A chat with Gary Carlston of Brøderbund

Gary Carlston was one of the founders of legendary game publisher Brøderbund.

Brøderbund might not have been among the most productive game publishers in the eighties and nineties, but you could bet any game they did publish was of a high quality. The American company released games like Lode Runner, Choplifter, Karateka, Prince of Persia, Wings of Fury, SimCity, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and Myst, and with gems like these they had a big influence on computer and video games as a whole.

The company was founded in 1980, by brothers Doug and Gary Carlston. They were active until late in the nineties, but being bought (several times) they were eventually closed down around the turn of the millennium. Many of their properties were sold to Ubisoft.

Doug, Cathy og Gary Carlston. Bilde via Videogame History Foundation.
Doug, Cathy and Gary Carlston. Photo via Videogame History Foundation.

Gary Carlston

We’ve been fortunate enough to be able to chat with one of Brøderbunds founders, Gary Carlston, about the company and his role there. But we start the conversation in Scandinavia:

First of all, do you speak Swedish? [Först och främst pratar du svenska?]

I used to speak Swedish. I was there between seventytwo and seventysix. But it’s been a long time now. [Jag brukade prata svenska.  Jag var där mellan sjuttio två and sjuttio sex.  Men det var länge sedan.]

What were you doing in Sweden?

I was studying Scandinavian Languages and Literature in college, but I wasn’t enjoying school at all.  The Vietnam War was raging and I was not supportive of our involvement.  So I thought I’d like to go to Sweden for a while.  I dropped out of university and flew to Sweden with just $90 in my pocket.  I saw an American on the street and asked him if he knew where I could play some basketball.  He told me to meet him at a certain gym at 1pm on the following Saturday.  One thing led to another I ended up coaching the Swedish championship women’s basketball team. (Somebody had to do it).

Wow, that’s quite something to have on your resumé. Which team was that?

Gary Carlston sammen med noen av jentene fra KFUM Söder. Bilde: KFUM Söder.
Gary Carlston with members of the team at KFUM Söder. Photo: KFUM Söder.

It was a club team, KFUM Söder, which won the Swedish championship my first year there (when I was an assistant coach) and finished in the top two or three after that.  My resume never seemed to impress anybody anyway.  That’s why I agreed to work with my brother on Brøderbund — I couldn’t find a job.

I went back and forth between Sweden and returning to university in Boston and eventually I finished school.  I spent about 4 years in Sweden.

You also visited Norway?

Had a great biking trip once from Stockholm over to Åndalsnes.  I found it strange that I could talk all night with someone speaking Norwegian while I spoke Swedish, but then I’d go 400 meters down the road and couldn’t even order something to eat because we couldn’t understand each other.

Had a hilarious experience on the train going back to Sweden, which I had to take because my bike fell apart.  This older Norwegian woman seated next to me kept asking me what part of Norway I was from because she couldn’t recognize my accent!  Then there was a surprise, heavy duty border inspection getting back into Sweden and she just told the guards, “Oh, we’re both Norwegian” so they didn’t ask for our passports.  I had way overstayed my Swedish visa so I wouldn’t have been able to get back in were it not for this nice lady.

Reminds me of a college professor I had who, when I asked him how many languages he spoke besides English, responded “Eight!  All of them Norwegian!”



Now on to what we were supposed to be talking about, Brøderbund. How and why did you start the company?

My brother Doug had written a couple of games in a series called The Galactic Saga.  He also wanted to develop software for law offices.  Games were just going to be a side business.

Where did the name «Brøderbund» come from? As a Norwegian I’ve always been curious about this.

In the Galactic Saga there was a group of mostly evil traders, which Doug called the Brøderbund (I don’t recall how he spelled it originally).  The name was intended to invoke evil, and was taken from the South African Broederbond, the Afrikaans group who took over the South African civil service and eventually the country.

Galactic Empire, Brøderbunds første spillutgivelse.
Galactic Empire, Brøderbund’s first game.

When we decided to start a company, I suggested we make the spelling more Scandinavian and also computer like by using the ø, which could also be the computer zero, at least back then.  Our third brother, Don, had written a game for the Apple and invested $500 in our company, so we stole the Tre Kronor for our logo and used the name as “an association of brothers”.

If we had known we were going to be successful we would not have done it, as we endured a fair bit of criticism because of the South African connection.

Is it Brøderbund, Broderbund or Br0derbund?


What was your role in the company, and how did it change as the years went by?

I started out doing the sales, just driving up and down the West Coast looking for computer stores (they were popping up so quickly in 1980 that you couldn’t find them in any directories).  In August, 1982 I shattered my leg playing football (soccer) in Golden Gate Park and I was away from work for three months.  When I returned we decided that we needed to start our own product development department to go along with the products which people sent us.

Dette spillet kom opprinnelig til Apple II.
Choplifter, an early success story for Brøderbund.

By 1984 I was burned out with stress — the company had grown to be several hundred people and I was just managing people and not doing anything creative with the programmers. Unfortunately, the contract we signed with the venture capitalists (we never needed their money so we shouldn’t have made the deal) said that my brother and I had to remain in the management of the company or we would lose our stock.  So I quit.

You lost your stocks?

Yes, I would lose my stock, unless I stayed in a management role.  They bought 90% of my shares for $0.19 a share (it eventually went up to $156.00) They let me buy back some of my stock at a higher price once I returned.

So you returned?

About 18 months later two developments brought me back.  The first was that Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a product developed from an idea of mine inside the company before I quit, became a huge hit. So my reputation inside the company and with the venture capitalists went up. The second was the company hadn’t developed any new products and felt maybe I could get them back on track.

