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The History of Shareware

Demos are an ingenious marketing stratagem. They’re free, they give us insights into how a game might perform, and it speaks to gamers, providing an easy way to gauge whether or not to spend some hard earned green. So who do we have to thank for coming up with this clever ploy? For starters, we should be thanking the ‘90s. Like with Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, Marvel Flair Cards, and The Adventures of Pete & Pete, if the ‘90s never happened, entertainment would not be what it is today. In this case, we’re talking about ‘Shareware’.


What is Shareware?

The term and concept of shareware was developed in the early ‘80s. This was originally utilized by corporations in the distribution of business software. The idea was for developers to bypass the need of a middle man and provide the product directly to the end user, thus eliminating the hassle of dealing with markups and facilitating exposure through retail space. The end user would be given a trial run of the product before deciding whether or not to purchase it.

In 1987, Apogee (now 3D Realms) decided to utilize this strategy in distributing their games. At first, the original shareware method of business software distribution was incorporated where gamers were given a full game for free and asked to pay for it if they enjoyed it. Upon doing so, gamers were then given access to game support and help. Early Apogee games that followed this model included Beyond the Titanic and Supernova. However, when it comes to games, this approach was about as profitable as it was counter-intuitive. Time for a new plan.

Beginning with Kingdom of Kroz, Apogee began developing episodic content, with the entire first episode provided for free. Registering the first episode granted customer support and cheat codes. Upon completing the first installment, usually ending on a cliffhanger, gamers were advised that the rest of the episodes could be purchased by calling a special phone number and having the other installments sent mail order – yes, that’s right, once upon a time people actually had to make telephone calls to order games; the internet still had yet to take off the ground. This became known as the “Apogee Model”. In 1991, other major publishers began adopting this same model, including Capstone, Parallax Software, id Software, Activision and Epic Megagames (now Epic Games). Among the earliest users of this model included major figureheads like John Carmack, John Romero, and Tom Hall (all of whom were originally skeptical of the model’s ability to make profit, thus much convincing was needed to get them on board).


What’s the difference between ‘Shareware’ and ‘Demos’?

Back in the day, these terms were commonly used as synonyms for the other, but today the distinction is clear based on technical elements. A demo is but a small portion of a game that can be tried for free, usually one or two levels. As mentioned, shareware is usually an actual full game that encourages you to purchase its sequels if you find the game to your liking. There are instances where a shareware game is not a full installment, however they can be upgraded to the full purchased game, which also allowed maintaining saved files from the shareware version. A number of next-gen trial games from PSN and XBLA follows this same design. Demos, however, do not hold this element as they are completely separate from their respective full titles. An example would be the shareware of Descent vs. the demo of Descent II.

What puts the ‘share’ in ‘shareware’ was also the fact that, prior to today’s hectic struggles of DRM and piracy, you could copy and install a game on any number of PCs. This was to encourage gamers to share amongst friends. Once you have a group of people interested in the product, word of mouth and trial installation would spread making profit foreseeable.


Where could people get shareware?

Shareware was found in many stores, usually taking up floppy disk racks. There was a small cost for these games but it was only to help developers cover the cost of minor packaging and the use of disks, but, the game contained was essentially free. Eventually, the use of floppy disks were ditched in favor of CD’s. These could contain multiple shareware games, from the same developer, packaged into one. Locations that used to sell shareware included CompUSA, Spencer’s and Electronics Boutique. Shareware games were also distributed at gaming and computer conventions.

The most popular method of obtaining shareware was through the award winning Software Creations BBS (Bulletin Board System). This allowed gamers to download shareware for free, since covering the costs of packaging and disks didn’t apply. The BBS implementation also encouraged people to purchase modems, jump starting the internet revolution.

Once the internet took off, gamers were able to download demos/sharewares from a number of sites. With the advent of the first PlayStation, it became common for gaming magazines to include a disc of demos with each issue.


What were some popular shareware games?

This is the part where my age begins to show. Due to only a certain number of companies that used this marketing medium, only a number of genres were involved with the shareware era: platformers, puzzle, sports, a small number of RPGs, and FPS.

Memorable titles include Commander Keen, Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure, Crystal Caves, Alien Carnage, Mystic Towers, Hocus Pocus, Jazz Jackrabbit, Xargon, Electroman, and Duke Nukem’s original sidescrolling games. Even Doom and Wolfenstein 3D made use of the shareware model; the first few levels or the entire first chapter could be played for free.

Amusingly enough, Chex also implemented the use of shareware games for their cereal. In 1996, boxes of Chex cereal included a free CD for the game Chex Quest, a child friendly FPS converted from Ultimate Doom. A sequel was also made in 1997, followed by a third game in 2008. Today, the games are available for free download on a number of webpages.


What happened to shareware?

With the advancement of technology in the mid-90s, shareware began losing its foothold in the big picture. As the availability of the internet became widespread, demands began to grow. And with the evolution of game technology, the amount of available memory space to accommodate shareware games on disc went dry. This also led gaming magazines to eventually stop including demo discs in their publications.

Today, we now rely on the internet and the online channels of next-gen consoles for taste testing games. The model is followed, but the subject of memory space still stands, thus much of these demos can be rather short and it’s just not the same as it used to be. Shareware does live on in premium content found on Playstation Plus and XBLA, but having to pay for a monthly subscription tends to wear heavily on its spirit.

Despite shareware’s fade to memory, its impact can still be felt. Though our youngsters may never experience it, shareware definitely served as an important component in defining today’s gaming culture.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in August 2010. Get in touch on Twitter @S_Chyou.

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