Distant Suns T+30 years and counting
Thirty years ago, last April, a new software application for the Commodore Amiga went on sale. Named Galileo, it eventually would be renamed Distant Suns and go on to be one of the longest lived consumer software titles in history.
When growing up I loved planetariums. So much so, that I actually wrote and produced my own show for my 7th grade class, giving it at a local community college’s planetarium. Whenever I went to a show, I would always sit in the back row hoping to “catch a star” right before misbehaving horizon shutter would close on one of the lenses of the planetarium’s “star ball.”
In 1985, Commodore introduced their Amiga 1000. The most powerful graphics computer less than $10K the Amiga was close to being a limitless machine, with its dynamic color maps, true multitasking OS, ability to change screen resolutions on the fly and many other awesomely cool capabilities.
The night I got mine, I thought that its flexible colormap graphics would make for a great “desktop” planetarium. Considering that there was NO software available on release day, I played with ABasic, the basic interpreter that came with the machine, and created a 17-line file that would draw 600 random stars on the screen.
The very first routine I wrote was to calculate the position of the moon. I did all of my compelling using two floppy drives which would take about 5 minutes each time. Talk about a buzz-kill!
Galileo, later renamed Distant Suns (my original publisher never filed for a trademark on the name) would survive two bankruptcies, be rewritten four times, (and I am currently on the fifth), span ports from Amiga to Mac to Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 to iPhone, iPad and finally to Android, and is STILL really fun to work on.
It started out at almost $90 (think about $200 for an app these days), but earn me less per unit than when it first launched in the Appstore.
When the store first opened in 2008, I told myself if it sold just $20/day, I’d be happy. It peaked out at $3800/day, was one of the two apps featured by Apple in the special iPad store on iPad 1 launch day, and was in New and Noteworthy at least 3 times that I remember.
The first few years of the iOS store felt a lot like the early Amiga days. Lots of single programmer apps, fairly easy money if you had a nice product, a lot of buzz in the air. I think that those days are now permanently behind us. As expectations for software is so much higher these days, so many more capabilities added to iOS each year, it’s nigh impossible for one person to turn out a successful app. But it was really fun while it lasted. I hope I can get at least one more good run at it before its time to hang up the pocket protector.
I almost go blind looking at the crude graphics from 1987. But one of my first beta testers said they were so beautiful that after a tough day at work he’d pour a glass of wine, turn out the lights and just stare at the screen for a few minutes.
Distant Suns then and now
Distant Suns, like a cathedral, is never really finished. As long as it remains fun to work on and as long as I get the occasional fan letter I’ll be working on it until my dying day. *
(* I can see myself on my deathbed “no! It’s not my time yet! I need to tweak that one last Autolayout constraint!)