Friday, August 28, 2015

Nasir Gebelli and the early days of Sirius Software

In my last post, I made mention of Apple II game programmer Nasir Gebelli. Today, I will take a closer look at Nasir, his work at Sirius Software and Gebelli Software, and the founding of Sirius. Unfortunately, information on Nasir is pretty sparse and he appears to be a bit of a recluse (though he seemed quite willing to talk when John Romero tracked him down in 1998). I do not have much to add to the little that is already out there, but thought I'd report on what I did find. Nasir has become something of a minor legend among Apple II gaming fans, primarily because he wrote a number of early action games for the Apple II featuring animation that was a cut above the competition. Part of his legend may also be due to the fact that id Software co-founder John Romero was a huge fan of his - a fact he has mentioned on multiple occasions. In the book Honoring the Code: Conversations with Great Game Designers, for instance, Romero gushed, "Nasir Gebelli is my favorite. He's my number one programming god, my idol. He's awesome." So what was Nasir’s story and how did he get his start?

Nasir was born Seyed Nasir Gebelli in Iran. While a number of sources claim that he was born in 1957, public records indicate that he was born in February 1954. At some point, he moved to the US to study computer science at Cal State[1] (Kohler 2005). According to a profile that appeared in April 1981 issue of Softalk, Nasir began programming on an Apple II "out of desperation" when he found that other computers didn't allow him to do what he wanted to - to input code in machine language and see the results immediately. Nasir bought his first Apple about a year before the profile appeared and it seems that he quickly became proficient with it and began programming games. Around spring of 1980, perhaps because he was doing poorly in classes (Levy 1984), Nasir took some graphics utilities he'd written to a Computerland store in Sacramento and demoed it to the owner(s) (Levy 1984; Carlston 1985). It was the start to an auspicious and prolific, if short-lived, career.

The Founding of Sirius Software

The Computerland store had been opened in late 1979 by a retired Air Force colonel named Terry Bradley. Bradley, who had a master's degree in management from Golden Gate University, had honed his management skills while working as an airlift director for the Air Force. Unsure if he could hold onto a civilian job and unwilling to risk losing his retirement benefits, Bradley spent 21 years in the Air Force until he retired in 1979. After leaving the Air Force, he began looking for a new career. He briefly considered becoming a real estate broker and even got a license, but quickly decided that it was not the job for him. What he really wanted to do was to own his own business. Toward that end, he visited the library and began researching franchise opportunities. He decided to open a small print shop, reasoning that the risk and required investment would be low. He changed his plans again, however, after he saw an ad for Computerland - a chain of personal computer retail stores that had been founded in 1976. Intrigued, Bradley visited a local Byte Shop to see what running a computer store was all about. Liking what he saw, he approached Computerland with a proposal to open a new store in Sacramento. Computerland agreed and in late 1979, Bradley opened his store. (Softalk July 1982)

In the spring of 1980, Bradley hired a Vietnam veteran and insurance executive named Jerry Jewell as sales manager. Like Bradley, Jewell had served in the military and worked as an executive, but according to Bradley, the similarities ended there.

[Terry Bradley] "Jerry and I come from completely different backgrounds and are ten years apart in age. There’s only three things we have in common. We’ve both been in military service, we both like our meat raw, and we have sympathetic views on the way to run Sirius." (Softalk July 1982)

Before coming to Computerland, Bradley had worked as a special agent and an account executive in the insurance industry. In 1979, hoping to switch to a more lucrative career, Jewell bought an Apple II and decided to learn some rudimentary programming skills. About two weeks after buying his computer, Jewell enrolled in a class in assembly language programming at the Lawrence Hall of Science - a public science center/museum established by the University of California at Berkeley. The class was taught by Apple's Andy Hertzfeld, who would later design the Macintosh system software. Assisting Hertzfeld was hacking legend John Draper, a.k.a. "Captain Crunch." With no disk drive, Jewell was unable to run the sample programs that Hertzfeld distributed to the class and for eight weeks, he was lost, not understanding a thing Hertzfeld was saying. Eventually, however, he got a disk drive and was able to catch up by listening to tapes he had made of the classroom lectures. In the spring of 1980, Jewell went to work for Bradley in his Computerland store. While the store sold some home and business software (like Easy Writer, an early word processor written by John Draper), most of the people who came in were writing tools or games of their own, which they were only too eager to demonstrate. (Levy 1984)

