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Sunday, April 21, 2024

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The legacy of shareware is everywhere

The book cover for Shareware Heroes, showing a floppy disk being grabbed at by four, stylised purple hands. The background is a lovely yellow.

I had no idea how important shareware was, and arguably still is, to the gaming industry until today. To me, shareware represented the few games I managed to play for free throughout the 90s. In particular, Duke Nukem 3D at lunchtime at Rupert Lomans house. (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 wasnt a problem, it was legit, it wasnt pirated. We could keep playing for as long as we wanted. Its just that if we wanted more levels than the opening one, around the cinema – with the toilets you could wee into and the mirrors that actually reflected you (wow!) – then wed have to pay for it. And I dont think any of us ever did.

But that was shareware: finding stuff for free. Or, at least, thats what it represented to me – I now realise I might have been part of the problem. But I was a teenager! I was broke. Thats why I got sucked into Dope Wars with all of my other MSN Messenger buddies in 1998, buying and selling drugs at very competitive market prices (in a game!), and how I found an RPG called Dink Smallwood, which I remember vividly to this day. Does anyone else? Im genuinely curious.

Dink Smallwood. Some of you must have played it! No? No one?

Really, though, shareware began a long, long time ago, though it can still be seen today (whisper it: “freemium”). And I learnt this from 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 all the people involved in it. Thats the equivalent of trying to follow all the separate threads in a bowl of spaghetti. But Moss, admirably, manages it.

He charts the origins of shareware in the 70s and how the movement got its name through a magazine poll in InfoWorld – apparently one of the strong contenders was “conscience wear”, because the longer you used the software, the more it would wear on your conscience that you should pay for it, which sums up the idea of shareware nicely.

The Shareware Heroes book, pictured on Berties wonderful multi-coloured rug. The book cover has four purple hands pulling at a floppy disk bearing the name of the book and the author Richard Ross. The rest of the book is coloured yellow.
Richard Moss Shareware Heroes, which does an admirable job of pinning down a chaotic history. Also pictured: my rug.

But games struggled to make any money from it, early on, apparently. It was mostly word processing and other utilities making money back then. It wasnt until a motivated fellow called Scot Miller came along and created Apogee, and an idea of breaking a game into three parts, one of which you could have for free, the other two youd have to pay for, that things began to take off. His Kingdoms of Kroz games, released in 87, earned an unheard of $80,000-$100,000 at the time.

It was off the back of this success Miller started to look for people he could collaborate with, and his search led him to John Romero and what would become the legendary id Software team. And theres the wonderful story of how Miller had to be careful about approaching Romero to pitch him, because Romero was already working at SoftDisk making games.

Millers plan was to write fan mail to Romero under a pseudonym, to try and coax him to contact him. Miller would tell Romero he loved his games but hed spotted some kind of bug so please can he call or write him back. Yours, “Scott Mulliere”. Romero received a few of these. It wasnt until he was reading an article about Apogee and saw the business address at the end of it that his mind sounded an alarm and he realised what was going on. And he wasnt happy, but the two got to talking and a deal was made.

That deal changed everything. It would lead to the Commander Keen series,
Wolfenstein 3D and eventually Doom, all released as shareware. And each one shook the industry like an earthquake, until Doom took id Software and shareware and gaming mainstream.

The iconic shareware game Dope Wars, from 1998. Its a glorified Windows pop-up box of a game, with a couple of drop down lists, some statistics, and setting blurb. How much are drugs in a certain neighbourhood today? An age-old question. Good game!
Dope Wars, a shareware classic from 1998. A great game to play while chatting to friends on MSN messenger. Ah, memories!

The other major throughline is Epic Games – or as it was originally called, Epic MegaGames. Tim Sweeney founded and grew that company through shareware, though his idea revolved more around giving people a platform to get games on and make content for, and eventually an engine they could build games with – an idea not a million miles away from what Epic is still doing with the Epic Games Store, Fortnite and Unreal Engine today.

But those are the big stories. Equally important to author Moss, and to the shareware movement, are the many other stories about the many other people involved. Shareware, really, was infinite. It didnt belong to anyone; therefore, it belonged to everyone. There were no rules, no owners, and that was the fundamental pull of it.
Shareware was freedom: a way for people to release things without interference.

Thats how the world got probably the first game about LGBTQ+ themes: Caper in the Castro, released in 1989 by non-binary transgender creator C.M. Ralph, to raise awareness and, eventually, money for the AIDs epidemic. The game was about a lesbian detective searching for a drag queen friend, and instead of ask people to pay for it, Ralph asked for a donation to an AIDs charity of the players choice instead. And when someone took a disc of the game on a business trip to the UK, the game spread there and around Europe too. Hundreds of thousands of people downloaded the game.

Thats the power of shareware. And that, really, is why “shareware” will mean so many different things to so many people. To me, its Duke Nukem 3D and Dope Wars and Dink Smallwood (which was “freeware”, technically, but shh) but to you it will be something else. And even if youve never seen the label “shareware”, youve felt the repercussions of it – youve played the demos, tried the free-to-play games. The legacy of shareware is everywhere.

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