At the moment, Scott Miller is an underrated figure in the history of the PC game industry. His innovative ideas in software publishing rapidly moved the business of shareware PC games from a dead-end prospect to a lucrative profession. Along the way, his company sparked multiple revolutions in the field
But you won't hear his name dropped casually as one of PC gaming's forefathers -- at least, not yet, anyway. In the public's mind, he currently resides on the fringes of popular acclaim.
In the early 1980s, a new breed of game authors emerged. They distributed their product for free as "shareware," allowing copies of the entire game to be duplicated without charge and, in turn, asked for recompense if the player liked what he played. Unfortunately for those brave authors, few players ended up sending payment.
Miller saw the fundamental flaw in this system and created the "Apogee Model," named after his shareware company, which saw games split into multiple parts. Apogee distributed the first episode of each game for free, essentially as a demo for the whole product. If the player enjoyed it, he could purchase further episodes from the company.
The model proved wildly successful, and publishers like Epic MegaGames (now Epic Games) soon followed in his footsteps -- as detailed in our earlier interview with Epic founder Tim Sweeney.
Miller achieved this publishing triumph by utilizing almost entirely digital distribution methods before the internet became mainstream. Once seeded by Miller, Apogee titles spread like viruses through BBSes and online services like CompuServe, usually with little more than enthusiastic fans as the vector. In today's web-driven world, this doesn't seem like much, but it was an innovation.
Through the model pioneered by Apogee, Miller inadvertently invented episodic gaming and made the now ubiquitous free-but-limited game demo an essential tool for marketing any new PC title.
Miller also personally coaxed two young programmers named John Romero and John Carmack out of Softdisk, a disk magazine publisher, and gave them a convincing reason -- promises of riches in the shareware industry -- to consolidate their powers as id Software.
Through Miller's hands-on involvement with id, Apogee found itself the pivot point of the industry's massive shift to first-person shooters by publishing 1992's Wolfenstein 3-D. Id parted ways with Apogee soon after, and blossomed into one of the mightiest independent game development juggernauts of the 1990s via Doom and Quake -- and distributed its early games the Apogee way.
Where and when were you born?
Scott Miller: I was born in Florida in 1961. I lived there for 11 years. I moved to Australia for five years and went to high school there, then came back to the United States in '79, and I've been in the Dallas area ever since.
What took you to Australia?
SM: My father, Boyd Miller, worked at NASA when we were in Florida. He was part of all the Apollo and Gemini shots, and he was an engineer on the whole program. After the Apollo program closed in '72, he ended up working for E-Systems and got a job that transferred him to the very center of Australia -- the outback -- to a town called Alice Springs, which at that time had about 11,000 people.
E-Systems and the Australian government shared a joint spy-satellite tracking base there. A couple other big American corporations were involved as well. These corporations from America would transfer engineers over to Australia to be stationed there for two- or three-year tours, and my father ended up doing a couple of these tours. And of course, where he goes, I go, when I'm that young.
Was your father an electronics engineer?
SM: Yeah, he designed equipment for NASA, and he designed top-secret equipment that he still can't talk about in Australia. When we came back from Australia, he was still working for E-Systems, which became part of Raytheon. When he retired a couple years ago, I know that the last thing he was working on was imaging systems for those Global Hawk unmanned planes you saw flying around in Iraq.
What kind of things did he do in the Apollo program? Do you know his particular contribution to it?
SM: That's a good question. All I know is that he designed a lot of the equipment that was used in those things. He could build equipment from scratch using parts, and so on, so several of the -- I don't know -- instruments and control panels he had a hand in. He says a lot of his stuff is still up there on the moon because it was left up there.
I don't know any of the real specifics. I know he was friends with all the astronauts, so he was pretty high up in the food chain over there.
Your father's story is very interesting because it always seems like technical people have some sort of technical parents.
SM: Yeah, that makes sense. My father always built electronics in the garage. He had a big workbench, just tons and tons of stuff, and he built digital clocks for his personal use in the home before I ever saw any on sale in stores. He was always doing that kind of stuff. So I'm sure that just growing up around that kind of atmosphere led me in that direction a little bit.
When did you first get into programming?
SM: I was going to school in Australia, and it was early 1975. In Australia, the way it works is that summer time is in the winter months here. So we had summer vacation in Australia while it was winter time in the United States. School starts up around February or March over there.
I was starting a new year of school, and our school had just been donated this new Wang 2200 computer from the company my father worked for. The school was just starting up a computer course, an elective you could take. I didn't know a thing about computers, but I decided to go ahead and do it because a bunch of my friends were taking the class.
