Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Preserving Video Games – and the Right Way to Handle Abandonware?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on June 29, 2011

An interesting article about the problem of preserving old video games:

Grassroots Game Preservation Through Abandonware

The focus is (duh!) on abandonware sites. That’s a gray area with me, though it’s not gray with respect to U.S. copyright laws.  Still, it’s largely tolerated by the industry, so long as the sites will take down games on request by the copyright holders, or automatically when the games become supported again through some means (It’s no fair for the publisher to have to track down every single site and contact them). The copyright owners are no longer receiving any revenue from them anyway, and can’t afford to even try and support the games. But the abandonware sites keep the IP alive for them. So if it’s not a good thing, it’s at least a neutral thing. Chaotic neutral to chaotic good, depending on the site, for those of us who obsess over such things. I’ve yet to meet a developer who hasn’t been pleased that his or her older titles are still kept alive through these sites. Though I guess if their game really sucked and they are embarrassed about it they might feel bad about it.

I absolutely love this excerpt about how GOG.COM handled their “competition” – the abandonware sites that offered free downloads of the games GOG.COM would sell:

“[Abandonware] is something we knew we had to deal with to make Good Old Games a success.” Says Rambourg. “Rather than making them our opponents and thus turning the noble cause of retro gaming into a battlefield where everyone would lose, we decided to team up with the abandonware scene. We got in touch with some of the most famous abandonware websites and proposed that they become our affiliates. [The sites] take down the titles we sign for Good Old Games and ask their visitors to purchase a legal copy from us. We then pay our affiliates for every purchase done thanks to them. It’s basically a win-win situation that benefits the end consumer.”

Rather than treating abandonware sites with hostility, Good Old Games turned potential competitors into allies. In going this route, GOG also acknowledges the continued importance of the abandonware community. The growth of legitimate distributors is doubtless a preferred alternative to the violation of copyright law. But the legal system is frequently too sluggish to be relied on by itself. While Good Old Games’ efforts should be applauded, they’re still a business venture; at some point they have to be mindful of their bottom line, and in turn their focus is more likely to fall on retro titles with economic viability.

There’s even more symbiosis than the article mentions. I know GOG.COM has tested and used some cracks out there to deal with copy protection for older games – some of which simply will not work with modern hardware. I had a copy of The Temple of Elemental Evil that I’d never been able to play on account of that, and re-purchased it from GOG.COM to finally be able to play it. It was worth it to have them do the research and test the crack for safety for me. While they maybe could have created a crack themselves, they took advantage of what was already out there.

Now, this isn’t a broad approach that would be a general solution to pirate (ahem – copyright infringement – douchebaggery – whatever) sites. As noted in the article, many abandonware sites have long made pains to separate themselves from pirate sites. For the most part, abandonware sites (at least the ones I’ve visited… all, like, three of them…) have been good about taking down games at the request of the copyright owner. The sites I’m familiar with make a big deal out of supporting the industry, not cheating it. That’s what makes them work for me.

And once again, I’m impressed with CD Projekt as a whole, and their attitude and approach. So yeah, I guess I’ve forgiven them for the whole GOG.COM fake-death week-long outage joke.

But the point at the end of the article  is also correct. Good Old Games has a focus on – well, good old games. Should only the good / great / popular  ones be preserved? I don’t think so.  Reading the CRPG Addict’s blog, I’m often surprised by titles I’ve never or barely heard of – and which would probably never sell on GOG.COM, particularly those from the 1980s – which have some pretty redeeming qualities and moments of greatness. It would be awful if these games were lost forever.

But there’s also no way to make them economically viable to preserve individually. I mean, how many people a year would pay even a single dollar to buy Scavengers of the Mutant World? Not enough to be worth the time just to track down and secure the rights. But I’m glad it’s available so that some historian out there could at least provide a synopsis of the game for my benefit.

Filed Under: Biz, Retro - Comments: 7 Comments to Read

  • skavenhorde said,

    Before GoG abandonware sites were the only place I could find some of the old classics and some not so classic that I never heard of before.

