Hanging ten on the software wave
by Robert Dewitt
Ihor Wolosenko is a partner and co-founder of Synapse Software, an originator of FileManager 800 and FileManager+, as well as many popular games. He was born in Austria of Ukrainian parents, and immigrated to the U.S. Following World War II. His parents, both professional people, settled in Queens, New York, where Ihor attended Stuyvesant High School, widely known for its science graduates. At the time, however, Ihor was more interested in drama and psychology (not to mention science fiction), and he followed these interests through college at C.U.N.Y.
After graduation he gravitated to Boston where he established a
successful photography studio and agency, doing still shots for many
major accounts. After about ten years he sold out, "to escape the
winters and find new interests." Berkeley, California, became his
landing pad. For some time he studied Tibetan Buddhism and a form of
psychology known as neurolinguistic programming. He began to counsel
clients and hold workshops in this field, and it was about this time
that he discovered computers. Since then, of course, the company he
started has grown tremendously and is a driving force in computer game
design, not just for ATARI, but in general.
ANTIC: So you decided a computer would make a neat toy?
WOLOSENKO: Yeah, I looked at the Apple and a bunch of others. I saw Star Raiders on an ATARI and asked if the Apple could play Star Raiders. They said "no," so I knew I wanted the one with Star Raiders. I got an ATARI 800.
A: What kind of things did you do with it?
W: BASIC programming, and a little bit of everything. When it's new, everything is exciting. I read the books, then I got into the Assembler Editor, but by that time I had met Ken already.
A: You mean Ken Grant, your partner in Synapse?
W: Yes. He was working for the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, where he was Vice President in charge of data processing. I figured, well here's a heavyweight who's been in computers a few years.
A: You met him as an ATARI user?
W: Yes, a mutual friend told him about me and he called me out of the blue. He lived in Kensington and I lived in Berkeley, so I went over to his house and we talked about computers. He showed me some of the programs he had written, including his data base. I thought it was great because I needed a data base for all my clients and workshop people. I used it a bit, but it kept screwing up. I said, hey, let's get this thing together, and I think you can probably market it. He said, "Well, I really don't have the time, but let's form a company to put this thing out. You do the documentation, the implementation, the interface and the graphics-what it's going to look like." I said, fine, and we did. That's how FileManager 800 started.
A: He did the actual routines?
W: The architecture, the structure. Then we decided we really couldn't go to market with just one program. There was another guy at the user group, Rob Re, who had written Dodge Racer. We invited him to make his game our other product, and he agreed. Now the FileManager, to get it into the shape we wanted, took longer than we thought. We started working on it seriously at the end of November, 1980, and hoped to get it out by May of '81, but we didn't ship any until about August. We had to recall the first hundred or so because there were a lot of bugs in it. We finally got it finished about October. It took a year to get it done right, and I was working on it almost full time. Ken was working hard on it too, even though he had another job. We were really cranking.
A: Were you surprised at the amount of work it took to bring a product like that to market?
W: Oh sure! We had been optimistic, but I just didn't feel right about letting it out until it was the way I wanted it to be and that is: completely easy to use, completely friendly. We have piles and piles of notes from that period. A: Can you chronicle the growth of the company? W: First we had FileManager and Dodge Racer. Then, around November of '81, Mike Potter came to us and said that he didn't want to work for Crystalware anymore. He asked if we would be interested in picking up Protector. We were very interested in Protector, but I wanted to see some changes in it and take some of the bugs out. So we agreed to that, and once we got it out, people really responded positively to Protector-because it worked. Then we began working on two other games I had in mind, Chicken and Slime. Mike and I were working on Chicken and I hired another guy to work on Slime. But, he turned out to be pretty flaky ... He wasn't getting anywhere and he became impossible to work with. Finally he started having psychic experiences with his disk drive-such as fire coming out of it. He just flaked out.
I realized I simply had to go with my gut feeling as to whom we could and couldn't work with. I then gave Slime to Steve Hales; he just started with it from scratch since he wasn't able to use any of the obscure code this other guy had written.
