A Tribute to the CompUSA in Novi, Michigan

One of the goofier things I do on social media is run an account called Computer Store Visuals. It is an account where I post pictures of computer stores, mostly old ones, that I’ve found on the internet and have saved. I suppose I could make some sort of intellectual explanation why I do it, like I’m trying to preserve a part of computer history that’s disappearing. I guess that’s maybe true, but I mostly do it just because I like to look at old computer stuff. I don’t think things were better back then (they weren’t), but I do have fond memories of going into my local computer stores and picking up games and I have fun doing it so why not. It’s a fun excuse to post goofy pictures too. Once active and surprisingly popular on Twitter, I’ve moved it to Cohost and Mastodon after Twitter was purchased by Elon Musk and instantly became less usable. 

One of the stores I had a fascination with was my local CompUSA in Novi, Michigan. It was where I went to get most of my games from the beginning of the 90s until it closed in 2007. There weren’t many photos of it that I could find online except some posted in a Facebook group for employees from this store.  I saw that the Facebook group is now gone, motivating me to write one of the silliest things that will be on the website. Here is a tribute to the CompUSA in Novi, Michigan and possibly the only existing photos of this store online.

My first memories of the store are of seeing the game Superhero League of Hoboken being demoed on one of the computers when you entered, looking at the shelves of games, a demo of Prince of Persia 2 playing on a monitor, and a customer asking an employee if they had Leisure Suit Larry. It was also where I first saw games like Doom and picked up most of my adventure game collection. Whenever we went here, my dad would usually walk off to look at the computer magazines and books that were located at a section to the immediate right when you walked in, while I would run over to the computer game section on the left, try whatever game was being demoed that day, and then check out the aisles of games. The store also featured its own Edutainment area that had computers loaded with educational software and games for kids.

This was also the only time I ever tried the infamous Zelda games for the Philips CD-i, since this was the only store chain that seemed foolish enough to stock them and even have a demo station to play the games. Even at the time I didn’t enjoy them and was baffled by how a Zelda game could be so bad.

The store itself was in a shopping center called the Novi Town Center which also featured a Borders bookstore and Egghead Software, making it a nerd shopping utopia for me for most of the 90s.

For the last five years of the store, it was clear to even teenage me that the store was struggling. The industry had changed a lot and sales of boxed computer games weren’t as great in the early to mid 00s, even before Steam came along. CompUSA also waited too long to push their online store and had tried to pivot to being more like Best Buy, but with little success. The chain eventually closed in the late 00s and computer retail stores mostly don’t exist in the United States except for Micro Center and some smaller stores.

But I still have a lot of fond memories going there to pick up computer games and trying out the latest software at their demo stations. As promised, here are the only images I could find of the store. If you have any of the Novi, Michigan CompUSA, or the Borders and Egghead Software that I mentioned in the article, I would love to see them. If you would like to see more pictures of computer stores, I also post on Cohost and Mastodon.

This first batch is a set of photos from a Halloween party and people working at the store during Halloween.

These next two photos are of an employee that would intentionally make a mess while eating powdered donuts and apparently also walked around the store like this and would offer some to customers.

I have no context for the rest of these photos and they’re the only other ones I could find for this store.

What I Learned From Making an Itch Bundle

This is a repost of a Medium post I made about two years ago. I haven’t used the account then so I’m removing it but thought I would copy this post. Since then I’ve done a zine and more co-op bundles and this is something I’d like to revisit again.

About a week ago a bundle I helped organize, the Locally Sourced Spring Bundle, was launched. I was inspired by the Indiepocalypse series of indie bundles and was trying to think of a way that something similar could be done for Michigan’s indie game development community through Locally Sourced, a group I co-founded to help promote indie game development in Michigan. The bundle started with a tweet in mid-April asking if people would be interested in submitting tiny games for a collaborative bundle on Itch.io and quite a few developers were interested. Developers had about a month and a half to create small games and by the deadline date we had 13 new tiny tabletop and video games by indie developers in Michigan. Product pages were created for each game by their developers and then I created a co-op bundle containing all of the games on Locally Sourced’s Itch page. The bundle was launched at noon on May 15th.

At this time the bundle has sold 53 copies with an average buy price of $15.56, exceeding the $13 price point of the bundle. According to the anonymous feedback form I sent to the developers, the bundle did as well or better than expected and everyone said they would be interested in doing another one, so I consider the bundle a success. At least one developer released their first game, a few more made their first commercial game, and for some others it was their most commercially successful game on Itch. I feel like a big issue in indie games right now is that developers are pressured to make their games free or Pay What You Want so it was nice to see game developers receive some compensation from their work, even if it wasn’t a ton.

