From the very first (January 1994) issue of Game Developer magazine, this retrospective on Id Software's then-contemporary Doom and Wolfenstein 3D paints a unique portrait of a legendary developer whose games would launch a genre.
In an era of where it often takes 20MB to put in all the advertised features, they did it in less than four. At a time where soundcard compatibility was a big problem, they added on Disney Sound Source as an afterthought for demonstrations. As many larger game companies are coming to terms with cross-platform development, to them it comes naturally. They write games that would take larger companies 30 people or more, and the whole company comprises seven people. They are the programmers at Id Software, and what they are doing could change the PC game industry forever.
It was actually Id's previous game, Wolfenstein 3D, that earned its accolades. The premise of Wolfenstein 3D was straight out of a B-movie, where players battles their way out of a Nazi castle. What made Wolfenstein 3D stand out was its brilliant use of bitmapped images, digitized sounds, and blazing speed to give the illusion of a three-dimensional world. Id made use of a technique known as texture mapping that, combined with a raycasting engine written in assembly language, allowed the three-dimensional graphics to be playable on the lowest common denominator machine, at the time a 286.
Perhaps, the most amazing aspect of Wolfenstein 3D had to do with its distribution. It was shareware. Using a time-honored shareware technique, the first 10 levels of Wolfenstein 3D were free. It was the additional levels that were sold directly through the distributor, a shareware game company called Apogee. This allowed people to copy the first part of the game, which was public domain, and see how well the game performed on their machines before they bought the whole game. The free teaser file spread like a virus until it was all over the world, with over 20% of the orders for the complete version coming in from overseas.
Here is where Id has potentially made its biggest impact on the PC game industry. By releasing a state-of-the-art game through shareware, it was able to destroy the old shareware game sales record, set by Id's own Commander Keen series, by over five times. By totaling sales of over 100,000 units by the end of 1993, Id proved that professional-quality games could be successfully marketed via shareware. To truly compare shareware to traditional distribution, six months after the release of Wolfenstein, Id released a revamped version of Wolfenstein called Spear of Destiny. As of late 1993, Spear of Destiny and Wolfenstein had sold 100,000 copies apiece and Wolfenstein sales were still going strong, but Spear of Destiny sales were slipping as it was being forced off of retail shelves by newer games.
However, it's not the sales total that makes this distribution revolutionary, but the profit margin. For example, for every game of Spear of Destiny sold, Id would get about $8.00, half the total return split with the retail distributor FormGen. In the case of a Nintendo cartridge of Wolfenstein, the return would only be about $2.00. But, by using a shareware distribution system, Id was able to recoup the total price of the game minus the actual cost or materials and having an operator to take orders. In the case of Wolfenstein, the cost of materials was less than $5.00, and the complete game cost $50. Although they did split the profit with Apogee, this gave them a profit margin any software company would envy.