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The Debt We All Owe to Emulation

Emulation is a broad topic within computer science. This article is specifically about emulation of video games.  There are many other purposes to which emulation may be applied as well, and it’s important not to lose sight of that.  Emulation is a general purpose tool, not merely a tool for piracy.

Old video games have become valuable to collectors in recent years. My generation grew up with video games, and much as the previous generation valued comic books and baseball cards from their youth to the point where they became worth serious money in the 1980s and 1990s, antique videogames have similarly grown in value.

It wasn’t always thus. For a good couple of decades, old videogames were considered obsolete junk. No one wanted them (except maybe a few very geeky people such as myself.) Mostly when a new system hit the market, people forgot about the old generation and within a year or two they weren’t available in the retail channel anymore, or were perhaps on clearance in dollar bins.

Importantly, the manufacturers didn’t continue to manufacture old generation hardware.  Although it became cheaper and cheaper to do so, there still wasn’t enough demand in old systems to keep them viable in the face of new competition. More to the point, manufacturers would have been competing against themselves.  And when trying to recoup the cost of major R&D budgets that produced that next generation, they wanted (and needed) the market to be focused exclusively on that new system. Keeping the old generation system alive would have cannibalized sales, and hurt profitability, and this would have stalled the progress of innovation.

We saw this with Atari. The 2600 was the system that broke through into nearly half of American households in the late 70’s and early 80’s. At the time, it wasn’t obvious to the general public that there was going to be a new generation every several years as Moore’s Law continued to work its magic to enable cheaper, more powerful computing technology.  Internally, Atari struggled with releasing their next generation system, the 5200. With tens of millions of 2600 consoles already in homes, the revenue stream represented by cartridge sales for the established console was too important for Atari to walk away from it. The 5200 wasn’t backward compatible (although an adapter for 2600 games existed) and Atari felt that the average consumer might feel alienated and abandoned if they had to go out and buy a new, expensive console.  As a result, Atari kept the 2600 alive an incredible 15 years, finally stopping production in 1992.  The 5200, launched in 1982, was hampered by a variety of factors, and never had the same level of success — it was expensive, lacked backwards-compatibility, the library was mostly the same titles as were available on the 2600, only with better graphics, the controllers were delicate analog joysticks that annoyingly didn’t automatically re-center, it contended in the market with rivals Coleco and Mattel, and then the 1983 crash of the North American market cut short its heyday.

The business data was always very clear on this. With video games, what was hot today was gone a few weeks or months later, or in the case of smash hits, maybe a year. New product constantly distracted and replaced old product, with a few notable exceptions such as Pac Man and Donkey Kong, most video games didn’t have staying power in the market.

Obviously, that’s not to say that old games started sucking and were no longer fun to play. They didn’t. But their enduring appeal didn’t translate into sustainable marketability.  And that’s why successful games spawn franchises of endless sequels and a multiverse of linked-IP titles. And the old constantly gave way to the new. And the business always wanted the market to be focused on the new, because that’s where sales were.  (But yet, in other market segments, they keep making chess sets, decks of cards, balls, copies of popular board games that have been enjoyed for generations, such as Monopoly, etc.) For some reason, the prevailing wisdom was you couldn’t sell a videogame that everyone had already bought.

Well, until recently. A little over a decade ago, Nintendo introduced the Virtual Console on Wii, and started selling us games that they had made in the 1980s and 1990s.  And we bought them. In many cases, we bought them again. For some, it may have been the first time.

Even that wasn’t a completely new thing.  Every console has had classic games ported to it.  Atari has continually re-packaged its greatest hits into collections that have been sold on just about every console and platform that has been released since the original system exited the market. Virtually every big game developer has done it as well: Activision, Sega, SNK, Midway, Namco, and on and on.

And what made that possible?

Emulation.

Without emulation, putting an old game on a new system would have meant porting it, essentially re-writing the game from scratch. And ports were never capable of being entirely faithful to the original. There’s always differences, often substantial, to the point that the nostalgic value of a port is never quite there.  It’s not like playing the original.  You can never go home again.

But with emulation,  you could. Emulators were magic. With an emulator, a new machine could be made to work nearly exactly like some older machine with a completely different architecture, and run software for that older machine without further modification, and the results would be virtually indistinguishable from that software running on original hardware.  

The old systems may burn  out and break down.  The factory could stop making them and shift production to other, more profitable, more in demand product lines. But as long as someone could write an emulator to work on modern machines, old games could live, in theory forever.

Game companies, mostly, did not want that. Especially if there wasn’t some way to make money from it. And once full retail priced sales for a game, or generation of games, stopped being feasible, game companies dropped the product line entirely. Their expectation as the buying public would follow on to the next new thing, and that’s where the industry wanted all focus.  

So game emulation, in its earliest incarnation, was an unauthorized, underground enterprise, a labor of love by gamers desperate to keep the games they loved from disappearing entirely, as they surely would have without their efforts.

And what good is an emulator without something to run on it? This is where ROM dumps come into play. Anyone can tell you that emulation isn’t illegal, doesn’t violate any copyright or patent or trademark law. But ROMs, those are a different story. Copyright law is clear enough about making unauthorized copies of copyrighted works for distribution and especially for profit. There are limited provisions for making copies of works for personal use, of a copyrighted work which you own a copy of, for archival/backup purposes, for academic purposes, for criticism and review purposes, for time shifting and platform shifting, and so on.

