The history of PC gaming can be neatly split into two eras. Everything from 1993 onwards we can class as the Modern Age, in which the PC is established as a games platform in its own right. (We can pinpoint 1993 based on the fact that before that year the number of PC games that have survived into posterity drops off precipitously.)
Everything before 1993 could be termed the Dark Age, a period shrouded in mystery, when there was no internet nor any dedicated PC gaming magazines, and when the "IBM compatible" was seen as just another home computer format among many (and as far as the UK was concerned, one that was both technically inferior to and several times more expensive than the riotously popular Commodore Amiga and Atari ST).
Thanks to this combination of factors most modern gamers are unfamiliar with the PC's formative years, having only joined the party in the mid-1990s after sound cards and CD-ROM drives had become standard features and the likes of LucasArts, Origin, Bullfrog and Westwood had started churning out big-budget blockbusters. While these big-name studios played a role in the PC's reinvention, most of the credit for realising the PC's true potential as a games platform came from a very different scene.
Our story begins in America in the mid-1980s, where the PC enjoyed rather more favourable conditions during its early life than in Europe. The Amiga and ST never really caught on in the States, and IBM PCs or fully-compatible clones (no shabby Amstrad 'word processors' over there) were cheap enough to make them a viable option as a home computer, although most were still situated in schools and offices.
The major publishers knew that there was an audience for PC games, but the process of manufacturing and distributing a game was so prohibitively expensive, and PC gamers so risk-averse (what with lacking access to the game demos and wealth of online information that we take for granted today) that they rarely ventured outside of a few tried and tested genres. (Yes, even more so than today, clever-clogs.)
PCs were the tools of Serious Business, and so it followed that PC games should be executive toys (World Class Leaderboard), teaching aids (Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) or dorky IT department humour (Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry). Minimum specs were dictated by the machines that players had access to in their downtime, with the idea of buying or upgrading a PC explicitly for the purpose of playing new games being the stuff of fantasy.
So what happened to transform the PC from the buttoned-down home of golf, chess and flight sims to the hotbed of creativity and innovation pumping out classic after classic from 1993 onward? Was it the inevitable result of technological progress? Only partially. Publishers seemed content at first to use the PC's expanding capabilities to simply make prettier golf, chess and flight sims.
How could the complacent PC games industry be shaken out of its torpor? Such a task called for nothing less than a revolutionary movement - an underground development scene, answerable to no marketing departments and dismissive of hidebound conventions about what PC users would consider 'worthy' uses of their sacred beige monoliths. Their success would hinge on the creation of fast, fluid, immersive games that would thrust the PC into the limelight and make Amiga owners involuntarily hiss with envy. Games, in a nutshell, like Doom.
That movement was known as Shareware.
Sharing is caring
You've probably heard the term bandied about in relation to Doom and Wolfenstein 3D, but shareware's roots go back far earlier. The concept originally emerged (accounts vary, but probably no earlier than 1984) as a response to the high price of commercial business software, as well as a tacit acknowledgement of the tendency of computer enthusiasts to happily copy, swap and pass around software they liked regardless of limitations imposed by the license.
Shareware authors would release complete versions of their programs for free, uploading them to popular Bulletin Board Systems (from where they would be picked up by mail order companies - being sent parcels of floppies was still the preferred option for the majority of users who weren't sold on slow, expensive WarGames-style modems). If you obtained the program, tried it out and found it agreeable, you were encouraged to send a donation to the developer. In return you might receive product support and updates, additional programs, source code, or perhaps just the warm fuzzy glow of having supported the underdog.
While this infrastructure may not have been far removed from the catalogues used by 19th Century homesteaders to order feed, furniture and wives, the appetite for affordable PC software was so great that users embraced the concept immediately and shareware authors found a steady trickle of cheques coming in. A few programs became very successful and sparked a gold-rush among bedroom coders much like the current brouhaha surrounding the iPhone.
At first shareware vendors viewed games as a sideshow to the main event - an added bonus for people shopping for desktop publishing and book-keeping applications rather than a money-spinner in their own right. The games disks they offered (given evocative names like "Arcade Games 1?) collected together tiny, unofficial versions of golden age coin-ops (Space Invaders, Centipede, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Pengo) or mainframe games (ADVENT, SpaceWar, Nethack, Star Trek). Most of these were developed by hobbyists (or in a few cases as promotional items for tech companies) and few made anything more than half-hearted solicitations for payment.
