Saturday 3 September 2022

Shareware Heroes by Richard Moss - Book Review

As an Amiga kid in the early 1990's, I never had much awareness about shareware, being all the more familiar with the public domain scene on Commodore's 16-bit behemoth. It wasn't until I gained access to a 386SX at a friend's house that I found out about the idea of having a few levels of a game on a disk as a taster then paying for the rest of the game, that particular title being Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold, a shooter that took up far too much of my spare time. Unfortunately for me, I never played the rest of it as I had no means of paying the required fee - I was a teenager who had parents disinclined to sending cheques overseas. Over the years, I saw other examples of the concept but never really knew much about it. Until now.

Shareware Heroes is Richard Moss' second gaming focused book after the excellent Secret History to Mac Gaming and takes the reader through the sometimes controversial history of non-retail software distribution from the early 1980's to the modern day. Over 300-odd pages, you'll be led through a finely-researched narrative detailing the highs and lows of what would popularly be termed shareware. 

The story is told pretty much in a chronological order, with coverage of the US and overseas markets, primarily the UK and Europe. Imagery is mostly kept to the central photograph section, although mono screenshots are present throughout the text, as well as at the beginning of each of the chapters. These are cleanly reproduced and the lack of colour isn't an issue. At the back of the book, there is a handy glossary and a small section giving details on the various shareware developers, the years they were active, key personal and important software titles.

There is some crossover between this book and the author's previous work, as shareware was a big part of the Mac's gaming scene as more commercial publishers/developers stayed away from the platform. That is not to say there is repetition, more that you will see familiar names pop up if you're read "Secret History..." It is the author's ability to weave what is, at times, a complex tale into a very engaging narrative that makes this book worth reading, especially if you grew up with shareware software all those years ago. If you didn't, then you'll learn things. For me, a surprising discovery from reading this book was the number of names that are still around today in the PC gaming world, a good example being Epic Games. 

What I particularly liked was that there was no stereotype for who became associated with shareware. From those who promulgated the distribution of free software as a concept, to those who tried just to make beer and pizza money out of it, to the megastars who burned brightly even if just for a short period of time, and to those who stuck to a niche and did rather well out of it, the cast of characters you'll meet is brought wonderfully to life in this book. Never a get rich quick scene (unless you were very lucky), Shareware Heroes not only gives you an understanding of the history, but of also the causes of it's evolution. And evolve it did, as software tastes, budgets and marketing trends changed, yet the ethos still remains valid to this day, albeit it in a very different form from its early years.

This is a fine history on the subject and one that should, in my humble opinion, be the reference book on the topic for years to come. It certainly informed me as to the nature, breadth and depth of shareware, and did tug a few almost forgotten memories from my teenage years and early PC usage. 

Shareware Heroes joins The Secret History of Mac Gaming on my bookshelves as a volume that will be re-read and referenced time and again in the future. It not only tells you what shareware was (and has become), but also cements its place in computer gaming history as a key development in software distribution. I heartily look forward to the next topic the author casts his eyes upon.

You can buy Shareware Heroes in hardback form direct from Unbound here, and in paperback form from the usual online retailers - in the UK, the includes Amazon, Waterstones and WH Smiths. You can also follow the author on Twitter here to keep up with what he's up to. 

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