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Interview with Joe Siegler - 31 January 2006

An interview with someone from Apogee seemed long overdue and Joe Siegler, the man who wrote the installers for Apogee's classic games and is responsible for the company's website, was kind enough to be my first interview of 2006.

Your name is probably familiar to many of my visitors, but I'd like to start by asking you who you are and how you got your start in the games industry.

Well, my name is Joe Siegler, and I'm the webmaster for Apogee / 3D Realms. How did I get my start? Well, that goes way back to 1990 when I was a customer of the company. Like most everyone else at the time, I was rather enthralled with Commander Keen & the original Duke Nukem like most people who were playing PC games at the time were. I am in the company's old customer databases from back then as having purchased these titles (as well as several other Apogee ones). Then on May 5, 1992 I had the same sort of "holy crap" reaction most people had to Wolfenstein 3D. I was amazed. Up until this point I had already been paying attention to Apogee. I used to call Software Creations' BBS and grab files. One thing I recall quite clearly was that Scott Miller used to upload the files himself back in that day. However, the online distribution was a mess. It was a mix between self extracting arj files & non self extracting zip files. Scott would also make these nice descriptions for the files in the file listing of SWC's file area. However, he wouldn't include these in the archive as a file_id.diz file. So I'd grab his description, make a file_id.diz out of it, put it in the file, and then re-upload the file to some other large BBS's around the country, as coverage wasn't that great then in terms of where Apogee would upload to. Anyway, after Wolf came out I continued to do this, and because I spent so much time online looking up Apogee related files, I ran across a file that came out after the v1.2 update to Wolf3D was released. This was something claiming to be an "adult" version of Wolf3D that would be marketed as v1.3 of Wolf. I pointed this out to Scott Miller, and it was of course not real. This file I brought to their attention was the reason why there was never a v1.3 update of Wolf3D; it having gone from v1.2 to v1.4.

So after the 1.3 Wolf thing, I contacted Scott, and asked him if he needed any help, as he probably had heard a lot from me. He said sure, and made me a beta tester for Apogee. The first thing I got to test was Math Rescue, and then Major Stryker. At some point during early fall, Scott had posted a message in the beta conference message board asking if anyone wanted to come to work at Apogee. The short of it is that I accepted the job to be a phone tech guy. However, shortly after that the guy who was being promoted into the online support position quit to go work at id (Shawn Green), and I said I wanted his job, as it was essentially what I was already doing on my own dime. They gave me that, so I moved here in December of 1992 to take an online support position.

Back then it was all dial up BBS's and things like GEnie, Prodigy, and CompuServe (AOL was still called AppleLink back then I think). Over time the job evolved into Email, the web, and the rest of the Internet, and BBS's died out. But technically I'm still in the same job I was when I started here on Dec 14, 1992.

(More on file_id.diz here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/FILE_ID.DIZ)

Your hand has touched almost every Apogee/3D Realms game for more than a decade. 3DR has produced so many games during that time that it could take all day to discuss them all. You must have some interesting insight on how gaming has changed, and how making games has changed. Can you tell us a bit about how things were when you started at Apogee, and how things may have changed over the years? What would surprise an average gamer about the way you guys make games?

Well, I was only a formal developer on one title, that being Rise of the Triad. Two I guess if you count the addon pack, "Extreme ROTT". So I don't have a lot of insight here, just what I hear the guys talking about over the years I've been here. When I started, things were much different. As was pointed out in one of our Legacy interviews on our site, it was kind of like "Sneakernet" in those days. Things were done small scale. Development teams maxed out at three people in those days, and a year was considered a long development cycle. But then again in the early 90's most companies were like that unless you were a "suit company", but I think us, id, & Epic viewed themselves as not like the norm anyway.

Whenever we'd come out with a new game, we'd always, and I mean ALWAYS get a number of complaints from some user saying that we were sloppy programmers, we were a crappy company - because we never programmed for older computers. "If you were any good, you'd make your games work on these older computers". I'd have to say it's the one thing that's been a universal constant in my perception of gaming since the day I started here until now in 2006. That's game companies always seem to advance hardware. If a game company wants to survive, you have to push forward with tech. You can't "program backwards". Sure, you could DO it, but you wouldn't have the hot game that sells a boatload of titles. Yeah, you could survive small scale probably by doing that, but most game companies see games as "OK, done that, need to do something new". So you do something that pushes the envelope, and the folks who have older tech get mad, but if you want to sustain a lead, or get attention, or both, you have to be "out there", you can't be hanging back programming for old tech. This is even moreso an issue now with PC games, because projects now have dev teams in and around the triple digit numbers with budgets in the seven figure numbers (if not more). This is something I foresaw a decade ago, where game budgets would get more and more insane as things pushed forward on a technological standpoint. You'd need more and more resources to push yourself further and further. Makes me wonder if there's a breaking point where budgets and teams would get so large that it will be impossible to make any money off of games, because of the expense in making them.

What do you think are the most exciting developments to come out of your company? How has it changed gaming?

