February 27, 2006

The Apogee Legacy #8 - Ken Silverman

Today our "Apogee Legacy" Interview series continues with its eighth edition, this time with Build engine programmer, Ken Silverman. Ken's work can be seen in several of our titles, most notable Duke Nukem 3D & Shadow Warrior. His Build engine has been used in numerous titles by other companies as well (there's a list here). Ken was an engine guy, he never had a released "game" like others in this series up to this point, but don't mistunderstand that. Ken's contributions to the success of our games have been huge, specifically Duke Nukem 3D & Shadow Warrior.

The Apogee Legacy
Past Pioneers of the Shareware Revolution
Issue #8 - Ken Silverman

1) How did you first come in contact with Apogee?

I wrote a letter to Scott Miller about marketing Ken's Labyrinth in October 1992, 3 months before the game was released. We didn't reach a deal at that time. In March 1993, Epic released Ken's Labyrinth - which caught Scott's attention. He and Mark Rein of Epic sent me competing offers until August, at which time I chose Apogee.

2) Was there a reason you decided to work with Apogee, say versus going on your own or working with another company?

Sure. Apogee offered me the best deal. Unlike Epic, they offered a good salary - a fantasy for a kid just getting out of high school. Also, I knew about Apogee's reputation of producing high quality games, so I knew there was likely to be long-term benefits as well.

Ken Silverman - October 2005

3) Looking back, was there anything Apogee could have done better, regarding the marketing and distribution of your game?

No. I would look pretty silly complaining here when Duke Nukem 3D was the hottest selling game of 1996. Actually, now that I think about it... this slogan might have increased sales: "Duke Nukem 3D, from the makers of Ken's Labyrinth" Just kidding : )

4) Do you think your game was made better or worse by working with Apogee?

I wasn't really working on my own game. Supposing I had to do it all myself, I probably would have made something in the same style as Ken's Labyrinth, just with an updated engine. It might have looked a lot like the "KenBuild" test game on my website, or JFBuild (Windows port by JonoF). A commercial version would have included more maps, more crappy artwork, and a pointless story like "find some keys and exits because that's how you win". It would have been bad.

So my answer to this question is obviously yes. Apogee put a full committment into using my engine and tools. They took a risk by hiring a kid just out of high school to take on that kind of responsibility at their company. They did a great job on all aspects of the game.

5) Apogee had a policy of letting the designer or studio retain full intellectual property rights to their game. Nowadays, it's rare to find a publisher who allows this, especially if the publisher is providing the funding. Do you believe that it's best for the creator to retain IP rights? Why or why not?

In my case it didn't matter. My rights to the Build Engine were shared with Apogee/3D Realms. After I left the company, I did nothing to market the engine on my own. Any potential licensors dealt with Apogee/3D Realms, because that's who they knew about.

5a) And if applicable, have you benefited from retaining ownership of your own IP?

No. In retrospect, all it meant was that I didn't have to ask Apogee/3D Realms permission to release my own source code. I gave them a heads up anyway.

5b) Do you think there'll ever be a sequel to your game(s)?

For Duke Nukem 3D? Ha! You tell me : ) I can only speculate by pointing out that most mathematical models would suggest that the answer is no. After 10 years, I have no further information about this than a typical fan.

Ken showing off his US map drawing - Apr 1996

6) Is there any story/incident that stands out as interesting during your time associated with Apogee?

Sorry, I suck at remembering funny anecdotes. I didn't go out very much with the guys ... and when I did, I usually just sat there like a mute. It was hard being younger than everyone else.

7) Apogee was an early pioneer in terms of teaming up with external designers and studios, and continues to do so even to this day (currently working with Human Head Studios on Prey). Why is it that so few other studios do this (mentor and fund outside projects with lesser known teams)?

I can't speak for them. I can only guess that it has something to do with risk and them not wanting to take it.

8) What's the biggest difference in the industry nowadays versus when you worked with Apogee?

There's more interest and more competition now. Gaming is now as mainstream as movies. Online, I see lots of kids begging to get noticed - which is not unlike the struggling actors you see in Hollywood. Back then, I felt like an innovator for writing my own engine. Today, I am made to feel silly for not using an existing one. It hurts because I don't have the other skills.

9) What have you been doing since your time with Apogee?

I returned to Brown University in 1997 to finish college. Since graduating in May 2000, I've been working for myself. I still do the same amount of programming I used to, but I don't make money on it anymore. I release things on my website for free. Sometimes, I collaborate with friends online, such as Tom Dobrowolski (Voxlap/Moonedit) or Jonathon Fowler (JFBuild/JFDuke/JFSW). Also, I volunteer time at local schools, helping students with programming-related tasks. It's fun.

Ken with Frank Maddin in 1997 during Shadow Warrior development

10) If you're no longer making games, have you thought about returning to this industry? If not, why not?

I sometimes do small projects by myself and release them on my site, but nothing commercial. Most game companies in the New England area seem to be focused on money and business plans rather than making a fun game. I haven't looked too hard though. I'd rather be doing my own thing since I can.

11) Looking back, are there any missed opportunities that you wish you'd have jumped on?

No. I turned down a lot of offers in those days. In retrospect, I am very happy with the ones I chose.

12) Other than your game(s), what's your favorite game released or produced by Apogee (or 3D Realms)?

I guess Death Rally since it's one of the few games I've actually finished.

12a) And what's your favorite 2-4 games released by anyone else?

My favorite games of all time are:

  • Pole Position: I loved the 3D effect at the time
  • Super Mario Brothers: smooth scrolling, easy to play, great music
  • Quake 3 Arena: great gameplay (with fast internet connection)

13) Is there anything else you'd like to add about your time here or to fans of your title(s)?

I've said enough. If you want more, or if you want to see my recent projects, you can visit my website: http://advsys.net/ken.

Ken (R) with his brother (L), and Duke Nukem programmer Todd Replogle at 3DR HQ.

Thanks to Ken for sending in his answers, as well as a few pictures from his archives. Make sure and visit Ken's sites via the links in his answers above. However, our webmaster will relay a funny story as Ken said he wasn't good at that.

"One time the group of us were out to lunch at one of the local restaurants. This was one of the places that lets you draw with crayons on the table on paper they put on it. As Ken stated, he generally was pretty quiet, so most of us weren't paying attention, just talking the usual trash nonsense. After awhile one of us looked over at what Ken was doodling, and went "What the hell?" Ken was sketching the United States Map. He apparently has the ability to just draw the entire US map on anything. It pretty much took us by surprise, as he was roughly half done at that point, and from that point on we just watched him finish the map. One of the pictures above has another one of his "map doodles". So if you go anywhere with Ken, don't let him wander off on his own mentally, he'll draw the United States somewhere. :)"

Make sure and tune in again next Monday morning, when we bring you the next in our Legacy Interview series.

Posted by Joe Siegler on February 27, 2006 at 12:31 PM | Permalink | Discuss this story on our forums
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