One of them was a struggling college student named Nasir Gebelli, who walked in one day with a disk containing a set of graphic utilities program he had written that made it easier to draw shapes on the screen. Gebelli, who had purchased his Apple just a month and a half before, demonstrated his program not long after Jewell began working at the store. Initially, Terry Bradley thought that the program was merely "OK" and asked to keep the disks for a day or two. A few days later, Nasir returned, certain that they'd be impressed once they actual saw his work, and demanded, "What do you think of it now" (Softalk July 1982).  Bradley, Jewell, and Nair decided to go into business together and in May 1980 they formed a company called Sirius Software with Bradley as president, Jewell as secretary-treasurer, and Gebelli as the sole fulltime programmer. 

Nasir, Jerry Jewell (seated), and Eric Knopp

For their initial offering, Jewell and Nasir worked together to develop Gebelli's demo into a graphics program called E-Z Draw (billed as "the poor man’s graphics tablet"), which Jewell began to peddle to computer stores in Los Angeles and the Bay Area (it is unclear if this happened before or after Sirius was formed). Before long, however, they turned to games. Nasir may have been Sirius’ only programmer, but he was a prodigious one. While he may not have produced 12 games for Sirius in his first year, as Steven Levy reported, he did create at least eight (Levy may have been referring to the number of games he made with Sirius and Gebelli Software, or Sirius may not have released all his games - or Levy may have been mistaken). In any event, it was am impressive feat. At a time when most programmers took months to write a program, Nasir was cranking them out in mere weeks. And these were not text adventures or simple BASIC games, but arcade games - always a challenge with the Apple II.

Levy reports that Both Barrels was Nasir's first effort (though some list it as a 1981 game). If so, it was an inauspicious debut. Things improved with Nasir's other 1980 creations: Star Cruiser, Cyber Strike, and Phantoms Five. All three were similar to games Nasir played in the Sacramento arcades he haunted. While produced by Sirius, it seems that at least one of the games (Star Cruiser) was initially distributed by Synergistic Software. If so, this may have been because Jewel and Bradley (who thought the money was in hardware rather than software) were still working at Computerland during the day while running Sirius in their spare time.

That would soon change, however. In November 1980, Sirius Software was incorporated in Sacramento and in December, the company made its first appearance on Softalk's bestseller list when Star Cruiser debuted at #3, behind VisiCalc and On-Line System's Wizard and the Princess graphics adventure. The next month, Star Cruiser (which was still at #3) was joined by Cyber Strike (at #6) and in March, they were joined by Phantoms Five. By then, to Jewell and Bradley's surprise, Sirius was doing well enough to be a fulltime business and in May 1981, the two sold their Compterland store. That same month, Sirius had its biggest hit yet when Space Eggs supplanted VisiCalc at the #1 position on Softalk's bestseller list. A takeoff on Moon Cresta, Space Eggs had started as a cosmic shell game until Jewell suggested that Nasir replace the shells with eggs.

[Nasir Gebelli] "It had gone from weird, to weirder, to weirdest. Yet it is the only game I’ve written that I continue to play because it’s so unpredictable. That is probably one reason why people are so compulsive with it. I was both pleased and a bit scared when I witnessed the sight of my old roommate shooting at those shells – I mean eggs – for six hours straight." (Softalk April 1981)

In August 1981, Sirius placed an astonishing six titles among Softalk's 30 bestsellers: Gorgon at #3 (which sold at least 23,000 copies in a year), Space Eggs (#7), Pulsar II (#14), Autobahn (#14), Orbitron (#18), and Gamma Goblins (#26). All but the last two were written by Nasir Gebelli. So what was the secret to Gebelli's success? One was his talent for creating faster, smoother animations than anyone else was capable of on the Apple II (which was probably not really a great platform for arcade/action games). Nasir achieved this via a technique called "page flipping" in which two pages of animation were switched back and forth several times per second to reduce the flicker that plagued other games. It does not appear, however, that he started using the technique until his later games. In his April 1981 Softalk profile, Nasir mentions the technique as something he planned to use in the future. Nasir was also famous for not taking notes while programming or writing out his code.

