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Book Excerpt: How DOOM turbocharged the shareware revolution

In this segment from Shareware Heroes, author Richard Moss explains how DOOM secured its popularity by embracing shareware as part of its distribution strategy.

Richard Moss

August 25, 2022

13 Min Read

The following excerpt is from "Shareware Heroes: The renegades who redefined gaming at the dawn of the internet" by Richard Moss. The book was published August 18, 2022 and is available at several online retailers.

Cover of Shareware Heroes

It seemed there was no stopping id Software. Commander Keen had given them their freedom, and Wolfenstein 3D’s mega-success had earned them the financial cushion to do anything. But all they wanted was to beat the last game – to outdo both themselves and everyone else. And at the centre of that drive was a push for ever-better technology. By the time Wolfenstein 3D’s commercial prequel Spear of Destiny hit retail shelves, Carmack had already built a new engine.

This one had texture-mapped floors and ceilings – not just walls. It supported diminished lighting, which meant things far away could recede into the shadows, disappearing into the distance. And it had variable-height rooms, allowing for elevated platforms where projectile-throwing enemies could hang out, and most exciting of all it allowed for non-orthogonal walls – which meant that rooms could be odd-shaped, with walls jutting out at any arbitrary angle from each other, rather than the traditional rectangular boxed design that had defined first-person-perspective games up until then.

It ran at half the speed of Wolfenstein 3D’s engine, but they were thinking about doing a 3D Keen game next – so that wouldn’t matter. At least not until they saw it in action. Everyone but Tom Hall suddenly got excited about doing another shooter, which meant Carmack would have to optimise the hell out of his engine to restore that sense of speed. Briefly they considered a proposal from 20th Century Fox to do a licensed Aliens shooter, but they didn’t like the idea of giving up their creative independence, so they considered how they could follow up Wolfenstein 3D with something new. Fighting aliens in space is old hat. This time it could be about fighting demons in space. This time it could be called DOOM.

First they had demons to exorcise internally. They’d done great out of their relationship with Apogee, but some members of the team wanted id to pull away from the shareware giant and go solo. Word from Shawn Green at Apogee was that too many staff there were slacking off and playing games when they should be taking orders, and some people were having trouble getting through to buy the game over the phone. Plus Apogee’s ordering system was a disorganised mess, with orders written on scraps of paper rather than typed directly into a computer system.

Scott Miller and George Broussard were their friends, but they realised that Apogee was starting to hold them back. Instead of sharing profits 50-50, they could handle everything themselves and keep 100 per cent. So just as Miller had predicted months before, id Software would forge ahead alone.

The tension within the team didn’t end there. Tom Hall wanted DOOM to have a story – an actual narrative pervading through the design, with an emotional payoff much deeper than the impulsiveness of Wolfenstein 3D. John Carmack disagreed; story didn’t matter, and it should get out of the way as quickly as possible. After months of disagreement, Carmack got his way, backed up by the rest of the team (who recognised the strength of his engine once again lay in speed). Hall was then asked to leave before development finished, his levels reworked by his replacement Sandy Petersen and his name pulled (not unanimously, it’s worth noting) from the credits.

John Romero recalls that level design on DOOM was one of the hardest things on the game because they had to break out of their old way of thinking. ‘Before DOOM,’ he explains, ‘everything was 90 degrees.’ Fixed-height ceilings, uniform lighting, right-angle walls – that’s all that 3D game engines could do. DOOM changed all that, but the team struggled for months to get out of the mindset they’d built up over the previous decade – both from playing maze games and working on id’s early stuff.

Romero says he eventually had to come up with a rule: ‘If you make an area in your level that I could have made in Wolfenstein, you failed.’

First-of-its-kind level design and a cutting-edge engine weren’t the full extent of DOOM’s innovations or appeal. Also critical were the punchy, brash sound effects, the wild, new weapons (including a chainsaw and the BFG, or ‘Big Fucking Gun’), its ratcheted-up levels of gore, its support for networked multiplayer, and its all-in-one WAD file format – which contained all the data needed to run a level (its layout/geometry, character sprites, textures, and everything else).

Fans had started modifying Wolfenstein 3D to make their own levels and art almost as soon as it came out, but id had never intended for that to happen and so Wolfenstein 3D modding had involved a convoluted process of data extraction and editing.

