played the game (Grand Theft Auto IV) he so vociferously denounced (though Fox News reportedly still uses him as an “expert”).

For some excellent and in depth coverage, visit GamePolitics.com’s Bar Trial Series.

The final disbarment decision will be made by the Florida Supreme Court on or around September 2.

The Kiltinator

East Lansing High School Theater program is en route to Edinburgh.

While I have been hip deep in development, the youngest member of our family has been working toward some success of his own. He and his fellow performers have put together an amusing video which tells it all (and then some):

In the summer of 2007, East Lansing High School’s Theater Department won the incredible honor of representing the State of Michigan at the 2008 Edinburgh (Scotland) Fringe Festival

The Kiltinator
[YouTube – running time: 9:47]

Enjoy!

(For your convenience, here is the link at the end of the video: www.elderly.com/fringe)

Happy Memorial Day

or Happy Spring Bank Holiday if you are in the UK.

Today is the unofficial start of the Summer vacation season here in the United States, and a big day for having gatherings with friends and family. We do have some good friends coming for a visit, and the whole (immediate) family here, so we have that second part covered (for the day). As far as vacations are concerned, though, it looks like we will be so busy for the next few weeks, at least, that getting away from the office will be unlikely. The time when vacations are most needed are often the same times that one is least able to afford either the time or money (or both) to take them.

The weather is just about perfect today, although thunderstorms are forecast for the afternoon and evening (which is par for the course for Summer in Michigan). Unfortunately, I begin today hobbling about due to a badly bruised left knee suffered in a soccer game last Thursday. The swelling and pain are subsiding a bit, so I do not think that anything actually broke. (I played most of the second half after the injury, only realizing the extent of the problem after the game ended.)

I have a large pile of technical notes, plus some anticipated announcements, ready for this blog. Similar to the vacation paradox, the point when one finds the most useful material is the time when one is being productive, rather than taking the time to actually compose blog posts.

Will work on that…

That New Computer Smell

or, Information Overload on Overdrive.

A couple of weeks ago, I got the first brand new primary development system I have bought in many years. Don’t get me wrong: I have purchased a large number of systems over the years as laptops, servers, secondary (Mac) development systems, and office/test machines. Through the years, though, the trusty dual-processor system that sits on (well, next to) the desk in my office has remained stable. Its last major upgrade was nearly six years ago, when I maxed out the processing capability of the motherboard. (There have certainly been several video card, hard drive, and disc burner upgrades in the interim.)

According to the PassMark CPU Benchmark Charts, the new system (quad core) processor should be approximately 10 times the combined speed of the processors in the older system. I could have assembled a crazy system that would be more than thrice this speed, but instead decided to opt for a pre-built computer from a major supplier, as I could not (right now) justify the extra time it would take to physically put together the hardware. Installing all of my development software would be time-consuming enough.

Speaking of software installation, I had planned to take several days to really get the new development environment tweaked to my satisfaction. The most basic functionality, the operating system, gave me the most difficulty, although it is probably due to one or more driver issues rather than the OS itself. I had to clock the processor below specification to keep any of multiple Windows installations (XP, Vista, and Vista 64) from blue-screening, although I restored the speed after installation and the system has been rock solid ever since. (That is “solid” as in does not crash, though Vista exhibits several reproducible bugs.)

The thing upon which I had not planned was the backlash of extra work and interruptions that come from taking a few days off to configure a new system. Wow! My last week really needed a time defragmenter, as it seems that I could never get more than 15 minutes on any single task before another issue demanded my attention. The fact that my projects build from 3.5 to 5 times as fast never really came into play.

Now that (almost) everything is working as I prefer, and with the trusty system just a double ScrollLock away, I should be able to take full advantage of the promised extra productivity… I hope.

Anniversary of first internet E-mail Spam

or, Never trust any Spam over 30 years old.

On (or about) May 3, 1978, a representative of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), THUERK at DEC-MARLBORO, sent an Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (UCE), a.k.a., Spam message, though neither term had been coined yet. The message was an invitation to view a demonstration of new DEC hardware at a couple of locations in California, and it was sent to nearly every address on the West Coast.

There was, of course, a huge backlash against the message. Interestingly, not only were there objections to the commercial content of the message, but in the days of connection speeds being measured in baud and kilobytes/second, the size of the message header was a significant load on resources.

This event predates my first hands-on personal computer experience by several months, and it also predates the birth of many people now in the game industry. It is a shame that we still do not have a solution to the problem (which has reached levels as high as 4 spams per second for extended periods on our server here). Unfortunately, most attempts to stem the flow, however well-intentioned, tend to simply make delivery of legitimate messages less reliable.

The time is ripe for a sender pays (recipient earns) system. At an average of upwards of 3000 spams per day, that could be a nice bit of residual income for us.