THE CARLSTON TRIO
Broderbund Software, responsible for such popular computer games as Choplifter, Alien Rain and David's Midnight Magic, was started in Eugene, Oregon, in 1980 by two brothers - Doug and Cary Carlston. They started on the strength of a series of strategy games, called Galactic Saga, written by Doug on his TRS-80. Doug was a practicing lawyer (Harvard Law School, 1975), but gradually the potential of the software business weaned him from legal work completely.
Brother Gary, also a Harvard graduate (B.A. in Scandinavian literature, 1973), was shuttling back and forth to Sweden, where he coached a women's basketball team that won the Swedish national championship. He also taught Swedish at the University of Washington in Seattle.
By 1979 Dong had sold a few programs to Scott Adams at Adventure International and to TSE Softside. This minor success encouraged him to enlist brother Gary's efforts in a software company.
Broderbund is now located in San Rafael, California, "closer to the action," and has grown from five to 60 people. The brothers have been joined by sister Cathy, formerly a buyer for Lord and Taylor's in New York. The trio is represented in the company logo, three crowns, which is also the Swedish national emblem.
ANTIC: The first games you wrote were for the TRS-80, but soon you began focusing on the Apple market? What happened?
DOUG: Software for the TSR-80 turned out to be a terrible market because most of the distribution networks were closed, even though there were plenty of machines out there. In March, 1980, we were able to get a booth at the Fifth West Coast Computer Fair. At the show, Gary and I met some Japanese traders and they had some very good Apple programs. We pursued them and also put a letter in 3 Japanese magazine asking Japanese programmers to write to us. A trader came back in June with programs and we started buying them from him. We got a good entertainment line going for the Apple which was mostly from Japan.
ANTIC: What were the names of some of those earlier games from Japan? What was the first big hit!
GARY: The first was Alien Rain. That hit the market in December, 1980. Two others were Hyper Head-On and Galaxy Wars, but they weren't very successful. They had to be played sideways on American T.V.s.
ANTIC: And each of these games was written for the Apple?
GARY: Yes. One interesting note for ANTIC's readers was the friendly pressure we kept receiving from A.C.E. newsletter to get into the Atari market, which we resisted for a long time because we didn't have any programmers for the ATARI.
ANTIC: Why couldn't the people who were doing the programming for the Apple also program for the ATARI?
DOUG: They were all in Japan. They'd never even seen an ATARI. Furthermore they didn't have any interest in it. We didn't get our first ATARI program out of Japan until six months ago. A.E. was the first one the Japanese had ever done on the ATARI.
ANTIC: So you're still in close contact with Japan.
CATHY: In fact we're going to have to interrupt this interview any minute now because we're expecting a bus load of eleven Japanese.
ANTIC: Eleven Japanese programmers? What will they be doing here?
CATHY: Six of them are programmers, the others are friends. They're going to be here for a month and they're here to learn. They don't know enough about the ATARI yet, so they're going to learn all the techniques and utilities we have here and take them back to Japan.
ANTIC: Are they working for Broderbund in Japan?
GARY: Their company is called Programmer's 3 and we have been partners for three and a half years.
DOUG: We do all the marketing and distribution and a lot of the editing on the programs. We try to give them a sense of what Americans do and don't like, etc. We communciate a lot. We have a full-time time Japanese translator on our staff and we try to see them a few times a year. In between we send stuff back and forth.
ANTIC: Cathy, what has been your role with the company?
CATHY: Originally I came to take charge of the office management, bookkeeping, administration, that sort of thing. After a while I noticed that our advertising was getting a little stale. We kept running the same ads all the time. I pointed this out, and was quickly appointed to do something about it. Since then I've been overseeing advertising, too.
ANTIC: How many programmers are working for Broderbund now and what machines are they mostly writing on?
DOUG: We now have sixty people working for us, twelve of them programmers, many doing conversions. Apple is still the most popular, Atari is second in terms of submissions. Those two have the largest base of young programming talent.
ANTIC: Have you found there's been difficulty in making the transition from the Apple to the ATARI in that the ATARI has greater visual capability, graphics, sound, ect.?
GARY: It's been a learning experience finding out what ATARI owners appreciate about their own machines that we were not aware of initially. The importance of sound, for example . . .
DOUG: There are reaf trade-offs both ways. The trouble is that people tend to have such a strong loyalty to their machine, whatever it may be, that they go out of their way to differentiate it from other machines. They pick up on particular features and make them important because they're different from what other machines have. So that's a problem. There are no real obstacles in terms of resolution, detail or any of that in making a transfer, although it was a learning experience for everybody. The main difference is getting a higher level of sound for the ATARI and Commodore.
ANTIC: For which machines are you currently programming?
DOUG: Commodore Vic, Commodore 64, Apple, IBM, ATARI, including 5200 and the 2600 as well as the computers. The 5200 is a pretty decent machine. It's got the same capabilities internally as the computers, so it's not a bad one. We're also looking at Coleco and doing some licensing for the T.I.
ANTIC: I'm interested in the creation of a computer game, the process whereby a programmer goes from the idea for a game to the actual reality of a Choplifter rescuing hostages or a slithery creature gobbling another slithery creature. How does that come about?
GARY: I believe the germ of an idea is actually a particular routine that a programmer may come up with, say a routine that kind of gives the effect of sliding over ice. From that little routine he can build and make it into something larger.
ANTIC: Somewhat similar to the germ of an idea for a short story or a painting.