With DOOM, id came prepared. ‘We immediately put the data format of the maps up so people could write their own editors,’ Romero says. DOOM thus spawned a thriving cottage industry not only of mapmakers and modders but also of modding toolmakers – many of whom sold their tools as shareware.

DOOM itself was sold as shareware, too – id may have walked away from Apogee, but they weren’t about to abandon the business model that had made them rich.

They were in fact going to improve it.

Their business guy Jay Wilbur hadn’t had any luck calling around the big newspapers and magazines. DOOM had lots of buzz, but it was almost all underground – online mostly, spread within the shareware scene and branching out into the more plugged-in PC gaming magazines. To make DOOM sell as the game-changer that it was, he needed to innovate its marketing.

He knew that DOOM would sell itself, if people just had a chance to play it, so he devised a plan to get the game into the hands of as many people as possible by subverting the retail distribution model. As John Romero recalls:

We basically went and bought up all these different shareware games that had different publishers on them. And we contacted them and we told them we’re going to come out with this game DOOM and it’s going to be shareware, and what we want is for you to take the shareware version – the first episode – to download. You take it, put it on a disk, don’t charge more than nine bucks, and you get to keep all the profit you get. We want none of it. And so they’re like, oh my God, yes.

It was a win-win arrangement. Retail distributors were incentivised to help promote DOOM by selling its shareware episode, then when people inevitably fell in love with the game they’d pay id for the other episodes. ‘And so when you went to the store,’ Romero recalls, ‘there were like 10 different boxes of DOOM from 10 different companies. They all had the same shareware in it. It’s like whatever box looked best is the one that won all the sales.’

PC gamers had DOOM frenzy. British games magazine PC Zone narrated the final minutes of anticipation on CompuServe as a preamble to their review. ‘I was almost sick of this program before it appeared,’ wrote resident shareware expert Mark Burgess, in disbelief at the panic and hype he’d seen for the game. DOOM was due for release on 10 December, so one fan dutifully posted at 5:23 a.m. Eastern Time (id was in Texas, which is an hour earlier than that) to ask why the game was not yet available.

‘What’s going on here anyway!!!!’ they wrote. ‘I demand DOOM be released immediately!!!!’

Two hours later, Burgess noted, ‘all hell broke loose’ as hundreds of gamers poured online to demand its immediate release – which ironically was delayed because they’d clogged up the disk’s storage space to such an extent that id couldn’t finish uploading the game. (Jay Wilbur had similar issues the night before with uploading to the University of Wisconsin’s FTP server, which had so many users logging in hoping to download the game that he was initially locked out.)

Meanwhile BBSs and FTP servers around America crashed under the immense load of hundreds of thousands of people clamouring to download the game on day one. Worse for universities around the country, people were jumping straight into the multiplayer once they had the game – and they kept crashing the university networks.

DOOM had been hyped for months by fans wowed at the early teasers of id’s next-generation technology, yet now that it was out they were stunned. PC Zone’s Burgess summed up the sentiment in the conclusion to his review: ‘id has exceeded all expectations with DOOM; it won’t be equalled, let alone surpassed, for a long time.’

DOOM blew everything else out of the water. Byte called it ‘heroinware’. Computer Gaming World said it set ‘a new benchmark’ in games technology. Compute! referred to a new dawn in PC gaming. Only Edge broke ranks among the games and technology press, complaining in an infamous and widely mocked review about the game’s simplicity before concluding: ‘If only you could talk to these creatures, then perhaps you could try and make friends with them, form alliances… Now, that would be interesting.’

Newspapers praised it, too, though many, including the Orlando Sentinel, pointed also to its addictive qualities and the positive and negative toll it could have on people’s lives. ‘If you play it for hours it can make you paranoid,’ one computer science student was quoted saying. ‘People were hugging the walls instead of walking down the middle of the halls.’ Another source, an unnamed pharmacist, told the paper that he used the game to let off steam by imagining the demons were difficult patients.

Most recognised that it was a landmark achieved, regardless. The Houston Chronicle cited fun, realistic movement, an ‘enthralling’ sense of detail, and its four-player ‘deathmatches’ among the reasons for its success, adding that it was not just a great game but also ‘the coming of age of shareware’.

