Thursday, August 20, 2015

Classic Apple II Games - an Analyis of Softalk's Bestseller Lists

As much as I enjoyed playing arcade games back in the day, I probably enjoyed playing games on my Apple II even more. In part this was because computer games were much more involved and told more of a story and in part it’s because I played them in my home, making for a more intimate gaming experience. A few months back, scans of all 48 issues of SoftTalk were posted on Internet Archive. Published from September 1980 to August 1984, Softalk was perhaps my favorite Apple II magazine. More importantly for our purposes, it also printed several bestseller lists starting with the second issue. Now that I have the data, I thought I’d do a little analysis of the various lists, especially in regards to games.

The lists started with the October 1980 issue and included a list of the 30 bestselling software titles overall and several top five and top ten lists of the bestselling games in various categories (home, hobby, business, adventure games etc.) According to that issue, 15% of Apple-franchised retail stores volunteered to participate in the poll. They were contacted by phone in the first week of September to get data on their bestselling games for the month of August. The rankings were based strictly on number of sales made and nothing else (not quality, not profitability etc.) The top 30 list include an "Index" – "an arbitrary measure of relative market strength." While they do not say how they calculated the index, it is quite helpful since the index often dropped off precipitously after the top 2 or 3 titles (and sometimes it dropped after #1). Anyway, on to the numbers.

The first thing I looked at was how popular games were in relation to other types of software. While some have claimed that microcomputers of the late 1970s and 1980s were primarily used for business or home use rather than gaming, I have often wondered if that was the case and suspected that more people bought computers for gaming in these years that is generally realized (or admitted to). The data give some support to this idea, but only in the early months. From October 1980 to August 1981, 70.6% of the thirty bestselling programs (21.2 titles out of 30) were games. From September 1981 to April 1983, 49.6% were games, and from May 1983 to August 1984, just 35.4% were games. If we just look at the top ten, the difference is slightly greater: 75% of the top ten programs from October 1980 to August 1981, 49% from September 1981 to April 1983, and 29% from May 1983 to August 1984. Of course, there are other ways to look at the data. Business programs, for instance, were generally much more expensive than games so if we looked at dollar volume, a different picture would emerge. We could also look at home much time people spent using various software or how important it was to them. Many games were ephemeral. Once  you finished them, it was on to the next. Business and home software, on the other hand, probably had a much longer shelf life and may have gotten used more often and for more crucial purposes. .Once you found a good word processor or spreadsheet, for instance, it may have served its purpose for years.

In terms of peak index, top ten titles over all 47 poos were:
Choplifter (Broderbund) 214.57
VisiCalc (Personal Software/VisiCorp) 213.62
Apple Writer II/IIe (Apple Computer) 199.87
AppleWorks (Apple Computer) 145.99
Screen Writer II (Sierra On-Line) 99.73
Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (Sir-Tech) 99.7
Space Eggs (Sirius) 99.56
Personal Filing System/PFS: File (Software Publishing Corp) 99.38
Wizardry (Sir-Tech) 99.32
Home Accountant (Continental Software) 99.17

If we look at the top 42 individual monthly indexes, the top four titles above account for all of them.
Here are the top ten games, in terms of peak index:
Choplifter – 214.57
Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds – 99.7
Space Eggs – 99.56
Wizardry – 99.32
Miner 2049er (Micro Fun) 99.11
Apple Galaxian (Broderbund) 99.06
Flight Simulator II (SubLogic) 99.88
Olympic Decathlon (Microsoft) 98.48
Lode Runner (Broderbund ) 97.73
Raster Blaster (BudgeCo) 97.53

The #1 titles were
VisiCalc – 17 times
Apple Writer IIe – 12 times
Choplifter – 5 times
Raster Blaster, Apple Galaxian – 3 times each
Apple Writer II, AppleWorks, Space Eggs – 2 times each
Flight Simulator II - once

Here are the top five titles in terms of total # of appearances on the charts
VisiCalc – 44
PFS: File – 37
Wizardry – 33
Typing Tutor (Microsoft) 33
Home Accountant - 28

For games, here are the top titles
Wizardry – 33
Choplifter – 24
Castle Wolfenstein (Muse) 24
Zork I (Infocom) 24
Flight Simulator - 22

Which publishers had the most titles appearing on the charts?
Sierra On-Line - 24
Broderbund - 23
Apple Computer - 18
Sirius – 16
Beagle Bros - 10
Personal Software/VisiCorp – 8
Muse – 8
Infocom – 8

