Photo Credit: Maury Neipris
David Snider is a gaming pioneer who graduated from Brown university and created the 1980’s Apple II phenomenon David’s Midnight Magic Pinball at the ripe age of 22. Since his success with Midnight Magic, Snider has gone on to create multiple popular applications for the iPhone and iPad.
While at Brown University, what influenced your decision to become a programmer?
I took my first computer class and learned a little bit about programming in the 6th grade, around 1970. A handful of kids and I learned from our math teacher who had a Teletype. He gave us lessons about programming in BASIC, which was amazingly cool at the time.
The Teletype was tied in through a 300 bandwidth dial-up phone line, which was connected to an IBM 360 at the University of Michigan. During college, I thought maybe I’ll major in computer science rather than try and follow the doctor/lawyer path.
While you were growing up, were there any specific jobs you thought might be right for you?
I didn’t think that it (computer programming) was going to be a real job, like “make a living forever” job. Actually, during high school, I was an after school ski instructor, and it was really cool. I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit, and I loved to ski. I made some money giving lessons at one of the local ski resorts outside of Detroit.
When was the first time that you came across Black Knight Pinball?
I had seen a number of different ones. I liked pinball machines and enjoyed playing them at the arcades back in the day. During my last year at Brown, before I got my degree in computer science, various major computer companies such as IBM, Digital Equipment, Burrows and Hewlett Packard came and tried to recruit students for jobs. At that time, I decided that I didn’t want to do that right away.
I decided to try and write some software for the Apple II because it had been out for a couple years, and my family had an Apple II in the late 70s. I was kind of familiar with it, had seen some of the available software and thought, “I can do that.” I wasn’t really certain I could make a living at it, but I was willing to give it a try. Right out of college was a pretty good time to take a chance on something like that, not having a regular nine to five job, so I did.
Instead of applying for a job with a big company, I came home after college and started working on a video game for the Apple II. A few months before graduation, the number one top game was somebody else’s pinball game – a pinball game called Raster Blaster written by a guy named Bill Budge, and it was great. It was really fun, really cool, and I thought, “I can do this too.” I can do the simulation of real life, the vector math, the whatnot that’s involved with that and do it on an Apple II.
The Black Knight was a pinball game that was pretty recent, fairly current and fun to play. I realized it might be kind of chancy to totally design my own board layout from scratch and decided to imitate something that was already popular.
What main goal did you have in mind when creating David’s Midnight Magic?
I wanted to make something that was fun for me. I hoped I would be able to sell it and make some money with it, but I wanted something that was really cool. I wanted to create something that I would enjoy playing rather than something that was good enough to sell to other people.
A family friend owned a software company for the Apple II.. I learned from him that there was a good opportunity to make a living, to sell software all around the country through computer stores or through mail order. People would find a way to order something from you and you would ship them a disc in a Ziploc bag.
So, I really thought that there was a good opportunity for that and I would start my own company. I would make this game, copy the programs onto 5-1/4” discs and sell software. That was the plan in the beginning – to try and make something that I would really like that was good enough that other people would like it too. They would buy it, and the world would be wonderful. All would work out.
When and how did you come across Broderbund Software Inc.?
I was working on the project, which took six to eight months from start to finish. After I moved home from college, I worked on the game for a couple of months and made some progress on the program. I then went to visit my girlfriend from college, who lived in Kansas City. On the drive, I passed through Chicago, which worked out really well because there was a huge trade show at one of the convention centers in downtown Chicago, and I decided to go.
While at the trade show, I wandered around, looked at the different booths and at one booth ended up meeting Doug and Cathy Carlson, two of the three owners of Broderbund. I had a chance to talk to them for a little while, see what they were working on and after talking with them, I decided to show them what I was working on. I was a little uncomfortable about it because it was my big secret. I didn’t want anybody to know what I was working on in case they were faster and could make something similar or better in less time. I wanted to be the next guy with a pinball game for the Apple II and not the third, fourth or tenth.
In the end, I decided that I liked them well enough and felt that they were good people so I showed them how my program had been progressing, and they liked it. I gave them my information and headed to Kansas City.