[Nasir Gebelli] " "Ninety percent of the work involved in realizing the game on the screen is in my head. Virtually all my ideas are worked out before I commit the work to disk." (Softalk April 1981)

John Romero was also impressed by Nasir's prodigious memory.

[John Romero] "Early on, seeing Nasir’s games, I really liked the speed of his games – great speed…He was chain smoking, drinking coffee, and turning out games. He never had a program that would save his code; he typed them directly into memory on the Apple II. There was no source code or comments. He’d type in one line, it’d be converted to machine code, then he’d type in the next line. There were no symbols, nothing. No source code for anything. He had to keep the whole game in his head." (Barton 2013)

Nasir spent as much time drawing pictures as he did writing code - though he made a number of changes after seeing his work on screen.

[Nasir Gebelli] "Only when I see the images on screen can I be sure that my ideas are workable. I might have been sure that this creature of that ship was exactly as I desired – but they were on paper, not on screen. That’s the real testing ground. And as I fiddle with them, they might change into something that I wouldn’t have thought of in the rough draft stages." (Softalk April 1981)

Sirius rode Gebelli's talents to the top of the burgeoning software scene. Thanks in part to a $1.5 million order from Apple, Sirius had made $3.5 million during Gebelli's time with the company. So successful were they that at one point they were able to purchase eight pages of advertising in Soltalk at a time when many publishers could barely afford one (Carlston 1985). Gebelli also reaped the benefits of Sirius' success, earning a reported $250,000 in royalties in his first year - money he used to buy a sports can and a new home (he also married a beautiful blonde - though whether or not that was because of his newfound success, I cannot say).

Despite his talents and the success of his games, however, all was not well between Sirius and its programming wunderkind. By the time the August issue of Softalk hit the stands, Gebelli had already left to form his own company. Speaking of Gebelli’s departure in July 1982, Jerry Jewell remarked, "Nasir is an excellent programming talent. He just wasn’t a team player" (Softalk July 1982). While Nasir had earned a fortune in royalties, what he wanted was equity. He had been a major part of Sirius' success and felt that he deserved a share in the company's ownership. when he didn't get it, he and general manager Phil Knopp left and formed Gebelli Software, which was incorporated on August 7, 1981

The subsequent history of Sirius is beyond the scope of this post (hopefully, the Digital Antiquarian will tackle the subject soon), but suffice it to say that Sirius, at least initially, survived the departure of Gebelli none the worse for the wear. By the time he left, they had already begun contracting with other programmers, many of them teens. Orbitron, for instance, had been written by Eric Knopp while Gamma Goblins was created by brothers Tony and Benny Ngo. Other programmers included Larry Miller, Dan Thompson, and Mark Turmell. Sirius had also hired a number of other employees, such as ex-sheriff Jim Ackerman, who joined the company as production assistant in spring 1981, and product manager Eric Bock (author of Pascal Graphics Editor), who often worked with programmers to clean up their games. Overall between 1980 and 1983, Sirius produced at least 40 games for the Apple II and other systems, including such classics as Snake Byte, Lemmings, Beer Run, Bandits, T.W.E.R.P.S, Wavy Navy, Repton, Kabul Spy, Sneakers, Escape from Rungistan, Critical Mass, and Gruds in Space.

Nasir Gebelli, meanwhile, continued to produce games at his Gebelli Software. The first, Horizon Vdid not fare so well, however. Softline called it "a good follow-up to Gorgon but not a great one," complaining that the player’s ship "handles at best like a garbage truck on an icy road" and dismissing the aliens as "listless and dimwitted." On the other hand, it noted that the game’s first-person graphics were "one of the best three dimensional effects for an Apple game seen in recent times." (Softline March 1982) Despite this, Softline named Horizon V its "dog of the year" in March 1983. Nasir followed up with Zenith, Firebird, and Neptune - none of which matched the success of his earlier efforts.