If we just look at games, here are the publishers with five or more:
Sierra On-Line - 23
Broderbund - 20
Sirius – 16
Infocom – 8
Epyx/Automated Simulations – 7
California Pacific – 6
SSI – 5

Note that Muse falls off the list because its eight titles included four versions of Super Text.
Finally, I created a formula to rank the games based on overall chart performance.
The formula adds together:
1) Peak Index (max 214) – This is the only component that can exceed 100, but since that makes sense since it is the only one that is directly tied to sales (as I mentioned, the difference
2) Peak Position Points (max 100) -a game that peaked at #1 gets 30 points, #2 gets 29 points etc. then the total is multiplied by 3.33 to convert it to a 100-point scale)
3) Longevity (max 100) - # of appearances x 2.13 (the maximum # of appearances if 47, so I multiplied by 2.13 to convert to a 100-point scale)
4) Bonus Points - # of times at #1 x 2.13. The "max" here is 100, but to get it you’d have to have finished first in every list, which no game came close to doing.

Using this formula, the top titles were:
VisiCalc – 444
Choplifter – 376
Apple Writer IIe – 350
Apple Writer II – 330
PFS: File – 275
Wizardry – 266
Home Accountant – 260
AppleWorks – 257
MasterType – Lightning Software – 255
Typing Tutor - 233

Note that VisiCalc moves ahead of Choplifter, which is appropriate. This supports VisiCalc’s reputation as the program that made the Apple II. That may not seem to need confirmation, since the fact is so well known, but when dealing with Apple history, everything need to be confirmed since a number of the "facts" that everyone knows are little more than PR and corporate hero worship. PFS: File was database that was part of a Microsoft-Office-like suite of business applications for the Apple II (the others were PFS: Write, PFS: Graph, and PFS: Report).
And for games:
Choplifter – 376
Wizardry – 266
Flight Simulator - 231
Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds – 230
Raster Blaster – 229
Miner 2049er – 222
Snack Attack – Datamost – 220.4
Lode Runner – 219.5
Space Eggs – 218.7
Flight Simulator II – 216
Zaxxon – 215
Olympic Decathlon – 214
Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn – 212.2
Apple Galaxian – 211.8
Gorgon – Sirius - 209

That’s it for the overall bestseller list. Now let’s look at the individual games lists.
Over the years, Softalk had four different lists:
Top 5 Adventure Games
Top 5 Fantasy Games
Top 5 Strategy Games
Top 10 Arcade Games

The first three ran from October 1981 to August 1984. The arcade games list didn’t start until January 1983 and ran to August 1984.
First, let’s look at adventure games.
#1 games
Zork I (Infocom) - 15 times
Cranston Manor (Sierra On-Line) - 5 times
Deadline (Infocom), Ulysses and the Golden Fleece (Sierra On-Line), Mask of the Sun (Ultrasoft/Broderbund), Escape From Rungistan (Sirius) – twice each
Zork II (Infocom), Time Zone (Sierra On-Line), The Quest (Penguin), Suspended (Infocom), Starcross (Infocom) – once each

The surprise for many here is probably Mask of the Sun – an excellent game that is little remembered today (there was also a sequel called The Serpent’s Star). Escape From Rungistan and The Quest are also rarely discussed today. Time Zone was considered something of an ambitious flop.
Most appearances
Zork I – 28
Zork II – 26
Deadline – 19
Zork III – 12
Wizard and the Princess (Sierra On-Line) – 9

I also created my own index for this list, which is similar to the one I used for top 30. It consists of
Peak ranking; (6-peak)*20 (i.e. peak rating of #1 = 100 pts, #2 = 80 pts, #3 = 60 pts etc.)
Longevity = # of appearances x 2.86 (max 100) – there were 35 total charts, 100/35 = 2.86
Bonus – times at #1 x 2.85

Here are the leaders
Zork I – 223
Zork II = 177
Deadline – 160
Cranston Manor – 137
Mask of the Sun – 129
Ulysses and the Golden Fleece – 123
The Quest, Time Zone, Escape From Rungistan, Kabul Spy (Sirius) – 117

Top adventure game publishers (by # of games charted)
Infocom – 10
Sierra On-Line – 5
Phoenix Software - 3

No surprise at #1. Infocom easily dominates, despite the fact that their games had no graphics. I played tons of their games and enjoyed them far more than those of the competition, graphics or not (I think the lack of graphics actually helped). #3 probably is a surprise to many, most of whom probably don't remember Phoenix Software and their adventures (for the record, the three here were Adventure in Time, Masequearde, and Sherwood Forest).

