THE ATARI DEVELOPER'S GAME
A look at the risks and the rewards
BY HEIDI BRUMBAUGH
If you like to program on the ST, you've probably wondered at one time or another if you could make a living at it. In the following article, START takes a hard look at the realities of developing software for the ST.
Developing software--and being successful at it--is like negotiating a twisting maze of options and hazards. Should you settle on the ST? Should you have a third party market your software, or do it yourself? What's the best way to be successful? To help answer these questions, START talked to some of the ST's leading developers and publishers. Most of them have run the gamut from magazine, public domain and shareware products to third party contracts to starting their own company for distribution. Here's what they have to say.
Whether to go with the ST or move to another platform, such as the Macintosh, PC or Amiga, will be your first, most important decision. The harsh reality is that the ST user base in the United States is very small (about 120,000 according to numbers released by Atari) and thus generates smaller software sales. A recent study by the Software Publishers Association reports that software sales in North America totaled $3,098,800,000 in 1989. The following is a breakdown of sales per machine:
Apple II: 4.3%
Commodore 64/128: 2.8%
All others: 2%
(includes the Amiga and the ST)
Consider a few other facts: some of the best ST developers have moved on to other platforms. Major commercial software companies, such as Ashton Tate and Lotus, pay little more than lip service to Atari when it comes to porting their successful software, and the companies historically the staunchest supporters of the ST have drastically cut back on their new releases. Piracy, which makes much less financial impact on the PC and Mac worlds, can literally break an ST software startup. And Atari Corp. has a long-standing reputation for poor developer and dealer support.
Proceed With Caution
So, considering the size of the market and Atari's less-than-stellar reputation should you develop software for the ST? Some developers recommend caution. George Miller, product manager for MichTron, notes that while Atari is showing signs of making changes, at this point it's best to take a "wait and see" stance. "Develop ideas," he advises," work on outlines, but don't jump in and expect to make a million dollars." Dave Small, of Spectre GCR fame, warns newcomers not to expect support from Atari.
To compound matters, many people who buy an ST don't try new applications. According to Charles Cherry, head of TOS development for Atari, "The problem is that many people buy computers to do just one thing (such as desktop publishing or MIDI). They don't go to user groups, read magazines or even know there's more they can do with their machine."
Cherry says the developer program is addressing the problems for the domestic software market. "Everybody who buys a computer gets a three-month free subscription to all the ST magazines." The idea is to educate people and get them interested in doing more with their machine within the first six months of ownership.
Atari is also beginning to "internationalize" software. "Every [piece of software on the ST] should be available everywhere," Cherry says. To facilitate this, Atari will identify channels of distribution and let people know where these channels are. Equally important in the international market, Atari will help developers by making translator services available.
A Good Place To Start
Despite the problems in the ST market, most of the developers interviewed for this article agree it's a good platform to start out on. And most pointed to the same reason: the market's small size makes it much easier to break into. "The success of your program will be based on its merit," Cherry says, "not on how good the software marketing department is. People will notice good software. Every ST magazine will do a new product announcement and will review a good, credible program."
Miller adds, "It's a great market to get into because there's a shortage of good programmers, but you'll have to support yourself from other projects. Don't expect to jump in and make a living there."
Some successful ST companies like ISD Marketing and Gadgets by Small have taken a different tack from the traditional approach of finding a need and filling it. They created their own need and their own market. ISD sells the two most sophisticated applications on the ST--Calamus and DynaCADD. Rather than rely on the ST market, says ISD president Nathan Potechin, "we're giving people a reason to buy an ST." And when it comes to niche markets, Mac emulator designer Small notes with satisfaction that "being a monopoly helps."
Which Way Now?
Once you have a product, you'll have to decide how to market it. You can either do it yourself, or have someone else do it. There are many advantages to going through a third-party publisher such as Antic or MichTron. John Holder of Marathon Computer Press points out that going through a third party can help you get your name established in the industry. "The best way to get started is to go through a software publisher and also to submit articles to ST magazines. Get some notoriety before attempting to launch a product on your own. Fifty percent of marketing is name."
According to Miller, whose main responsibility is to screen potential products for MichTron, the way to get a program noticed and eventually published is to maintain a professional image. "Make it bug proof--if it crashes a couple of times I'll lose interest. Enclose a good-looking cover letter that shows you're genuinely interested in our publishing it. I'll spend more time with a professional-looking package than one that looks amateur."