They turned a profit on day one and quickly climbed to $100,000 in orders every day. It would take longer to conquer the mainstream, but DOOM had already transformed the industry. Now anything that wasn’t a 3D shooter seemed old hat. Everyone was either talking about it or playing it (or likely both), from the low-level workers at games publishers and big software companies to the elite developers working on the next big commercial games, all the way up to the top executives at the biggest games and technology companies – many of whom spent the next Computer Game Developers Conference discussing how they should respond to DOOM’s success with their own marketing and product development strategies.

For Apogee it was a long-expected reality check. They may not have seen this coming, but they’d been anticipating a paradigm shift since Wolfenstein 3D. Still, it was unfortunate timing for two of their most promising new games.

One, Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold, had been developed by id’s successors at Gamer’s Edge, Jim Row and Mike Maynard – who themselves left Softdisk to work on the game. They’d cooked up an excellent sci-fi shooter with a few neat enhancements on the Wolfenstein 3D engine – including switches that could unlock doors on a different level (reachable via an elevator), one-way doors, automapping, and bio-technician ‘informants’ that would help the player rather than try to kill them. The game reviewed well, but it released just one week before DOOM and was thoroughly buried and forgotten beneath the avalanche of DOOM hype.

Side-scrolling shoot-’em-up Halloween Harry fared much better. It was a remake of a game of the same name made in 1985 for Australian home computer the Microbee by John Passfield when he was in high school. He’d seen Ghostbusters a short time before and so wanted to do a haunted house platform game. Six weeks later he’d submitted it to a local publisher and they’d put it out commercially (earning him pocket money rather than riches).

Several years later a friend of his had found out about the game and suggested they start a company together with a Harry remake as their first game. An initial prototype on the Amiga in AMOS – which was not at all well-suited to a fast-action platformer – eventually gave way to a DOS version when they met a couple of programmers (Rob Crane and Tony Ball) who were into PCs. ‘They started doing really cool things that were way better than what I was doing on the AMOS version,’ Passfield recalls. ‘They had things like parallax scrolling and all this really cool stuff in it. So we started working with them.’

After a while they showed the game to a local distributor called Manaccom, which made a deal to publish the game in Australia and connected them to Apogee for international sales. (Though their naivety meant that Manaccom would take a large cut out of their royalties from Apogee.)

Harry had shifted dramatically from its roots by this point. Rather than a ghost hunter searching a haunted house for a malevolent witch, it would star a marine wiping out aliens in a mission to save the human race. And that of course meant a trusty arsenal of big, bad weapons, the most popular of which would prove to be a flamethrower. Ammunition for these weapons came from vending machines scattered throughout the game, paid for with coins picked up from defeated monsters.

The game’s design was cheap and nasty in all the ways that games often were in those days – regularly breaking cardinal rules of good design with tricks like slime monsters hidden out of sight, biting at your ankles, and zombies that charge out of nowhere. But it looked so good and sounded so great – and flying around levels with the jetpack was so much fun – that Apogee fans adored it. The company’s primarily US-based audience found its title confusing, however. It wasn’t a Halloween-themed game, so why does it say Halloween in the title?

Scott Miller would eventually convince the team to change the name to Alien Carnage for its version 2.0 update and retail release, giving it another big influx of sales, though DOOM frenzy limited its impact.

Passfield remembers well his first sighting of DOOM, shortly before they finished Halloween Harry version 1.0:

We were so happy with ourselves and how good our game looked. Then we were at Manaccom and they said, ‘Check out this new game.’ And it turned out it was DOOM. It was like looking 10 years in the future and going, ‘That’s now?!’ And it was coming out just shortly after we were launching. We thought we had a cutting-edge game with this parallax scrolling and everything. And suddenly seeing DOOM – oh my God, these guys are just so far ahead of where we are (laughs). And I think luckily – I’m pretty sure we were the top of the shareware charts for like a month or so before DOOM hit. But that was the writing on the wall.

The 2D action-platformer was as good as dead, and everyone knew it – especially Apogee, which had already begun racing to catch up. They had one internal project in the works: a Wolfenstein 3D spinoff called Rise of the Triad, with id co-founder Tom Hall as lead designer, and would soon also start up development on a 3D Duke Nukem game using Ken’s Labyrinth creator Ken Silverman’s next-generation technology – the Build Engine. But it would be a while before either of those were ready, so in the meantime they kept pushing out platformers and shoot-’em-ups, waiting for their moment to strike.

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