I remember that I wasn't doing too well the first half of the semester, because I just wasn't into it. But then one of my friends started showing me that you could play games on computers. I thought, "Wow, that's interesting." That's what led me down the whole rabbit hole there: "Okay, now I see a reason to be interested in computers, 'cause I can make games."
After that, I got into programming really fast. During the daytime, I left windows unlocked at my school so I could sneak in at night and spend several hours in there making games. There was something magical about being in there at night. I wouldn't turn the lights on; it was just a green screen glow lighting up the keyboard in front of me. I have very magical memories about those nights.
I remember one weekend I was in there during the daytime, doing that same trick, and I got caught. My computer teacher looked at a bunch of printouts of games and other things I had done and was so impressed that he gave me the key. He said, "As long as you're going to respect the equipment, you're welcome any time." So I really got into it, I got in good with the teacher and everything, and that's what set the career path of making games for me.
As far as I'm concerned, that Wang 2200 computer was probably the world's first PC.
It could easily be a contender. There a lot of computers fighting for that title based on different criteria, because it's all dependent on how you define "personal computer." People bend the definition to fit whatever they want.
SM: From this perspective, I look at it as a complete package: monitor, storage system, keyboard. Everything was there, it was all integrated. Built-in BASIC language, and it was pretty much turn-key from the start.
An amazing machine.
SM: I had no idea at the time that it was the first of its kind or anything like that, and it was really quite painless to use back in those days. I remember it being fairly easy to pick up.
You just turn it on and you've got BASIC right there, right?
SM: Yeah, you've got BASIC. It was a simple green-screen CRT. I think it was like 12 or 15 lines by maybe 64 characters across.
What was the first game you made on the Wang? Do you remember?
SM: I remember seeing a game in Creative Computing magazine called UFO, and it was one of these games to where it was text-based, and it would say, "There's a UFO 50,000 kilometers in front of you. Do you want to shoot a laser, which would have minimal damage, or do you want to try and target it like a missile shot? Do you want to turn on your shields?" It was a bit of a Star Trek-y kind of deal. Or "Do you want to move closer or move further?"
And the opponent had a bit of AI. It would make moves, shoot at you, and stuff. So I typed that in and felt like, "There's a lot of room for improvement here." So I started to try to make it graphical by using ASCII text. I spent a lot of time doing that kind of thing.
Did you program anything similar to your later games, like Kroz?
SM: There was actually a game back in those days called Chase. Which I sort of referenced in my mind when I was making Kroz. 'Cause Kroz was sort of a melding of that Chase game and Rogue. I never played any of the Hack games or anything like that.
Chase was a game that displayed a ten-by-ten grid, and you had electric mines at various places randomly put into this grid. So basically, you had a hundred spaces in there, and about ten of the spaces contained little asterisks, which were the electric mines. Then you had the "agent," who was a letter "A," and then you had your character, which was a letter "U." Every time you moved in a direction, the agent would move in a direction that was exactly towards you. You had to manipulate his moves into one of those electric mines and kill him.
That was a very, very rudimentary game. When I first started making the game Kroz, I was really making an advanced version of that game. Then I started bringing in elements from Rogue and all kinds of unique elements. That's how Kroz got started.
Tell me about your life after you moved from Australia. Your dad got a job in Texas and you moved there?
SM: Yeah, he actually still worked for the same company. When I came back, I finished my senior year of high school here in America. My parents purposely moved back in time for me to graduate in America, that way I could get an American high school diploma.
Did you have any access to a computer in the U.S.?
SM: As soon as I came back, within six months, I was already in desperate need of computer time, so I convinced my father to loan me the money to get a Commodore PET. It was the original one with the built-in cassette drive and the small keyboard.
The chiclet keyboard? That must have been a pain to type on.
SM: Yeah, it was. But I was still happy.
Did you go to college after high school?
SM: It was just a community college -- Eastfield College -- around the Dallas area. I kindof went off and on for about ten years, to be honest with you. I eventually got all my basic classes done at the community college, and I started going to a graduate college called University of Dallas. I never finished because I kept dropping out of classes, and I kept purposely dropping out because I had so much going on with what I was doing work-wise, and just pursuing games, and so on. I was really getting into the arcade scene.
I never did get my degree. I think I'm about nine hours away from my computer science degree, which at this point would be totally worthless. [laughs] All my COBOL training isn't going to be effective now.
How did you meet George Broussard, your future partner at Apogee?
SM: I met him in high school, my senior year. We would meet after school in the computer lab, and there was teletype machine -- we were doing stuff on there. They also had an Apple II computer; we both did games on that. So we spent a lot of time after school geeking out in the computer lab. Also, once we had cars, we'd go to arcades together with other friends and spent a lot of time there.
You were both into arcade games at the time.
