The 1990’s, and the Shareware Model
The dawn of modern PC gaming was heralded by inconspicuous games delivered on floppy disks, or for the particularly tech-savvy, dial-up modem BBSes (Bulletin Board Systems). There was little electronic purchasing of goods in those days, so developers/publishers would place feature-limited or full-feature but limited-content versions of their wares online for people to try before buying. Buying the game typically involved paying the publisher directly and getting a disk mailed to you.
This is where the biggest games of the day started, but also some of the names that continue on today. iD’s Castle Wolfenstein 3D and Doom started this way, growing to be massively-successful franchises. Prior to their success with the Unreal franchise, Epic Games (then Epic Megagames) also was born in the shareware publishing days, turning out titles that some now also consider classics.
The Rise of the Big Publisher
Shareware began to get a bad rep as crippleware, and some of the larger publishers continued to grow with the increasing number of customers. EA and Activision are good examples of the exponential growth of publishers that rode the trend of absorbing smaller studios and developers.
As video game publishing went from garage to boardroom, the idea of “giving away” work became distasteful to the bottom-line corporate mentality, and even limited demos became more and more uncommon.
First Steps in the Mobile Revolution
Mobile gaming got rolling in fits and starts. Handheld gaming systems like the GameBoy showed the world that you could have an entertaining gaming experience that could be taken anywhere. As technology advanced, more dedicated game systems came online, such as Sega’s Game Gear, which had console-like graphics at the time (and was able to play Sega Master System home console games with an adapter).
The advent of the smartphone brought about a new generation of games as developers tried to cram game code onto devices that had built-in entertainment limited to basic Tetris clones, or Solitaire, if you were lucky. The market was still too niche to really making money in for most developers.
Apple and the iOS Commoditization of Games
Enter the iPhone. At long last, Apple revealed a phone which would change forever how the mass market viewed smartphones (and portable electronics, for that matter.) It was a device of convenience, but also a fashion statement. Market penetration of the iPhone grew at a phenomenal rate, rapidly outstripping the competition in key demographics.
When the App Store was revealed, it became the new frontier. Or, in a lot of ways, the Wild West. Developers tried anything and everything to make money. And initially, it worked. Consumers would buy anything for 99 cents. Afterall, it was less than a dollar. That made it cheap!
That also meant that a lot of garbage was on the store. People routinely felt ripped off by a purchase, and those 99 cent bills started to make people realize just how fast those pennies added up. Apple did a lot of policing to make sure that applications weren’t malicious, but wouldn’t stop a game from being released due to bad design.
The New Wave (The Sequel)
App store developers have seen a massive drop in impulse 99 cent purchases. Few games without massive marketing or brands behind them are able to actually make any money.
Where new games are making inroads is the return to the shareware model and/or microtransactions. Once again, developers are releasing versions, frequently dubbed “Lite”, which give players a sample of the full game, but lacking key features or content.
Monetization happens when the user either pays to buy the full product, or pays small amounts of money to improve their game experience. (Real world cash for character items, weapons, levels, etc).
Back to the Future
We now find ourselves at an intriguing crossroads. In an update for the Wasteland Kickstarter project, Brian Fargo stated, “One friend of mine who worked with me there said recently he felt that in the beginning of the industry all the nerds were in charge, but then as the industry grew it changed, and now the guys that picked on the nerds got back on top.”
Developers now have new ways to grow their market with the advent of microtransactions and simplified online purchasing. Crowdfunding is starting the projects that we’ve wanted to see for years, but publishers have shut down. Combined, we’re seeing a rebirth of the industry from the very people and games that started it over twenty years ago—working together with the newest generation of indie developers bringing fresh ideas to the table.