Now let’s look at fantasy games
#1 fantasy games:
Wizardry – 27 times
Utlima, Wizardry III – 3 times each
Wizardry II – twice

Most appearances
Wizardry (Sir-Tech) – 34
Wizardry II: Knight of Diamonds (Sir-Tech) – 26
Ultima (California Pacific) – 22
Ultima II (Sierra On-Line) – 18
Exodus: Ultima III (Origin Systems) – 11
Apventure to Atlantis (Synergistic) – 11
Wizardry III: Legacy of Llylgamyn (Sir-Tech) – 10

Top Index (same formula as above)
Wizardry – 274
Wizardry II – 180
Ultima – 172
Wizardry III - 137
Ultima II – 131
Exodus: Ultima III – 111
Apventure to Atlantis – 111
Caves of Kharkan (Level-10, Daiken-5) – 89
Snooper Troops I (Spinnaker) – 83
Crush, Crumble, and Chomp (Epyx/Automated Simulations) – 80

As expected, the fantasy competition comes down to Wizardry vs Ultima and Wizardry emerges as the clear winner. This might seem surprising to some, since Ultima is much better known today (though its reputation is fading). In the early years, however, at least judging by Softalk’s lists, Wizardry was more popular. This actually accords with my own memories. I played both series extensively and while I loved them both, I preferred Wizardry (Wizardry I was the main reason I bought an Apple II). Despite the fact that they’re both fantasy role-playing games, it’s kind of an apples-and-oranges comparison. At first glance, the most obvious differences were in the graphics and perspective (first-person vs. overhead) but IMO, these differences were relatively trivial. The real difference was in the gameplay. Ultima was all about finishing the quest and solving problems while Wizardry was about character development and fighting monsters. Ultima had a richer story and more quests, while Wizardry had more items, abilities, and monsters. Given that, you’d think I’d prefer Ultima but for some reason I like Wizardry better (though I did love Ultima II). So what is Ultima better remembered today? I think one of the main reasons is that the Ultima series went on to much better things. Ultima IV and Ultima VI were two of the best RPGs of the time and Ultima Online was, for a time, popular (though it faded fast). The rest of the Wizardry games didn’t fare nearly as well . Richard Garriott’s media-friendly image and Lord British persona may also have been a factor (you didn’t see Andrew Greenberg and Robert Woodhead on television).

Top fantasy publishers in terms of # of games was Epyx/Automated Simulations with five games. Edu-Ware, Level-10, and Sir-Tech had three each.

Again, Epyx is probably surprising to most. The games were Crush, Crumble, and Chomp; Curse of Ra, Dragons Eye, Temple of Apshai, and Upper Reaches of Apshai. And that doesn't even count Morloc's Tower, Datestones of Ryn, Rescue at Rigel, and Hellfire Warrior, all of which made the top 30 list but didn't make the fantasy top five. Most of these were part of the Dunjon series, one of the first RPG series for the Apple II. The first was Temple of Apshai in August 1979 (though it was originally developed for the TRS-80) and a total of ten games were released for the series.

How about Strategy games?

#1 games
Castle Wolfenstein (Muse) – 23 times
Flight Simulator II (SubLogic) – 7 times
Flight Simulator (SubLogic), Robot War (Muse), Sargon III (Hayden) – once each

# of appearances
Castle Wolfenstein– 34
Flight Simulator – 28
Sargon II –(Hayden) 25
Robot War – 10
Sargon III - 8

Castle Wolfenstein is another game that I think is kind of unjustly ignored today. It is known, of course, due to Wolfenstein 3D but it seems to me that most people think it was some obscure game that served as inspiration for its successful follow-up. In truth, however, the original was a major hit in its own right. Until I made this list, even I didn’t realize how popular it had been.

Castle Wolfenstein - 263
Flight Simulator - 183
Sargon II - 152
Flight Simulator II - 140
Robot War - 131
Sargon III - 126
Rendezvous - 100
Spitfire Simulator - 91
Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (Muse) – 86
Broadsides (SSI) – 86
Beyond Castle Wolfenstein debuted the month before Softalk ceased publication or it would have ranked higher.

Top strategy publishers (# of games)
SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc) – 16
Muse, SubLogic – 3 each
No other category witnesses such dominance by a single publisher. Again, however, for those who were around in the early 80s, this is no surprise. SSI was the sine qua non of computer strategy games - the Avalon Hill of the genre. Avalon Hill, despite the fact that it made several computer games, was not the Avalon Hill of the genre and some of their computer games were pretty terrible (B-1 Nuclear Bomber, anyone?) Avalon Hill was actually the dominant (or at least most prolific) war game publisher for the Apple II in the earliest years, until SSI pushed them out of the limelight.
SSI plumbed the same basic genres Avalon Hill did in its tabletop board games - war games and sports games. They also produced a number of role-playing games, some of which were pretty good (even if the graphics trailed far behind the competition). I still remember the ending to Questron 2 almost three decades after playing it.