SM: Yeah, I worked in an arcade for a couple years, back in the very early '80s when arcades were just huge. I got super good at arcade games -- I was winning some tournaments locally here in Dallas. So George and I decided to write a book on how to beat arcade games. At the time, there weren't any books out like that. But during the six months it took us to write that book, about two dozen books like that came out. So ours didn't sell very well.
Our book didn't do all that well, but I used it to get a job at the Dallas Morning News, which is the big newspaper here in Dallas. I started writing a weekly column called "Computer Fun." It was all about arcades at first, but it moved towards computers, computer games, and console games like Coleco, Atari, and Intellivision at the time. Later, it got into computers like the Atari ST and the Amiga.
I did that for four years, and I was reviewing tons of games. I was on everyone's list at the time -- EA, Broderbund, Infocom -- they would send me any new games that were released.
I was doing all these reviews for my column, and I was still making games on my own, and it was a training ground for me. Because when you review things, you have more of a critical eye -- you're digging into what works and what doesn't.
Now I look back on all of that as great training for the career that finally came later in the '80s, when I realized that, "With all these games I'm reviewing, I could probably do a better job myself." And that's what I started to do in the middle '80s.
When did you get into the IBM PC as a platform?
SM: Within six months of it coming out in '81. I had the original 8088 model, and I remember having it upgraded to 256K RAM. It had a floppy drive, CGA graphics card. So yeah, I had a very early one and did some stuff on that, and eventually, it really took off when Borland Turbo Pascal became available for that system.
I don't remember what year that was -- maybe '83? But when Turbo Pascal came out, that's when the IBM PC -- for me at least -- finally became a pretty darn powerful game computer. Simply because Turbo Pascal was a wonderful, fast compiled language that was easy to use.
That was the key thing: it was very easy to use because of the integrated editor, which meant that you could quickly type something in, compile it, and see if it worked. That's critical when you're making any sort of program. You need that quick feedback to see if what you've done is working or not. Other languages were much more of a hassle in terms of that.
Did you ever get into C at all?
SM: I taught myself a little bit of Lattice C and Turbo C. But I preferred Pascal up until I stopped programming around 1990.
When you had a PC, were you keeping up with console games at the time -- Atari, ColecoVision?
SM: Yeah, at that time, I was also writing for the Dallas Morning News, so I had all those systems. And every game was sent to me for free.
What were some of the first games you wrote on the PC?
SM: It was all smaller games -- sort of testing out concepts and stuff. Nothing that would be worth playing nowadays.
My first attempt at a major game that I knew could be released publicly was Beyond the Titanic, which I started programming in '85. And in '86, I think I started making Supernova. I decided to do my own text adventure games like that based on the Infocom games I was playing and reviewing for my column.
Was Beyond the Titanic your first commercial game to be published anywhere?
SM: Yes. I started selling games to these disk magazines that were going around at the time for the IBM PC. One of them was called "I.B.Magazette." There was another one called "Softdisk." And "Big Blue Disk." Beyond the Titanic was published on one of those disk magazines -- I don't remember which one exactly.
I was making about five hundred to a thousand dollars per sale, and when I would sell them the games, it would just be for six months or a yearlong exclusive, and then the rights came back to me.
Is that how Apogee got started?
SM: Yeah. When the rights for my games started coming back to me, I was like, "How else can I make money on these things?"
There was this emerging thing called "shareware" on bulletin boards and CompuServe, so I started looking into that. There were a few games out there that no one was making any money on. And I was wondering why nobody was making any money on shareware games. You know, they were asking 10 or 20 dollars to be sent to them. I was contacting these authors directly, and every one told me, "Don't expect to be making any money off of this."
I was doing a lot of research on marketing back in those days. I thought, maybe these guys are doing it wrong. Let me try a different trick here. Let me release just a portion of a game, and sort of break a game into episodes, and release a portion of it. That portion will hopefully hook a player, and they'll have to order the rest from me.
That's really the first huge key to my success back in the '80s. When I released Kingdom of Kroz, I had two more Kroz games being advertised in that first game. In the first year, I probably made $80,000 to $100,000 from people sending me checks. I was getting several orders a day -- it would often be $100 to $200 a day. There were some days -- Monday was always the big day -- sometimes I'd be getting $500 every Monday.
Part of me is wondering why text-only PC games were so successful at the time -- especially in 1987. I guess what really held IBM PC gaming back was the limited graphics card selection for PC compatible computers. It took a while for IBM PCs to match the Amiga, for example, in graphical capabilities.
SM: Totally. That's why my first big attempt at a game -- and the second one too, Supernova -- were both text games. Infocom seemed to be doing really well with those at the time, and I was a big fan of those text adventure games. They didn't require any graphics ability; they could run on pretty much anyone's computer, so that's why I went in that direction to begin with.