Among the waves of clones were a few intriguing original efforts. Flightmare involved piloting a light aircraft around a post-apocalyptic desert, shooting down gangs of planes and bikers before they could reach your factories. Dracula in London presented Bram Stoker's story as a turn-based adventure styled after an after-dinner board game (going as far as to suggest that the different characters in the party be controlled by different players). Slightly less pretty (in fact, possibly one of the most visually spartan games ever made) was Castle Adventure, a surprisingly competent mash-up of Zork and Atari's Adventure, with only the quirky spelling hinting that the author was only 14 years old.
All of the games mentioned thus far either used "text mode" (ANSI) graphics (a technique introduced to a new generation by Dwarf Fortress) or four-colour CGA, and as such are compatible with virtually every PC ever made.
These early shareware games were a pleasant enough diversion, but they weren't exactly buying their authors lunch. The standard shareware model may have been successful for 'serious' software and utilities, but game developers quickly found that while gamers were happy to oblige with the sharing part, they were less inclined to pay up for games that they'd played for a while before casting aside. Devs needed to create an incentive to pay, but artificially removing features from shareware applications was frowned upon.
The solution to this dilemma arrived in 1987 with the release of Kroz. This was a vaguely Rogue-like maze game written by Scott Miller and published by his company Apogee Software (who would later become 3D Realms, best known today for spending 12 years working on Duke Nukem Forever). The game was divided into 'episodes', the first being offered as a freebie, with additional bundles of levels available on registration. Unlike modern game demos, the free episodes offered under this model were effectively fully-fledged games in their own right, typically offering several hours of gameplay, most of the game's features (weapons, enemies, powerups and so forth) and a climactic (albeit usually cliffhanger) ending.
The episodic model quickly caught on. The steady income that it provided would allow for investment in more ambitious projects (and in some cases, garagefuls of sports cars). Over the next few years Apogee would go on to become the leading brand in shareware with a string of hits which successfully kept pace with rapidly-evolving PC technology.
By the end of the 1980s PC gamers were starting to feel strange instinctive urges telling them that they should spend more money to get better graphics. At the earliest opportunity, shareware developers started to make use of the Extended Graphics Array (EGA), introducing the concept of the 'minimum spec' to PC gaming in the process.
EGA allowed 16-colour graphics, but was notorious for having a fixed palette which lacked even a vaguely acceptable approximation of a skin tone, resulting in a proliferation of games with unfortunate puce- or orange-faced protagonists. The move to EGA coincided with a trend for mascot-driven platform games. Initially these were flick-screen, platform-puzzle affairs similar to earlier games on the Apple II (such as Crystal Caves, Secret Agent and Pharaoh's Tomb).
Conventional wisdom held that smooth, full-screen, console-style scrolling was beyond the reach of the PC's weedy graphics chips. Conventional wisdom didn't know it was about to run afoul of John Carmack, and was going to have to get used to it happening a regularly over the next few years. Commander Keen, developed by id Software and released through Apogee in 1990, elegantly solved the scrolling problem and provided an engine which was used for six main episodes as well as other Apogee games.
For the first time PC gamers were being offered console-style action in a recognisable (if not particularly pretty) form. These games were progressively easier to market (being perfect fodder for magazine cover disks, for example) and provided good fuel for Apogee's episodic model. They would continue cranking out 16-colour action games for the next few years, including titles such as Major Stryker, Bio Menace, Monster Bash and Duke Nukem I and II.
While EGA was widely supported and easy to develop for, many shareware programmers harboured ambitions to one day make games that didn't look like sick. As before id Software led the charge with the 1992 release of Wolfenstein 3D (again distributed through Apogee), which used the high end VGA 256-colour mode. (Remarkably, the VGA standard had been introduced way back in 1987, but with games not yet being seen as a legitimate reason to upgrade it had remained expensive and poorly supported.)
In spite of relatively high hardware requirements, Wolfenstein-3D became a huge hit, netting millions of dollars for both id and Apogee (who worked on a 50/50 split and had minimal overheads) - but leading id to realise that they'd outgrown the need for Apogee. They promptly severed their relationship and took their publishing activities in-house.
1992 also marked the arrival of the other main challenger to Apogee's dominance: Epic Megagames. Epic used VGA graphics and sampled sounds across nearly all of their games, explicitly aiming to match the production values found on other formats. They also tapped the talent of the European demoscene with games like Epic Pinball and Solar Winds featuring incredibly slick 2D graphics engines written in assembly language.
(Although Epic have since gone on to become one of the world's most successful developers, their name was originally ironically chosen to make them sound bigger than a couple of guys in a basement. It's hard to imagine Epic, whose output now focuses exclusively on gruff musclemen with huge weapons, ever harbouring feelings of inadequacy.)
