Tuesday, August 31, 2004

On Emus

I recently came into possession of an old NES console. Basically, Brenda ordered it on Ebay because it came with a Burgertime cartridge. She used to play Burgertime with her mom on their old Intellivision, and her mom passed away earlier this year, so I think she wanted it for the memories, basically.

Now, of course, being who I am, I thought, "Well, what's the point of having a game console with only one game?" So I went to a local store that had used NES cartridges, and got a stack of classic games for about $30.

Which leads naturally to a discussion of emulators. There are emulators now for the PC that will let you play old games from most of the old consoles, as well as arcade cabinet games, and even old computers like the C64 and Apple II. The emulators themselves are legal; distributing the games is not, because the games are still under copyright.

The "emu scene" has various positions on this. One is that copyright protection on software lasts too long, given the nature of the industry (anything more than a couple of years old is hopelessly obsolete), so therefore these games ought to be public domain. Another is that some places will remove any games if the copyright holder requests they stop distributing them, but otherwise it's OK because the owner obviously doesn't care, since the games no longer have any market value anyway.

My position is that the very existence of the "emu scene" proves that the games do have market value, even if the value is low, and that the companies that actually hold the copyrights on these games ought to be taking advantage of that, instead of ignoring the entire potential market. I see it not so much as people stealing from companies, as companies failing to recognize an opportunity to make money. Releasing old games for emulation would cost them virtually nothing: The emulators are already programmed, and are generally at least free, if not open source.

For example: Say you have an open-source Sega Genesis emulator (I assume there actually is such a thing for the sake of argument). Sega could legally release a CD-ROM containing the emulator and any number of games to which they own the rights, which would allow PC users to play those old Sega games. Since they didn't have to write the emulator, and obtaining game images off the original media is relatively easy, and they paid for the rights to the games long ago (and have long since covered that expense), their cost to release such a thing would be little more than the cost of reproducing and packaging the CDs, which would be no more than a couple of dollars per disc, total.

Would you pay, say, $10 to be able to play all the old Sega Genesis (or whatever) games you grew up with again on your PC?

Heck, they could probably adopt an approach similar to the legal mp3 sites (iTunes, etc.), and sell downloads of individual game titles for a buck or two. Again, their cost per game is virtually nothing (server space, bandwidth, and store software, divided up among all sales). That might work better for something like MAME, which is not open source. It's free, but it specifies in the license that it can't be sold, which means that putting it on a commercial CD-ROM would be questionable. But there would be nothing wrong with the copyright holder on the games putting up a free download of MAME, then selling the games themselves.

There might be some resistance to overcome from the existing "scene", who are used to getting stuff for free (though illegally). But the legal mp3 sites faced the same resistance from the P2P crowd, and they seem to be doing OK so far.

There actually are a handful of commercial packages, now - like there's a collection of a few old arcade games for the PS2, and that duplicate of the Atari 2600 joystick that plugs into the TV and has several 2600 games built into it. I just think they're underestimating the "nostalgia" market, or failing to realize how cheaply they could serve that market, or both.

I will say one other thing: I have no great moral problem with people distributing games illegally. It's a slight dilemma: I don't go quite as far as the people who want to do away with intellectual property altogether, so I do respect copyright ownership to some extent. However, I do think that copyrights have, over time, become far too protective (largely thanks to lobbying from companies like Disney).

But pragmatically, I fear that if old software is not distributed, the history of video games could face problems similar to films. A lot of old films are basically lost to us today, because the only prints in many cases were destroyed by the movie studios in order to make room in their storage facilities, or to recover the silver from the film. Similarly, old TV shows are often lost. Many of the oldest Doctor Who episodes, for example. I have a CD of rare Charlie Parker recordings. Some of them are old wire recordings people made off of live radio/TV broadcasts that otherwise went unrecorded. Recording them was doubtless illegal, but if they hadn't done so, these performances would be lost forever, including things like Charlie Parker performing with Miles Davis in his backup band. I gather there was also a cache of recordings of old Honeymooners episodes discovered in someone's attic some years back, including a bunch that hadn't otherwise survived.

There have already been some significant losses of computer games. Ultima 7, widely regarded as one of the best RPGs ever produced, for example. While the executables still exist, the source code was apparently lost or deleted when Lord British and the rest of the Ultima team left Origin, possibly just out of spite. This is a problem because Ultima 7 won't run on most modern computers - it used a weird home-grown memory manager under DOS that doesn't work with any of the Windows 95/98/2000/XP OS's. There's a group of fans working on a program, Exult, which lets you play Ultima 7 under Windows, and Lord British and others on the Ultima 7 team support them, but they're hampered by the lack of source code. For one thing, the Exult group had to basically guess at a reconstruction of the combat system from Ultima 7 - it's not fully documented in the instruction manual, none of the programmers they've talked to remember the details of it, and now there's no way to consult the original source code.

Now, since I am of the opinion that computer games are essentially a fledgling new art form at this point, I believe that someday, people are going to want to see some of these old games for the same reasons people today want to see old silent films, old jazz recordings, old TV shows: Both to enjoy them for their own sake, and to study the history and development of the art form. It would be a shame if those games had not been preserved for posterity, when that time comes. And wide distribution is one of the best ways to preserve things like that. It increases the likelihood of finding a cache of stuff in someone's attic.

Monday, August 30, 2004

Can anyone help?

I'm looking for a specific T-shirt, that I've seen people wear occasionally. It's sort of a parody of the famous photograph of Che Guevara that you see all the time on shirts and posters, only instead of Che, it's one of the apes from the old Planet of the Apes movies (not the new one...), wearing a beret and everything.

