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THE MAN ON THE STREET #2 - August 2002

The Man In The Street owes The Indie’s editor an apology this month, because the column was delivered a day late on account of your reporter spending the whole weekend playing Ridge Racer 2, via the miracle of emulation. Now, I can hear the boos and hisses from here, but shush a minute. Emulation is an activity viewed by most retailers as something that’s little better than piracy – in fact, some say it’s even worse than piracy, because at least with piracy gamers are being made aware of the hottest new things that are on your shelves. If they like their ripped-off pirate game, there’s at least a chance that their conscience will send them into your store for a legit copy, or perhaps playing the copy will give them a taste for a franchise and they’ll come in looking for other titles in the line that they can’t get from their local dodgy geezer.

Emulation, on the other hand, is a flat-out evil as far as retail is concerned. Every minute a gamer spends playing the tens of thousands of old games through emulation is a minute he’s not spending with premium-priced gaming product bought from your shop, and with most people outside of Dr Who’s TARDIS having a limited number of minutes in their day, that’s pure lost business. But, of course, it doesn’t have to be that way, and as usual The Man In The Street is The Man With The Answers.

Writing another feature this month, your reporter had cause to reflect on the days of Atarisoft, the offshoot company set up by the ailing giant in the wake of the console crash of the early 80s to bring Atari’s games to the blossoming home computer market. At the time, the home market was swamped in unofficial clones of the popular arcade hits of the day, any many observers thought Atarisoft were on a hiding to nothing, having to spend money and time to produce a bunch of ageing games that essentially people already had perfectly excellent versions of. But Atarisoft were a little cleverer than that. In several instances, they first slapped lawsuits on the producers of the more accurate clones of their IP. Then they sidled shiftily up to the coders and said “Hey, look, you don’t have to get sued over this. Why don’t you just do some tweaks to the games to make them even more accurate, slap an official Atarisoft logo on the front, and we’ll make it our official Pac-Man, Galaxian or Robotron game? Obviously we won’t be paying you or anything, but you’ll stay out of court and we’ll get our official release developed almost instantly and for free, so everybody wins.”

Emulator coders are some of the most talented people working in (or rather, out of) the games industry today. Despite having no access to official information, and hence not only having to re-invent the wheel but also to crack some often-ferocious encryption and protection to do it, they nevertheless manage to produce stunning feats of coding that put properly-licensed commercial products to shame. (It must be embarrassing for game publishers and developers alike when some geek working on his own in his bedroom in his spare time for free produces an emulator that’s not only superior to the official retro package but also more accurate.) So why doesn’t the industry have the wits to turn those skills to its advantage?

Taking our Ridge Racer emulator as a case in point: Ridge Racer is a valuable intellectual property, still being exploited today. Yet none of the games have ever been brought to the PC, and a couple of them (including two featured in the new emulator) have never been brought to ANY home format. Yet if Namco simply dropped the coder a line saying “Hey, you’re infringing our intellectual property, but instead of the usual kneejerk industry reaction of threatening you with the law, we’re going to send you some hardware specs so you can iron out a few bugs, bung you a few hundred quid as a token sum just to be nice, and then release The Ridge Racer Collection Volumes 1 and 2 for £19.99 each”, everyone would be happy. Namco would make a tidy little return for practically zero outlay or risk, gamers would get a better emulator, the skilled coder gets some bonus beer money and might land himself a legit job contributing positively to the industry, and the millions of gamers who know nothing about the sinister underworld of emulation in the first place would have a reason to come into your shops, retailers of the Empire, and buy some of the greatest racing games ever created. Is it only The Man In The Street who has the vision to see this? It would appear so.

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