It had only taken a few years for shareware games to progress from punctuation marks running around mazes to (what was then) the bleeding edge of 3D graphics. Even the 'Big Three' publishers (Apogee, id and Epic) were struggling with the rising expectations in production values. While some interesting games were released in 1993 (such as Apogee's Halloween Harry, Epic's Xargon and Ken's Labyrinth), development cycles were getting longer and budgets getting bigger. This didn't seem to be an immediate cause for concern, as hits like Wolfenstein-3D, Duke Nukem and Epic Pinball were still raking in cash, and were being introduced to many new PC owners through the proliferation of cheap shareware compilation CDs.
In the final weeks of 1993 shareware reached its apotheosis when id released perhaps the single most important PC game of all time: Doom.
It was as if all the ground work that had been done over the past decade had been preparation for this moment. Mainstream hype over "multimedia" and "virtual reality" had started to put high-spec PCs in people's homes. Apogee had provided a spectacularly effective business model. Wolfenstein 3D had given id the reputation, experience and resources to be able to take their time over Doom. And finally the fledgling "Web 0.2? internet provided a community that would put the game at the heart of a thriving ecosystem of user-generated content that persists to this day.
Into this perfect storm id released a game that was not just technically and artistically in a different league to any other shareware game, but was a credible contender for best game ever made. Doom wasn't an incremental upgrade of Wolfenstein. It had palpable atmosphere - a skilled level designer could build tension, excitement and dread (and id's level designers were extremely skilled). Puzzles could actually challenge the player in more imaginative ways than merely having them grope around for fake walls. Doom had immediate appeal to almost anyone with a PC capable of running it and along with its sequel (essentially an expansion pack sold through retail) it shifted millions of copies worldwide. (For more on the cultural impact of Doom and the rest of id's games, I urge you to read David Kushner's Masters of Doom.)
In the wake of Doom's success, the first person shooter (or "Doom clone") became a top priority for many (shareware and commercial) PC developers. Apogee were able to cash in quickly with Rise of The Triad (1994), a project which started life as a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D and was directed by ex-id and future-Ion Storm designer Tom Hall. ROTT was weak beer compared to Doom but introduced a few innovations (such as voice taunts and a wide variety of multiplayer modes). It would be another two years before Apogee convincingly advanced the genre with Duke Nukem 3D (in time for id to shift the goalposts again with Quake).
Epic would eventually join the fray with Unreal (1997), but in the immediate wake of Doom their flagship game was Jazz Jackrabbit, a cartoony platformer heavily influenced by Sonic 2, and which is perhaps most notable today for being a collaboration between Cliff Bleszinski (Lead Designer, Gears of War) and Arjan Brussee (Development Director, Killzone 2). Funny how these things turn out.
While Doom's success had been a great validation of the mail order shareware model, the PC was changing in ways that made that model an increasingly poor fit. The traditional publishers started to commit heavily to the PC, creating CD-ROM games with production values, scope and complexity far beyond anything that bedroom programmers (at least, ones whose last names didn't rhyme with 'Tarmac') could deliver.
The major shareware developers had become established enough to enter into lucrative deals with traditional publishers, so they did. It's likely that the growing size and falling age of the PC user base also meant that piracy became a significant issue. Shareware games didn't feature any kind of copy protection, and it's likely that pirate copies of Doom alone ran into the millions.
The end of the road came in 1996 - Quake and Duke Nukem 3D were both released in episodic shareware form, but not before launching as boxed products via retail. Later games from 3D Realms, Epic and id eventually dropped the shareware option entirely, removing the need for an episodic structure.
The term "shareware" has since fallen out of use, and games are typically promoted with strictly time- and/or content-limited demos rather than giving anything substantial and self-contained away for free. (I suppose an exception to this would be games such as Telltale's Sam & Max and American McGee's GRIMM which have applied the 'episodic' metaphor in the sense of a television series.)
The pioneers of the 1990s shareware games scene may have long since become part of the establishment, but the lessons from that era are still relevant. When the conditions exist for anyone with enough time and motivation to make games, it's possible (and perhaps even inevitable) for small developers to redraw the boundaries of what's possible in the medium. Today, with platforms as diverse as Flash, the iPhone, and the digital distribution channels on each of the consoles, the potential once more exists for games as disruptive as Doom. And just think, you won't even have to send away for a bunch of floppy disks to be able to play them. Huzzah for living in the future!
If your curiosity has been piqued by this nostalgic ramble, nearly all of the games that were released as part of the shareware scene via BBSes are now archived online, and many have since been reclassified as freeware by their authors. Sites like DOS Games Archive and cd.textfiles.com (and Apogee's own site, assuming it's still there by the time you read this) are good places to start.
You can use DOSBox to get these games running on modern computers. As they mostly feature keyboard controls, modest hardware requirements and gameplay that can be dipped into with the minimum of fuss, they're ideal netbook fodder.