So why did Gebelli fail to match the success he'd had at Sirius? Perhaps Gebelli's meteoric rise had made him complacent or perhaps life as an executive was not his strong suit. Gebelli reportedly spent lavishly on his new company, installing luxurious furniture and a state of the art photocopier. Doug Carltson tells of an investor who scheduled a meeting at Gebelli Software for 8:30 only to find the doors locked when she arrived. The first employee didn't show up until 9:30 and the principals didn't arrive until 10. Another problem may have been that Gebelli's games no longer stood out from the crowd as they had before. In 1981, a number of arcade games had arrived from Japan, such as Alien Rain, a slick Galaxian clone licensed from StarCraft and programmed by Tony Suzuki. In addition, the demands of running his new company reportedly left Gebelli with little time for programming, forcing him to turn to others, some of whom appear to have been poached from Siris. Alan Merrell and Eric Knopp, both former Sirius employees, produced High Orbit (Merrell), Lasersilk, Candy Factory (both Knopp), and Russki Duck (Merrell and Knopp).

Neither Gebelli Software nor Sirius would survive the video game crash of 1983. In the case of Sirius, the end was hastened by a seeming lucrative deal with 20th Century Fox to develop VCS games that proved disastrous when Fox was unable (or unwilling) to pay. Meanwhile, Nasir Gebelli had experienced one of the fastest rags to riches to rags stories in gaming history. Less than two months after buying his first Apple, he had gone from being a complete unknown to perhaps the hottest game programmer in the industry and back to obscurity, all within the space of two years. It must have been quite a ride - and perhaps an appropriate one for a man whose ability to turn out software at breakneck pace was legendary.

After his company folded, Nasir Gebelli reportedly traveled the world and disappeared from the public eye. He resurfaced in 1986 when he met with Doug Carlston of Broderbund, who told him about the NES. Carlston took Gebelli to Japan, where he met with Shigeru Miyamoto and others at Nintendo, who were not interested in working with Gebelli. Luckily, Square’s Hironobu Sakaguchi was a fan and the two went on to work on the Final Fantasy games. Gebelli also worked on a number of other NES titles, including Rad Racer, 3-D WorldRunner, and Secret of Mana only to disappear to travel the world once again. Other than an appearance at John Romeo’s 1998 Apple II reunion, he has remained largely out of the public eye. 

Now that we have taken a look at Nasir’s career, let’s take a brief look at his Apple II output.

Both Barrels (1980??) 

As I mentioned above, the date on this one is a bit unclear. Given that it is not one of Nasir’s better efforts, however, I suspect that it may be his earliest game. Both Barrels combines two shooting games: High Noon and Duck Hunt and neither are very exciting. 

Star Cruiser (1980) 

The influence of arcade games is obvious in Gebelli’s Apple II oeuvre. Star Cruiser is a fairly straightforward take on Galaxian. As with most, if not all, of Nasir’s games, the shapes were created with E-Z Draw. 

Phantoms Five (1980) 

Phantoms Five is a vertically-scrolling overhead shooter in which the player drops bombs on ground targets. Some targets, like hospitals and prison camps, have to be avoided. When the player is aiming, the ship is replaced by targeting crosshairs. Periodically, the player encountered enemy fighters, whereupon the action switched to a first-person sequence. 
For many, the first game to spring to mind will probably be Xevious but that game did appear until much later. The most likely influence here, if there is one, may be Atari’s Sky Raider. 

Cyber Strike (1980)

From the game’s description: “The date is 320.45. You have been briefed by Major General Nasir about a clone attack on bases Keppler, Galileo, Copernicus, and Newton. The attack was masterminded by the notorious leader, Gar, and executed by his fleet of robot fighter drones. Your job is to command the Gamma Glider IV drone into the trouble areas and eradicate the enemies. You send the drone through hyperspace and remotely control the drone's actions. You have antimatter torpedoes and meteor shields for offense and defense. Destroy up to 4 enemies at each base then resupply before continuing on.” 
Cyber Strike was another first-person outer space shooter. While it was still an action game, it was a bit more sophisticated than Nasir’s other 1980 efforts, with separate screens to display local and galactic sensors. While there were similarities to some arcade games, it could probably best be described as a more action-oriented version of the mainframe classic Star Trek. As such, the most likely influence was probably Star Raiders for the Atari 800. The most well-known arcade version of the mainframe original was Sega’s Star Trek and the most well-known Apple II version may have been Cygnus’ Star Fleet I: The War Begins. 

