Shareware Heroes

By Richard Moss

The renegades who redefined gaming at the dawn of the internet

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Writing and research update

Hi all,

I hope you're doing well as we enter the weirdest holiday season that I think I can remember.

Now that I've been working more consistently on the book for a while, I wanted to give you an update on where things are at, how it's been going, and what's still to do:

Let's start with the research side. Books like this are enormously research-heavy. They involve laboriously poring over magazine and newspaper archives as well as public records, web search engines, and online databases, and — especially when it comes to a subject like shareware — message-board archives.

Sometimes I'm looking for general chatter about shareware, sometimes I wanted conversations and coverage related to particular games or people or ideas. Sometimes I stumble on weird or amusing turns of phrase, like this one from a Byte magazine article in 1994 that introduced both Doom and shareware to its readers:

"you can download the first installment from most BBSes and run it for free. Register that, and you'll get more episodes. (Call it 'heroinware'—the first dose is free....)"

Part of my research process also includes just looking for archives, as I'm sort of at the frontiers of computing and internet (and certainly computer gaming) history — which means there's not been much organisation of the data done by others. It also involves cross-referencing sources not only to check for accuracy or validity but also to fill gaps in the data. CompuServe, for instance, was a big deal in the early years of shareware games, and CompuServe and AOL together were a major source for both discussion and distribution of shareware in the early 90s. But AOL archives are spotty, at best, and archivist Jason Scott told me on Twitter recently that CompuServe is like a black hole for historical research. Most of its discussions and content just seems to be gone, completely.

Interviewing people can plug some of the gaps in the data, but memory is fallible and unreliable after 25-35 years. Worse, determining who to talk to and/or what questions to ask becomes a tricky process in itself when there's so little early information. (Thankfully it gets a lot easier as we get deeper into the 90s and more people got onto Usenet and the World Wide Web, but even then it can take a long time to figure out how to contact someone.)

I can talk more about these challenges another time, if you're interested, but in the interests of brevity I'll move on to describing some recent progress:

I've completed several new interviews this month, including id Software co-founder John Romero, William Soleau (of Soleau Software fame), the incredibly-prolific (200+ games!) guy behind Tommy's Toys, and Overkill creator Ste Cork. Just this week I managed to get in touch with the son of MVP Software founder Dave Snyder (who died in 2007) and a guy called Alan Farmer, who created an early shareware game called Willy the Worm, and I'm doing an email interview at the moment with Cap'n Magneto (an early Mac shareware game) creator Al Evans.

I haven't counted how many interviews I'm up to now, but I'd say there are another 6-8 interviews I need to do in order to cover certain people/companies/games in the way I intend to (otherwise I'll have to gloss over their work due to lack of available information), and then there's that many people again who I'll be trying to interview just to fill in a few gaps and gain better perspective.


Writing is coming along steadily, though because of these interviews it's been progressing more slowly than I'd hoped. I have one chapter that's in a polished state, ready for Unbound's editing team to check over, plus two that are nearly done, and everything else is either in the early writing stages or nothing more than a plan. (To give you some context on this progress, two months ago half the chapters didn't even have a plan while the only chapter with any text written was ~70% done in draft form, and that was it except for my research and notes — so I'm accelerating considerably in my rate of output.)

Speaking of plans, I can now say with a modicum of confidence that the book will consist of 15 chapters, plus an introduction and an afterword-like thing that I'm thinking of calling a coda (which will involve me pondering the legacy the shareware movement has in the present-day world of games). Whereas my previous book, The Secret History of Mac Gaming, was essentially a collection of standalone stories, loosely-organised to follow some semblance of thematic and chronological progression, Shareware Heroes will have an overarching narrative running through it. (Which is to say that every chapter will flow into the next, because I think the shareware movement had a distinct evolution over time.)

As I've noted before, the book will cover shareware games across multiple platforms — I can confirm there'll be behind-the-scenes stories related to Amiga, Atari ST, Mac, and PC (DOS/Windows). There's a possibility of shareware on other systems getting covered, but I doubt there'll be much of that.

Some of you may remember that there was also a stretch goal we hit that promised a bunch of brief developer spotlights, and that will certainly still go ahead, but I won't have anything to share on what's going into them until near the end of the writing process — as I can't commit to the list of featured developers until I have most chapters mostly-finished, and I won't know how best to have these spotlights complement the main narrative until that narrative is near-completion.

What's next?

I had been aiming to have the manuscript done before Christmas, but I don't think that's realistic anymore, so I'm looking at the end of January as the likely completion point on the draft text — at which point it goes through editing, which isn't a super-long process in my case as I write very clean prose. Then after that it goes into typesetting and design, which may take a while. (Then they get it ready for print, then it's printed, then it's shipped out to all of you.)

I'll write another update around the end of the year to let you know how much further along I am with the manuscript and to share a few snippets or point to some interesting research.

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Brandon Staggs
 Brandon Staggs says:

Thanks for the update. I decided to upgrade my reward. I wonder if your book will mention/discuss the Association of Shareware Professionals (later Association of Software Professionals), of which I served as a Director for a couple of years near the end of its relevance.

posted 30th November 2020

Steven Zakulec
 Steven Zakulec says:

Very excited by this update.
Have you checked the Internet Archive for CompuServe/AOL materials?
There's been a ton of archiving projects by various people, and I think there should be some materials there.

posted 30th November 2020

Richard Moss
 Richard Moss says:

@Brandon - Thank you! I will definitely mention the Association of Shareware Professionals in the book. There's one place I know it'll appear, and a couple of others I'd like to include it if it fits, and then it might also get namedropped a few more times on top of those.

@Steven - I have, yes. The Internet Archive is my first port of call for most research. They don't have much, sadly, and that Jason Scott fellow I mentioned in the post has been the man in charge of archiving such materials for many years now — so if he says there's essentially nothing left from CompuServe then that means it's unlikely I'll find anything elsewhere either.

posted 1st December 2020

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