Obviously all your Kroz games were text-based, and you said they sold extremely well. So graphics weren't a prerequisite at that time to have a successful game for the IBM PC, right?
SM: That appeared to be the case. Most people back in those days when I was doing the Kroz games had CGA cards. EGA was up and coming, but you really couldn't count on it. These disk magazines like Softdisk wanted the kind of ASCII-based games I was making because they felt like everyone could play them. They didn't want games that could just work on ten or twenty percent of people's computers.
Did you start using the name "Apogee" in 1987, around the time you released Kroz?
SM: Yep, I think that Kroz has "Apogee Software Productions" as its company title. That's the name I was using back in those days.
Was Kroz the first formal Apogee game? Or was there another one?
SM: It might have been Supernova. I'm not sure.
How old were you at the beginning of Apogee? About twenty-something?
SM: Yeah, "twenty-something" is accurate. I don't know where -- 27, 28, 29.
And you were still making a living as a writer when you started Apogee?
SM: I was writing, selling games. Also, in the early '80s, I was working at arcades, and in the middle '80s, I was working at the college I was going to. I was working in the computer lab for a couple years there, and then, in the later '80s, I was working at a computer consultant company.
How did you think of the name Apogee? Where did that come from?
SM: That's just me looking through a dictionary trying to find a cool name. It probably had a little to do with... I knew what the name meant because my father worked at NASA. That's probably where it came from.
So it just sounded good; a positive idea, like "the highest point."
SM: Yeah, it has a good meaning: the highest point. It was sorta unique -- I didn't know any company at the time named that. I like names that start with "A" because they get top positioning if they're listed alphabetically. So it's just a good name.
The one knock against it was that only about half the people could ever pronounce it right. Most people would say "App-o-ghee" or "Ahpog-ee."
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.
Really? So you were that deeply involved with the development process.
SM: Oh yeah. For instance, I designed the first 15 levels in that particular game. For the first Duke Nukem game, I did all the sound effects for the game, and I designed all the levels in the shareware episode of the game. So yeah, we did much more than just giving notes and stuff. We were also designing these games.
I had never known exactly the extent of your involvement with those games because, usually, they are credited to a developer that's not Apogee. I think history doesn't pay enough attention to the contributions Apogee -- you, George, and whomever -- had in developing those titles.
SM: Right. Back in those days, George and I had a policy where we didn't care about getting credit whatsoever. We just wanted to make a great game, and if we did that, everyone won. We were never credit hounds. We put lots of great ideas into so many games that we never got credit for. But even to this day, that's perfectly fine. In the end, it all works out.
At that time, were you more of a manager or marketing specialist in the company, and maybe George had a different role? What was the distribution of labor between the two of you?
SM: I definitely was more of the business manager at the time than George. Just because when he was brought on board, I was already running those functions. By that I mean, I was the guy who would work out the agreement with new developers, and work out the business relationship, and that kind of thing. George was more of the hands-on producer/co-game designer for a lot of these projects. But I did that too.
What was the last Apogee game you programmed yourself?
SM: I think it was called The Lost Adventures of Kroz. It was the last Kroz title.
Did you prefer the producer-manager role over the technical-coding aspect of game development?
SM: You know, coding is a lot of fun. You can get lost in the world of coding. You're solving very interesting problems when you do that, and it's very focused, and you're not distracted about a million other things. But then again, now my role is higher level, and that's also tremendously fun -- thinking of the bigger ideas, and the marketing angles, and that kind of thing. I like it all.
How did you first learn about the shareware model?
SM: Just through being deeply involved in the BBS scene.
The term was around for a while before you were making your shareware games.
SM: Yeah, I think shareware came into being around 1982 or '83. I think that's when that word was coined, and I think Jim Button is the guy who coined it. Before I came along, there was a group called The Association of Shareware Professionals. All the top shareware authors were part of this, and there were a lot of people making a lot of money in shareware, but they were only making money in areas of PC productivity. There was something called "Automenu" at the time.
Like a DOS shell kind of thing?
SM: Right, it was a launching deal, sort of pre-Windows. That guy was making tons of money. I can't remember his name. There was also PC-Write; I can't remember all of them. But there were lots of word processors and database programs that were made as shareware.
These guys were making a lot of money, but no one was making money in games. I really don't know why. I guess it's just human nature that if you download a game, and you have the whole game in hand, what's the incentive to pay money for it? And games are seen as trivial programs, whereas these other things like PC-Write were seen as major programs and people felt more obligated to send the guy money.
So really what Apogee was doing back then was releasing demos of our games, and really we were the first company to do that too. No one else was ever releasing demos of their games back before we did it.
