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The high cost of software in the 1980s…

A friend recently sent me a link to a large collection of 1980s computing magazines—there’s some great stuff there, well worth browsing. Perusing the list, I noticed Softline, which I remember reading in our home while growing up. (I was in high school in the early 1980s.)

We were fortunate enough to have an Apple ][ in our home, and I remember reading Softline for their game reviews and ads for currently-released games.

It was those ads that caught my eye as I browsed a few issues. Consider Missile Defense, a fun semi-clone of the arcade game Missile Command. To give you a sense of what games were like at the time, here are a few screenshots from the game (All game images in this article are courtesy of MobyGames, who graciously allow use of up to 20 images without prior permission.)

Stunning graphics, aren’t they?

And here’s the ad they used to get you interested in the game…

What stood out to me as I re-read this first issue wasn’t the very basic nature of the ad layout (after all, Apple hadn’t yet revolutionized page layout with the Mac and LaserWriter). No, what really stood out was the price: $29.95. While that may not sound all that high, consider that’s the cost roughly 38 years ago.

Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ CPI Inflation Calculator, that $29.95 in September of 1981 is equivalent to $82.45 in today’s money (i.e. an inflation factor of 2.753). Even by today’s standards, where top-tier games will spend tens of millions on development and marketing, $82.45 would be considered a very high priced game—many top-tier Xbox, PlayStation, and Mac/PC games are priced in the $50 to $60 range.

But Missile Defense was actually a relative bargain for the era. Want to play Ultima, an open-world fantasy role-playing game? Its graphics are just as stunning as those of Missile Defense…

A reviewer notes the cost, and states that it was well worth it…

Applying the calculated 2.753 inflation factor to $39.95, Ultima would cost you $109.98 in today’s money. Ouch!

How about some Hi-Res Football instead? It’s also $39.95, or $109.98 in today’s money

And from the screenshots, it becomes clear that “hi-res” is a term whose definition varies with the state of technology at the time:

But it wasn’t just games that were costly…here’s an ad for SuperScribe ][, a leading word processor of the era (click the image to see the full ad)…

Good thing it’s “only” $129.95 (revealed in the full ad), as that still translates to nearly $358 in today’s money.

How about a compiler for Applesoft programs? SpeedStar was $134.95, or almost $372. Penguin Software’s The Complete Graphics System—a set of drawing and shape tools for programmers was $119.95 ($330ish).

How about some accounting software, say for your business records (general ledger) and staff pay (payroll)…

With your discount, they’ll each set you back a measly $924 in 2019 dollars. Yikes! All business apps were similarly costly. Visicalc listed for $199.97 ($550), Visitrend/Visiplot for $259.95 ($716), etc. But Microsoft’s pricing for some of its apps dwarfs even those amounts…

A developer in need of Fortran 80, the BASIC Compiler, COBOL-80, and maybe WordStar to write up their documentation was looking at a (discounted) cost of $1,436.50…that’s $3,954.68 in today’s money! For four programs. Four. Holy fully loaded iMac, Batman!

So yes, the good old days may have been good, but at least in terms of computer software, they were also really costly. Related: I think I’m going to talk to Peter about raising the price of Moom to $173.64. Still a comparative bargain, I think.

7 Comments

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    1. Yes, but as a percentage of the hardware cost, software was much higher than it is now. I’d be hard pressed to name a single package that sells for $2K beyond some super high end database or business application.

      -rob.

      1. Adobe Creative Suite used to be like $2500+ total, but now it’s a $600/year subscription, for better or for worse. ;-/

  1. Yes and people used to really support software. Not like now, where there is little to no documentation or support. All because people would rather pay less than $5. But this makes it so that the developer cannot make enough money to support the software properly.

  2. The overall market was a tiny fraction of what it is today. Imagine trying to run a business on cash flow for a few hundred sales. There were no unicorns then. Even Microsoft ran on product sales.

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