DOUG: It'd be like you were going to paint the Mona Lisa and the first thing you did was paint the smile.
GARY: Or maybe its more akin to songwriting, which is something many programmers also do. You get a little dirty, a little phrase, and you build on it until you create a game. And all we do here is try to help them build on these phrases.
ANTIC: So you give them a supporting environment here in which they can work?
GARY: Yes. We now have internally here, editors, storyboard people, animators. A programmer will come in and say, "I've got a neat routine, kind of gives an effect of sliding over ice. What can I do with it?" So everybody gets together and the animator works on little characters, the story guy works on story line and the editors come in and try to contribute towards character development and the theme. Together they come up with a complete game.
CATHY: It's much more of a group effort than it was a year ago.
GARY: And this is why programmers who work for us freelance come in on a regular basis, like the authors of Choplifter and Serpentine. At least once a week they'll come in with their current projects and if they need help getting a character designed or a story idea together they can talk over different ideas, or work with the animator ot editor.
DOUG: Another thing we do is create a portfolio of ideas so that if a talented person were to come to us and show us a lot of neat routines and say, "look, I can program but I don't know what to program" we can say, "here's a game idea that seems to suit your style." What we're trying to do is to offer a complete service to programmers. This is really the first year we've put so much into product development in-house. At this point in the interview the eleven Japanese arrived and Cathy Carlston left to greet them. The interview continued with Gary and Doug.
ANTIC: What advice would you give to a young programmer struggling out there in the hinterlands?
GARY: To be prepared for almost total commitment. Because you're competing against professional people now who have, somehow or other, arranged their lives to work full time at programming. And try to work with a publisher who will work with you and is not just a broker.
ANTIC: How do you compensate programmers?
DOUG: Most of them work on a royalty basis with the royalty ranging anywhere from 15% to 30% depending on market conditions.
ANTIC: So a fellow like David Snider, who wrote David's Midnight Magic, how much did he make on that?
Doug: somewhere in six figures, I can tell you that much, which is not unusual for some of our top programmers.
ANTIC: And how did he come to be connected with Broderbund?
GARY: He had seen Rasterblaster (by Bill Budge) and was working on the Apple at college and said, "I wonder if I could do something like thad" so he started programming pinball. We were at a computer fair in Chicago and he came by with it. We saw it in its early stages and thought it was great. We bought him some equipment so that he could work faster, and then his parents fed him for the next four or five months. Between the bunch of us we got the product out.
ANTIC: What kind of game has been done to death?
GARY: Well I think software's going to resemble movies more than games. Not to say that there won't be shooting in the game, but there's going to be a whole story, plot, theme. And it's not just going to be in the documentation - it's going to be in the game. You're going to have the option to live it all out. You may still just shoot and be shot at, but its going to be within a much more freewheeling framework.
ANTIC: And is Broderbund preparing for that, trying to devise more intricate kinds of games ...
GARY: Yes, sometimes a piece of entertainment software may take a year and a half to write. There's some pretty complicated stuff being written, with a lot of people involved, and there are a few where we'll never even recoup our investment.
ANTIC: You mean there are a few programmers that you support, while they're working on a game and at some point you just say, "forget it, it's not worth it anymore!"
GARY: Well, no, no, but they may be writing for a machine that's dead by the time the program comes out. I don't know which machine that could be, but it could happen. The fellow who wrote Choplifter, he's been working on his next game for 13 months now.
ANTIC: How do you compensate programmers who spend a year and a half writing a program?
DOUG: That's why a lot of the programmers who work for us are here in-house. We're funding some people quite extensively and that's why I say we may not get our money back. We had to write off quite a bit last year. You take your chances, and as our batting average goes down, which I'm sure it must (can't be lucky forever), we've just got to build that into our cost of doing business.
ANTIC: I know you've lived in Sweden quite a few years, and have actually taught Swedish at the University of Washington in Seattle. Is Broderbund a Swedish name? How did you come up with the name Broderbund?
GARY: It's actually closest to the German and in German the word broderbund means "brotherhood'.
The interview continued at lunch with the eleven Japanese.
ANTIC: In what direction does Broderbund plan to move in the coming years?
DOUG: Our intention is to move in multiple lines, in three directions. One line will be the Bank Street line which is the home utility line. We plan to come out with a Bank Street Speller, Bank Street Filer, etc., programs for the family. Our second line is something we're working on with the Hensen people who were the ones who created the Muppets. It's called the computer literacy line and will concentrate on teaching everything there is to know about a computer.
ANTIC: Will it be mostly written material or software also?
DOUG: It'll be a combination of software and written material. We plan it to overview everything on computers yet remain focused each step of the way. The first series should be coming out about next summer. And the third line is what we call "Edutainment," entertainment products with educational value. Our new product Matchboxes is that kind of game.
ANTIC: What is it about running Broderbund that gives you the greatest satisfaction?
DOUG: I would say the greatest satisfaction is the creation of a new product, a new game just entering the market, even though I'm not immediately involved anymore in product development. Most of my time these days is spent on administrative work. Still, I would say that a new product on the market gives me the greatest satisfaction.
ANTIC: Does the future of the software field look good for Broderbund? Are you feeling burned out from computing!
DOUG: Not at all. I expect Broderbund to be somewhere in this field 10 years from now, one way or another. I still intend to be running this business.
David Barry is a technical writer in the computer field, and author of an upcoming book on the word-processing program Wordstar.