Where did you get the idea for episodic gaming -- the "Apogee Model"?
SM: I just knew from talking to other shareware game authors who were making no money and saying, "Don't get in this if you want to make money," that the fault in their plan was they were releasing the whole game. So basically, I decided to release a demo and have that demo have an advertisement screen -- or multiple screens -- that told people, "Hey, this isn't the whole game. If you like this, there's more you can buy."
You'd see that screen when you loaded up the game, you'd see it when you exited the game, and you'd especially see it when you'd finish the game. It'd say, "Hey! Your adventure doesn't end here. Order these next two episodes and continue your adventure. Call this 800-number." That method was like striking gold. It was the right combination.
It was almost like a marketing Trojan Horse. After you got the demo in their hands, you had a marketing vehicle right there for the rest of the product.
SM: Right. Now what was interesting was that the Association of Shareware Professionals -- a group that I tried to join after doing this -- rejected me as a member because they said I violated the "Customer Code," as they put it. And that code was, "If you release something shareware, you have to give them the whole thing." You can't "cripple" it -- that's the word they used. They said that my games were "crippled" because I didn't give away the whole game. And so for years, I was not allowed to be a member of this association because...
They must have really enjoyed not making any money at all.
SM: [laughs] Eventually they caved in and they rewrote their rules to where they allowed me to be a member, and they allowed any member to distribute games like I was doing in that "crippled" way because, clearly, that was the way you made money. And now, everyone in that association does that technique.
It's definitely the way to go. Was there one game's success that made them change their mind and let you in?
SM: Yeah, it was a couple games. It was finally after the release of Wolfenstein that they basically saw the light and they were pretty stubborn about not wanting to change their rules, because they felt like they had made such a huge argument... You know, there were actually hundreds of emails within their forum on CompuServe.
I would have these huge long arguments with them in that forum saying, "Hey look, guys. This is the way of the future, this is clearly a proven technique." I said, "And the proof's in the pudding: no one's upset with this. No customers are saying, 'Why the hell am I not getting the full game here?' They understand the principle behind sampling a game and then paying for the rest of it. There's no uproar over this, so why are you guys not allowing it?"
So they finally caved in.
Some people have credited Michael Denio's game Captain Comic as a pioneer shareware game. Do you have any comments on that?
SM: That's one of the guys I talked to who said, "Scott, you're not going to make any money making shareware games." And then, after I basically proved him wrong and was making lots of money, that's one of the guys I tried to recruit: "Hey look, you're obviously a great game maker. Just do it right -- work through Apogee, and we'll make lots of money." But he had a pretty secure job somewhere else -- I forget where now -- and just didn't want to fool with it.
Well, he did eventually release Captain Comic in a semi-episodic format like your Apogee games: he used his first game to promote a non-shareware sequel, so he learned something from you, I guess.
SM: Hm. I wasn't aware of that. At that time, he had already released the full game, so that probably hurt him quite a bit.
What was Apogee's highest selling shareware game of all time?
SM: Duke Nukem 3D is our highest. That game sold a total of about three and a half million copies. The first Max Payne sold four million copies, but it didn't have a shareware version.
What were some of your best-selling titles back in the classic arcade Apogee days?
SM: Probably the three that stand out are Commander Keen, the original Duke Nukem, and Wolfenstein 3D. Wolfenstein was pure shareware -- we never had a retail version of it. It sold -- I want to say it sold 200,000 copies, in that area. That was by far our best seller then. I think the original Duke Nukem sold around 60 or 70,000 copies. And the original Commander Keen sold around 50 to 60,000 copies.
Also, Rise of the Triad sold probably about 110,000 copies. And Raptor was up there -- around 80 or 90,000 copies.
What kind of interactions did you have with Epic and Tim Sweeney back in the shareware days?
SM: I remember that he submitted a game to me called ZZT, and I actually liked the game, but it was very much like Kroz, and it was also very much like Todd Replogle's very first game, which was also a text game called Caves of Thor. Between those two, I felt like I had enough of those kind of games.
Had I known that Tim Sweeney would go on to be one of the greatest geniuses in all the game industry, I would have found some way to work some sort of arrangement out. But at the time, who knew, right?
It sounds like passing up ZZT was a smart business decision at the time -- especially considering that you had Kroz, and the two were very similar.
SM: At that time I was trying to move more toward the EGA games. I just didn't need another ASCII game like the two we already had.
As you know, I interviewed Tim Sweeney, and it seems to me that he viewed his relationship with you and Apogee as kind of like a...
SM: It was friendly competitive.
