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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.