Spiderweb Software's Jeff Vogel Talks About What it was Like to Sell Indie Games in the Shareware Age

Spiderweb Software's Jeff Vogel Talks About What it was Like to Sell Indie Games in the Shareware Age

Unless you were okay with getting angry phone calls from potential customers, selling a game was a bit of a hassle in the mid-1990s.

Spiderweb Software, a small two-person indie studio founded in Seattle way back in 1994, has been around "long enough [to be] doing remasters of remasters." At least that's what developer Jeff Vogel tells a room of fresh-faced developers, likely none as seasoned in the industry as he, during the Game Developer's Conference talk Failing to Fail: The Spiderweb Software Way.

Vogel's talk covers a lot of aspects of his life, the talk itself he bills as a postmortem on his career rather than a single known game. And Vogel's seen a lot in his time: from being "lucky" in his success to watching major platforms like Steam make distribution a helluva lot easier.

In the mid-1990s, when Spiderweb Software was first established and before Vogel shipped his first game Exile: Escape from the Pit in January 1995, distributing an independent game was a lot more complicated than it is now. Rather than tossing something up on Steam or itch.io, Spiderweb Software relied on its games falling in the "shareware" category—meaning that his games' demos were initially available free of charge, and players were encouraged to "share" the demos, and if they liked it enough, seek out the full program to buy.

Avernum 3: Ruined World is the third game in the Avernum trilogy. A remaster of the game released on Steam, GoG, Humble Store, and Spiderweb Software's own site in January 2018.

But shareware games' distribution in a time without internet didn't boil down to forums, but instead, pure word of mouth and other more arbitrary methods paved its success. Examples Vogel notes were primitive services like AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy, CDs of shareware games that were sold with magazines, floppy disks that were sold at mall kiosks. These shareware ventures contained demos, with players having to mail cash, money orders, or even using credit cards over the phone (if the bank trusted the developer enough to be able to even charge credit cards in the first place, as Vogel recalls having to print out a copy of his website in order to convince a bank that he was a business) to gain access to the full program.

"You want a discoverability problem? This is a discoverability problem," Vogel says. Somehow though, even with such a ridiculous gate of entry to independently developed games of the 1990s and even early 2000s, Vogel persevered. After all, Spiderweb Software is still around. He still operates by the simple creative process of figuring out what he wants to play (which are usually in the realm of niche turn-based fantasy RPGs), and making it. He doesn't have to employ a full-time employee anymore to do essentially what Steam now does for him: making his game accessible on a market.

The discoverability of games, even in a now very crowded indie games space, at the very least isn't as cumbersome as it once was. Prospective customers no longer have to call developers personally and complain for "about five hours" about having to pay money for a full game (as per an anecdote from Vogel's experience). Even in today's modern age, Vogel remains but a "humble toy maker," creating RPGs in near solitude alongside none other than his wife Mariann Krizsan.

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Caty McCarthy

Senior Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's Senior Editor.

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