Cambridge, Mass. — When you're a Snooper Troops detective, you get to ride around town in a snoopmobile. You can receive messages on your wrist radio. And you find yourself crawling through windows into suspects' houses to take pictures of possible evidence.
All of this happens on the computer screen when you play Spinnaker Software's Snooper Troops games, based on the best-selling Snooper Troops detective stories by Tom Snyder.
Solving a Snooper Troops mystery is fun for kids, Spinnaker believes, but it's educational, too. The clues are given in such a way that you have to keep track of them by taking notes in your snoop book. To get around town, you have to draw a map. And to question suspects, you must avoid certain words - so you use synonyms.
Spinnaker's business is publishing nonviolent, educational software that's used at home on personal computers. It's a business that brought the 21/2 year-old-company only $700,000 last year. But it will bring in $10 million this year and $50 million in 1984, company officials estimate.
So far Spinnaker leads the industry in this kind of software. But ''(the market) ought to be getting very competitive,'' comments William Ablondi, a market analyst at Future Computing Inc.
What's drawing in competition is the growth potential of this market. Estimates from Talmis Inc., an Oak Park, Ill., research firm, put the market at
''(Companies) would be crazy if they didn't adapt their programs to attack the education market,'' says Janice Antonellis, a market analyst at Data Resources Inc.
Two years ago, education software for the home didn't really stand a chance, says David Seuss, president of Spinnaker. But everything changed when lower-priced computers hit the mass market, where the woman shops. It's the mother who ''is closest'' to knowing children's educational needs, Mr. Seuss says.
The reason Spinnaker is successful, he says, is that it tried something the rest of the industry didn't - marketing.
On his desk, Seuss places a sealed plastic bag. Inside there's a cassette tape and a black and white brochure. It's typical of what was on the market when Spinnaker came in, he says. Then he puts a Spinnaker product next to it. It's a white vinyl case that opens like a book. On the cover is a colorful picture of girls as well as boys playing. (Most game software for children seems aimed at boys.) The age group is marked. The back lists the game's educational points and pictures of what the program looks like on the screen.
Seuss says Spinnaker got the products right, too. ''They are fun; they have good graphics; wonderful music . . . and are designed by educators.'' They aren't ''boring drills,'' he comments.
And it's Spinnaker that began rousing the industry with advertising. Adtrak, which keeps tabs on spending for software advertising, says Spinnaker outspent the industry the last three quarters. In the next three months the company will spend $1 million on print ads in publications like Better Homes and Gardens and Newsweek. Next year it will spend $6 million to $8 million, Seuss says.
''In this market you need extremely high visibility,'' agrees Anne Wujcik, at Talmis. ''The way products are being sold, customers will have to come in and ask for them by name.''
But what about competition?
Spinnaker chairman Bill Bowman puts his competitors into three categories. In the first group are present competitors, like the Learning Company and Eduware. ''They don't have the reserves of marketing talent to become big companies,'' he says. Eduware, however, was recently acquired by a large software company, and the Learning Company topped Spinnaker in revenues last year.
Mr. Bowman describes the second group as ''much larger companies'' like Xerox , Scholastic Inc., and Disney. But ''their size and orientation makes them slow moving.''
Companies ''that aren't our competitors today'' are those in the third group. He mentions Parker Brothers, Activision, and Milton Bradley. Spinnaker's advantage here is that it will have this Christmas to itself. And next Christmas ''we'll be defending shelf space, not fighting for it. If you serve your (retailers) well, they don't throw you off.''
Marcia Klein, the Learning Company president, sees the home education market segmenting - and growing - so much, ''that there's going to be room for everybody.'' Now, some companies concentrate on specific programs, like math or computer literacy. Others produce general skills-building programs. And products differ according to which computers they run on.
Bowman says Spinnaker will maintain its leader position ''by sheer size.'' It already has a wide variety of products for all age groups and will continue to fill the gaps with new products. The $30 to $60 programs also run on Apple, IBM, Atari, and Commodore. It's been financing its growth with venture capital and hopes to go public some time next spring or summer.
As Spinnaker grows, Bowman says, he'll be watching employee morale. He holds weekly ''parties'' to tell employees what's going on in the company. Excitement and an upbeat feeling pervade cramped quarters here. But the company is moving in two weeks and Bowman is wondering, ''How do I maintain morale as we get bigger?''