Yeah, but even before that, it was kind of like a master and disciple, or mentor and student relationship. He definitely looked at what you had done with the Apogee model in awe and used that model, obviously, with Epic. He talked about how well you had done it, and he was obviously smart enough to realize that it was a great way to do business.
SM: He saw something that was working, and to his credit, he copied it. That was very smart of him.
Did Epic become a serious competitor to Apogee? Or did you consider them a major competitor?
SM: Honestly, not really. I was really impressed with their pinball game -- Epic Pinball -- and that actually spurred us to do our own pinball game, which we released as Balls of Steel.
Did you pay attention to Jill of the Jungle or Jazz Jackrabbit, or other Epic titles?
SM: No, not really.
Were you dismissive of them because you thought, "Hey, we've got our own games"? Or did you just not care?
SM: I was impressed by what they were doing, but it wasn't like there wasn't enough money to go around. We were doing well, I'm sure they were doing pretty well, and really, it's only with Gears of War that I see Epic now as a major force in the game development side. They were a major force on the engine licensing side for a long time, but finally, Gears of War is the first "complete package" game that they've released in my opinion.
Was there any company you worried about competing with, other than Epic, in the early '90s?
SM: Honestly, no. It was really just us, Epic, and id Software at the time. We all got our start around the same time period, kinda followed in each other's footsteps, and really, it was just us three.
So your relationship with id and Epic stayed pretty friendly because it wasn't a cutthroat business -- there was enough business to go around for everybody to stay afloat.
SM: That's really it. I don't think that any of the games that any company released hurt the other company's games. We all made plenty of money, and there's no animosity between any of us, I don't think. Certainly not from 3D Realms' perspective. You might be surprised at just how friendly and sharing we are with each other.
Many Apogee games in the early 1990s seemed to stick to 16-color EGA graphics a lot longer than some of your competitors. Was there any reason for that?
SM: In hindsight, I know we stuck with EGA for at least a year or two too long. But the idea was to try and be compatible with more computers that were out there. But like I said, in hindsight, that probably wasn't necessary because when we released Wolfenstein 3-D, that was VGA only. It was actually designed as EGA, but we decided to go with VGA about four months before the game was released, and that sold extremely well.
At the time, though, we had several other EGA games in development, and the nature of the engine being used for those games really didn't allow us to switch them over to VGA. So we kinda had to stick with the program and release those games as EGA.
Were you active in the BBS scene during the shareware years?
SM: Oh yeah, I had a big list of BBSes. Exec-PC -- I remember that one. I can't remember any other names.
Did you call any small local BBSes?
SM: I was interested in the big ones around the United States. I had a list of about 40-50 that I would tap into. Whenever I released a game, I would call all these BBSes and upload my game. I had a relationship with the owners of a lot of them who would give me premium positioning, and maybe a mention on the front.
We started to invest in one of the BBSes called Software Creations BBS, which was run by Dan Linton. I think we invested almost $200,000 into his BBS system over a period of several years. It became our official home BBS.
Software Creations became known as the BBS to go to for the latest game downloads. Whenever we released a game, we uploaded it to them first. That's where we released Wolfenstein 3-D first, for example.
We also created our own forum on CompuServe -- an Apogee forum.
Also, back in those days, there were tons and tons of small businesses that had little shareware catalogs. I would also mail out probably 200-300 disks whenever we'd release a game to all the shareware catalogs. Just to make sure they got a copy of the game.
That must have taken a lot of work.
SM: Yeah, it was a big part of what we did. And this was one of the big things I'd sell to authors if they came to work for us. We made sure that the games that they made for us to release got premium positioning all over the world in all the different shareware catalogs. We made sure they were marketed in the right way, that the episodes were divided up in the right way, and that the first episode had the right incentive to buy the remaining episodes. It was all really well thought out. And to this day, all these techniques are still viable. Except now it would be on the web.
The web is what killed all the BBSes. I remember that when the web started coming out, Software Creations BBS tried to migrate to the web. It was there for maybe two years, but it didn't last. The web is just such a different beast.
When the web started eating into the BBS scene, did it eat into Apogee's profits as well? Or did it enhance it by allowing games to be transferred more easily?
SM: It probably enhanced it overall, even though... Basically, the web replaced BBSes, so for us, it was all the same. As long as people were still able to get the games...
So you didn't think, "Oh no. No more BBSes, no more shareware!" because shareware was still around.
SM: Yeah, it was still available. The emphasis was just shifting towards the web as a distribution point versus individual BBSes.
When that happened, and when other companies eventually started making their own demos available that weren't necessarily shareware publishers, did you feel bad that they were intruding on your turf -- that they were using the model that made Apogee unique? Did that bother you?
SM: Not really. You can't copyright or patent those ideas. I'm sure there was a company that came out with bottled water first, and now everyone's doing it, right? So you can't copyright those kinds of ideas.