Well, the "Apogee Model", which I've also seen called "The Miller Model", which was our original distribution method where you took a game, split it in parts (usually three), and give the first one away for free as shareware. That was brilliant marketing. It's not so much used today, as everything is a different beast than it used to be. Yeah, there's still free demos, but the spirit of the thing isn't the same. Several other game companies have claimed they were the first to use this kind of distribution, but they were not. Apogee's been doing it since 1987, before some of these others even existed.

Rise of the Triad, which was a great gameplay innovator whose legacy in gaming gets overlooked was the first to include a parental lock. You could put a password in there which would block out some of the gore and violence in the game, as well as some of the "language". PC games had yet to break the "F-Bomb" language barrier at that point, but some of the more colorful stuff could be blocked out, if memory serves.

We were also the first to include music in a PC shareware game (Adlib music, Dark Ages - Jan 1991). We were the first company to have a "Home BBS" of operations, that being Software Creations. Also in 1995 we had a first, that being a shareware game to have a magazine cover article BEFORE its release - that had never happened before at that time. Duke Nukem 3D's Atomic Edition was the first FPS to have "bots" (AI controlled opponents in multiplayer). Those are some of the things we are known to be "first" with. We're also the only game company in history to get a violence rating on pinball game. :)

Apogee has worked with, contracted or employed some of the biggest names in gaming -- both companies and individuals. You recently announced that you're going to interview some of the big names from Apogee's past. Was it good luck or good insight that Apogee associated itself with these people?

I'd say a mixture of both. It's hard to answer that since I wasn't the one who initiated contact with these people. :)

Your company no longer produces games under the Apogee brand name since all of your games are 3D now. People are always calling for sequels but, honestly, do you think you guys will ever produce a 2D PC game under the Apogee name again?

We tried that a few years ago with Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project. While it wasn't as "2D" as the old scrollers were, it was an old school scroller game. It had a pseudo 3D look to it, but it was a 2D scroller game. It didn't sell very well at all, which I think told us that market has dried up. It's a shame as that's the roots of the company, but I can't see us making that kind of game again.

3D Realms is definitely a big name its own right, but retro seems to be really popular right now. Infogrames changed their name to Atari after acquiring it because, despite being known for a line of systems and games that lost their dominance 20 years ago, they felt that the name carried more weight than theirs did. I see people wearing Atari t-shirts; old is the new new. It's been 10 years since the last Apogee game was published. Apogee is retro now, isn't it?

Sure, it's retro. It was already retro back in 1996 when we stopped using it for new releases, as it was roughly 10 years at THAT point when Scott first started using the name. Before Apogee the company was founded in 1987, the name did pop up on a few of Scott's early titles. Not sure where to go with this answer as you kind of answered your own question here by having such a lengthy question. :)

Do you think 3DR will ever go back to calling itself Apogee?

Well, in 1994 when 3D Realms was invented it wasn't intended to be the name of the company. It actually still isn't, as the "on paper" name of the company remains "Apogee Software, Ltd.". Back in 1994, Scott thought that the "Apogee" name was diluted and he got into label branding. When you got an Apogee title, you never really knew what "kind of game" you'd be getting. Around then we had some scroller games, but had shooter games too (Raptor), fighting game (Xenophage), driving game (Death Rally), etc.. So the name "3D Realms" was created to designate if you saw it, you knew what kind of game you'd get, a 3D action game. It was intended that Apogee would remain for our more classic style of games, and then later on, the "Pinball Wizards" label was created for pinball games (although there ended up jsut being one there). However, around 1995/1996 or so 3D games became the dominant force in the market, and because of that, it's where most companies (including us) put their focus, and because that's all we were putting out, the name 3D Realms just kind of became our de facto name, even if it isn't the legal name of the company. It's all marketing. Should there be some serious renaissance of old school games that Apogee used to make back in the day, I could see the name being dusted off. But I honestly can't see that happening.

A short answer to your question is no. :)

3D Realms today seems like a very different company from the early days of Apogee, when an ambitious independant programmer like Jim Norwood could approach Apogee to make Bio Menace by himself, or the early days when Scott Miller, George Broussard and Todd Replogle made their own multi-episode games. 3D Realms has followed the trend to making games with huge budgets and development cycles, and seems to be developing entirely in-house, and you've transitioned from a shareware company to a commercial game maker. Was that because the advances in gaming caused development to become too expensive to release games in a "try before you buy" format? Did the ease of using the Internet for software piracy make it uneconomical to make shareware games that have no guarantee of revenue versus selling commercial games in stores? What led to the switch away from the "Apogee Model"?

Well, I personally view the change from "shareware" to demo as just word play.

They're essentially the same thing, although the percentage of the full product isn't the same with a demo as it was in the old shareware days.

Yeah, it's not quite the same, and demos aren't released the same way - used to be shareware first then full game after, and now that sometimes still happens, but it's not as absolute, sometimes demos come well after the full version is done, if at all in some cases.

But given our roots, I expect we'll always have some sort of shareware or demo or whatever you want to call it. Granted, I don't call the shots here; that's a gut feeling, so if we don't, you need not kill me over the issue. :)

Thank you very much for your time, and best wishes for Prey and Duke Nukem Forever!


Visitors can discuss the interview or ask new questions in this interview's forum thread.