My career trajectory in the 1990s was almost equally divided between “completely broke high school student” and “completely broke college student.” Sure, I had jobs and even a couple of computers, but I was never so flush with disposable income to be snapping up any game or game system that caught my fancy. A brand-new boxed PC game was a major purchase for me — and I sweated the decisions to get the few I had. They had to be excellent or otherwise I was out 50 bucks and potential months of entertainment.
But all of this started to change during my high school years. One Sunday afternoon I went over to a friend’s house, where he showed me a free copy of Wolfenstein 3D that he got. Free? I asked. Free, he said. Apparently there was this new thing called “shareware” that made it actually legal to copy and pass along games.
Within a year or two, the shareware revolution was everywhere. All the kids at my school — and later at my college — would pass around shareware copies of Duke Nukem and DOOM and pretty much anything with “Apogee” stamped on it. I found my gaming library now filled to the brim with potential options, and it was glorious.
Shareware was an ingenious marketing tactic for the pre-internet gaming scene. The idea was that a company would freely distribute versions of its games with only part of it unlocked — the first “episode” or somesuch — and then encourage players to buy the code to unlock the rest of the levels (or send away for the full version). Players would do the footwork of copying and passing along the games, and studios would see a certain percentage of all recipients convert into paying users.
Of course, that didn’t always happen — the paying part. I don’t recall how many shareware games I bought in their entirety, but I don’t think it was too many. What I do remember, very vividly, is getting as much entertainment out of the “free” unlocked part of the game as possible.
And you actually did tend to get a lot for free, here. Duke Nukem 3D’s first episode could last you hours if you were hunting down all the secrets. Kroz was one of my favorites to explore. Wolfenstein and Doom made for great bite-sized gaming sessions. Commander Keen was one of the best platformers I experienced on the PC at that time. And there were numerous other shooters, pinball games, flight sims, and so on.
Shareware quickly faded once the internet spun up in the late 1990s. Now anyone could access demos and order full versions of games online, so there really wasn’t a need for this street-level marketing. But I am so thankful that it existed, because it put games in front of me that I wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise.