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COPYCAT KILLERS - January 1999

With 1998 having seen some of the most breathtaking growth in even the games industry’s rollercoaster history, you might imagine that a sector of the business which had multiplied its size by a factor of 100 in the space of a year would be attracting a lot of attention.

Yet when everyone did their looking-back round-ups, the huge and thriving world of emulation – for it is of that that we speak - was oddly ignored. I say "oddly" because this is a sector that’s sprung up from nothing, is almost exclusively available to the still-tiny percentage of games buyers actively connected to the Internet, has felt the benefit of practically no marketing spend or media hype whatsoever, and yet the leading website devoted to it has attracted a colossal 21 million hits in less than 2 years of operation, almost all of them from keen, active games players. The games industry’s reaction to this incredible phenomenon? Warm applause? A careful examination of profit-making potential? Nope. We’re trying to have it killed. Huh?

From extremely humble beginnings with fledgling programs that enabled you to run old Spectrum games on your PC (usually without sound and at either a pitiful crawl or a ludicrous unplayable blur 20 times as fast as the original), emulation has caught on in a major way. It’s now possible to download programs that’ll let your PC perform an extremely convincing impression of just about any console, computer or arcade game ever released, from the Atari VCS right up to the Playstation. (Indeed, well-known RAM Doubler authors Connectix have just announced the first ever commercial PS emulator, Virtual Game Station for the Macintosh. Sony, mystifyingly, are said to be about to sue.)

Naturally, though, emulators themselves are of little more than curio value without games to play on them, and this is where the industry’s starting to get its knickers in a big twist. Led by the American trade body IDSA (Interactive Digital Software Association, the US equivalent of ELSPA), the industry is throwing its full mighty weight at the websites which offer downloadable versions of old games to use with the emulators, succeeding in having most of the well-known sites shut down or stripped of all their downloadable content. Which is understandable, right? After all, these games are still the intellectual property of their publishers – piracy is piracy, yes? (And as we know, piracy of any kind puts the entire industry in mortal danger of its very existence, as shown by, er, the astonishing record growth figures of the last two years in the apparent face of rocketing piracy, um, I’ll get back to you on that one.) These people have to be stopped from giving away all our 18-year-old ZX81 games or we’re all going to end up penniless in the gutter, surely?

Keen students of the brainless kneejerk incompetence regularly displayed at the very top of the business, of course, won’t be surprised to learn that such an argument is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter bollocks on toast. Far from presenting a threat to the games industry’s profits, emulation represents perhaps the greatest free advertising resource ever discovered by humanity. Here we see ordinary punters absolutely falling over themselves to create overwhelmingly positive brand awareness of hardware, publisher and individual software properties, in some cases going to quite extraordinary lengths. The Final Fantasy series, for example, which stretches right back from 1997’s Playstation smash-hit FFVII to the days of the NES, was only ever fully released in Japan. Three of the six earlier games were never brought to the West, so in order to get the full flavour of the story, you have to have a fluent command of Japanese. Unless, that is, you’ve got a few emulators, in which case you can take advantage of the full English translations of all six games which have been painstakingly created by dedicated emulation fans, and play the entire series as its creators intended. It doesn’t take an Einstein to then work out that you’re going to be a great deal MORE likely to go out and buy Final Fantasy VIII when it’s released, not less. As we’ve seen with Tomb Raider and FIFA and a hundred others, nothing sells to the general public like more of the same, and the great thing about advertising through emulation is that everyone experiencing it is an actively willing victim – there’s none of the resentment of people being force-fed yet more Lara sodding Croft, none of the cynical, negative Tall-Poppy-Syndrome journalism of second sequels to overcome. It’s perfect.

