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20 Years Of Evolution: Scott Miller And 3D Realms

The shareware innovator charts a path through his origins as a programmer in high school all the way to the future of his work with Radar, his new company dedicated to IP formation and evolution.

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.

The Early Years

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.

Early Programming Experiences

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.


The Wang 2200

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.

Back in America

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.


Scott Miller: Game Developer

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.

Kingdom of Kroz

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."


Apogee Becomes a Full-Time Job

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 whe

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