If you were playing PC games, or even just using PC software in general, at any point throughout the 90s, you almost certainly saw or heard the term “shareware”. Not quite a demo, not quite freeware, shareware was a revolution in software distribution. It was crucial in helping then-small teams such as Apogee Software/3D Realms, id Software, and Epic MegaGames (now simply Epic Games) become the iconic developers they were destined to be.
The concept of shareware is simple, yet effective. Developers got their product out there through any channel possible at the time, be it a website or BBS, a promotional floppy disk or CD-ROM, or a copy from a friend. That’s right, do copy that floppy, and copy it as much as you can. This made putting money into marketing and publishing far less crucial, as they let the gaming community and the internet do that gruntwork for them. Once the developers got people using their software, they used a number of incentives to get users to register their shareware and upgrade to the full, paid release. Some would offer the full or near-full product as their shareware release. Many of the shareware releases came with built-in timers that would automatically lock out or disable elements of functionality after a predetermined amount of time, unless you paid for a key. Others would use “nag screens” to hopefully annoy the user into buying a key, making them wait or click through screens of text pitching the full product to them. Famously, WinRAR still uses a version of this method. Still others would simply give out the full, unrestricted program for free, asking only that you give copies to everyone you can and send a small bit of money the developers’ way if you like and continue to use it.
Shareware can be traced back to a developer named Bob Wallace, whose 1983-word processor PC-Write was the first software to use the model and the name. While earlier software used elements of what would eventually become shareware, like the works of Jim Knopf and Andrew Fluegelman, PC-Write set the trend, and developers took notice as Wallace’s company, Quicksoft, boomed.
In gaming, the most popular incentive method was to split the game into episodes, offering the first episode as a freely distrib- utable shareware release. Upon finishing the first episode or exiting the game, you’d be presented with a nag screen describing or pre- senting screenshots of all that awaits players who register. This was known as the “Apogee Model”, named after Apogee Software. Their founder, Scott Miller, pioneered this method with 1987’s Kingdom of Kroz. Apogee would go on to use this strategy for all of their games to great success, and other small developers quickly followed suit. Major companies had less need for the Apogee Model, and never really jumped into the trend. Miller himself had this to say in a 1997 interview:
“The reason few developers have copied Apogee’s shareware marketing and direct sales methods is because most publishers do not allow developers to do what we do, because it cuts the publisher out of a good portion of the game’s revenue.” (http://www.simoncarless. com/2013/04/dukin-it-out-a-1997-interview- with-apogee3d-realms-scott-miller/)
Be sure to sign up to get Old School Gamer Magazine for free by clicking here!
Also be sure to check out the exclusive interview with Kevin Butler and programmer for the Atari classic game Battlezone, Ed Robert.