Anyone out there have any suggestions where to look for such a thing?

Friday, August 27, 2004

Election-poll coverage that's actually meaningful

Anyone interested in following the horse-race aspects of the upcoming election may be interested in this electoral-college-based site. The person who runs it is a Kerry supporter, but that doesn't seem to get in the way of the numbers (it just pops up occasionally in his commentary). What he does is takes state-by-state poll results, as they are reported, and uses them to construct a map of likely election results using the electoral college votes. So instead of the totally irrelevant "dead heat" national poll results you get from most of the major national news outlets, you can see that, for example, right now Kerry leads, 270 to 259 electoral votes.

AvP Rant

First, let me just say: I haven't seen Alien vs. Predator, and have no intention of seeing it in a theater. I've heard too many bad things about it, but here's the main one:

Alien vs. Predator fills me with dread. What bothers me isn't the concept, it's the director. The Alien movie series had always had a tradition of getting young, talented, not-very-well-known (at the time) people to direct them: Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise), James Cameron (Titanic), David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (City of Lost Children, Amélie). For AvP, they got Paul W. S. Anderson, whose resume includes such works of cinematic art as Mortal Kombat and Resident Evil. Which makes me suspect this is more of a videogame marketing movie than anything else.

The concept itself has an interesting history. In Predator 2, there's a scene where Danny Glover's character ends up inside the Predator's spaceship, and finds a "trophy room" – a wall of skulls. If you look carefully, in the quick pan across the wall of skulls, you can see that the set designers included, as an in-joke, an elongated skull such as one would get out of one of the Alien movie aliens (sort of like how, in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Watto's junk dealership has a pod from 2001 in the pile, and there are some E.T. aliens visible in the senate). Just a cute gag in the background for the geeks to spot.

Meanwhile: Dark Horse Comics acquires the comic-book rights to the Alien series. A couple of years after that, they also, coincidentally, acquire the comic-book rights to the Predator series, and they release some comics in both of these worlds, fleshing out a lot of the background of these alien species. Now, since comic-book companies tend to have a lot of geeks on staff, someone there remembers the Alien skull in Predator 2, and they come out with an Alien vs. Predator comic. People who were less geeky, and hence were unaware of the in-joke reference in Predator 2, see this as just a cheesy marketing gimmick, but the comic sells well anyway.

Well enough, in fact, that [whichever company it was] worked with everyone necessary to get the license to produce videogames based on them. People who were even less geeky than the comic fans, and hence were unaware of either the Predator 2 reference or the comic books, are completely confused by this Alien vs. Predator concept that just came out of nowhere, but the games sell well anyway.

Well enough that, now, it's come full circle and there's a movie. People who are even less geeky than the videogamers, and hence were unaware of all of this history, see this as a completely cheesy marketing gimmick, and inevitably compare it to the Freddy vs. Jason movie. A comparison which, in my opinion, is unfair: Freddy vs. Jason really was just a case of "hey, we own both of these horror franchises, let's mush 'em together, that should sell some tickets."

My only issue is that instead of following the Alien tradition and getting a bright young visionary director, they seem to have just hired whatever hack they could get to work quick and cheap, which just reinforces the belief that it's a cheesy marketing gimmick.

Now, just don’t get me started on that Will Smith Fights Robots movie (I refuse to call it by the name they used).

I got nothin'

Very little caught my eye this week. There's this Museum of Hoaxes that’s sort of fun. It can also be fun to laugh at bad Japanese/English translation.

Other than that, the internet’s been running dry this week. So, here are some Terry Pratchett quotes instead:

It's a popular fact that 90% of the brain is not used and, like most popular facts, it is wrong. Not even the most stupid Creator would go to the trouble of making the human head carry around several pounds of unnecessary grey goo if its only real purpose was, e.g., to serve as a delicacy for certain remote tribesmen in unexplored valleys; it is used. One of its functions is to make the miraculous seem ordinary, and turn the unusual into the usual. Otherwise, human beings, forced with the daily wondrousness of everything, would go around wearing a stupid grin, saying "WOW" a lot. Part of the brain exists to stop this happening. It is very efficient, and can make people experience boredom in the middle of marvels.
(Terry Pratchett, Small Gods)

"Well, yes, but -”
(Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

"And there's the sign, Ridcully," said the Dean. "You have read it, I assume. You know? The sign which says 'Do not, under any circumstances, open this door'?"
"Of course I've read it," said Ridcully. "Why d'yer think I want it opened?"
"Er...why?" said the Lecturer in Recent Runes.
"To see why they wanted it shut, of course."*

* This exchange contains almost all you need to know about human civilisation. At least, those bits of it that are now under the sea, fenced off or still smoking.
(Terry Pratchett, Hogfather)

Friday, August 20, 2004

In honor of H. P. Lovecraft's birthday

Cthulhu for President – Why choose the lesser of two evils?
More of Cthulhu for President
Plush Cthulhu
Plush Elder Gods?

(Ok, that last one isn't technically Lovecraft-related, but they struck me as Things that would not look out of place next to a Plush Cthulhu.)

Thursday, August 19, 2004

Jesus Rice-Caked Christ!

Boy, if this isn't emblematic of everything that's wrong with the Catholic Church today, I don't know what is.

Let's try this one...

Alright, I'm getting a little fed up with the technical issues that keep popping up with my blog over on Blurty, so I'm going to try this one for a while. Joe seems to be having success with it, so I'll see how it goes.