It seemed like an innocent enough question to me. Two game developers were talking, one older than the other, and the older said something about developing a DOS game, and then the younger asked, what’s a DOS game?

A DOS game is a game that runs on PC hardware but under MS-DOS or PC DOS rather than Microsoft Windows.

If you were born in 1985 or earlier, there’s a pretty good chance you played a DOS game at least a few times. But I am not sure anyone born much later than that has much reason to know what DOS is and what’s different about a game that runs on PC hardware but under DOS (or DOS emulation) as opposed to Windows.

What a DOS game is and why it makes a difference

What is a DOS game

The graphics in Sid Meier’s classic Civilization look pixelated and quaint today, but it was a big deal in 1991.

Before I talk about why this is a perfectly valid question, let me go ahead and answer the question. DOS was a family of operating systems. Specifically, it was the operating system PCs ran before they ran Windows. Early versions of Windows ran on top of DOS. They were not operating systems in their own right. They were more of an operating environment, because DOS was handling many of the critical functions that make an operating system an operating system by definition.

Windows 95 buried DOS, although it was still possible to boot Windows 95 and 98 into DOS mode and it was even possible to hack Windows ME to do the same thing. It wasn’t until Windows XP in October 2001 that consumer versions of Windows fully stopped relying on MS-DOS.

The first version of Windows came out in 1985. When I mention that, I expect people to challenge me on it. And they usually do. There’s good reason for that. Those early versions of Windows were something people talked about, but they had no reason to use it. Windows version 3.0, which came out in 1990, was the first version of Windows that large numbers of people actually wanted to use.

The reason that matters is DOS provided very limited graphics and sound capability. It didn’t try to stop you from generating graphics and sound, it just didn’t provide anything to help.

Why DOS was so limited

This was a trade-off. In 1981 when IBM released its first PC, they didn’t know what you were going to use for a monitor. They had a green screen they could sell you. They had a color monitor they could sell you. And they figured it would be smart to let you use a television for a monitor if you wanted. So when you bought the computer, you bought a graphics card to match the type of monitor you wanted. IBM also had the foresight to realize what people wanted in 1981 wouldn’t be the same forever. As technology improved, they released newer graphics cards and monitors that were capable of higher resolution and more colors.

Today we use device drivers to handle the differences. Computers of 1981 couldn’t afford that kind of overhead. The first IBM PC ran at 4.77 megahertz and only had a single CPU core. And you could buy one with as little as 16 kB of RAM. Kilobytes.

DOS stands for Disk Operating System, because handling disk access is about all it did. It made it pretty easy to read and write files, and when it came to reading the keyboard and writing text to the screen, there was a round trip on the motherboard that made that part pretty easy, but to do much of anything else, The programmer needed to provide routines, whether that meant writing their own or loading a library that helped.

One reason that games from specific publishers frequently had their own look, feel, and personality was because of the graphics and sound libraries they produced and reused from game to game. That is why you can frequently tell a Sierra adventure game from a Lucasfilm adventure game just from a screenshot. And it is no coincidence that Railroad Tycoon and Civilization have similar user interfaces and a similar feel.

When did Windows games become common?

Windows 3.0 came with two games, mine sweeper and solitaire. If nothing else, they were useful for teaching people how to use a mouse. No one was born knowing that. Windows could do a ton of heavy lifting when it came to providing graphics and sound capability. But there was a lot of overhead involved, and initially, that support was two dimensional. That was fine, except soon after Windows became popular, 3D games became immensely popular. People said they bought a PC because they could run windows and get a graphical environment similar to a Macintosh or Amiga, and run it on a PC that cost a lot less. But the reality was a lot of the people saying that we’re buying a PC so they could play Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.

When it came to 3D gaming, Windows got in the way more than it helped. It provided graphics routines, but they were 2D at first, so a skilled developer could write their own 3D routines in DOS that ran faster. That meant DOS games didn’t completely go away right away. Windows 95 included 3D capability that improved dramatically over the course of the late 90s. So after mid-1995, Windows games started getting more common. It’s hard to say exactly when the tipping point was. Not every game genre moved from DOS to Windows at once.

But getting Windows games running was easier than DOS games. No need to worry about memory management and the various weird memory types and loading CD-ROM drivers in config.sys and autoexec.bat. No need for custom boot floppies or boot menus. Windows made handling drivers much easier, so supporting lots of different hardware became much more practical. It still wasn’t as easy as popping a CD into a game console and turning on the power, but the difficulty level dropped from 9 or 10 to more like 3. Returning software because you couldn’t get the game running became much less common.

Running DOS games today

Running DOS games on vintage hardware is an increasingly popular hobby. That’s one reason the value of an old Tandy 1000 PC is through the roof now. But you can run DOS games on modern hardware using an emulator like DOSbox. And when you buy an old DOS game on Steam or a similar service, it bundles DOSbox so the game runs on your new PC.

Is DOS common knowledge anymore?

I don’t know how much this matters, and this may or may not be interesting, but it’s something I happened to know. I tend to compose my early drafts of blog posts using dictation, because it saves me some typing and I can do it while I take my walk for the day. When I say dos, My phone doesn’t know what I meant about 2/3 of the time. That tells me not a lot of people are talking into their phones about that.

So then I asked my kids. Both of them are very computer literate. They solve their own computer problems and I hear them working with their friends on their computer problems, and they get really frustrated when they need to ask me for help. Asking me is the last resort even though I’ve been doing this professionally since 1994 and writing about them professionally almost as long.

When I asked them what a DOS game is, they both asked if I meant DDOS? Fair question. That acronym has been preempted. When I talk, people have to figure out from contacts whether I mean denial of service or if I mean an operating system.

Both of them figured out from contact I wasn’t talking about something security related, and both of them volunteered that they know there used to be something called MS-DOS, but they weren’t sure what it is exactly, and what it would have to do with games.

Small sample size, but two kids whose dad writes about this stuff once a week don’t know what a DOS game is.
If they don’t know, I am not going to automatically assume anyone born much later than 1985 necessarily knows either. Some absolutely will. One of the biggest retro computing YouTubers, LGR, certainly knows what MS-DOS is, and I don’t know exactly how old he is, but based on the stories he tells, I would estimate he was born sometime around 1985. When he talks about his first computer, I sold those at retail.