In the Sirius version, the player piloted their “Gamma Gllider IV,” using the IJKM keys to steer and the 1-3 keys to change speeds. H engaged the “hyperdrive control” while F fired the “antimatter torpedo” and S toggled the “meteor sheild” on and off. The B key allowed the player to dock with a nearby base. 

Autobahn (1981)

This time, the arcade influence is all too clear. This one is a fairly straightforward version of Sega/Gremlin’s Monaco GP.  The game was an overhead, vertically-scrolling driving game in which the player drove a “Formula 7” racer, sponsored by Sirius Software. The player could switch among three gears that increased his maximum speed from 120 to 160 to 200 kph. 

Pulsar II (1981)

Pulsar II combined two different games, each with eight levels: Pulsar (a takeoff on Cinematronics’ Star Castle) and Wormwall (a maze game).
Gorgon (1981)

One of Nasir’s biggest hits, this was a straight up clone of Defender, with a few additions, like a fuel supply, Sirius, in fact, ended up paying licensing money to Williams for the game (though I don’t think they did so until after they shipped the game and Williams contacted them).

Space Eggs (1981)

This was probably Nasir’s biggest hit overall and one of the finest vertical shooters for the Apple II. Some have noted the game’s similarities to Phoenix. As mentioned, above, however, I think the real influence was Moon Cresta. Aside from the three stage ship in the opening (I don’t know if you could get it during the game), the first level of the two games is nearly identical. The player faced four different screens of enemies: spiders, lips, wolves, and bouncing killer fuzz balls. 

Horizon V (1981)

We discussed this one already, but here’s the official description:

“While on a routine patrol of one of the five planetoid outposts of the Galactic Federation, you are set upon by angry G-bellians who believe you have kidnapped one of their most prized performers, Paulette the G-belly dancer. Before you are able to explain your innocence, the G-bellians attack and you are forced to defend your planetoid. Using radar and plasma weapons you destroy first the ships and then the G-bellians themselves before you run out of fuel. As you make a run for fuel, some of the G-bellians follow you into the time warp. But before you can get to your fuel you have to destroy the oncoming G-bellians. Finally you reach the fuel dump and lock into the center of the fuel target. . . then onto the next planetoid...”

Firebird (1981)

While this one looks something like Crazy Climber, the gameplay is entirely different. The player plays a firefighter named Piggo, who tries to extinguish fires caused by fireballs (or maybe it’s flaming poo) dropped by a giant bird.  

Zenith (1982)

This one was another first-person shooter in the mold of Horizon V with the addition of allowing the player to turn their ship. It seems to have fared better than its predecessor (The Arcade Express newsletter, for instance, gave it a 9 out of 10). As described in the game’s manual: 

“You are a Skyfighter patrolling the airspace above the city Zenith as it's being built. Aliens are invading and your job is to shoot every single object above the city to prevent it from harm.”

Neptune (1982)

If  Gorgon was Nasir’s version of Defender, this was his tribute to Scramble. A somewhat underrated game.

[1] Carlston 1985 says that Gebelli was attending UC Davis at the time he visited Computerland. It may be that he attended both schools, or one the claims may be in error.


Steven Levy. Hackers. 1984
Doug Carlston. Software People. 1985.
Softalk. April 1981. Nasir Gebelli>>>
“Exec Sirius”. Softalk. July 1982.
Matt Barton. Honoring the Code: Conversations WDuck Huntith Great Game Designers  2013.

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.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

The 1982 Tron Tournament - eSports' First Super Tournament?

Back in November 2012I posted about the disastrous Atari $50,000 Centipede tournament fiasco in October 1981. That tournament was a disaster, drawing less than 200 contestants – a far cry from the thousands some expected to show up. Just seven months later, however, Atari’s archrival Bally held another nationwide tournament that was far more successful. In May 1982, in conjunction with the opening of the movie and the release of the video game, Aladdin’s Castle and Bally staged a nationwide Tron tournament. Some 10,000 Tron machines were delivered to almost 400 Aladdin’s Castle locations throughout the country and Bally launched a million-dollar radio promotion campaign for the game. Unlike Atari’s October 1981 Centipede tournament, this one was a success. The exact number of players is unclear, but it appears that at least 120,000, and perhaps as many as 400,000, entered the tournament – though claims of over a million entrants were likely inaccurate[1]). 

