Tag: emulation

Atari: We now have games for the VCS! (Not really…)

After being stung recently and repeatedly for their lack of progress on the AtariBox project, Atari released their Big Announcement about the games that will be available on the console.

TL;DR, the announcement is very underwhelming. Atari is packaging a bunch of old classic games for streaming to your AtariBox. They’re not even doing it themselves; they’re partnering with another company.  

That’s right, they still have ZERO new exclusive launch titles for this system. You know, the thing that tends to drive people to buy new systems? They still don’t have that.

Let’s be generous, the three word elevator pitch for this is: “Netflix for videogames”.  Only, no Netflix Originals, just re-runs of games you’ve played a million times already, and already have access to through a variety of other platforms. If you aren’t lucky enough to have lived through most of the history of video games and have a library devoted to that history, you might find this enticing.

In a way, this is cool.  For only about 25 years now, gamers have had to resort to piracy and emulation to play thousands of arcade game titles for free.  Now, they can pay $10/mo + $350 for the console for the privilege of doing it guilt-free, albeit restricted to just those titles that are available through Antstream.  And that’s something, isn’t it? 

No, I know that sound sarcastic, but it really is.  For only 25 years or so, the problem of preserving historic videogames has been ignored by the industry that created them, and was left to be solved by dedicated fans who recognized the importance of such an effort. But this was always an ethical quandary, and enthusiasts were forced into a dilemma:  literally preserve history before it was too late and games were lost forever, and violate copyright for a bunch of outdated products that companies refused to continue to produce or make available in any format?  Well now for just $10/mo our consciences can finally be clear.  And our reward for this will be that only the games deemed worthy of preservation for their long-tail commercial potential will be preserved.  Shut down the MAME project, everyone, and rejoice:  we’ve won.

OK, ok, that’s unavoidably sarcastic, but it’s true.  This service creates value by ripping the hard work of emulation preservationists, and by graverobbing what rightfully should have by now been the public domain, to provide games-as-a-service to  you, so that you can pay for them forever, without ever owning them. Because in the new economy, ownership is theft.  There’s literally no reason you would ever want to own anything anyway, this is a post-scarsity economy, after all.

Antstream itself kickstarted into existence in April of 2019, and, well, isn’t it telling that a physical “not-a-console” gaming system that kickstarted TWO YEARS earlier and STILL doesn’t have any exclusive launch titles lined up, kept silent about this deficiency for all that time, until fed-up backers had a mutiny about it on Reddit, and so had to run out and find something, anything, so they could claim that they will have games, and picks something that only became a thing this year?

It makes you wonder what the hell Atari have been up to for the past two years, apart from rendering the shell they’re putting their components into, and re-releasing the same empty hype announcement every 6 months or so. According to their Kickstarter page, Antstream have been developing their service for four years now, so the Kickstarter is more an effort to do viral marketing for the launch of the service rather than a no-product preorder like Atari’s VCS Indigogo was. Yet, if Atari had planned all along to make use of this service, and had to remain quiet about it all this time, one wonders why they couldn’t have said something around the time that Antsream launched their Kickstarter campaign. Why the need to remain silent for another 6 months?

Still unanswered: Is anyone actually developing any games that will run only on this system, so that there will be a reason to buy it? Any first party game development, at all? (Well, it’s a silent NO, that’s the answer.) Atari 2019 is a brand name only, not a developer of anything substantial. In trying to establish a platform, they’re leveraging the work of others and passing it off as their own. AMD for the hardware. Antstream for the content. Maybe there’s some internal work being done to create the GUI to do configuration management and launch apps, but that’s not exactly exciting, now, is it?

It’s worth mentioning that around the time Antstream announced itself — about a month before, actually — Google announced Stadia, and there’s literally no reason any of the games that you might have access to through Antstream couldn’t also be streamed to your screen through Stadia.  Other than, I guess, some exclusive rights deal that would preclude availability on other platforms.  But then, Stadia is still in pre-order, too. Sigh.

So for the time being we’re still safe from the future hell of games-as-service, that you can never own, and which will be preserved for all time only to the extent that a company decides to preserve them.  Which is to say, any old versions will be superceded by the latest patch, even if earlier releases are historically relevant.  And games that aren’t attracting sufficient interest will be dropped unceremoniously, and probably not many people will care, except the small audiences for games who really love those games even though they’re part of a small audience not big enough to be considered commercially viable.  But who cares about them, anyway?

Even if Antstream is great — no, especially if their service is great– it’ll be available on all platforms that its client can be ported to, there’s still no compelling answer to the question, why get an AtariBox?

Atari attempts to answer this by assuring us that:

When Atari VCS users log in or subscribe to the Antstream service using their Atari VCS, it will immediately unlock an exclusive and enhanced version of the Antstream app engineered specifically for the Atari VCS. The Atari VCS Edition of the app will house the largest collection of Atari games available anywhere and ready for immediate play. This enhanced collection will be exclusive to the Atari VCS at launch and will not be available on other Antstream platforms without an Atari VCS account.

Atari

Re-read that last sentence.  You can stream Antstream’s exclusive AtariVCS content to any Antstream-capable platform, provided you have an Atari VCS account.  My guess is that you’ll be able to get one of those without buying the AtariBox hardware, if not immediately then eventually. No word on whether that will cost a monthly subscription on top of whatever Antstream will cost.

But this leads me to wonder what’s up with Atari’s earlier announcement that the Atari Vault would be available to VCS owners?  I mean, I don’t really wonder, because who cares.  The AtariVault is on Steam and I can buy it and play it right now through my Steam account on my PC, and I don’t have to pre-order and then wait 3 years for some outdated low end PC in a pretty case to do it, either.

But lets say I did decide to wonder.  Well, is the Atari Vault still going to be part of the picture, or did they just shitcan it and replace it with a subscription-based streaming service?  

Oh, and there’s a picture of their motherboard.  Suck on that, haters!  I bet everyone who doubted that AMD Ryzen board could have an Atari Fuji logo custom silkscreened onto its PCB are all eating crow now!

Well, it’s something, anyway. Not enough. But at least it’s something.

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.