First, we had the advent of affordable sound cards in the form of Creative Labs’ Sound Blaster, a name whose cringeworthiness was only usurped by the sound effects it made obsolete. This ushered in a new age of possibilities for video games. The epic tracks that we take for granted today were often non-existent up to this point. A cheesy “pew-pew-pew” could even have been considered a luxury if you weren’t used to sound effects in video games. With the Sound Blaster, you could create audio on a whole new level. In an audio-visual medium having access to quality audio was necessary to be competitive.
Second, was the invention, implementation, and later the widespread use of CD-ROMs, whose vastly increased storage size allowed for an increase in games’ scope. Early CD-ROM games often used live-action video footage to make up for the lack of power to emulate quality graphics. Sadly, these live-action bits were often of poor-quality, utilizing little to none of the filming techniques or high-end recording equipment seen in Hollywood instead resembling something closer to what you’d film on a personal camcorder. In spite of a somewhat rough start, it became the technology of the future going on to power games, music albums, and movies.
While these first two steps created a tinderbox for potential innovation, it wasn’t until id software came along that we had someone solve the age-old question: how do you penetrate a market that is locked down by the consoles? The answer– as it so often is– was profoundly simple: a great, innovative project and word of mouth. But in the video game industry, playing is believing and that’s where id software’s heavy reliance on shareware paved the way for their future success. id released Wolfenstein 3D with the shareware model, which saw them giving away a part of the game for free and then allowing you to purchase the full product by mail-in. The subsequent release of Doom, which just turned 20, not only unveiled the potential of the First-Person shooter genre, but also proved the viability of using shareware to sell your game.
Taken together, these 3 inventions added audio to the audio-visual experience, increased the storage capacity– something that was needed to actually take advantage of the improved audio– and ultimately used these innovations to convert the potential of what video games could be into a new reality for what would become one of the most popular, and successful genres, over the next 20 years and counting. Using id’s success as a footstool, the shareware business model– aided by a fledgling internet– created a unique environment, both for developers and gamers, that’s remained lively until this very today.