A: Were you taking on these programmers on a project basis rather than as employees of the company?
W: Yeah. Steve was working on Slime and Mike finished Chicken and began developing Nautilus.
A: Who came up with the idea for Shamus?
W: Well, William Mataga came to us with a game that was really a replica of Berserk that he'd put together. But, as interesting as it was, I didn't want to put out just a reproduction of another game. For one thing, I don't want to get sued and, also, I just don't think it's kosher. So we decided to take the action of Berserk and turn it into a much more interesting game.
A: After Shamus, the ball really started rolling for Synapse? W: Yeah. More and more people were attracted to us because of the quality of our products. Russ Segal, a student at University of California at Berkeley, came to us and I put him on the project of working up Picnic Paranoia.
A: Are these all Assembly Language products or BASIC products with Assembly Language routine?
W: All Assembly Language. Well, now, FileManager was not all machine language. It was BASIC with about a third of it Assembly Language.
A: Were Synapses' first offices at Ken's house?
W: Well, actually the mailing address was Ken's house, but the actual office was in my room at Berkeley. Then I moved to a larger apartment; one bedroom was the shipping room, one was my sleeping quarters, and the living room served as the office.
A: Very similar to ANTIC's situation.
W: Exactly. From there we moved up to Coventry, where we had six bedrooms and five people working. Our next move was into 6500 square feet on Jacuzzi Street last August. We just recently moved to this place, which has 22,000 square feet housing 35 employees.
A: Of course, 20,000 of that is your office!
W: Well, I like to play basketball in my office.
A: What do you have on the drawing boards right now?
W: We have a three-dimensional point-of-view game called Dimension X which will be out shortly. We also just released Fort Apocalypse and another one, Survivor.
A: Tell me something about Survivor.
W: Survivor is a space game. There are four space fortresses with gun emplacements all around. The object is to break through these gun emplacements and blow up the fortresses. Because there are continuously-scrolling vertical and horizontal screens, there are no spatial limits to the game. It's very important to me when I design a game to have as little limitation and as much flexibility as possible. For instance, Pac-Man is very set. But with Survivor you can go anywhere you want, even though there are ships constantly attacking you. In Survivor there are three different kinds of enemy ships: one mimics your motion, another goes directly for you, and one circles around you, and they change their strategies all the time. This means you can't use the same kind of maneuvers with each ship because it won't always work.
The same holds true for characters. We're releasing a game called Pharaoh's Curse in about two weeks. The action takes place inside a pyramid which has about 18 rooms holding lots of treasure. There's a pharaoh, a mummy and a bird that carries you away. Graphically it's very interesting-another dynamic game like Shamus. One of the nice things about the characters we're creating for games now is that they have a degree of existence independent from the operator of the joystick. In other words, when one of the characters is just standing around he might turn from side to side, look around, and perhaps even take a step in one direction. If the operator is not doing anything with the joystick, I want those characters to seem alive, so that there's a sense that they exist without you controlling them. I think that is very important psychologically, and I want to create that kind of life in our games.
We also have Shamus, Case II, coming out; Drelbs, and Necromancer. Necromancer is a totally unique game. It consists of three phases. In the first phase you grow an army of apprentice trees; in the second phase you go down through these caverns, using your trees-which are actually animated-they walk around crushing out spiders. At the third phase you meet the evil wizard, and so on. There's a whole apocalypse at the end.
A: Do you spend a good portion of your time on game design, and do you consider that your specialty in this company?
W: Well, actually there are two things. I focus both on game design and management of the company from the point of view of growth, and what we need to do to become the most successful software company. So far we've been able to make the right decisions. We're branching out now to make products for the other computers. We'll be out on the Commodore 64, the TI, the Radio Shack Color Computer and Apple. Synapse now has 40 programmers working on projects.
A: Do all of them work here at Synapse?
W: No, some work here and others work out of their homes.
A: What kind of a deal do you offer a programmer?
