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Apogee Software: When the sultans of shareware went retail

Apogee Software: When the sultans of shareware went retail Exclusive GDMag Exclusive

April 8, 2014 | By Alexander Antoniades

In this reprint from the February 1995 issue of Game Developer magazine, editor-at-large Alexander Antoniades describes Rise of the Triad developer Apogee Software's attempt to move beyond shareware development and become a bona fide game studio.

Only in America, the legend goes, does the little guy have a chance to hit the big time. This story is true for a couple of childhood friends from Dallas, Texas, whose company, Apogee Software, has come to dominate the shareware game industry and is now looking to become a major player in the retail channel.

It all started in 1987, when Scott Miller was working as a computer consultant and wrote one of the early shareware games for the PC, Kingdom of Kroz. Although the game was a simple ASCII text adventure, it became so successful that Scott quit his job and formed Apogee Software. (The name Apogee came from a band that he had been with in 1982 and fit in with his interest in astronomy.) He repeatedly tried to convince his friend, George Brousard, author of the shareware game Pharaoh’s Tomb, to join him, but George kept his day job until 1991, when he eventually joined Scott as partner in Apogee.

Apogee’s mission was simple: find cool games and distribute them. Scott and George scoured the BBSs looking for cool games that just needed that finishing touch to become hits. Once they found a cool game, they contacted the authors, signed them up, and handled the distribution and fee collecting.

Todd Raplogle was the first person they signed up. His game, Caves of Thor, was a prime example of the kind of cutting-edge game Apogee was looking ing for. Eventually, Todd left his home in Santa Cruz, Calif., for Dallas, where he worked with Apogee on its first really big hit, Duke Nukem.

One reason behind Apogee’s success is Scott’s “trilogy approach” to game marketing and distribution. This method consists of making the first third of the game, which contains a subset of the features, unconditionally free. To get the remaining two thirds, players must register for the game. He developed this style by accident after he regained the rights to three games he had written for Soft Disk. To test the software market, he released the first game as freeware and charged for the other two. This approach helped Apogee become the shareware game company.

But it wasn’t just creative marketing that made Apogee successful"it was also the ability to spot great talent, such as Id software. Before the makers of Doom were the masters of all they surveyed in the gaming community, they worked for Apogee. Scott wooed them away from the company they were working for, Soft Disk, by sending them fan letters under fake names. Each letter ended with the message “contact me” and Scott’s phone number. (See the article “Monsters from the Id: The Making of Doom,” Premier issue, 1994.)

At the peak of their relationship, Id accounted for about 20% of Apogee’s total revenues. Id cranked out hit after hit, first with the Commander Keen games, a series of side scrollers in the same vein of Sigeru Miyamoto’s Super Mario games (see the article “Miyamoto’s World” by David Sheff, June 1994). They next created the then state-of-the-art Wolfenstein 3-D, one of the first faux three-dimensional games to capitalize on texture mapping and fast bitmap manipulation.

Id’s success gave them enough name recognition and money to distribute its own games. So, after a very successful three years, Id and Apogee split up to seek their own fates, but they continued to work on a few projects together.

The first game, BioMenace by Jim Norwood, was the only finished product to come from a Commander Keen cloning workshop that Id taught to other Apogee developers. A second project was Blake Stone and the Aliens of Gold, made by JAM productions, which used the Wolfenstein 3D game engine.

Their last project together was Wolfenstein II. During this time, Doom was becoming a huge hit, and the Id developers broke away from the Wolfenstein II project, saying that they were too busy to continue with it. Apogee was having second thoughts about the project, anyway. Both companies felt it was heading in the wrong direction.

Apogee wasn’t left completely in the lurch when Id parted. One of Id’s founding members, Tom Hall, who had left Id due to creative differences at the beginning of Doom, moved over to Apogee and became the leader of its first in-house development team.

Goodbye Wolfenstein II

Tom was heading up the Apogee side of the Wolfenstein II project, but he wasn’t happy with it. His main problem was that the iconography of the game was too confining. He wanted to make a game that had a wide variety of characters and creatures, so when Id was too busy to continue working on the project, Tom took the opportunity to start from scratch.

A new game, Rise of the Triad, started out with legacy artwork from Wolfenstein II. Because the artwork had taken six months to complete, Tom didn’t want it to go to waste. In a moment of Roger Corman B-movie inspiration, Tom dreamed up a storyline in which a super secret U.N. SWAT team stumbles upon a terrorist plot to destroy Los Angeles. The terrorist’s cover is an old movie studio that looks like a Nazi fortress.

