Scott Miller is quite frankly a retro gaming hero. So when Jordan Freeman of ZOOM Platform mentioned in our interview with him and Bernie Stolar that he could introduce us we jumped at the chance. So here is our chat with the Duke Nukem, Max Payne and Shareware creator himself…
Scott, your early 90s work inspired my generation (to say the least) – how did you go from programming DOS games to being one of the industry’s biggest players (pardon the pun) and what was your life like pre-Wolfenstein 3D?
How did Bill Gates go from programming devices that monitor traffic flow to being the king of operating systems! It’s always just a matter of happy accidents, lucky timing, and taking advantage of opportunities when they knock at your door. (There’s a very good book written on this topic, Talent, which makes a strong case that lucky timing is just as important as any other factor in a person’s success. I firmly believe this.)
But in my personal case, I was lucky to be at the early stages of the online revolution, when CompuServe, GEnie, Prodigy and AOL were the big boys. And bulletin board systems where the pre-web version of the Internet. These online resources allowed me to be the first person to become successful selling my games online. And once I started making so much money, I quit my day job, created Apogee, and launched the first-ever indie publisher. I was super fortunate to convince a group a developers working at another publisher to create a game for my company, and that game was Commander Keen. Believe it or not, those developers, who became Id Software, did not think a game could make money being distributed online using my shareware methods. A few years later they were all driving Ferraris!
And the rocket ship kept going up throughout the 90’s.
Speaking of Wolfenstein – it’s the granddaddy of all 3D first person shooters. How does it feel to have given birth (through Apogee) to what is now the industry’s biggest genre?
Honestly, I never think about it. I try to live in the now and look to the future. So the past is never on my mind, except to learn from experience.
And while I did play a role in bringing Wolfenstein 3D to the world, the real honor goes to Id Software and their technical genius, being ahead of every other studio on the planet at that time (and for many years after).
Is it true that you met John Romero in odd circumstances and what was he like to work with?
John Romero worked at Softdisk as a game developer, and I loved his games. To get him to contact me on the sly, I wrote him several fake fan letters, saying I had found bugs in his games, and to contact me for details. My ploy eventually worked and I was able to reveal to him my true intentions: to have him create a game for my new company, promising him that he’d make a LOT more money than what his games were making at Softdisk. He sent me a demo of a pixel-perfect scrolling Mario game on the PC, something not previous thought possible. Apparently, Romero’s coding partner, John Carmack, had come up with a clever method to pull it off. I was immediately so impressed I helped them start a company and I funded their first game, Commander Keen.
Slightly naughty question – is it true that the creators of DOOM prevented a direct sequel (not counting The Nocturnal Missions) to Wolfenstein 3D? And if so, how did you feel about that? We personally would have LOVED to see it happen.
We originally had an agreement with Id to make a sequel called Wolfenstein 3D: Rise of the Triad. But our game was taking too long to make, and Id had Doom coming out, so they didn’t want those two games to come out at similar times, so they pulled the plug on us being able to use the Wolfenstein name and IP. So, we re-designed everything we had done up to that point and made Rise of the Triad. The reason Rise of the Triad appears to have a lot in common with the Wolfenstein theme is that the games were once part of the same storyverse.
Shareware was a godsend to me growing up as we didn’t have a lot of money – it allowed me to experience properly games I’d never have had the chance to. What gave you the idea?
Lucky circumstances! And the fact that when I tried contacting the bigger retail publishers back in that time, none of them wanted to work with me. So, instead of letting the games I was making sit around on floppy disks, I realized I could upload them to bulletin boards, CompuServe and AOL! But, what really made it all work was my idea of splitting games up into episodes, and releasing just the first episode as shareware. Players then sent me money if they wanted the remaining episodes. This was the most important breakthrough I had, and it launched Apogee, and Epic, which copied our technique and also because super successful.
Now to one of our favourite characters – Duke Nukem. When you first started DN3D, what were your aspirations for the game and could you have envisaged how popular it would become?
I first created Duke Nukem along with my partner Todd Replogle, back in 1991. Even back in that first game I knew he was an interesting character because of his fearless attitude, and also the humor that surrounded him in his first game. His second game, also a side-scroller, continued with these idea. But it wasn’t until Duke 3D that we had the technology to allow us to really bring Duke to life, thanks to way better quality graphics, moving the game to a 3D engine, and giving Duke a voice. It was my partner, George Broussard, who found Jon St John, the perfect actor to voice Duke and bring him to life exactly like we wanted. That was 21 years ago and Jon St John is still doing the voice work for Duke — really shows how perfect of a pairing those two are.
When we first uploaded the shareware version of Duke 3D to the world, I was giddy with excitement because I knew we had struck gold. Not only was the game innovated, and really well polished, but it was fun to the core, and full of irrelevance and humor and attitude and I was 100% positive it was going to be a hit, because the gaming world had never seen anything like it before.
The game has, shall we say, some rather adult overtures. What was the thinking behind that and did you welcome the controversy the game caused?
We WANTED the controversy. It was all done on purpose by us, to poke at the bees. We knew that Doom was a juggernaut, and that the soon-to-come Quake would be a massive hit game, too. So to compete we purposely adding things to Duke 3D that we knew Id Software would not add to their games. We respected Id’s technical and gameplay prowess so much, we had to be better and different in other ways, like giving Duke a personality, and adding humor and controversy to the game.
Did you realise over the course of those two games, Terminal Velocity and Max Payne exactly how much of an impact you had on UK gaming/gamers?
We knew the UK market was huge for our games, and I would travel over to speak at the ECTS game show, and the fan support there was huge and rewarding. I loved my trips to England.
What game gives you the most pride (looking back) and why?
Just the fact that we were a big part of so many original franchises that to this day still exist, like Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem, Shadow Warrior, Rise of the Triad, Max Payne and Prey. Is there any other indie game studio with that kind of track record when it comes to successful original IP? We knew how to make hit games back then, and we’d turn down offers to make games based on The Matrix and Men in Black, for example. I’d tell the film Producers who’d contact us: “We don’t need to work for Hollywood, we create our own hits.”
If you could go for a drink with any of the characters from your games, who would you choose and why?
Max Payne. The guy is the ultimate survivor. And I named him Max Payne to really reflect the depth of how much he’s endured, will continue to endure, and yet he always bounces back.