W: Well, it depends on whether it's an original game or a conversion. We offer anywhere between 10-20% in royalties on disk and cassette games. We offer a lower royalty on ROMs because those sales are much greater than disks or cassettes, and also there's more up-front money needed to make ROMs.
A: Does Synapse solicit games from individuals outside the company?
W: No, we develop our material internally. We do receive ideas from outside individuals, and while we review them, most of the time we are not interested. That's the nice thing about having internal development of our programs; we don't have to start at ground zero each time. If a company has to rely on outside people submitting material, there isn't much security and it becomes a matter of hit or miss regarding the quality of the games. Right now we're working on 30 projects internally and are constantly attracting new people.
A: The ATARI seems the central machine around which the development of Synapse products for other machines revolves. Is that true?
W: Well, for right now, because most of what we're doing on the other machines are conversions of ATARI titles. Once we have similar products for all the machines we can begin evaluating each machine's unique capabilities and develop products accordingly.
A: From a manager's point of view, what looms out there as your biggest probable danger? Are you afraid of growing too fast?
W: No, I think we have managed to control our growth. We have not required any outside investors and we've been able to boot-strap ourselves on cash flow, even when that's been difficult. We have a very successful company. I think the biggest danger for a company our size is not perceiving how the role of management changes as the company grows. When you're small it's a matter of putting out fires and bottom-up management. After a certain point you have to start hiring for the future and going from the top down. Some people are good at certain jobs but not very good at management. We want to provide a certain amount of job satisfaction while getting the products out.
In terms of threats out there, there's obvious danger with the large companies that have big advertising budgets. We have a lot of advertising money scheduled. We're also looking at alliances so that we don't have to come up against companies like Thorne or CBS, which have megabucks to spend on advertising. We've been able to get both our product and our name out there.
The market is also significantly different from a VCS market. A company like ACTIVISION has 10 million units as a base, with one SKU for that particular machine. Here we have five computers with three different media for each computer, so that's 15 SKUs for each title. How do you manage that?
A: What's an SKU?
W: That's one unit, one product line.
A: So, because each computer can each have programs on cassette, diskette and ROM cartridge, you have three different SKUs for each title?
W: Right. So for someone getting into mass merchandising from the game machine experience it can be overwhelming. There's the TI, the VIC, the 64, the Apple, the ATARI 400/ 800, with three different media for each one; which means you have to carry 15 separate items for one title. It's exponential. It's crazy! That's why a lot of the mass merchandisers are going to rack jobbers like Andleman and Lieberman, Softsell or SKU. It's up to the rack jobbers to bring in their racks and service them because it's impossible for the manufacturer to know what to do. That's the really difficult transition.
A: What was Synapse's volume in 82?
W: Well, we're shipping somewhere between half a million and a million dollars worth of product each month.
A: Before we end this, let me ask some personal questions. How is Ihor doing? Are you having a lot of fun?
W: Oh, very much.
A: Are you a millionaire yet?
W: I don't know. I'd say I've got an investment in something that's really good. I'm not a millionaire at the bank but I've got the potential for making a very comfortable amount of money.
A: Was it ever a particular life goal of yours to be running a company of this size?
W: No, I don't do it for the money or because I wanted to run a company. I do it because it's fun to do. When it stops being fun I won't do it any more.
A: What are your plans when and if it stops being fun?
W: Two things. I want to write children's story books and I want to produce some more movies. Oh, yeah, and I'd also like to live in the South Pacific!
A: It sounds like you just might do that. Do you have a movie idea you're just dying to make?
W: There are a couple of scripts I've written.
A: Are they fantasy scripts? Anything you'd like to share with us?
W: Not really. Not at this point.
A: Does Synapse have any plans for going into video production?
W: We're sticking with the computer although we are starting a business division which will handle the FileManager type of program. We have a TrendManager program ready to come out and we just released FileManager for the IBM PC and we're currently working on some other business programs. As I said, my function is to design games and see to it that the company succeeds.
taken from ANTIC VOL. 2, NO. 1 / APRIL 1983 / PAGE 21