    Before Dosbox I had to go through a ton of hoops just to get them to run and a few of them I never did get running.

    So thank you Dosbox and GoG for making it possible to purchase and play some of these great old games.

  • McTeddy said,

    I’ll be honest… I’m grateful for abandonware sites. I never would have realized the true depth of video gaming history if not for their guidance.

    Even more important to me… the sites I use usually try to respect the developers. I’ve never seen those sites complain when a game is removed… instead they usually say “We’re proud to say this game is getting the love it deserves. You can now purchase it here!”

    I’m with you that ALL games deserve preservation. Even the worst games have alot to teach us. I’m don’t mean to condone piracy when I say this… but I’m glad to see very old games and no longer marketable games available to play.

    As for Scavengers of a Mutant World… I’m beginning to think I’m the only person in the world who considers that a great game. Sure it’s flawed as all hell… but I still loved it.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    I’ve been a member of Abandonia for quite some time now (began lurking there during the slow death of Home of the Underdogs).

    It’s been a great resource over the years for myself and other like-minded folks to either revisit old games of their youth or find games that might have been missed when they were on sale.

    Long may websites like this continue, if only to provide a historical record if all such games become available for sale.

    I do really enjoy cRPG addicts blog too, always a great read.

  • Xian said,

    I had used one of the abandonware sites a while back when one of my Wing Commander 2 floppies would no longer read. They serve a useful purpose in my opinion, since otherwise I would have no way to replay the game that I had legally purchased nearly 20 years ago.

    Other times I have used them to get games that would be very tedious to convert without the original hardware. For example I have Cloanto’s Amiga Forever program that allows you to play Amiga games on your PC through software emulation. My PC won’t read Amiga formatted discs (even if it had a floppy) so it is easier for me to get them from an Amiga abandonware site than to buy a used Amiga just to convert my original floppies to the disc image format supported by the emulator.

    The entire problem in my eyes is the excessive copyright terms which are currently 70 years after the authors death in the US. That would be equivalent of my pension still providing for my great grandchildren and possibly their children. The original intent was to provide a time-limited monopoly to encourage creation and then to have those works fall into the public domain. Copyright terms have been extended time and time again to support corporate interests for the most part.

    Should computer games have the same terms as other literary works? Is there going to be anyone interested in playing the games of today in 2081, and if so will they have the hardware to play them?

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Tough call. The original purpose was to make certain the original author AND his immediate family, should he die before them, could profit from his work… as the royalties are really more of an income than a pension. If I were to kick the bucket after writing the Great American Novel, I’d want to make sure my wife and kids were supported by the revenue it generated.

    But that has been perverted in the age of the Publisher, where now they effectively make the book (or game, or whatever) a “work for hire” situation so the publisher owns all rights, and is treated as the original author, and can be (through legal deals) effectively immortal.

  • Xian said,

    I agree with you 100%. If I was an author I would hope that my works would provide for my immediate family, but 70 years after my death just seems to be excessive.

    As far as abandonware goes, I think a good solution would be to have copyright owners pay a small token fee yearly to maintain their copyright, maybe based on the income derived from that work. That way if something is truly abandoned or not worth the token fee to the creator to maintain it, the work will fall into the public domain sooner.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That kind of rule would completely favor publishers over individual operators, though. Publishers would be in a position to pay those insignificant fees forever. Plus there’d be accounting considerations, more paperwork, more bureaucracy, and more government interposing itself in the free market.

    Another thing to consider is that many classics didn’t hit their stride until years – sometimes decades – after they were published. For example, the Lord of the Rings series.

    I don’t know the answer, but maybe having different rules for copyrights for real persons versus legal entities would be in order. A legal entity could only maintain the copyright for maybe 20 or 25 years. But the copyright for a living person would expire 20 years after their death. Something like that. It might be a terrible idea, especially when you consider joint authorships and so on. But something like that would encourage publishers to leave copyrights in the hands of the authors.

    I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it could come from making different rules for