Exactly seven days later, I got back to Michigan, and the president of the Broderbund called me. He said he liked my program and wanted me to work with them. They wanted to publish my software when I finished it. It was a really cool proposition, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to do that at first. I wanted to make 100 percent of the profit as opposed to making a fraction of the money. It took me a while as a 22-year-old to realize that the reason the company is making 75 percent of the money is because they are doing all of the things that the programmer doesn’t want to do! For example: hiring people, advertising, manufacturing, creating the boxes and managing the distribution.
After thinking about that for a couple of days, I came to the conclusion that he was right and decided to sign a contract with them. After that, I worked with them for the next 10 years.
What went through your head when you received news that your title David’s Midnight Magic was a commercial success?
When I first started with Broderbund, it only had a dozen employees. So it was a small, tight knit group. Word would spread quickly when a distributor called and ordered 2,000 copies or some unheard of number during any given month.
As time went by, it sold really well, won some awards, and people really liked it. That was all great, but nothing was as cool as walking into a local computer store and seeing the box with my software on the wall. That was a great moment for me.
What platforms do you program for at the moment? Do you intend to program for platforms such as Xbox or PlayStation?
It’s unlikely that I will ever do that. When I first started out, it was possible for a single person like me or a small group of people to create a professional product, one that was good enough to compete successfully with all of the other games or educational products out there. That all changed over time. Software development turned into something very similar to making a big movie, where you needed dozens of people and specialists for sound, graphic design and marketing. All these people were then working together the best they could before deciding to spend the million dollars it would take to create the project.
The marketing crew would say, “if we can’t sell two million of those and it’s not going to bring in enough money, it’s not worth doing at all.” The industry changed, everything got bigger and the games turned into the franchise games that are being sold now. The independent developers working to create the little games are having a really hard time. To create a game for a console is a really big project. So, I probably would not take that on myself.
Over the last couple years, I’ve been writing apps for the iPhone and iPad; I haven’t been doing any apps for Android-based devices. It’s not that they aren’t good, but to the best of my knowledge there’s just no money in it. Selling apps through the App Store actually pays pretty well and people pay for those apps. Occasionally there’s advertising in the apps and that pays well, too. In the Android’s environment, it seems like some of that may apply but not to the same extent. So I have been doing iOS stuff and it pays the bills. I have written some apps of my own and done a lot of contract work for four or five different companies over the last couple years on projects for which I have high hopes.
Can you name some specific games that you have been working on?
I have not been working on games. I have worked on a whole assortment of things, such as a variety of ringtone-oriented apps, where you go to the app, preview different ringtones and download the ones you like. The process for retrieving the ringtone from another person’s server is a couple steps long, but is a really cool thing because it is built into iOS, where you choose different ringtones for different people. I have done a series of those ringtone-oriented apps, and they have all done really well.
I have also worked on some apps that involve texting, color texting and animated pictures while texting. Some of those have approximately five million downloads. They are free apps that turn out to be pretty popular. I’ve also worked on animated children’s books, which are 25 pages or so that have animations that occur between pages. For example, you touch this person, they speak, say and move. I also worked with my brother who is also a programmer on McAfee. I have a bunch of ideas for games that I would like to do in my spare time, but haven’t had a chance to do them yet.
What do you like to do in your spare time when you are not programming?
If I lived where we still had seasons and mountains, I would try and ski more, because I really miss that. I lived for 10 years in the San Francisco area, when I was working with Broderbund, and I liked that very much. In the early ’90s, I moved to Florida where I still have family and have been here ever since.
I read a lot, but I miss winter, and I wish I had more chances to spend time where the world has you know… seasons.
Photo Credit: Maury Neipris
Do you have any advice for programmers who are new to the business?
If you want to be a successful independent developer, you must make the game for yourself. You have to make it really good and make something that you would want to use or when it comes to a game, something that you would really want to play. If you do that, other people will want to play it too. If you design it yourself and build it to suit yourself, chances are other people will like it too. That more than anything is the path to success. You really have to make it something special. It would have to be the kind of thing that you would walk up to and say “oh, I’d like that. I want that.” That’s what I think it really takes.