Still, I made a few mistakes and learned a lot during the creation of this bundle. Here’s some of the things I learned and hopefully it will be use of you when you make your own:

1. Itch.io is the best place to do bundles with game developers. It also has huge flaws

I went with Itch.io to create this bundle because there really isn’t another place that’s as developer friendly. The co-op bundle feature allows you to easily create bundles by adding games by other developers and quickly launching it once they approve. It’s still tremendously flawed and created the bundle was a frustrating experience.

Ideally I could create a single product page like the Indiepocalypse bundle, and have equal revenue sharing to everyone who submitted a game. Itch does not allow this. If I wanted to have a single product page, I would have to keep doing paypal payments to each developer so they would get the money they are owed.

To avoid this headache, I figured a co-op bundle would allow them to have the money go directly to them, with the bundle being priced that each developer would receive $1 for each bundle sold, so $13 for a bundle with 13 games. Unfortunately this is not how Itch does sharing for their co-op bundles and I didn’t realize this until the day of.

Itch relies on percentages, so if I have 5 games in a bundle then each developer gets 20%, great! There is no way to divide 100 by 13 with whole numbers. Itch doesn’t allow for numbers like 7.69% so most developers were getting 8% and a few were set to 7%. Because I didn’t want the people at 7% to get paid less or to pay them what they were owed out of my own pocket, I added an old game by me to the bundle so everyone could get 7% and I get 9%, and in a couple of weeks I will Paypal each developer an equal percentage of what I get. So I probably could have just done what Indiepocalypse does and I have one product page and pay everyone later, but I wanted people to start getting paid right away and I figured a co-op page is more transparent, which is important to me when some random goofball on the internet is asking people to make new games and submit them for a weird experiment he’s doing online.

With future bundles I’m going to cap the amount of submissions at 10 people so everyone just gets 10 percent and I won’t have to fight with Itch with weird tricks to make sure people get paid.

2. Having a mix of tabletop and video games helped sales

While I don’t have any real proof of it, I think that having a combination of video game and tabletop rpgs helped sales of the bundle. Pulling people in from different communities allows for a much greater reach and led to the bundle being marketed towards video game and tabletop communities. I would strongly encourage you to work with game developers outside of the medium you create in. You’ll be marketing your game to people who normally wouldn’t see it and there’s so many great people making games in different mediums. Having 13 people from multiple game communities, plus the Locally Sourced social media feeds, all yelling about how you should check out a games bundle turned out to be pretty good for sales.

I also liked including tabletop rpgs because I’m so desperate for people to be exposed to TTRPGs that aren’t D&D.

3. Having it be a bundle focused only on Michigan developers also helped sales

While restricting it to only Michigan people maybe limits the pool of people that can submit a game, I think it greatly improved sales as well. This is all probably pretty obvious info but people were excited to support game developers who were local and it meant I could also post about it on places that normally wouldn’t care, like LinkedIn, and get a couple of sales through there and also discover that one or two people I used to work with are now interested in game design. You really shouldn’t just interact with game developers around you just for your own benefit, but it turns out that spending over a year helping out other local game developers and doing community building in your area means that people are happy to help you out when you need it.

If you live in an area that normally isn’t associated with game development, I would strongly encourage you to do that community building. It’s been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.

4. Having a lot of new little games for a low price was a successful combination

Last fall I used Locally Sourced to create a bundle of 5 games I loved for $15. It sold a total of 5 copies. The games are great so it’s not the fault of those, but I think the price point was too high for people to see it as an impulse buy and the games were already out for a while so most of the people in the Michigan games community probably already had them. By having a bundle that’s a little cheaper and includes a lot more games that are brand new, seemed a lot more eager to pick this one up, even if the games in the bundle were substantially smaller.

What are other things I would do differently?

Ultimately I think the bundle is a success and I’m already planning on how the next one will go with some changes in mind. I made some mistakes like not being specific and telling everyone to price their to be more expensive than the bundle so people will look at that instead. I don’t think it affected sales of the bundle but I should have been more clear. It also sounds like some of the developers wanted a theme, so I might alternate between a theme and not having one, because there’s also people like me who don’t want one. I’ll also be more clear about how developers can collaborate with others in the discord or even just use the channel for testing or to bounce ideas off each other. Most importantly I want people to have more time. It was meant to be a month for a game jam game that would be the size of something created during a weekend jam, but more time is always appreciated by game developers.

I hope this write-up was useful and it inspires you to start a co-op bundle with other game developers.

The Lost World of HeroMUD

This article was originally published in the Michigan indie game zine Locally Sourced. If you enjoyed reading this, consider supporting further Michigan game history research by picking up a digital or physical version of the zine.

