In the early days of personal computing, computer stores became the melting pot for anything and everything computer-related. Here everybody with an interest in hardware or software would meet to discuss and share their passion. Computer stores became the forge for many of the very early software companies – and its developers. One of those places was a ComputerLand store in Sacramento, California
What is widely regarded as the first clone-microcomputer, the IMSAI 8080 kit computer, an Altair 8800 clone, running on the S-100 bus, and using Intel’s 8080 8-bit microprocessor. The IMSAI was released in 1975 by IMS Associates, Inc., a company established by William Millard a few years earlier.
Even though the IMSAI computer sold around 20.000 units over the next couple of years, Millard’s experiences with the computer retail business were showing to be lackluster, to say the least. The computer retail business was very much in its infancy, which often resulted in inexperienced and undercapitalized retailers. This led Millard, in 1975 to ask his sales director Ed Faber to start a new franchise operation – A franchise that would become ComputerLand.
The first ComputerLand retail store opened its doors in Hayward, Alameda County, California, in 1976. The store was Faber’s pilot project with, at the time, a new concept on offering full service – If you had a microcomputer, ComputerLand would have the software, the hardware, and knowhow to fix any issues. ComputerLand quickly established itself and by the mid-’80s had well over 700 stores across the US. One of those stores was ComputerLand in Sacramento, California.
In 1979 Terry Bradley, a retired colonel from the Air Force, approached ComputerLand wanting to open up a new store, ComputerLand accepted and Bradley became a ComputerLand franchisee.
Bradley hired Jerry Jewell as a sales and store manager in early 1980. Unlike Bradley, Jewell had some experience with computers and programming.
Jewell had taken out a personal loan and purchased an Apple II computer in 1979. At home, he would spend countless hours learning the machine’s inner workings. He also took an assembly language class from Andy Hertzfeld, who at the time was a system developer at Apple.
ComputerLand, like most computer stores at the time, saw dozens of eager young and hopeful people entering, wanting to showcase their newest created piece of software. One of those hopefuls was Nasir Gebelli, a struggling Cal State college student.
Gebelli, born in Iran in 1957, had moved to the United States to study computer science in 1979. Here he had learned BASIC and COBOL. On his personal Apple II, he had taught himself Assembly language from experimenting with the computer and its software. It quickly became apparent that he had all the right skills to become an outstanding and lightning-fast programmer.
Gebelli had been working on a set of tools for the Apple II and had turned up to Jewell and Bradley’s ComputerLand store to show off to an impressed Jewell. With Jewell missing some assembly language routines in his own software, they together finished what would become E-Z Draw, one of the first graphical editors for the Apple II.
Jewell, who had a retailers mindset, suggested for Nasir to write a video marquee software for displaying shifting pictures, making computers on display a bit more interesting. The video marquee software was bundled with E-Z Draw and distributed to computer stores around by Jewell himself.
To market and sell the software Jewell went on to found Sirius Software, in November of 1980. While Jewell and Gebelli’s new operation soon conflicted with Jewell’s job at the store, franchise owner Bradley allowed for them to use the computer equipment and office space at nighttime and came on as a partner. Initially, both Bradley and Jewell would continue to operate the ComputerLand store full-time and run their new software company in their spare time. Gebelli would enter as the sole programmer, paid by royalties made by sales of his software.
Sirius Software would release its first two games in 1980, with Gebelli’s Both Barrels and Star Cruiser. To my knowledge, both titles were completed before Sirius Software had established distribution channels so they were initially published by Robert Clardy’s Synergistic Software. The titles were later in 1980 released as the first two games in Sirius Software packaging.
It looks like California Pacific Computers also had some kind of distribution right as I have seen a California Pacific disk with the Star Cruiser label and the text “Present Sirius Software’s Star Cruiser”. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find more info on the subject.
Both Barrels, Sirius, and Gebelli’s first game. Published in 1980 for the Apple II. The title combines two shooting games, High Noon and Duck Hunt.
Gebelli’s Star Cruiser, a Galaxian clone, the second game published under the Sirius label and released in late 1980 for the Apple II. Star Cruiser debuted at number 3 on Softalk’s bestseller list in December of 1980, behind VisiCalc and On-Line System’s Wizard and the Princess
Gebelli showed to be an extremely talented and speedy programmer. With his ability to squeeze every bit of juice out of the Apple II he was able to develop action games with animation and fast-paced gameplay, previously not thought possible on the platform.
Most of his earlier work was inspired by the hardcoded games he had played at arcades around the Sacramento area.
Gebelli and Jewell’s graphical tool, E-Z Draw would be used by Gebelli in most if not all of his titles released by Sirius Software.
Cyber Strike, and Phantoms Five, two other 1980 titles developed by Gebelli. Cyber Strike being Gebelli’s most sophisticated title to date
Gebelli’s games would help launch the Apple II computer as a serious arcade gaming platform and catapult Sirius Software into the stratosphere.
What would take most programmers months to do, Gebelli could do in a week, without taking a single note.
His work would inspire many upcoming Apple II developers, many of whom would turn to his code just to produce games that could somewhat compete from a technical standpoint.
Combined, Gebelli’s technical abilities and Jewell’s sales and marketing skills, created a multimillion-dollar enterprise in the first year. Bradley and Jewell sold their ComputerLand store in May of 1981 to solely focus on the software company. Around the same time, Sirius had its biggest hit yet with Gebelli’s Space Eggs, which ended up at number one on Softalk’s bestseller list, a list which already featured multiple Sirius titles.
Gebelli’s Space Eggs released for the Apple II in 1981, one of Sirius’s biggest hits, topping Softalk’s bestseller list in May of 1981. It took Gebelli a mere couple of days to complete the game
Jewell, besides marketing, was personally involved in most games, both as a chief tester and editor, choosing titles, doing work on covers and manuals. Jewell was a hands-on guy, always present in the production, and always assisted wherever it was needed.
