The Wild History Of Demo Discs, Shareware And Covertapes

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Back before YouTube and Twitch and always online DRM, developers needed more effective ways of marketing than just relying on word of mouth. This resulted in shareware, demos and demo discs, free slices of playable content that spawned one of the most interesting phases in the gaming.

The earliest roots of the demo as we know it can be traced right back to the computers of the ’80s and ’90s. An entire industry built itself around the idea of giving people freely distributed packages, to convince users to buy the full product.

Shareware was the name, and it was arguably one of the most inventive forms of distribution for games and software. Remember, we’re talking about a time with no internet, next to no distribution on a small to medium scale that wasn’t a couple of people doing labour labor by hand, and computers not being as popular as they are today. And when it was difficult to share around software without physically handing out floppy disks, it’s no surprise that shareware took off.

shareware
You would see this screen at the end of the DOOM shareware release.

Originally invented as a counter to freeware, shareware programs gave users time or content-limited demos, with instructions to order usually provided in the package. If you ever used software in the MS-DOS and Windows 95/98 days, you probably saw splash screens like DOOM’s bright-red call to action.

Fittingly, shareware titles often told users to share the software anywhere they liked. So naturally, many bullet-board systems, file servers and workstations held massive stockpiles of free-to-try programs.

The business model worked especially well for games. Developers would often split games into episodes, with a shareware release containing the first and the rest available for a bit of cash. Used by the smallest of indie devs to recognisable names like iD Software and Epic Megagames, this method took off hard, and came back with many, many profits.

One of my favourite facts about this era is that the shareware episode of Doom was installed on more computers than Microsoft Windows, a feat that no piece of software had managed before, and one nothing will likely accomplish ever again.

Warfare On Tape

shareware
An example of a sleeve for a covertape; full games, demos and some extra stuff to boot.

In the late ‘80s to early ‘90s, there was a market of European home computers that was winding down. The ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and others enjoyed massive popularity in their heyday, vastly outstripping the foreign NES and Master System for years.

This computer market was an early pioneer in coverdiscs, but rather than CDs they were distributing cassette tapes instead. Audio cassettes were cheap to produce and distribute in comparison to the expensive floppy disk, and cartridges had an even higher price, making the choice obvious for the budget-conscious manufacturers of the time. And this was at a time when computers were more expensive than some cars.

Batty, one of the best of the included full games, exclusive to a covertape. It outclassed many of the proper Arkanoid ports you would pay for in stores.

Covertapes were a special, once in a blue moon event. Sometimes they would have entirely unique games from known developers, titles exclusive to the tape that were never separately released in stores. They’d also feature demos, public domain programs and other amusements like poke programs, which were the same concept and execution as the Game Genie cheating system.

But one day, a ZX Spectrum magazine shipped a full retail game as part of their covertape. Naturally, competitor magazines followed suit. It started an arms race, and before long every magazine covertape would feature several games, with some programs on the side. It actually got so bad that a consumer oversight committee stepped in and told magazines to slow down — developers were concerned at the time people would just buy the covertapes, and not the actual games.

The war was eventually settled in the early ‘90s as the magazines eventually died alongside the systems they covered. Other European microcomputers would graduate from covertapes to floppy disks, like Amiga Format, but these were pretty basic lists of programs at the time.

To put this into a modern perspective, imagine picking up the Official PlayStation Magazine today with a Blu-Ray cover disc that had Horizon: Zero Dawn, Rocket League, the Uncharted collection, Battlefront 2 and some other indie games for a few bucks with no strings attached (such as a PS+ subscription). It was a wild time, and a fascinating stop in the history of demos.

The Compact Disc Cometh

A selection of shareware CDs as archived by Jason Scott of Textfiles.com. He has hundreds of these. Image: Textfiles.com

Demos for the early consoles like the Atari 2600 or the NES weren’t possible back in the day thanks to the overwhelming cost of producing cartridges. So most presentations were at major events like the Consumer Electronics Show or places like your local stores. With the invention of the compact disc though – large on space, cheap on storage – developers started coming up with more creative methods of advertising.

The shareware market got a pretty big boost off the back of the CD. Someone had the idea to take a bunch of the previously mentioned shareware from every BBS, FTP and website they could reach, throw it all on a CD, and send it out to a printing press to charge a few bucks for it in a corner shop.

They were largely filled with stuff you’d never use or need, and had plenty of content available elsewhere on the web. But with dial-up internet struggling to match the storage powers of a freshly invented CD-ROM format, for the smallest moment in time, this content had an audience.

They serve as a wonderful time capsule of whence they came, with some of these discs being discovered as treasure troves of previously unknown versions of software. Many people found coverdiscs were the best way to get a good sampling of demos quickly, but they weren’t the only ones.

demos
April 2001’s PC Gamer cover disc.

The traditional “CD on a magazine cover” disc appears to have hit the PC first, with the earliest example I can find being PC Gamer’s monolithic December 1994 issue. The outlet continued to manufacture discs until the final quarter of 2011.

The disc above from April 2001 has several demos, some nice features like wallpapers, patches and even the magazine’s full review database up to that point. It’s a really nice package, and if I was gaming on PC even remotely seriously at the time, this kind of disc would be well appreciated in my computer.

I tried out a few demo discs from the period in a virtual machine and they all followed a similar pattern. They were well made packages, offering enough content to keep you entertained for hours, and at a good asking price to boot. In the age of dial-up, or worse, no internet in country Australia, it would have been a godsend.

There was also that one time in 1996 that someone played a little too much Myst and added a point’n’click adventure as a way to navigate the content on the CD. That was an odd one.

demo cds
The previous US mascot of PC Gamer. His name is Coconut Monkey.

There were other PC based magazines that released discs on their covers in varied formats, including PC Powerplay in Australia. I don’t have the time to dig through all of them, but some fine people at the Internet Archive have built up a pretty sizable collection of cover discs from across the planet, demos included.

The Golden Age of PlayStation Demos

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Image: Kotaku

While they weren’t first to use CDs, the Sony PlayStation and Sega Saturn were definitely the first two successful consoles to use CDs. The low cost, high yield production rates helped millions of copies of games find their way into consoles worldwide. And the sheer variety of PlayStation demos on those discs in particular across different regions is especially nutty.

The Sega Saturn didn’t have quite as many demos, but what was there was neatly presented. The “Flash” series was bundled with magazines, but due to the Saturn’s short life, demos didn’t have as much time to thoroughly integrate themselves into the ecosystem. Dedicated wiki SegaRetro has a pretty good listing of demos if you’re curious.

One of the less common kinds of demos out there are the individual discs, ones that only have one demo at a time. A lot of the time, they were included as bonuses…

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