I stayed 3 or 4 more years but it just became too stressful to work with family and it didn’t seem to be much fun any more.  Carmen Sandiego was developed for less than $100,000 and five years later it was costing millions to create games.  That put stress on everybody.

The cover of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Image: Mobygames.

Carmen Sandiego

Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego is obviously a game we need to talk more about. The game ended up being perhaps Brøderbund’s most popular brand. It was developed by Dane Bigham, based on Gary Carlston’s idea, and in retrospect it’s a bit funny that Bigham became very sceptical of the game as time went on, and believed it was going to flop.

Did you ever share Bigham’s scepticism, or did you believe in the product during the entire development process?

I don’t remember quite how I felt about its prospects, but I understand why Dane was very concerned.  We were changing our salary system so that programmers were to start working on straight salary, with no royalties.  Every programmer was allowed one last project where they could earn royalties as well as salary, so this was Dane’s last chance for a big payday and if the project flopped he wouldn’t earn any extra money from royalties.

I know he did end up make at least a million dollars in royalties from Carmen, so I think he ended up happy. Dane and I are still friends.  I played on his ice hockey team until 6 years ago when I retired after my third shoulder injury.

Selling Carmen Sandiego with the World Almanac was a brave move, how did that come about and were there times when you had second thoughts? I assume distribution costs were pretty high?

The World Almanac was the whole point of the game.  It was a fascinating and poorly organized book which we turned to for all the answers we currently can get off the internet.  I had grown up with my brothers and I playing geography quiz games using the almanac and I thought American kids needed to be better at geography.

PC-versjonen fra 1988.
Carmen Sandiego on the PC.

Distribution costs were not an issue that I remember.  The funniest part of the story was finding an almanac to go with the product. The big book publisher, Simon & Schuster, had been pressuring us, wanting to buy our company. We had said no. But then I called them to see if we could make a deal to include their almanac in Carmen and could we get a volume discount.  They  (meaning the president and vice president of the company) were quite dismissive and said, “Go ask your local store for a discount.”

Obviously a single book store wouldn’t be of any use.  So we made a deal with another company and they sold over 4 million almanacs [through the game].

How did Carmen Sandiego end up in schools, books and on TV?

I know the TV show part, because that was the last deal I made before I left the company in 1989.  What they liked about the deal was that they didn’t have to pay us anything.  What we liked about the deal was that all these kids watching TV then went out and bought our software.  It was a nice win – win.  My sister Cathy was in charge of educational distribution channels and unfortunately, she died 30 years ago, so I’ve never gotten a chance to really understand what she did to promote Carmen.  My understanding was that, to a large extent, kids and teachers were bringing Carmen to the schools via the ‘back door’ as it were, not because the schools were buying large numbers of copies and asking the teachers to use them.  But perhaps that was just in the beginning.

By the way, we published a retrospective on the game a few years back.

Well, Joachim is right, of course, that it’s a pretty easy  game for someone who knows any geography.  But Americans don’t.

Prince of Persia, another success story from Brøderbund.

Brøderbund and … Tetris?

Did Brøderbund reject any titles you later regretted?

I was afraid you’d ask this.  How about the worldwide rights to Tetris for $50,000? Also The Oregon Trail.  The graphics were primitive at the time but it’s still out there, so obviously it would have been worth getting the rights to and fixing up.

You rejected Tetris? Do you remember why?

The simple reason is that I’ve never been any good at Tetris.  I have heard about all the complications of ownership from people who have seen the movie, but it wasn’t presented to us that way.  It was, “Here, for $50,000 you can have this game.”  People have tried to make me feel better about my decision by telling me about everything Henk Rogers went through to get the rights, but yeah, I should have accepted the game.

Et tidlig plattformspill.
Lode Runner was a favourite.

What is your favorite game or series released by Brøderbund (apart from Carmen Sandiego)?

Lode Runner.  I loved that users could make their own levels.

In retrospect, what accomplishment during the Brøderbund era are you most proud of?

Professionally if would be Carmen Sandiego, because that was my idea.  Personally, I like that fact that 22 marriages resulted from people getting together while working at Brøderbund while I was there.

What core values do you believe underpinned Brøderbund’s success as a company?

Honesty and respect. Especially for women. That’s what I hear from former employees even today.

Brøderbund were big on platforms such as the Apple II and Commodore 64. Do you remember when the PC started becoming the dominant platform?

I’m not sure.  Mid 80’s, I suppose.

Carlston er stoltest av arbeidet sitt med Carmen Sandiego-serien.
Carlston is proud of his work on the Carmen Sandiego series.

Do you pay any attention to the modern games industry? Any thoughts on it?

No I don’t.  I have a very short attention span.  What I read is that people really get addicted and that we have a whole generation of young and not so young people still living with their parents just playing video games.  I guess I’m glad I have a short attention span.

And lastly, [since football was mentioned] do you have any favorite football team in Europe in the states?

I find that whenever I have a favorite football team they start playing poorly.  At first it was Tottenham, then Chelsea.  They both started losing so I got into watching Bayern München — especially during the pandemic because the Bundesliga was the only league that kept going and was available to watch on American TV.  But then it seemed like Bayern was winning too much, so I’m not sure who to cheer for any more (now they stopped winning everything anyway).  I find that I like to watch certain players, such as Haaland, Lewendowski, Son and a few others, and then I just cheer for whatever team they’re playing for.

Many thanks for your time!

We asked KFUM Söder if they had some photos of Carlston in their archives. They did, and kindly sent us these:

Article by Joachim Froholt and Retrogamingpappa.

While Spillhistorie.no is a Norwegian site, we do have some content in English. Mainly interviews with various people from the games industry.