And what’s more, it’s a free lunch. There’s no downside to emulation for the games industry, because all the games involved disappeared from shop shelves years ago. (In fact, in many cases, they never got to the shelves in the first place, as with the Final Fantasy example.) Nobody makes money out of Spectrum or Vectrex or Atari ST or Sega Master System games any more, and never will. (Can you see anyone releasing "The Vectrex Collection" on the Dreamcast?) Practically the only "current" system emulated is the Game Boy, and since the whole point of the Game Boy is that you can stick it in your pocket and take it on the bus, it’s difficult to see many game sales being lost on the grounds that you can play the games on a dirty great PC (or even on a laptop, since the batteries would give out before you were halfway through Super Mario Land).

Even with the more modern systems, there’s no loss to the industry – to play Playstation games on an emulator, you still have to go out and buy the originals. The only bit skipped is the hardware sales, which everyone knows don’t make any money anyway. You’d think Sony would be delighted to suddenly have every PC and Mac owner in the world become a potential PS game buyer at no cost to Sony whatsoever, but seemingly not.

In fact, the industry’s approach to the whole issue of emulation is typical of the blinkered, pig-headed, dogma-over-reality attitude it takes to piracy in general. The IDSA recently sent out a press release responding to the thousands of complaints amassed by emulation pressure-group CLEAR about its policy of shutting down emulation sites. It dealt with one question like this:

"Q: People making emulators and ROMs are helping publishers by making old games available that are no longer being sold by the copyright owner. This does not hurt anyone and allows gamers to play old favorites. What's the problem?

A: The problem is that it’s illegal. Moreover, copyrights and trademarks of games are corporate assets that are sometimes sold from one company to another, The recent sale of the Atari games library to Hasbro Interactive is an example of such a transaction . But if these vintage titles are available far and wide, it undermines the value of this intellectual property and adversely affects the copyright owner."

Now, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to pick out the most fundamental flaws in this argument, of which there are frankly too many to list. (Such as: If nobody ever got to play original 1979 Asteroids, what possible value would the name and property have to someone like Hasbro in the first place? Why would they spend a big bunch of money buying something nobody had ever heard of?) But this wrong-headed obstinacy (the intellectual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and going "La la la I can’t hear you") seems to be the games industry’s standard position whenever it hears the word "emulation" - it’s technically illegal, so it must be bad. Yet all attempts by the emulation community to take IDSA’s advice and put the whole thing on a sound, legitimate footing (eg offering licensed collections of ancient arcade ROMs for sale for emulation use, with an appropriate percentage going to the copyright owners) have been met with a deafening silence, leaving us in the bizarre situation of the games business turning down not only incredibly effective free advertising, but free cash as well.

As usual, a tiny rump of enlightened types have managed to see sense – Gremlin, Melbourne House and Jeff Minter are just a few of the publishers/authors who not only allow distribution of their old games, but actively promote it, offering free downloads of old titles on their own websites. But the majority persist with the absurd persecution of a bunch of hobbyists who are, in fact, trying to do them some good. (And let’s not even start on the hypocrisy of the IDSA operating, as they do, on behalf of the likes of Infogrames, when companies like Ocean owe their entire existence to copyright infringement, in the shape of the countless unlicensed rip-offs of arcade games on 8-bit computers that they made all their money and reputations from in the 80s.)

To be frank, viewers, this piece was originally intended to take the form of an interview with IDSA president Doug Lowenstein discussing the various implications of the situation and the possible ways of resolving them. However, an interview where every single question was answered with a terse, flat variation on "The entire emulation scene is illegal and must therefore be utterly crushed as a matter of principle, regardless of whether or not this makes any practical or economic sense" (which is what I got) made exceptionally dull reading. I hope this way was at least slightly more interesting.

It’s clear that the industry’s position is absolutely inflexible and impervious to reason on this subject. But like it or not, emulation isn’t going to go away. Continuing to hunt it down, in fact, will only succeed in driving it into the arms of the "warez" scene, bringing honest games buyers into contact with an altogether more damaging area of the games "underground". But then, as we’ve seen with the piracy issue, real-world logic and common sense is no friend of the anti-piracy crusaders, and it looks very much like the games industry’s ongoing plan is to continue to shoot itself in the face as a cure for pimples. So what’s new?

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