By James Hague
pen Source may be all the rage these days, with the righteous and elite deep into the Linux scene, but there was a time when just giving away an executable—never mind the source—was considered a gutsy move. Where Linux has its Torvalds, its founding father, shareware has a Knopf. In a, "whose surname is less appealing?" contest, it would be close. But Jim Knopf , in a calculated move, decided to change his.
It might be a shock, if you’re used to thinking of shareware as subversive and altruistic, that it had its beginnings in a well-planned marketing campaign. Jim Knopf authored a simple database for his PC back in 1982, generically named PC-File, which couldn’t help but garner attention in the bleak year after the original IBM PC was released. He decided to distribute his program freely, with documentation on the same diskette, asking for $25 from persons who found the database useful. Right up front he trademarked a name for his distribution method: freeware. Realizing that Knopf didn’t exactly roll of the tongue, he changed his business name to Jim Button. After getting mentioned in the dry, business-oriented PC magazines of the day, he received—and this isn’t an exaggeration—sacks of mail, a $25 check tucked inside each envelope.
Mr. Knopf, er…Button, had a cohort: Andrew Fluegleman. Andrew authored PC-Talk, a terminal program, which made its appearance at the same time as PC-File. The difference was that PC-Talk shipped with the source code. As the story goes, the success of PC-Talk was undermined by programmers who modified the source code and released their own versions of the program, presumably asking that donations be sent their way instead. So much for open source in 1982!
With the popularity of PC-File, and other programmers wanting to follow suit, it didn’t take long for the expected backlash against Fluegleman and Button’s trademarking of the term freeware. Nelson Ford, who later founded shareware retailer Public Software Library, solicited alternatives in a column he wrote for a magazine. Bob Wallace, author of the unrelated PC-Write word processor, suggested the term "shareware," and that was that. In 1985, the newly formed Association of Shareware Professionals took steps to prevent anyone from trademarking the catchy little buzzword.
None of this has anything to do with games, and understandably so.
In the first half of the 1980s, home computers were rife with game piracy. These were the days of a bored fourteen year old killing an entire weekend just to remove the pithy copy protection of Apple II Lode Runner and add "Kracked by Kool Kracker" to the title screen (and just in case the authorities had trouble finding him, the phone number of his BBS).
Over on the PC, games were dismissed with sneering, "this is a business machine!" retorts. Good thing too, because top of the line four-color graphics were an expensive add-on to an already overpriced and underpowered machine. Even if you went nuts and dropped the three grand or so, you still ended up with something an order of magnitude less graphically capable than the sub five hundred dollar Atari 400, complete with spill-proof membrane keyboard.
Oh, sure, shareware games made spotty appearances on the 8-bit Apple and Atari machines, and even the PC, but nothing that could optimistically be called successful. When the publisher of Gray Chang’s Dog Daze Deluxe for the Atari 800 folded, he freely distributed the game with a plea for a five dollar donation from satisfied players. While Jim Button was hiring people to haul his sacks of mail around, Mr. Chang had a single postcard attached to his refrigerator with a magnet.
By 1987, the PC market had gotten a lot bigger. The forward thinking game players bought into the flashy Atari ST and even flashier Amiga, and many others hung on to their 8-bit machines, as the PC could still be summed up by the technical term "ick." But Word Perfect, Lotus 1-2-3, Sidekick and Turbo Pascal were selling oodles of PCs. It’s a bit strange, looking back, that a substantial number of PC games from that era were repackaged titles from the Apple II and C64. Summer Games anyone? Street Sports Basketball?
That year, Scott Miller walked into the very roomy PC market with a way to make shareware games sell.
The trick to shareware wasn’t so much in the programming as it was in the getting people to pay. No matter how hard you try to be sincere, "please send me a small donation of $10 if you find this program to be useful to you" just plain sounds pathetic. That kind of panhandling worked for business software because, well, pathetic begging is downright pleasant if it knocks the price of a database from $800 down to the lower double-digits. That, and you tend to be exposed to the author’s pick-up line a lot more if the program in question is something you use every day for months, and not a trifling game that you greedily stuff into your mouth, chew up, and spit on the sidewalk a week later.
Attempts to take the edge off panhandling with humor ("this program is Beerware. If you like it, send me enough money to buy a case of beer"), torture ("this screen will appear for two minutes each time you run this program, until you pay for it"), and personal endangerment ("I have put a hex on you. The only way to remove it is to send me twenty dollars") were, much to everyone’s surprise, not tremendously successful.
Scott Miller’s angle was to break a long game up into a trio of episodes. Part One was released as freebie enticement, a game you could play all the way through with no strings attached, only to have your victory dance interrupted by the knowledge that Part 2 and Part 3 existed, unconquered. The game he introduced this scheme with was the Kroz trilogry, a modernized and appealing game in the same vein as Rogue, the minicomputer classic. Kroz ran entirely in the sixteen colors of CGA text mode, representing worlds and critters with the extended PC character set. The promise of unexplored box-drawn maps and rampaging, umlauted vowels in the remainder of the trilogy resulted in over $100,000 being tossed Scott’s way.
Kroz spawned more Kroz, not to mention Scott’s company, the now legendary Apogee Software Productions, founded with his friend and long-time game programming partner, George Broussard. Apogee’s games grew from ASCII to four color CGA (Broussard’s Arctic Adventure), to sixteen colors of EGA glory (Todd Replogle’s Dark Ages). The long string of EGA side-scrolling games wasn’t broken until Halloween Harry was released in 1993 and solidified Apogee’s reputation. Funnily enough, the rest of the world was ready to write off the Enhanced Graphics Adapter from the first glimmer of the new decade.
|Credits: Illustration © 1999 Chris Buecheler. Gimme Your Money is © 1999 James Hague. All other content is © 1999 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't try it...or you'll pay. Oh, how you'll pay.|