BE: When did you finally quit your day job and focus on software?
SM: I quit my job in June of 1990. I would come home and find all this money in my mailbox, and I thought, "I'm making more this way than my $30,000-a-year day job." It got to the point in 1990 where I had made several hundred thousand dollars off these games, and it was blowing away what I was making at work, and I was thinking, "You know, I really should just focus full-time on this."
I also realized that I had reached the limits of my programming ability with Apogee. And not only that, but I had definitely reached the limits of my output. If I wanted to really be successful, I realized that I shouldn't try to make the games myself anymore, 'cause I'm only one person, I can only do so much. What I should try to do is recruit other game developers that were out there and explain to them that if they made a game, and they let my company release it using the marketing methods I had created, we could both make a lot of money.
It was actually fairly easy to convince other authors who weren't making a lot of money out there to work with me for a time and see if it would work. So I got Todd Replogle, who ended up being one of the co-creators of Duke Nukem. He was one of the very first people I recruited off the 'net, which in those days meant BBSes and CompuServe, GEnie, and Delphi.
How did Apogee's relationship with id Software come about?
SM: There was this game released on Softdisk called Dangerous Dave that looked really good at the time. It was a platform, EGA, arcade-ish kind of a game with a cute character, and I thought "That game is exactly the kind of game that could do well as shareware using my marketing technique."
Since I had worked with Softdisk before, I knew they were very protective of people within their company. So I knew that if I tried to send the author of Dangerous Dave a letter saying, "Hey, contact me. I have an offer for you," Softdisk would first scan that mail and not forward it on to the author. So what I did is tried to be sneaky, and I sent that author several different fan letters saying, "Hey. Loved your game." Then I made up stuff like, "But I found a bug on level 10. If you call me, I can tell you about it. Or if you write me back."
Anyway, this author I was writing to was named John Romero. He had my letters posted on his wall, and he had no intention of writing me back because he really didn't care. But he noticed that my three letters were all from the same address, although I used different names.
So he wrote me a very nasty letter back saying, "What kind of a psycho fan are you? I see that you're from the same address. Why are you sending me these?" He included his phone number on there, so I was able to phone him back and say, "Hey John. I'm actually just trying to get a hold of you for a different reason. I was trying to be sneaky there." He understood was I was trying to do and was very polite at that point. I told him, "Hey, look. I'm making a lot of money."
Did Apogee ever have a formal office anywhere, or was it always just operated out of your house?
SM: Until 1991, the office was just where I lived. After I quit my job and released the Commander Keen project, it was making $10,000 a month or so. That's when I realized I needed to get an office space so I could hire some people to start answering phones and get a shipping area, an inventory area -- all that kind of stuff. Originally, we weren't making any games internally. Apogee's office space was strictly used to take orders and to ship orders out through various means.
It wasn't until about '93 that we started building our own internal development team. Their first project was Rise of the Triad. Originally, that project was going to be a sequel to Wolfenstein 3-D. It was actually going to be called "Wolfenstein 3-D: Rise of the Triad."
So that's why Rise of Triad has some Nazi themes.
SM: Right. We had a deal with id to make a sequel. We had the whole story laid out. We hired Tom Hall, who was an original founder of id -- he was running that project.
We were about six months into it, and we had done tons of art, levels, you name it. Then I got call from John Romero saying, "Hey, you guys need to know that we're canceling that project." He never really gave me a reason why. I suspect it's because he didn't want that project being released around the same time that Doom was coming out.
So we were stuck with all these assets that we had done. It was a pretty cold-blooded move on his part, to be honest with you. We basically had to come up with a story that would allow us to use as much of these assets as possible. And so Tom Hall came up with a story that eventually became Rise of the Triad, and a lot of what is seen in that game was actually developed originally for the Wolfenstein version of Rise of the Triad.
Was it a coincidence that id Software is located in Texas? Or did they move there to be close to you?
SM: Yes, exactly. They moved here.
Where were they from originally? Do you know?
SM: When I first started working with them, they were located in Shreveport, Louisiana. And then they moved to Madison, Wisconsin for a few months, and they didn't like the fact that it was freezing up there. Then they moved down here.
So Apogee and 3D Realms essentially built a little ecosystem of game development in the Dallas, Texas area.
SM: Yeah, there's a lot of companies here that basically trace their roots to the fact that Apogee was here first. You know: id, Ion Storm -- and lots of companies that have come and gone, like Rogue and Ritual Entertainment. I know I'm missing a bunch.
Who were your first employees at Apogee? Was it just you and George Broussard?
SM: Yeah, it was me and George. I brought him on about a year after I quit my job. He came on in June of 1991; I had quit my job in June of 1990, and I finally convinced him to join me.
But the other employees were people that were only here for a few years. They were hired to basically answer phones and process orders, and they weren't really developers that anyone would remember or know. There's really nothing exiting in that direction.
What were the roles that you and George played at Apogee back then?
SM: Primarily we were sort of producers. What we would do is, we had about eight to twelve projects at any one time, and they were all external projects. So we would always be talking to these authors, helping them refine game ideas. They would work on games and submit them to us -- usually through ZMODEM or some protocol. You know, BBS to BBS, or just direct modem transfers. We would then play the games, get on the phone, and make comments. We'd say, "We need more of this here, or this is too hard here," or whatever.
In all these projects, we were basically trying to be co-game designers. The idea was to give all the games what we called the "Apogee touch," which was to make sure the games were fun, innovative in some way, and not overly difficult to play like so many games available on BBSes at the time. All our games had a save/restore feature, which was a key requirement that we wanted to have in every game.
We pioneered a lot of ideas back in those days. For instance, we released the first game that didn't have the concept of "lives." Up until then, in every platform game that you played, you would start off with three or five lives. We were the first company back in 1991 to get rid of that concept and just make it where, if you died, you simply restarted that level.
Which game was the first to have the "no lives" feature?
SM: It was called Monuments of Mars, a game by Todd Replogle. Nowadays, all games are like that. Pretty much every game you play has abandoned the concept of lives, but we were the first ones to do it.
Was that Todd's idea or yours?
SM: That was my idea.