Archival/backup purposes fit the context of ROM dumping best, but even so, technically this is a personal use right, meaning that in theory (to my knowledge this has not been tested in the courts) a person could legally dump the ROM of a game that they personally own, for use as a backup, and use an emulator for platform shifting that work onto a new platform.  But that’s a personal copy — they still don’t have any right to distribute that.  And even if my copy of Super Mario Bros. 2 is exactly the same as the copy that someone else already dumped for their own personal use, I can’t (legally) take a shortcut and make a copy of their dump; I have to produce my own.  Which takes time, effort, equipment, expertise, and the vast majority of people do not have that, nor do they have the inclination. So people did the only reasonable thing there was to do: they shared copies of existing ROM dumps. And yes, this meant that many people obtained copies of ROMs that they didn’t own an original copy of. And this was copyright violation.

And yet, for a long time, there still wasn’t enough value in emulation for the rightful intellectual property rights holder to have incentive to do anything about this situation.  And so, as a result, the Abadonware movement began, and the underground emulation scene grew and grew and grew.

You can go to a bookstore today and buy a new copy of a book written hundreds of years ago.  At least, certain ones.  You can’t go to a retail store and buy a new copy of a video game produced 40 years ago.  Not most of them. Sure, today there’s now a few exceptions, if you want to count systems like the Atari Flashback or NES Classic.

But — these systems only cover a small fraction of the catalog of titles that were released for those systems.

And — those systems are only possible because of emulation.  They’re dedicated emulation boxes. That’s right.

For $60, you can buy a tiny selection of really great games, and through the magic of emulation, play them on a modern HDTV. Much of the work that made that possible was pioneered, for free, by enthusiasts and hobbyists who made it their mission to preserve the past and ensure that some game that they loved would be available forever.  For free.

And more than just preserving the popular hits of yesterday, the emulation scene also provided equal attention to games that virtually no one had played, and even fewer people care about, or even knew about.  Rare games that hadn’t performed well on retail release, but were nonetheless good games, have gotten a second wind and rebirth, in large part because someone in the emulation scene ripped a copy of it, and distributed it for free so that thousands of people could experience it.  Games like Little Samson, a NES rarity that sells for thousands of dollars for an authentic copy, could not be experienced by the vast majority of people, without a ROM dump and an emulator.  And probably the black market distribution of this ROM is what helped make people aware of it, to create the demand that gave rise to the premium price that the original now commands.

Companies like Nintendo didn’t want you to play their old games, at one time, for a long time.  But now that the emulation scene proved that those games did have lasting appeal and historic value, now Nintendo would like to sell you those games again. And because they can, they seek to destroy the underground movement that showed it was viable and created the technology that made it possible.

I find this incredibly sad, aggravating, and tragic. I may have a personal collection of physical cartridges in my gaming library, but I certainly couldn’t replace them at today’s prices if they were lost.  And that hardware’s not going to last forever.

Copyright used to have a limited term, and this would have made things a lot easier for the emulation movement to happen in a completely legal way. But over the years, large companies have continually altered intellectual property laws — always to their benefit, never for the public good — to secure a perpetual right to works, robbing the public domain of a rich future. 

Robbing the public.

Robbing all of  us.

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  1. Well done. We who designed these machines way back when were aware that we were designing platforms for a new kind of art. I don’t think we were looking far enough to realize that our platforms would be abandoned. In retrospect, I realized the strategic error Atari made with the 2600: failure to provide an evolutionary path from it to a more powerful system that would be backwards compatible with the existing cartridge libraries. We thought it would last 3 years in the market, not 15. We predicted that each customer might buy 3-4 cartridges, not 8-10. When your customers do that, they owe you.

      

    1. Thank you, Joe.

      I wouldn’t take issue with the engineers who didn’t think about longevity, legacy, or backwards compatibility back then. They could not have known that their work would have been as successful as it was, and it was enough simply to make something that worked, much less think about how to do the architecture in a way that would allow games to be playable in the future on as-yet undefined architectures.

      I think the business reasons for why hardware companies want to forget the past and keep the market focused on the new make total sense, from a business standpoint. It’s hard to fault companies for wanting to make money, as much of it as they can, while they can. Rather, I think that there are issues that transcend business, and they include preserving culture and history, and recognizing the value of games as art. It’s such a slap in the face to all the talented people who reverse engineered and hacked game systems in order to preserve them when they were the only ones who saw value in preserving them, to now sue them out of existence, while taking profit from the nostalgia market that they helped to prove exists.

      I know that the legal departments are only doing what they feel they must in order to protect their company’s interests, and it’s hard to fault them for that as well. Where I do find fault is with the length of the copyright term, and the repeated extensions that major IP holders have successfully lobbied for, in order to perpetuate their copyright and rob the public domain of significant cultural works. Intellectual Property is Cultural Theft. Legal reform to restore the limited term of copyright to something reasonable, and to guarantee that works eventually do enter into the public domain is, I think, the only remedy to this situation.

        

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