Software was expensive as heck in the 1980s

Originally published at: Software was expensive as heck in the 1980s | Boing Boing


-Looks at boxes of computer floppies, all of them copied software.-

People paid for software in the 80s?


Just the manufacturing and shipping costs for all those floppy disks and (often gigantic) printed instruction manuals added quite a bit of overhead over today’s software distribution models.


I saw few Amiga games with boxes in the late 80s… I played a lot of games…


I can remember when Borland released compilers at the then shockingly low price of $50, it was like a bomb in the software market.


Business software in particular. At one point, each module of Microsoft Office (Word, Excel, etc.) was $200. Acrobat Reader started out as $50.
The Mac in particular was really tough for developers. To get the Apple tools, initially you had to own a Lisa ($10K-ish), and then hundreds in software licenses. I’d gone through a number of lower-cost, and quickly-disappearing compilers: C, Modula-2, Forth, Pascal… As Ceran_Swicegood mentions, Borland’s $50 Turbo Pascal was a godsend… until it was gone. I asked someone at an Egghead (remember them?) why, and they said that Borland made 10,000 copies, and found 50,000 in use.


Yarrrr, but we’s all had double cassette decks in them days Jim, lad.


You aren’t kidding. Even shareware wasn’t free when we had to pay for the floppies + S&H.


I remember buying so many games on 5 1/4 floppies at a local computer store. They were knock offs that these guys got from BBS or coded themselves. So much fun.

Novelty does sell well though…when we moved, I found all my old Ultima and LLL floppies, including all the box stuff (cloth maps, anhks, etc). Sold fairly well on the old fleabay, even though I’m 99% sure those things couldn’t still be readable.

Of course, I say that knowing I have my original LoZ cartridge on a shelf in my office, next to famous Atari 2600 ET cart.


Did you dig it out of the ground?


I know you are joking, but seriously! I think I owned like three actual purchased games in the 1980s. Instead, you spent your time creating lists of the programs you had and you talked to people at school to trade copies of what you had for things they did. And while there were programs like Locksmith for breaking copy protection, typically the copies being traded were cracked by people with fanciful names like “Mr. Xerox” and they would often add their own splash screens to the games.



Before the PC revolution, big software companies like IBM and DEC would write “custom” software to do inventory and accounting and personnel functions for companies in different markets, and it would cost multiple thousands of dollars because it was uniquely tailored to the special requirements of this or that industry. In reality all those functions are the same at every company.

Of course the software also ran on expensive computers that required dedicated raised-floor computer rooms, tape drives and other complex hardware.


I was at an engineering company when PCs became inevitable and it was extremely difficult for management to understand that they’d now have to buy $5K PCs (plus $400 for Lotus 1-2-3 and Word Perfect) for each worker—the same people for whom in the past they’d only bought pencils, pads and used office furniture.


This is why I roll my eyes, hard, when the young’uns complain that games are too expensive now. It’s not just that the retail price of games was greater (in real money terms and relative to cost of living) in the '80s and '90s, it’s that the effort required to make games (and thus the production cost) is orders of magnitude greater now. In the '80s games were made by a couple people at most - there was a limit to how many people could be involved in making a game, and how many hours they could sink into it, given that the technology limited the scope and scale. Now, of course, it’s many hundreds of people working for years on end. The technology has opened things up so much that the limit is economic - not expending more resources making a game than could be paid back in sales.

People point out the tools to make games are much better now, and the market is much larger. Both of these things are true, but work against each other. The gates that limited how many people could produce games have flung wide open, and the increase in number of games sold far, far exceeds the growth of the market. And while games now have a long tail of sales, whereas they used to have a short window in the store where, if they failed to sell well initially they were removed to free shelf space, the nature of “hit games” has changed. It used to be that if you had a hit, the profits could fund a number of failures (and most games failed to make significant profits). Studios and publishers could weather a number of failures. A hit could give them breathing room to experiment with various game ideas until they found something that worked. Now that’s true for only the upper-most tier of “hits” - other hits are profitable, but not enough that a publisher, much less a studio, could even necessarily survive a dud or two. Which makes corporate game developers extremely conservative in what they’ll make, if they want to survive.

Of course developers could spend the kind of development resources they spent in the '80s and '90s to make games, and the games will be much more impressive in scope and scale as a result of better tools, but they also can’t charge “full” price for them, either. A lot of phone games, in particular, have the same production efforts as PC games of the '80s and '90s, but pricing expectations mean they can charge almost nothing for the game (pushing them into alternative means of generating profits, which get ugly). Given the insane competition in the market, smaller games are lucky to get '80s/'90s sales figures, too. Making a game (or two) is no guarantee you’ll make a living at it, and most indie developers don’t. But indie developers, as a whole, have for years been cranking out tons of games being sold at non-sustainable prices, making players spoiled for choice.

Which is to say: the kids buying games don’t know how good they have it these days, and they should get off my lawn.


And all of that was based on the assumption that they’d be able to eliminate some people, which didn’t really happen for a while. Or was offset by middle management enlarging.


Many of my games were obtained from Tevex, which sold games for 33% off.

Evangelism was a thing then because it was terribly disappointing to find out that the local stores didn’t stock stuff for your chosen platform, or worse, games publishers were starting to ignore it.

I was terribly disappointed to learn that Ultima VI wasn’t coming out for the Apple II (GS). Matter of fact, i was disappointed to learn that the GS was a dead end. says that the mac version of Ultima III was $60. Cloth maps are expensive.

Universe II, a game which my Dad beta tested was $70.



At work, we were using a $500 C compiler that was slow as hell, and always needed more ram than than it had.

“Hey, this Turbo Pascal looks interesting for $50, why don’t we try this?”



There was a shop around the corner from where I lived in the market that “rented” software. It was like a lending library, you paid $10, took the software home - installed it and copied whatever portions were needed on a floppy and then returned it to the shop so someone else could gain access. They lasted a few years before the RCMP showed up and said: “Uhhh - we don’t think so.” and they closed up. I was running my shit on an Apple ][ clone and without that cheap access to both soft and hardware I could never have learned what I did. I was less interested in games (but I did love Aztec) and more into the writing and graphics arts stuff.


Universe II was incredibly ambitious – it wanted to be a combination of Elite with its space combat, plus a whole adventure game taking place on planets. It just didn’t quite work on 8-bit computers. I wonder why the authors didn’t try for a remake/sequel on 16-bit systems a few years later.