To finalize the divorce from Id, Tom plugged the data into a new game engine. The engine that Wolfenstein II was designed around was an enhanced version of the original Wolfenstein engine, which had texture-mapped floors and ceilings. Tom enlisted the aid of Mark Dochterman to build a new engine that would expand the capabilities of the game while using the current artwork. The new engine included support for multiple heights (such as three-story buildings), translucent walls (sheets of glass), and light sourcing. While the final engine wasn’t quite up to par with Doom (walls had to be at right angles and the graphics tiles were bigger), it did have a couple of things that Doom didn’t, such as bullet marks on the walls and support for more network players.

To take advantage of these new features, Tom incorporated some ideas he was originally going to put into Doom had he continued working on it. One concept was to have different characters, similar to Street Fighter II, who would have different appearances and characteristics. Another theme was environmental dangers such as spinning blades, crushing walls, and giant rolling balls to add another element of chance when there were no living enemies around.

Other touches show the depths of Tom’s imagination. My favorite of the power-ups is the dog mode, which switches the perspective to a lower level and places a dog snout where your weapons were. Other playability extenders include springboards that catapult the player tens of feet in the air, random actors (roughly the equivalent of wandering monsters in Dungeons and Dragons), and the ability to generate completely random levels.

Network Heckling

Another aspect that Apogee didn’t want to overlook with Rise of the Triad was network play. The game can support up to 11 network players as well as a “remote ridicule” mode that can transmit the players voice through a sound card over a LAN to be played back on other players’ machines.

Apogee considers projects of this size the minimum for future development. While Scott and George have gotten rich by releasing six to eight small games a year, with up to 22 projects going at one time, their goal is to become big-time developers working on four to six games a year.

Their first step is to use in-house development teams, similar to Tom Hall’s nine-person crew, that will be able to flexibly build games in a reasonable time frame. After working with many small developers all over the U.S., Apogee has found that long-distance relationships generally haven’t worked for them. The communication gap between what Apogee wanted and what the developer wanted often resulted in so many revisions that by the time some of Apogee's games got to market, their technology was too old to be competitive.

A new branding strategy is another plan Apogee has to become more competitive. Apogee is launching a different company this year that will only do three-dimensional games. The new company, called 3D Realms, will be a sister company separate from Apogee that will release games using the latest three-dimensional technology. Apogee wants to retain name recognition for making general action games.

The key component to this strategy is a new game engine called Build, developed by Ken Silverman, author of the shareware game Ken’s Labyrinth. This engine is capable of rendering a 640-by- 480 screen, and, according to Apogee, it matches or surpasses the Doom engine feature for feature. Four games are currently planned for release from 3D Realms in 1995 using this engine.

Although shareware is important to Apogee over the long run, one goal is to break into the retail market. Apogee will team up with FormGen, the distributors it used for Wolfenstein, for all of its currently planned ventures. It will release the shareware and retail versions of its products as close together as possible, unlike Id, which staggers its retail releases a great deal behind its shareware.

Apogee’s shareware roots left the company particularly well positioned in the online market. Because of the distribution model that shareware uses (duplicate early and often), Scott and George had to establish a presence online from the very beginning. The early days involved a week of 20-hour days once a game was released to make sure that it got on the shareware community’s 100 BBSs.

Today, after investing more than $200,000, Apogee has the Software Creations BBS, which features more than 100 lines and services 3,500 distribution points. Apogee also has its own section on America Online and will soon open an electronic software store on CompuServe. To manage these products, Apogee employs two people, whose sole job is to offer support online.

This infrastructure hasn’t changed one thing, however: Scott and George still work at home. A short distance from their main offices where their 25 employees work, the principal partners in Apogee find that they still keep hours too irregular to be confined to an office routine. They believe that this nontraditional working style and hands-on management will keep them competitive as they alternate between taking on other shareware vendors and fighting for shelf space with the big boys.

Still looking for hot technology, they get 20 proposals a week from developers eager to become the next shareware millionaires. If Apogee can make the transition from shareware moguls to retail darlings, they will have made a new model for game companies to use and further validated shareware’s impact on the game market.

You can find more great stories from old issues of Game Developer Magazine in the GDMag Archive section of the GDC Vault.

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