GAMES COLUMN 5 - February 1994
|We're all doomed!
Hello, and welcome to my new, extended column (fnark!, etc). (Looks down) Blimey, it's a lot of space isn't it? I wonder if Maryanne would consider printing everything in really big type? (Puts finger to ear and listens intently) Ah. Apparently not. Sod. Better get on with it, then.
I was playing Doom round at my mate Ken's house (natch) the other day. Fantastic, isn't it? I have to admit, it's the first game I've ever seen that made me want a PC - try as I might, I just can't see the appeal of Wing Commander, X-Wing and all the others that seem to be the big favourites of all you PC types these days. X-Wing in particular seems to be just Code Name MAT (Spectrum game from 1983 or thereabouts), but with less exciting graphics and baddies you shoot from much further away, but that's probably just me.
Anyway, playing Doom got me thinking about Shareware. I started thinking all manner of ridiculous thoughts about some strange Xanadu kind of a world, where Shareware would be the dominant form of all software. Imagine it - every new game came out on the cover of magazines, or on bulletin boards or in computer shops. You'd get a copy of it, see if it was any good or not, and send off your tenner for the updates/manuals/fullversions/whatever if you decided you liked it. Programmers would be happy because they'd be getting about five times as much cash per copy as they do now (the average programmer's royalty on a full-price game these days is generally said to be around £2-£2.50), punters would be happy because they were getting fabulous software for a fifth of the current cost, environmentalists would be happy because every game wouldn't be taking up half a tree's worth of packaging, journos like us would be happy because crap games wouldn't sell, in fact everybody would be happy except the shops who currently make four times as much money on every game as anyone else for the demanding job of sticking them on their shelves and waiting for people to come in and buy them.
And then I thought 'Yeah, well, if it's such a great idea, how come it isn't that way already? I mean, the PC's already got by far the strongest PD/Shareware market in the world, yet it's also got software which is as expensive as the SNES and Mega Drive, which is ridiculous because (a) there's an installed user base of about seventeen grillion, (b) console software comes on expensive cartridges while PC games are on ten-a-penny floppies and (c) the PC games market is a free and open one, not heavily controlled and price-regulated by Sega or Nintendo. What's going wrong?'
I was a bit stuck at this point. Amiga Shareware, for example, never really caught on because the games were never of a quality which could be mistaken for the 'real thing' - the only successful one was Jeff Minter's Llamatron, which was great fun, but still looked like a PD game - but that's hardly the case with the PC. Doom is on a par with anything I've seen on the machine - with drop-dead graphics and sound and the kind of gameplay hook that Rebel Assault would sell its grandmother for.
As ever, though, my mate Ken was on hand with the answer. (What would I do without him?) 'Take a look at this', he said, stabbing at the Reset button with a still-twitching trigger finger and loading up something else, the name of which I won't reveal. It was a crude-looking platform game which could easily have come direct from the early days of the Speccy, and, to be frank, it was rubbish. Apparently, though, it was top-ranking Shareware game from a well-known developer, and it had a registration fee of about 35 quid. And I went 'What? 35 quid? You must be joking!' And there's the rub. I always thought that the whole point of Shareware was that it cut out all the middlemen, so the price came down, not just so that it was a whole different group of people who made the obscene amounts of money.
Now, at this point you're probably saying 'Hang on a minute. The point of Shareware is that if you don't think a game's any good, you don't pay for it at all. So what's your problem?' My problem is this: 35 quid, 30 quid, even 20 quid is an unrealistic price for Shareware, even if it IS good. Punters will just about put up with forking out £50 for Strike Commander or whatever, because it DOES come in a big shiny box and it DOES have a glossy instruction manual you could use as an occasional bed when some friends come round unexpectedly.
Marketing people call it 'perceived value' - it actually looks like you're getting
something that's worth the money. But Shareware, by its very nature, doesn't look like
it's worth anything - you get a couple of tatty disks like you might buy from any old Tom,
Dick or Obi-Wan at a car-boot sale, and a photocopied manual, if you're lucky. Ask people
for 35 quid for that and, on the whole, they simply won't give it to you, however much
they like your game. After they've done that a couple of times, they'll get out of the
habit of paying for Shareware at all and start to treat it like PD. And then we'll be
right back where we started again. Let's have a bit less greed from developers, a bit more
honesty from customers, and just maybe things will be a little bit better for all of us.