Miller goes into more detail on how he applied the shareware model of software to PC games, how he handled developers who scoffed at the notion that shareware products earned big money, and more.
(Originally published in the Patreon edition Episodic Content on 17 August 2015)
I’d like to backtrack and dig deeper into your use of shareware, which became known as the “Apogee model” of game distribution following the success of Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D. Shareware as a form of distribution for shareware before games. When was your first brush with the model?
Probably around ’85, ’86, somewhere around there. I think I was using a lot of utilities. There was something called Lists, I seem to remember, that was really popular back then.
Kingdom of Krozwas the first game you divided up into episodes. Did your discovery of shareware coincide with development of Kroz?
I was writing games for a magazine called i.a.magazette. When I sold my games to them, they just got a year exclusive, so when the year ran out, the rights came back to me and I was thinking, “What can I do with this now to make money?” I was aware of people putting things online and asking for money, so I thought, “It can’t hurt. I’ve already made money off these games. Why not try to make a little more?”
So I put both of my games–Beyond the Titanic and Supernova–out there using the traditional way, which was to release the full product and ask for money if people liked it. I think I was asking for 5 or 10 dollars. I made very, very little money. I remember asking other shareware game authors–there weren’t that many, but there were a few–and they all kind of said, “Yeah, don’t expect to make much money doing this. It might help a little bit, but for the most part you’re not going to see much.”
When I did Kroz, that was also a game I had released on i.a.magazette, and it actually won Game of the Year. The magazine held a Game of the Year contest and it won. So when the rights came back to me, I had written three Kroz games in total. Instead of releasing all three to the public via shareware, I had an idea: I was just going to release one and not make the other two shareware. At the end of the first, I would advertise the other two and see how that worked out.
That’s when everything took off.
Why do you think other shareware authors weren’t getting much interest from consumers?
I don’t know if it was so much that games weren’t taken seriously. I think it’s human psychology. If you’ve got something in your hands already, why go to the effort of paying? Especially because paying for something was a considerable effort in those days. For the most part, people didn’t use 800 numbers or things like that. You had to send someone a check, and that meant writing it out, putting it in an envelope, getting stamps–all that kind of stuff. It was quite an effort and made for quite a barrier.
It took more motivation for most people to send a check, and the motivation was, “Gee, if I send a check, I’ll get more levels for this game.” That was the ice I broke.
How well did the games do?
For three years, about ’87 until around 1990, I worked at a company, a computer consulting company. What they did was they installed payroll software at various Fortune 500 companies around the United States. They had a whole bunch of consults they would send out. Everyone was always on the road doing work. I was at the main office sort of as support staff helping put together documentation they needed, setting up their laptops, all that kind of stuff. Nothing too intensive, really.
The year that led up to when I quit, which I believe was June of 1990, I had made about a $100,000 a year [from Kroz sales]. My day job was paying $30,000. It didn’t take rocket science to figure out, “You know…” But even though I quit my job, it was still a scary decision because I was quitting a stable thing. You didn’t know how long the Kroz train was going to keep rolling forward.
A lot of my friends really thought I was crazy for doing that, when I told them what I was doing. But you don’t get many opportunities in life to take a chance like that. I figured, “You know, it’s now or never.”
Did you report your success to other shareware authors? Give them a few pointers?
For at least a year, maybe two years, people said, “Yeah, he’s just making up those figures.” You could hear the talk on the ‘Net and various bulletin boards. I don’t think I was even bragging about it, but I was out there saying that you can make money via from shareware as a game author, and I was probably the only one out there doing it at the time.
I guess what made the story even harder to believe was, there were other games out there that were much better than my games, especially in terms of graphics–EGA graphics, scrolling engines–and my games was just this ASCII-based game. And yet here I am saying, “Hey, you can make money, and pretty good money.” It was a hard story to believe because my games weren’t the best games out there. There were better games out there but they weren’t making money because the authors were giving the whole game away. That’s what they did wrong.
I remember there was one game in particular, I think it was called [Captain Comic II:] Fractured Reality. The author’s name was Mike [Denio]. He was recognized as having the best shareware game out there. It was a really nice sort of side-scrolling game, and he just wasn’t making any money at all. I would talk to him and say, “What you need to do is try marketing it with a whole other set of games.” I was trying to recruit Mike and have him sell his future games with me. I told him I was going to set up a whole new company, get 800 numbers, get credit cards, just do it right.
But for some reason, he just didn’t believe that it was going to happen to where you could actually make money. I remember talking to him about 10 or 15 years later, and he admitted he should have followed my advice and jumped in. But back then it really was a hard story to believe.
How did your schedule change after Apogee was formed?
It was a full-time job. I’d get there at 8:30 or 9 o’clock every day, get off around 5. I would get home and eat, and I would sometimes work until 2, 3, 4 in the morning on a workday. On the weekends I’d work all the way through the nights and wouldn’t even get to bed until 10 in the morning the next day, wake up around 3, start going again. I was pretty hardcore back in those days. For about a year there, my schedule was pretty hardcore.
When did George Broussard get involved?
