I keep noticing the parallels between the modern indie scene and the old shareware boom from the early 1990s. For those who missed that train, in the period after the Great Crash of 1984 and before the PC was powerful enough to run much more than King’s Quest, there was a sort of DIY phase in the Western game industry. Even the biggest PC developers, like Sierra and Origin, were a bit provincial, and in the arcades Atari Games and Midway were struggling just to be noticed amongst the flood of Japanese imports — so from a mainstream perspective there was slim opportunity for a young designer.
Much as with modern indie games, the answer was to skirt the mainstream, and distribute games through dial-up bulletin boards and word-of-mouth. There are a few differences, though. For one, the shareware boom happened in an era when one or two or a small handful of people could still produce a major, mainstream game. It was getting rarer, but for context the average Sega Genesis game had only half a dozen key staff. So for aspiring game designers, it was not unreasonable to look at shareware as a sort of a potential back door into the industry. Indeed, that’s where we get id Software and Epic Games.
Another thing is that around the turn of the ’90s the PC was sort of a blank slate. 256-color VGA was still fairly new, and Sound Blaster digital sound was a revelation. A 33-Mhz processor was a firecracker, and extended RAM was a luxury. So suiting the geography, most PC games were either simulations or slow-paced adventure games. When Carmack and Romero found a technique for smooth scrolling, it was a breakthrough worth pitching to Nintendo. Yet much as Atari was uninterested in Nintendo’s hardware, Nintendo saw little potential in the PC game market.
With mainstream developers slow to take advantage of the platform, it was also not unfathomable for a handful of clever young coders to be at the forefront of technology and design. So it is that within about five to seven years a bunch of industry outsider nobodies dragged the platform, and along with it the entire medium, up by its bootstraps. The explosion in graphical accelerators comes entirely out of do-it-yourself designers trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be just like the big guys who they admired in the 1980s.
This, of course, created a culture clash. The PC gamers who had been there the whole time reacted poorly to the insolence and the brashness and the overall style of these upstarts. They liked PC games just fine the way they are. The PC wasn’t just an open-platform game console; it naturally lent itself to a different, slower and deeper, psychological space. And the aesthetic that these newcomers were injecting — sure, it was making the PC more popular for gaming. Yet in its Miyamoto-fueled reverie it was also drowning out demand for the kinds of games that attracted PC gamers to the platform.
There are exceptions, of course, but broadly the shareware boom was an attempt by North American designers to answer the mainstream success of Nintendo and Sega using the only available tools — which meant bending the tools to make them work more like the game consoles of the day, and using those tools to mimic Japanese design aesthetics. Though the movement started small, the best efforts were so revolutionary and so popular that they attracted competition like a four-star restaurant in the bad part of town, gentrifying the PC, driving up development costs, and making the platform much bigger than Shareware’s original form of distribution.