The shareware legacy is everywhere
I had no idea how important shareware was to the gaming industry until today. For me, shareware represented the few games I managed to play for free throughout the 90s. Notably Duke Nukem 3D at lunchtime at Rupert Loman. (Rupert is the founder of Eurogamer/Gamer Network.) And there, in the corner of our screens, would be the little shareware reminder that we were playing an unregistered version of the game. But that was no problem, it was legit, it wasn’t pirated. We could keep playing as long as we wanted. It’s just that if we wanted more levels than the opening one, around the cinema – with the toilets you could pee in and the mirrors that actually reflected you (wow!) – then we had to pay for it. And I don’t think any of us ever have.
But it was shareware: finding stuff for free. Or, at least, that’s what it meant to me – I realize now that I may have been part of the problem. But I was a teenager! I was broken. That’s why I got sucked into Dope Wars with all my other MSN Messenger friends in 1998, buying and selling drugs at very competitive prices (in a game!), and how I found an RPG called Dink Smallwood, who I remember very well that day. Does anyone else? I’m really curious.
Really, however, shareware started a long, long time ago, although it can still be seen today (whisper it: “freemium”). And I learned that in a new book called Shareware Heroes, written by Richard Moss. It attempts the daunting task of presenting a history of shareware by telling the stories of everyone involved. It’s the equivalent of trying to follow all the separate threads into a bowl of spaghetti. But Moss, admirably, succeeds.
It traces the origins of shareware back to the 70s and how the movement got its name from a magazine poll in InfoWorld – apparently one of the main contenders was “wear of conscience” because the more you used the software , the more it would wear out. your awareness that you should pay for it, which pretty much sums up the idea of shareware.
But games struggled to make money from it, at first, apparently. It was mostly word processing and other utilities that made money at the time. It wasn’t until a driven guy called Scot Miller came along and created Apogee, and the idea of splitting a game into three parts, one of which would be free, the other two paid, that things started to to take off. His Kingdoms of Kroz games, released in 1987, brought in between $80,000 and $100,000 at the time.
It was in the wake of this success that Miller began looking for people he could collaborate with, and his search led him to John Romero and what would become the legendary team at id Software. And there’s the wonderful story of how Miller had to be careful before approaching Romero to introduce him, because Romero was already working at SoftDisk making games.
Miller’s plan was to write fan mail to Romero under a pseudonym, to try to get him to contact him. Miller would tell Romero that he liked his games, but he had spotted some kind of bug, so please can he give him a call or reply. Sincerely, “Scott Mulliere”. Romero received a few. It wasn’t until he read an article on Apogee and saw the business address at the end that his mind went off and he realized what was going on. And he wasn’t happy, but the two got to talking and a deal was struck.
This deal changed everything. This would lead to the Commander Keen series, Wolfenstein 3D, and eventually Doom, all released as shareware. And each shook the industry like an earthquake, until Doom took on id Software and shareware and mainstream games.
The other main line is Epic Games – or as it was originally called, Epic MegaGames. Tim Sweeney founded and grew this company through shareware, although his idea revolved more around giving people a platform to get games and create content, and possibly an engine they could make games with – an idea a million miles from what Epic is. still doing with Epic Games Store, Fortnite and Unreal Engine today.
But those are the big stories. The many other stories about the many other people involved are equally important to author Moss and to the shareware movement. Shareware, really, was endless. It belonged to no one; therefore, it belonged to everyone. There were no rules, no owners, and that was the basic attraction. Shareware was freedom: a way for people to publish things without interference.
That’s how the world probably got the first LGBTQ+-themed game: Caper in the Castro, released in 1989 by non-binary transgender creator CM Ralph, to raise awareness and eventually fund the AIDS epidemic. The game was about a lesbian detective looking for a drag queen friend, and instead of asking people to pay for it, Ralph asked for a donation to an AIDS charity of the player’s choice. And when someone took a disc of the game on a business trip to the UK, the game spread there and all over Europe too. Hundreds of thousands of people have downloaded the game.
That’s the power of shareware. And that’s really why “shareware” will mean so many different things to so many people. For me it’s Duke Nukem 3D and Dope Wars and Dink Smallwood (which was “freeware”, technically, but shhh) but for you it will be something else. And even if you’ve never seen the “shareware” label, you’ve felt the repercussions – you’ve played the demos, tried the free games. The shareware heritage is everywhere.