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."