In August of 1981, Sirius Software had six titles among Softalk’s top 30 bestsellers:
Gorgon, a Moon Cresta clone, at #3, Space Eggs at #7, Pulsar II at #14, Autobahn at #15, Orbitron at #18, and Gamma Goblins at #26. All but the last two were written by Nasir Gebelli.
Softtalk’s Top 30 Bestseller list from August of 1981, the same month Gebelli would part with Sirius Software
Gorgon, an extended Defender clone, from 1981 for the Apple II, one of Gebelli’s biggest hits
A complete lineup of Gebelli’s work released by Sirius Software
Inspired by On-Line systems success with its adventure game titles, Sirius would go on to develop and release a few graphic adventure games, a marked departure from the otherwise “simple” but very successful action games. The new venture didn’t prove commercially successful and the focus quickly went back to action.
Kabul Spy from 1981, The Blade of Blackpoole, and Escape from Rungistan both from 1982. These were a marked departure from the usual action games released by Sirius
Jewell had created two original game designs that would turn into finished products, Dark Forest, programmed by Tom Mornini and published in 1981, and Lemmings (not that Lemmings) programmed by Dan Thompson and published in 1982.
As more talent was being contracted, the staff of Sirius quickly grew. Jewell had a real “believe in me” ability and of course a portfolio and a track record, to hire the best talent around. Soon Sirius would be packed with some of the best programmers of the time.
Dark forest from 1981 and Lemmings from 1982, both titles were designed by Jerry Jewell and only released for the Apple II
In the first year alone the company made roughly $3.5 million in sales – though it should be noted that Apple put in a $1.5 million order to redistribute some of Sirius’ games, games that ultimately ended up in warehouses, where most were stolen by Apple’s own employees, only a percentage made it out to stores.
Even though Sirius was riding high, differences between Sirius and Gebelli ultimately resulted in Gebelli leaving Sirius in the summer of 1981 to form his own Company Gebelli Software.
I guess it depends on the eye of the beholder why Gebelli left. Sirius management states that he wasn’t a team player, in a company that now had evolved and had other programmers than just one-man-army Gebelli.
Gebelli, while had earned a small fortune in royalties, wanted equity. He felt that he had played a vital part in the huge success of Sirius (which absolutely can’t be denied), and felt he deserved a share in the company’s ownership, when that didn’t happen, he and general manager, Phill Knopp, left and formed Gebelli Software – A future article will take a more in-depth view of Nasir Gebelli, one of the best Apple II programmer and his new but short-lived company Gebelli Software. After the Video game crash of 1983-84, Gebelli Software closed its doors, and Gebelli pretty much vanished from the surface of the earth…
In early October of 1981 InfoWorld magazine would bring an article stating that On-Line systems and Sirius Software had signed an agreement to merge the two companies’ operations. Two weeks later a small and unnoticeable Erratum was posted by the magazine, stating that the two companies would not merge – So what was that all about…
Well, Infoworld had earlier brought a somewhat critical review of one of Sirius’ games. Clearly, the journalist hadn’t been bothered with playing the game. At The Sunbelt Computer Expo in September of 1981, both Sirius Software, InfoWorld, and On-Line Systems were present. Jewell hatched a plan to spoof off the magazine and the journalist who had brought the unfortunate review. Jewell spread the rumor that he and Ken Williams of On-Line Systems would sign an agreement for the two companies to merge operations. Everybody at the expo knew the rumor was a hoax, everybody but that Infoworld journalist, who would capture an image of Jewell and Williams signing an agreement. Without checking with neither Jewell nor Williams the Journalist went ahead, believed he had the story of the year, and published the false rumor, to considerable enjoyment of everybody in the business. Jewell and Williams had indeed signed a contract but for sharing some graphical tools between them.
While Gebelli was out and establishing Gebelli Software, Sirius would continue to push out new games, making $11 million in sales in 1983.
In late 1982 Sirius had ventured out, on what should have been a lucrative deal with 20th Century Fox to develop games for the Atari 2600 – Seeing how Activision and others had made it big in the console market – this was the place to expand. But with the Video game crash of 1983, Fox would put their video game division into receivership, resulting in not following through with royalty payment of around $14 million. This ultimately resulted in Sirius Software running out of cash and leaving the company in massive debt. Sirius Software was forced to shut down and file for bankruptcy.
In 1984 it was all over – Just as quickly as Sirius had risen to the stars just as quickly it had disappeared again.
Sirius’ bankruptcy attorney fled with what was left of capital, around $100.000. Money that was supposed to be used to pay royalties to employees, and for a reorganization. The attorney went to jail years later for committing the same type of fraud. The whole ordeal surrounding the disappearance of money left Jewell in a pinch, most of his employees thought he had “taken” whatever was left for himself, which ended up ruining many of Jewell’s friendships.
Jewell took a position as a project manager at Epyx, before venturing into another software startup, Soft Pros, which didn’t really get off the ground.
Jerry Jewell is now running his own company, SkullTroniX, creating lifelike animatronics and animations.
William Millard retired and sold his ComputerLand retail chain in 1985, at that time there were almost 800 stores around the world with annual revenue of more than $1 billion. Millard left as one of the wealthiest men in America and as one of the pioneers of the personal computer age.
Millard later disappeared and for more than 20 years, racked up a huge $100 million tax bill. In the mid-2000s Millard was located on Grand Cayman Island by authorities.
Since I wrote the article I’ve been lucky to add a few more titles to the collection. I’m especially excited with Plasmania which I acquired from Sirius founder Jerry Jewell