All I was doing was selling my games at the time. Before I quit my job and started running Apogee full-time, all I was doing was writing my own games and selling them. Basically I was writing a bunch of Kroz games, there were seven in total, I think. I was so busy running a company that it didn’t really occur to me at the time. The idea of starting a company really didn’t occur to anyone at the time. It was more about, write your own games and get them out there.
George actually started working at the same company I was at, during my last year. We were working at the same office, and every day I would come in and say, “Guess how much I got in the mail yesterday? Five hundred dollars!” He would say, “Oh, man!” So hearing this over and over, how much I kept making from my little side job, it finally occurred to him, “I’m going to start writing my own games and see if I can’t start making some side money also.”
He started writing his own games, and it didn’t occur to either of us that we should join forces. And even after I quit my job and started my company, it wasn’t until about 8 to 10 months later that I approached him and said, “You know what? We should do this together. What we’ll do is, we’ll roll your games into Apogee and we’ll do this together.” Apogee was definitely more known and definitely making a lot more money than his company. I had also partnered with id Software at the time and Commander Keen had come out. That had taken things to a whole new level. I was also working on the first Duke Nukem game.
Did the financial security brought on by Commander Keen’s success afford the id Software guys the opportunity to break off from the Softdisk magazine and work on more games?
Id was taking the Softdisk computers to work on Commander Keen at night. I guess they didn’t have better hardware and software of their own to do that, and they didn’t want to develop the game at Softdisk because it would have become Softdisk property. Well, it turned out that even taking Softdisk computers home and developing a game on their computers, kind of makes the game Softdisk’s property.
After Commander Keen came out, suddenly id thought, “Shareware makes us tons of money. Let’s do that full-time.” I said, “You guys should quit Softdisk, form your own company, and keep making games, and we’ll grow rich together.” They were totally sold on the idea, but Softdisk didn’t like the idea of losing those guys. When Softdisk found out they’d made Keen on Softdisk computers, that gave them sort of a legal angle to threaten the guys for doing that, and that Keen was rightly Softdisk’s property.
I can’t imagine the Softdisk publishers were okay with that.
Softdisk was making all of these allegations. I jumped in and said, “I’ll hire an attorney to protect you guys and we’ll figure a way out of this.” Our attorney got Softdisk to back down on the threats and basically calm down a little bit, but still, some agreement had to be reached because Softdisk still had a case they could pursue. Softdisk said, “You can keep Commander Keen, but we want 10 more games out of you guys.”
At the time, that seemed fine. Okay, 10 more games. Id had to come up with a game a month for Softdisk or something. They were using their engine and came up with a game called Keen Dreams or something for Softdisk. At the same time, they started making games that explored 3D graphics. They did a game called Hovertank 3D.
During this whole time, id had moved to Dallas and I was becoming good friends with them. We’d go out to dinner a lot and talk about what we were going to do next in shareware: maybe another Commander Keen game and so on, which later became Goodbye Galaxy. But when I saw their new 3D technology, I thought, “Oh my gosh, this is so far ahead of my time. We should use it for shareware.”
They said, “You know, we totally agree, but we have this Softdisk agreement hanging over our heads. We have to finish games for them.” By this time I’d brought on George as a partner at my company. I was bugging George: “There has to be some way we can help these guys out here. What if we made games and gave them to id, to give them to Softdisk?” While we did a game that month, id could keep working on their 3D technology.
That’s the deal we worked out with id. George and I developed a game called ScubaVenture that was released as an id Software game. During that time, id worked on what became Wolfenstein 3D. They got the project off to a good start and then they finished a couple more games for Softdisk and said they were done with their commitment to them. Then they could focus on Wolfenstein full-time.
I think Wolf3D was the first shareware game I ever played. I didn’t even realize it was one-sixth of a game at first. The experience felt complete: lots of levels, lots of guns, secret areas, a final boss…
We really felt like that was the point: to not shortchange people with the free version. My thinking was, if we gave them enough to play for several hours, they would feel like they’d spent some quality time with the game. If you give them 30 minutes or less, it’s such a small enough amount of time that they could blow it off. But three or four hours into an episode? That shows them an exhilarating game and makes them say, “I’ve got the controls down and am starting to really get good at this thing. Hell yeah I want to keep playing.”
Publishers hate–hate–giving away too much for free. It totally rubs them the wrong way. I remember when we started working with other publishers, one of their first comment was, “You know you guys are giving too much away, right?” We were always fighting them on that point, because we believed that we needed to give so much away that the player would really become invested in it. They’re hooked; they’ve got several hours behind them and they want to keep going.
A lot of consumers miss shareware, as well as shorter demos that only consisted of a couple of levels. That model was a good way to get your feet wet and decide if you wanted to shell out the full price for the full game. Why do you think fewer developers release demos?
I think there are two things in play today. One thing is, content is so expensive to make that publishers hate to give away any of it for free. A two-hour experience of Uncharted or Call of Duty is a huge monetary investment. The other thing is, I think games are shorter than they used to be, so giving away three to four hours of a game nowadays would be like giving away half the game.
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