Finally, arcade games
#1 games:
Lode Runner (Broderbund) – 8 times
Choplifter (Broderbund) – 5
Julius Erving and Larry Bird Go One-on-One (Electronic Arts) – 3
Zaxxon (Datasoft), Miner 2049er (Micro Fun) – twice each

# of Appeaances
Choplifter – 20
Miner 2049er – 18
Pinball Construction Set (BudgeCo/Electronic Arts) – 17
Frogger (Sierra On-Line) – 16
Zaxxon – 14
Lode Runner, Hard Hat Mack (Electronic Arts) – 13

Peak ranking; (11-peak)*10 (i.e. peak rating of #1 = 100 pts, #2 = 90 pts, #3 = 80 pts etc.)
Longevity = # of appearances x 5 (max 100) – there were 20 total charts
Bonus – times at #1 x 5
Choplifter – 225
Lode Runner – 205
Miner 2049er – 200
Zaxxon – 180
Frogger – 170
Pinball Construction Set – 165
Julius Erving and Larry Bird Go One-on-One – 150
Hard Hat Mack – 135
Aztec (Datamost) – 115
Beagle Bag (Beagle Bros) - 110

Top arcade publishers (# of games)
Broderbund 8
AtariSoft – 6
Electronic Arts – 5
Datamost, Penguin, Sierra On-Line – 3 each

Finally, let’s look at the top game designers, by the number of different games that appeared on any of the above lists:
8 - Nasir Gebelli (Sirius/Gebelli Software), Ken Williams (Sierra On-Line)
7 - Jon Freeman (Epyx)
6 - Bill Budge (California Pacific/Sirius/BudgeCo/Stoneware/Electronic Arts)
5 - Roberta Williams (Sierra On-Line), Olaf Lubeck (Sierra On-Line), Mark Blank (Infocom)
4 - Tony Suzuki (Broderbund), Silas Warner (Muse), Richard Garriott (California Pacific/Sierra On-Line/Origin), Jim Nitchals (Cavalier), Doug Carlston (Broderbund), Dan and Kathe Spracklen (Hayden)
3 – Andrew Greenberg & Robert Woodhead (Sir-Tech), Robert Clardy (Synergistic), Bruce Artwick (SubLogic), Chris Jocumson (Broderbund), David Mullich (Edu-Ware), Eric Hammond (Electronic Arts), Jun Wada (Broderbund),Dave Lebling (Infocom), Michael Berlyn (Sentient Software/Infocom), Paul Murray (SSI), Rod Nelson (Level-10), Scott Adams (Adventure International), Warren Schwader (Sierra On-Line)

Sadly, many of these names are not as well-known as they should be and some are all but forgotten. Nasir Gebelli was a major force in the Apple II arcade gaming world until around 1982/83. His games here were Autobahn, Cyber Strike, Gorgon, Horizon V, Phantoms 5, PulsarII, Space Eggs, and Star Cruiser.

Jon Freeman is even less well-known (though I’m not sure what role he had in the games he worked on). Olaf Lubeck and Tony Suzuki are two others who are little-known.
Ken and Roberta Williams are quite well-known, though again I don’t know how significant Ken’s role was in some of the games he’s credited for. Richard Garriott (Lord British) is also quite well-known. Bill Budge was very well known back in the day. His six titles do not include his Graphics Package/System, which also made the lists.



  1. I've actually been trying to contact Nasir Gebelli and colleagues of Silas Warner (MUSE) and since I'm planning to interview them to make sure these contributions won't be forgotten. Learning about the Apple II scene in general has been incredibly enlightening, especially given how much people truly do care about the old software out there.

    In regards to Ken Williams' contribution, in the early days he basically programmed and drew the games for On-LineSystems/Sierra. Roberta came up with the scenarios and design for Mystery House and Wizard and Princess. Once they started hiring people for projects like Time Zone, Ken took on more of a business role though I believe he still programmed. You can check the Digitial Antiquarian for more details, since he's chronicled all the Sierra adventure games up to 1985, I believe.

  2. Kinda strange that Origin Systems doesn't appear on the list since they made a few Ultimas as well as some other great games: