This week features a rather obscure holiday honoring something that was a surprisingly large part of our collective youths: National Shareware Day. It can be hard to imagine now, but in the days of dial-up BBSs, disk swapping, and a pre-web internet, there was an entire file sharing ecosystem supporting independent software, which included a wide variety of games. From the “Episode 1 is Free” model to the “Breaks Itself After a Certain Period of Time'' approach to "Too Weird to Release Commercially” examples, shareware was the primary way PC users got to experience new games on the . As Andy and I both grew up at the tail end of this era and were denizens of local BBSs, we got to see a lot of this firsthand, and thought we’d discuss this strange relic of our collective past, why it’s still intriguing, and how it relates to current publishing models for both electronic and tabletop games. - B
B: Andy, what were your earliest shareware experiences?
A: To talk about that, I have to go back to the good old 286 computer my dad had. It wasn’t my first experience with computers, as even before that we had an Atari computer. The earliest shareware games I played were likely just text interface versions of classic kids games, such as
the disturbing Hangman or Tic-Tac-Toe. They all became much easier to use when we got our first user interface that didn’t require a bunch of typing. I’m not talking about Windows, I’m referring to a little shareware program called Quickfiler. It served as a much easier way to list folders and run executable files. Almost like the jump from using paper character sheets and DM notes (which most of us still do), it allowed for a deeper dive into a wider range of things. At first, it was still kids games like Capture the Flag, Risk and Stratego. The graphics? Mind-blowing at the time, and in line with some of my favorite games of the era.
B: It’s good that you mention utility software, I think that’s the one place where you still see the classic shareware model today. A program will do the thing you want (or most of it), but you won’t get everything else unless you buy the whole version. Or maybe it stops working completely after a certain period of time. A lot of them combine the two approaches.
As someone who started in the 8-bit computer era, shareware did seem like something strange and unique to the x86 PC world. Although though I was logging in to BBSs and even the internet from my Commodore, there didn’t seem to be any PC shareware equivalent, at least for games. Free titles were free, and paid were paid. Since we didn’t get our first PC until I was in middle school (I’m sure you remember the machine, Andy!), my first exposure to shareware was at other people’s houses. There, I got to see early examples of the famous and long-lived (Wolfenstein 3D), the lesser-known, but still beloved (Commander Keen), and the weird and totally forgotten (the alternate history flight sim Corncob 3D).
Aside from the distinctive look of the era’s EGA graphics that were simultaneously bright and fun, while also being mathematical and nerdy, one thing that stuck out at me was the messages you saw on closing a program, telling you how to obtain the full version by ordering over the phone or through an official BBS. There was something very real and personal in these messages that I didn’t see in commercially-released games - the creators were speaking directly to us, and addressing us as people who might have just enjoyed their products. I suppose this was my first real exposure to the indie, DIY aesthetic, and the relationship between creator and consumer that develops. While I got to see the names of game creators on other titles (Electronic Arts and Activision, despite their modern corporate monsterism, prided themselves on this), but those creators never talked to me, personally, from the other side of the screen.
A: Which brings to my mind how tabletop roleplaying games are produced now, and how things have changed. “Corporate Monsters” have started engaging with their fans more and more, talking directly to them through media platforms. They’ve even occasionally released “Episode 1 is Free” style books where you can get a free or cheap taste of a role-playing game from basic rules before you buy a full handbook. On the other end, we’ve seen crowdfunding platforms spring up and get utilized by independent productions to get their games made. We’ve also seen marketplaces such as DriveThruRPG and DMsguild come into being to support these lesser known game creators. I actually recently backed a D&D 5e supplement called "Quests of Nion" that assists young DMs to learn how to run the game. There has also been the creation of many different tools that subscribe to a “limited time” or “pay to unlock” type model. These creations run the gamut from things that help you at the table, such as virtual tabletops (Roll20) or character organizers (D&D Beyond), to things that are more for behind the scenes use (campaign organizers, initiative trackers, map creators etc.)
Certainly a large part of why I got into table-top games were the games from this era. The independent Captured by Pirates! (No, not Sid Meier’s Pirates) got me into tactical ship combat, pretending to be a pirate, and hunting for treasure. As an added bonus, maybe I learned a bit of history as I read about the likes of Anne Bonny or Edward Teach while playing. All of this in a shareware game? Another set of games that influenced me greatly were the ones from the Eye of the Beholder series. They are likely a big reason that I’ve become such a big fan of D&D as I’ve gotten older. While the Eye of the Beholder series wasn’t shareware, they did have quaint anti-piracy methods to prevent them from becoming so. (Quick, in order to verify your legal right to continue reading this post, please use your manual to answer the following question: On page 25, paragraph 2, who expected the Spanish Inquisition?)
B: That reminds me of why I called it an “ecosystem” earlier, shareware covered all kinds of software, including programs designed to remove that kind of irritating copy protection schemes from commercial software! While it was ostensibly made to diminish the hassle with legally-owned games, I’m sure they were mostly used for a lot of… “extra-legal” game trading. Not that I would have been involved in anything like that. Ahem. This kind of program was like edging in on something secret and forbidden, not only in its intended purpose, but also in the look of its basic DOS text. Seeing those screens in color felt dangerous, like you were hacking. Text-based games like Rockstar and Druglord/Drugwar carried the same kind of feeling, and the casual references to drugtaking made it feel like you were about to be raided at any moment. (We got the full late 80s/early 90s drug scare experience!) A number of games did move more into “edgier” territory (as we’d call it today), than commercial software of the time, I remember thinking Executioners was shlockly as hell even at the time, but the bigger names like 3D Realms were setting things in the Grim Darkness of the Future, but it was often brightly-colored, goofy version, like Raptor: Call of the Shadows, Death Rally, and its ultimate iteration, Duke Nukem 3D - itself a re-imagining of an early shareware title I remember fondly… ish. The original Duke Nukem was no Commander Keen, I can tell you that.
I’m glad that you mentioned that we’re seeing a business model similar to shareware in RPGs today. They suffer from a similar problem, how to convince people that the paid version is better, as well as offering something that can’t be copied and spread around the same way the free versions are. Watermarked PDFs are one solution, but when you’re dealing with materials you need to print and use at the table, they can be even more annoying than those 90s game copy protection schemes. Another approach is to take things back to the physical, with custom cards or dice, but that’s also a tricky line to walk, since they can’t be so vital for play as to make the shareable version useless.
Andy, to wrap things up, what do you think today’s independent creators can take from the shareware model?
A: I think the main thing to remember, really for any content creator, is that there is more than one way to go about things. That is something the readers should remember too. You don’t have to play a major system to have fun at the table. There are actually plenty of free (one of my favorites being Risus) or "pay what you want" TTRPG systems out there. You can provide an intro chapter, even a book, and make money off of the supplements and adventures you tie to them. If you care about them, put effort into them, make them available to friends and fans, people will make memories with them. After all, some of our best memories playing games growing up come from those shareware games. Unless one of the big companies decides to go for a Scorched Earth policy.