Thanks to the person who sent me the following pictures:

The action took place over seven weeks. During the first round the games were set to start on level one while in the district competitions, players would start at level five. During the early rounds, scores were so high and games so long that Midway produced a new chip that was installed in the games prior to the fifth round (Ross 1983). The final three rounds were conducted on levels seven, eight, and nine respectively. The top 16 players were given an all-expenses paid trip to New York, including a dinner and awards banquet at Tavern on the Green, and a special advance screening of the movie. The finals were held at New York’s Grand Hyatt Hotel and Madison Square Garden’s on July 6 and 7. Bally also flew in a number of east coast distributors for the event (a separate event and screening for west coast distributors was held at Disney Studio in Burbank [2]). Also in attendance were Bally Vice President William O’Donnell, Jr., Aladdin’s Castle marketing director Bernie Powers, and Bally marketing guru Tom Nieman (who handled the logistics). 

Two of the film’s stars - Cindy Morgan (Lora/Yori) and David Warner (Dillinger/Sark) – attended the event, as did producer Don Kushner and associate producer Harrison Ellenshaw. A separate celebrity tournament was also held, and celebrity guests included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Barbara Eden (I Dream of Jeanie), Robin Leech, Doug McKeon (On Golden Pond), and soap opera actress Melinda Fee. Despite rumors, Robert Duvall, Bianca Jagger, and Diana Ross never showed up. 

 The first two rounds of the finals took place at the Grand Hyatt on the July 6. An early favorite was Sterling Ouchi of Torrance CA. The 18-year-old had scored a million points in the regionals and had record scores on Centipede and Star Castle in Electronic Games magazines first “National Vanity Board” in August 1982. Despite this, Ouchi scored just 50,000 points in the first round of the finals. In terms of overall career success, the standout player was Tim Collum of Boyd Texas. Collum had won the Texas Video Game Championship in June and would go on to win the That’s Incredible Ms. Pac-Man Tournament in October, the 1983 North American Video Game Challenge  and be named 1983 co-player of the year at Twin Galaxies’ 1984 Coronation Day event. Collum, however, does not appear to have been among the early leaders in the Tron tournament.
Meanwhile, Scott MacDonald, a 17-year-old from Houston, scored 294,358 points in the first half of round one. That was nothing. At two hours into the second half of round one, all of the players had finished their games. All but one – Richard Ross, a flea market worker from Jacksonville, Florida, who, at 29, was far older than most of the other contestants. As the other contestants munched on seafood salad, fresh kiwi, and chocolate mousse, Ross continued to play on. His game passed three hours, then four. When it finally ended after four hours and 22 minutes, Ross had racked up an astonishing 1,830,044 points, putting him comfortably in the lead. In round two, Ouchi rebounded with 331,669 points while MacDonald scored just under 60,000, blaming his poor performance on a “fuzzy screen and sticky joystick.” Scott Katkin of East Greenwich Rhode Island, meanwhile, scored an impressive 1,052,592 points. Once again, however, Ross dominated with another four hour, 1.5-million-point performance - despite losing 40,000 points when a photographer tripped over the game’s power cord. (Zanke 1982) 

