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.

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