In the early days of online video games, before games like World of Warcraft and Overwatch, there existed the MUD. Short for Multi-User Dungeon, these games combined elements of text adventure games like Zork with tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons to create a virtual world that would allow players to connect to a server through their local network or phone line and explore a world together with other players. Players would type their actions into the computer and get a response back from the server describing what happened in text. While the genre still exists today, they were mainly played from the late 70s to early 90s. Most of the servers from that time have been shut down, but the one that interests me the most is a game called HeroMUD.

HeroMUD was a MUD set in the fictional city “Metadelphia” based on Ann Arbor, Michigan[1]. The game ran on servers at the University of Michigan at the art and engineering schools. Since the MUD was not approved by the university, it would occasionally get shut down and would be offline until it could find another server to run on.

When players signed onto HeroMUD for the first time, this is what they would see[2]:

The Diag
You are standing on the Diag of Metadelphia Universitat.
A holographic clock pulses in the air above you.
A small sign reads: Orientation -- ‘press button’ for guided tour.

Obvious exits: northwest, northeast, southwest, southeast, south, west

Crity the utter frosh is standing here.

After being presented with this text, players were given the freedom to type in different commands to interact with the environment. They could examine different objects in the room, press the button for the guided tour, and talk to characters like Crity. The beginning areas were laid out just like the University of Michigan campus and heading in different directions from here would take players to parts of Metadelphia that resembled the campus.

The game itself seemed to have influences from everything that was popular in pop culture at the time. Character classes had powers inspired by Spider-Man, Wolverine, The Incredible Hulk, Green Lantern, and Jedi from Star Wars. Events in the game were also influenced by pop culture; players could walk into a movie theater playing Die Hard and join John McClane and Hans Gruber in the Nakatomi Building[3]. There was a section of the game modeled after Toontown from the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that supported actions like sticking your thumb out to have Benny the Cab pick you up. The game even had Darth Vader as one of its toughest enemies.

The game was filled with interesting mechanics not seen in other games. In most online games, a sudden disconnection leaves the player’s character standing in place for a few minutes before being removed from the game. Suddenly disconnecting from HeroMUD without logging out would turn the player into a marble statue for others to see until they reconnected[4].

Like other MUDs, HeroMUD had players complete quests for experience points to level up. A few quests in the game relied on humor. One involved having to get refused service at a convenience store by having to get No Shirt and No Shoes objects from NPCs in town, before getting the No Service quest object from the convenience store[5].

HeroMUD had its own form of moderators. Police Officers were a player type who enforced the rules of HeroMUD. If a player was given the Police Officer role, they were given access to the Police Station where they were given a locker containing equipment such as armor and weapons that were of higher quality than the gear players normally had. The Police Station also had a box of donuts that players could eat to regain hit points.

The mechanic for death in HeroMUD was unique as well. Upon dying, players would float around and observe the world, unable to interact with anything, until the timer ended and the player was resurrected. Many online games work like this and it’s nothing unique, however there was a faster way that players could be reborn. HeroMUD featured a player role known as Death that was the highest level that players could achieve as a regular character. As Death, the goal was to retrieve as many souls floating around so they could advance to the next level of power that was more advanced than death. Players with the Death role would sit in a waiting room known as “Death’s Waiting Room” where they would wait to be alerted by their scythe that a player had died and their soul was waiting to be retrieved. This often resulted in a
scramble by all the Death players to be the first to retrieve the soul. Once the soul was collected, the player character would be resurrected and could interact with the world again. The MUD started sometime during 80s and ran until 1991, when it appears to have been shut down for good. When the game was shut down, they slowly flooded rooms until there were only a few left.[6] This is the message people would see when they tried to telnet to the MUD:

Sorry, Further access from Michnet to HERO MUD will not be allowed. This situation will not change. Please do not bother Michnet with questions about HERO MUD. HERO MUD is not a public service. Connection closed by foreign host.

There was an attempt a year later to create a HeroMUD 2 but it was never completed[7]. While HeroMUD seems to be lost forever, the game has had a lasting impact on its players. Even today, people exchange stories on Twitter and elsewhere of a game they played thirty years ago. More info about the game is discovered every few months and who knows, maybe the source code to the game will be discovered somewhere.

  1. https://localwiki.org/ann-arbor/HeroMUD
  2. The Internet for Everyone. Richard W. Wiggins. 1994.
  3. https://twitter.com/timburks/status/1410454899708424196
  4. https://twitter.com/jeremymika/status/1432689215792320513
  5. https://icaruslaughing.livejournal.com/356627.html
  6. https://twitter.com/jeremymika/status/1432690652647542790
  7. https://groups.google.com/g/rec.games.mud.lp/c/DCg944vVJlo/m/65HMY9ejWCAJ

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