So you don't think it hurt Apogee's financial prospects by potentially watering down the idea of being a publisher that distributes software electronically?
Remembering my own history, in the BBS days, Apogee games were everywhere. Everybody played them and knew them. Once the web started showing up and the internet took over, it seemed like shareware games from Apogee and Epic didn't have the same dominance and influence as they did before.
SM: Another thing was coming into play, that I think was the bigger factor. Just by coincidence, during the same time the web was becoming all-powerful in the mid-'90s, Epic and Apogee were both seeing a big shift away from these smaller arcade-like titles to bigger budgeted games.
We started putting more money into bigger budgeted games like Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior -- those kinds of games. And Epic was putting more effort into building their Unreal franchise and dropping the kind of games like Epic Pinball, One Must Fall, and Jill of the Jungle. Those kinds of arcadeish games -- as successful as they were -- just like Commander Keen was successful for us back in the early '90s -- they couldn't really support a growing company. They were good for a small team, but as the competition kept rising, you needed games that... Those kinds of games were good for hitting singles, so to speak. We were looking for games that could hit triples, home runs, and even grand slams. For us, Duke Nukem 3D was definitely a grand slam.
What do you think was the watershed game that started pushing the shareware industry toward bigger budgets? Was it Wolfenstein 3-D?
SM: Yeah, that game sort of rewrote everything as far as the potential of a shareware game. Up until then, we were making about $10,000 a month off of Commander Keen and we were making about $15,000 a month off of the original Duke Nukem game. Then Wolfenstein came out, and we were making about $200,000 a month.
So everybody took notice, I'm sure. Not just you.
SM: Right. It was like, "Okay. Do we want to keep making games that make us $15,000 a month, or do we want to start making games that make us $200,000 a month?" So that's what happened; what really happened was Wolfenstein. It kind of rewrote the whole rule book on the potential of what we could earn from games.
At that point, everyone's eyes opened to the power of 3D. Pretty much from that point onwards, a lot more focus went into making games that were 3D in nature.
It seems to me that Wolfenstein received much more mainstream coverage than any previous shareware game, right? As far as visibility is concerned.
SM: It was so hugely successful that -- yeah, I saw coverage everywhere. It seemed like everyone knew about the game. It was a paradigm shift.
How did it feel to be at the center of that shift? That new genre?
SM: It was like hanging on to the outside of a rocket ship. It was entirely unexpected to that degree. I think that both us and id knew that Wolfenstein was going to be big, but I guarantee you that no one at either company knew it was going to be anywhere close to being as big as it became. We thought if it would make $25,000 a month, we'd all be happy. Like I said, it averaged $200,000 a month for a year and a half.
So immediately the focus shifted to the desire to make more 3D games. And of course id went on to make Doom, which was a much bigger hit than Wolfenstein. At first, we focused on Rise of the Triad, and then we did Duke 3D. And Epic shifted to making Unreal. So it changed everyone's plan going forward on what kind of games to make.
When id broke off and started publishing and distributing their own games, did it hurt your feelings in any way?
SM: No, it was entirely understandable and expected because, at that point, they had learned all they needed to learn from us as far as how to market these things. They had all the money they needed to go off an do it on their own -- they didn't need anything from us. I would have done the same thing in their shoes. It was natural to go ahead and remove us from the equation at that point.
Did you think, "Oh crap. We've lost our star developer"?
SM: It would have been nice to still be working with them. You can't really get too upset about these things. You just have to go on, and it is what it is. They went off and made Doom, which was giant for them, and Quake also, and luckily we had our big hit with Duke Nukem 3D, then we had Max Payne. For both companies, it's been really good, actually.
As for Epic, they had Unreal, and now they have Gears of War, so really I think Epic is really ahead of both us and id Software combined. They are by far the most successful company. Other than Valve, I would say that Epic is probably the most successful independent developer in the world. I'd put them at number two.
Did 3D Realms start as a legal subsidiary of Apogee, or was it just a brand name?
SM: It started in 1994. I had just got done reading a book called Positioning. It's all about marketing stuff. It clicked that 3D was the future of gaming -- that's where it was all going, into 3D. And Apogee was already pigeonholed as sort of an arcade game company. So I decided that we needed a new brand, a new label that was better positioned for the future.
I came up with probably a hundred different names, and 3D Realms was picked in large part because it was one of a few names -- if not the only name -- I listed that was available as a domain name and also as an 800-number. That was important back in those days because we still did a ton of business through people phoning us directly. So having that "1-800-3DREALMS" number was really important to us.
How did the company structure between Apogee and 3D Realms work?