 For the final round on July 7, the action switched to Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum where Ross easily emerged as the winner with a combined three-game score of 3,958,901 points. His final score was over 1.2 million points ahead of runner-up Scott Katkin and 1.8 million ahead of Sterling Ouchi, who died just seven months later. None of the other finalists managed to break a million [3]. For his dominating victory, Ross won a year’s supply of game tokens valued at $260, a Commodore computer, and a full-sized Tron game. So why was the Tron tournament such a success where the Centipede tournament (a much more popular game) was such a failure? Probably because the tournament was so much better run. Rather than forcing contestants to fly to the tournament on their own dime, Bally held preliminary rounds in local arcades across the country. Atari and TGI could have done the same - though it was a bit easier for Bally given that they owned Aladdin’s Castle (on a side note, the fact that the Bally initially delivered Tron games exclusively to Aladdin’s Castle locations before releasing it nationwide caused some resentment among other arcade operators). In addition, the finals seem to have been much better organized, both in terms of the logistics of the tournament itself and in the media attention it drew (likely due to the work of Tom Nieman). Sadly, however, this tournament – like most of the early players and tournaments – seems to have been all but forgotten by those currently involved in the eSports movement. Perhaps one day, someone will do a proper history of eSports and give these early tournaments their due – but I doubt it. 

Final Results (from Joystik 11/82)

1. Richard Ross         3,958,901 29 Jacksonville, FL
2. Scott Katkin 2,731,770 19 East Greenwich, RI
3. Sterling Ouchi         1,158,085 18 Torrance, CA
4. James E. Hatley 835,196         17 Taylors, SC
5. Tim Collum 604,187         19 Boyd, TX
6. Scott MacDonald 535,197         17 Houston, TX
7. Walt Marchard         400,174         33 Leeds, AL
8. Matthew John Collins 343,604         15 Bowling Green, KY
9. Rick Storer 333,433         20 East Grand Rapids, MI
10. Steve Baker 237,905         23 Abingdon, IL
11. Matt Gordon 231,506         13 Missoula, MT
12. Robert Withers Morgan 212,705         21 Alexandria, VA
13. Allen Waits 190,364         15 Moore, OK
14. Scott W. Starkey 190,183         23 Fort Wayne, IN
15. Mike Simmons         173,517         17 Siouix Falls, SD
16. Al Cooper   145,065         27 Butler, PA

[1] RePlay 8/82 reported that the tournament drew “some 400,000 overall” and 120,000 in the first week. Vending Times 7/82 reported that “over one million people originally entered the tournament.” Ross 1983 reports that the tourney attracted “over 1,200,000 entrants.” Electronic Games noted that the tournament consisted of “one million rounds of play.”  Why the discrepancy? A look at the tournament press kit produced by Bally may help clear things up. The kit contains a June 6, 1982 Bally press release reporting that "During the first five days, over 120,000 people entered the tournament. Even more mind-boggling than that is that on the practice machines in each of the nearly 400 TRON Tournament locations throughout the country, over 250,000 plays were recorded. Over 698 entrants were recorded at the Bally's Aladdin's Castle in Bell Air Mall, Mobile, Alabama." The kit also includes a July 1, 1982 press release noting that "The 16 Regional Finalists have been reduced from a field of 1600, which was whittled down to 400, and eventually trimmed to 48. During the first four weeks of In-Store Competition, 1,260,025 plays were recorded in both practice and real competition." These press releases seem to have been the source used by Vending Times, RePlay, and Ross. Vending Times, for instance, repeats the figure of 698 players at a single location. Vending Times and Ross seem to have confused the number of plays with the number of players. I am not sure of the source for RePlay's 400,000 figure but since they repeat the 120,000 figure, the 400,000 figure may have come from another press release and may reflect the total number that entered the tournament over the first four weeks. Ross 1983 reports that the district playoffs started in week five and they had to pare the field down to sixteen by the end of week seven. Given this schedule, one possible scenario is that around 400,000 entered the tournament during first four weeks, which were whittled down to 1600 players for the district playoffs in week five, to 400 for week six, to 48 for week seven, and to 16 for the finals

[2] Disney also promoted the game at Disneyland, installing ten games at the Starcade arcade in Tomorrowland and incorporating a special Tron attraction into the People Mover ride 

[3] While it appears that all finalists played three games, this is uncertain 

Note – Sources for this article include: 

Bally TRON Tournament Press Kit, 1982

Bickman, Jim, 2000. Tron – Coin Op Classic! Box Office Bomb! GameRoom. September.

Joystik – November 1982 

RePlay – August 1982 

Ross, Richard, 1983. Tron. Joystik. January. 

Vending Times – July 1982 

Zanke, Gary. 1982. On-Stage: The Tron Video-Game Contest. Joystik. November.