Although it's exciting to get an offer from a commercial publishing company, don't rush into a contract. Holder recommends that you negotiate, taking into consideration both the appeal of your product and what the company has to pay for marketing. "Read contracts carefully. It may take a couple revisions to get it right. If you don't want to give up, for example, exclusive rights to future programs, fight it."
Charles Cherry looks at it another way. "Get the software companies to court you; they aren't doing you any big favor. Approach the company asking, 'What will you do to earn 80 to 90 percent of the royalties?' Approach everyone. Don't sign with the first offer and don't take rejection personally. You can turn someone down, then go back later. If the program has commercial potential, people will be bidding for it."
If you're finding it hard to be objective about the potential of your program, you might consider putting it in the shareware market to see how people like it. If the program gets a good response, you'll know it will be worthwhile to upgrade it and rerelease it commercially. Not inconsequentially, shareware programs can make a profit.
The successful shareware developers agree on one point: To be successful, you must treat the program as if it is commercial. Darek Mihoka, author of the popular 8-bit emulator ST Xformer, points out that when a programmer puts out the software and then doesn't support it, people forget about it. "Release the program on CompuServe and GEnie. Send review copies to magazines. Advertise it as a commercial product. Be good about updates."
How well you support your shareware program will affect how many people register their use of the program. "To sweeten the deal," John Holder recommends, "send users documentation in return for shareware registration." Keep in mind that even though your shareware program took as much work to write as a commercial program, not everyone will see it that way. Since shareware is on the honor system, many people simply don't send in their registration fee. Take this into consideration when you anticipate how much money a shareware product will make.
The Long Haul
If you are committed to selling your product, and keeping the high percentage of royalties that would normally go to a publisher, you can always start your own company and market and distribute the program yourself. "[Starting your own company] is a major investment in time and money," says Charles Johnson, CodeHead founder, "but in the long run the potential for profit and control is attractive if you're willing to put the time and energy into making it happen."
Many people start their business after a stint in the shareware market. Darek Mihoka's company, Branch Always, was started in just three days. "The advantage was we already were shareware; we already had STs, manuals, etc. Advertisements cost the only real money."
If you're starting a new company, says Small, "You have to have the time to do all this stuff and do it right. It's going to be rough if you've got an eight-hour a day job." So what's the best way to "do it right?"
"Think global," says Small."The U.S. market is just not enough to live off. We ship half our product to Europe.
"Help users out. We send out free updates; last time it was thousands of dollars worth of mailings. From a marketing standpoint it's expensive, but it's worth it for customer loyalty."
Charles Johnson urges you maintain a good online presence. "It helps to build a reputation of being accessible and responsive to problems. CodeHead's done demos of most of our programs, which is a good route if it's possible for that program. A demo takes away the 'last rational for piracy,' that people pirate to preview software before they pay money.
"You have to advertise, or people won't know about you. Promote, get review copies out to people who matter. Publicize the product and get it known.
"Be willing to admit if you make a mistake. If there's a bug be sure to fix it right away. Companies with the best reputation are like that. Look at things from the standpoint of the user."
Charles Cherry strongly recommends you register as a developer with Atari. "Atari can help you write programs 'correctly' for future versions of TOS. We can help you market and target market segments; this also helps Atari sell to niche markets." As a developer, you can schedule time to use Atari's booth at trade shows, advertise in the dealer newsletter and receive a discount on hardware.
Cherry is also heading up a new program called Atari Softsource, a database on GEnie. This worldwide listing contains software demos, pictures and text of all the software available for the ST. Developers update their own listings. Softsource will go on CD-ROM every quarter and be sent to dealers. Softsource is scheduled for a Christmas release to the general public.
Being a registered developer also makes you eligible to join the Independent Association of Atari Developers, formed as way to strengthen developers and help to market products more effectively. The IAAD claims 90 percent of North American Atari commercial developers as members and maintains a private forum on GEnie. To contact the IAAD, send a message to their GEnie address PERMIT$.
Charles Johnson closed his interview with this advice to programmers, "Drink plenty of milk. Stay away from corn nuts." Corn nuts? "Corn nuts. They'll crack your teeth."
Heidi Brumbaugh is the former Programs Editor of START Magazine.