Apogee Software revolutionized how video games were sold in the late ‘80s.
And it all started with an irresistible offer.
By giving away games to sell games a Texas solopreneur created a multi-million-dollar business all without advertising.
In this case study, we’ll discover what that offer was and how it drove both sales and Word of Mouth (WoM) marketing.
Scott Miller is one of the most important people in the history of video games that you have never heard of.
He’s a game programmer, ex-journalist, and solopreneur who helped bring 3D gaming to the masses in the early ’90s with classics like Wolfenstein 3D and Duke Nukem 3D.
And he did it all by making gamers a great offer they couldn’t say ‘No’ to and by building a successful business model around it.
It all started in the ’80s when Scott was looking for a way to turn his childhood passion for games into a career.
Barely making a living as a freelance game reviewer for a local paper wasn’t cutting it anymore, what Scott really wanted to do was create his own games.
But the traditional route of getting into game development by joining a publisher wasn’t working.
After years of getting rejected, Scott decided to self-publish his games by distributing them for free on Bulletin Board Systems (i.e. BBSs) which were the internet before there was an internet.
If players liked his games, they could make a voluntary donation to Scott and his one-man company, Apogee Software Productions.
Source: Internet Archive
This business model was called shareware. In a nutshell, it allowed you to download the full version of a program or game and use it for FREE. If you like it you could pay the author, if not you could still use it as you pleased.
Needless to say, things didn’t work out as expected for Scott. He did make money but it came in bits and pieces.
Yet instead of giving up, Scott Miller got creative and, in the process, ended up transforming the gaming industry forever.
All by turning parts of his video games into lead magnets that sold the full game.
Tired of not making any money off his games, Scott embarked on a bold new path.
He took his new game, Kingdom of Kroz, and broke it’s 60 levels into three parts called ‘Episodes’.
Gamers could download the first episode for free via BBS. When they played through it a screen with Scott’s mailing address would appear making them a high ROI offer.
If the wanted to get the other two episodes and finish the game, the screen said, they could send Scott a cheque and he’d mail them to the player on floppy disks.
Gamers could buy these episodes individually or together. Plus buying an episode entitled them to premium bonuses like tech support and special cheat codes.
Soon Miller was receiving an average of $1,000 in cheques per week and “the Apogee model” was born.
Great taglines are short and clear messages that pitch your product or services to potential customers.
Apogee’s official taglines were generic and not very persuasive. For example, the company used the following two taglines between 1987 and 1996:
“Apogee Means Action!”
“The Height Of Gaming Excitement”
Both taglines aren’t very memorable. More importantly they don’t tell you what Apogee was really offering to gamers!
Fortunately, there was an implied, unofficial tagline that was communicated to gamers by the high ROI offer that can be summed up as:
“Get the first part of our games for free. If you like it, you can buy the rest and get some sweet bonuses on top of it!”
And this implied tagline worked like magic!
Apogee didn’t have to do any advertising, happy gamers did it for them.
I’m old enough that I can remember the tailwind of this in the early to mid-90s.
For a seven-year-old kid with an old IBM 386, there was nothing more exciting than to come home from school with a 1.44 MB floppy disk that had the latest (for German standards) shareware hit on it.
Games like Commander Keen, Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure, and Jazz Jack Rabbit were some of the highlights of my afternoon gaming sessions. And I made sure all my friends with computers took part in the fun!
The “Try Before You Buy” model created a lot of credibility for Apogee games.
After all, you got to play through a good chunk of the game before the first episode was done. This introduced you to the game’s story and mechanics, giving you a pretty good idea about whether you wanted to continue playing or not.
In marketing the only thing better than showing people why your product or service is awesome is letting them try it out and come to the same conclusions for themselves.
The Apogee Model Infographic
More importantly a lot of gamers got these games from friends who’d already played and liked them.
Remember these were the early 90’s and the world wide web was still a new thing. Most gamers got these shareware games on floppy disks from older siblings and friends who had access to the early web at work or university.
When somebody handed you a couple of disks and said “Play this, it’s great” that came with a lot of social proof that pre-framed your perception of the game for the better. This also created amazing Word of Mouth (WoM) that generated even more leads and sales.
It was due to this that games with adult themes like Doom, Duke Nukem, and Quake managed to become breakout hits. Leading to the multi-billion video game industry today.
And it all started with a great offer from a small, one-man company in Texas.
Thanks to “Masters of Doom” by David Kushner for introducing me to the “Apogee Model”.
Masters of Doom (Amazon Affiliate link | Affiliate Disclosure) is an awesome book about how id Software, creators of Wolfenstein, Doom, & Quake, revolutionized video-games and pop-culture. If you like video games and eccentric characters you’ll love this book!
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