SM: Well, legally, we're still called Apogee Software. 3D Realms is a "DBA" which means "doing business as." It's a legal alias for the company.
Is it still that way now?
SM: Yes. For the most part, we call ourselves 3D Realms.
Were you planning Duke Nukem 3D when you were thinking about the 3D Realms name?
SM: Yeah, Duke Nukem 3D had already been started in '94. So yeah, we had every intention of releasing that game, plus we had several other 3D games under development at the same time.
We had Shadow Warrior, we had a game called Ruins, and we also had a game called Blood. We had four of these 3D games in development. We sold the rights to Ruins to the developer who was doing that, and it was eventually was released as a game called PowerSlave.
All of these were Build engine games, right?
SM: Yep. In total there were about 11 or 12 Build engine games released. And we sold Blood's rights to Monolith and they released it.
Blood is one of my favorites, actually. I interviewed Nick Newhard a couple years ago. He was the lead programmer on Blood.
SM: Yeah, I remember him well.
He said that Blood started as an Apogee project -- and that was something I didn't know at the time. Why did you sell it to them?
SM: Well, trying to fund all of these games became a very expensive proposition. Another game that we initially started was a game called Descent. That was another 3D Realms project, and we funded that for about a year.
But we got to the point where funding all these was becoming so expensive. For instance, the Descent team -- that studio was called Parallax Software at the time -- I think we were sending them $18,000 a month and they needed to get up to $30,000 a month. Other teams also needed to grow at the time. So we looked at our project slate and said, "You know, we can't support all these projects. We need to basically sell off some of these." And so we ended up just keeping Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior. We kept Shadow Warrior mainly because it was a fairly inexpensive project. But the others were getting very expensive and we had to sell the rights off.
I've read that 3D Realms is closing. Is that true?
SM: No, 3D Realms is not closing. The internal development is no longer a part of this business, though.
It seems like the whole blog world exploded talking about Duke Nukem Forever stopping production.
SM: There's a lawsuit around this, so I really can't get into any details on that.
I'm just worried about the future of 3D Realms.
SM: Our future is fine. We have, I think at last count, 11 or 12 projects in the works. One of them is coming out next week. Another one is coming out in about six weeks. Both of those are on the iPhone. We have some major games in production still. So we're fine. That's not an issue at all.
So did you just lay off the development staff for Duke Nukem Forever? Is that what happened?
So you're still there, and you're still technically Apogee under the hood.
SM: There's actually another company now going by the name of Apogee. About a year ago, we licensed the Apogee name to some other business people -- one of them had actually worked here several years before. They're reviving the Apogee label, the Apogee name, and they're doing a Duke Nukem Trilogy of games on the DS and PSP. They're also going to reboot the Rise of the Triad franchise, plus they have some other original titles that they're going to be doing.
With your new side company, Radar Group, it seems like you're taking an impresario/producer sort of position with other developers, similar to what you've done with Apogee.
SM: Basically, the whole time that Apogee/3D Realms has been in business, we've done a lot of work -- most of our work in fact -- with external development groups. So I have a lot of experience doing that. This includes games like Max Payne and Prey -- games where I had a very hands-on role, coming up with the key game ideas like bullet time, and so on. I played a key role in all these external games. Radar takes that idea and is building a whole company around it.
Also, Radar's approach includes not only making concepts that work for the video game market, but concepts that will also work for the linear market -- specifically films. Max Payne is a really good example of that.
When I was working with Remedy back in 1997 and we were first brainstorming Max Payne, I had a big talk them about, "We need to be thinking bigger than just games, guys. We need to develop a game that has a strong enough character and story that Hollywood is going to come to us and want to make a film out of it." And so, we built the game with that idea in mind. Everything was run through the filter of, "Is this a good enough idea that Hollywood will like it too?"
The Max Payne movie came out last October, so that approach did pay off for us, and there is a Duke Nukem movie in pre-production right now.
The goal with the Radar projects is to build all of our game concepts to be that way from the beginning. Radar has a sister company called Depth Entertainment, which is run by a Hollywood guy -- his name is name is Scott Faye. He was the lead producer in the Max Payne movie. His job is to work with Radar, to help develop all these new concepts to where they have both game hooks and film hooks in them.
Each side of the equation, both the game side and the film side, has specific needs, so if you can think of these needs from the very beginning, you really help yourself out in the long run to be successful in both arenas. Doom, for instance, wasn't really thought out as anything more than a game property.
So there was no real story to make a great movie out of it.
SM: There's no really good character or anything. Had they thought about that properly from the beginning, most likely the Doom film franchise would've been a lot stronger. That's really what we are trying to do with Radar -- just make sure that all of the big new concepts we come up with, and games that we come up, will also be potentially very strong on the film side.
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