By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
've been whiling away that dead time you always experience in software development while you wait for a compile or any number of other time consuming automated processes to finish by playing RPGe's English translation of Final Fantasy V on a SNES emulator, and I've spent plenty of time with MAME (the incredible Multi Arcade Machine Emulator) and some of the single-game emulators. Emulation is an amazing thing, and it is unfortunate that it seems to have attracted a reputation as another type of software piracy, and has become a haven for those obnoxious and juvenile "warez d00dz," a crowd I have as little respect for as those types who seem to enjoy getting into online games just to swear, murder grammar and spelling rules, cheat, and in general ruin the experience for everyone else.
If you have spent any time on the better emulation sites you will have already heard the arguments I am about to make, but if the only information about emulation you have heard has come from the IDSA/Nintendo/SPA-toadying mainstream game media, your perception of what this "scene" is about may be pretty skewed. The people who started emulating old arcade machines and consoles did it purely for the love of the games and the love of programming. Arcades are as full of horrible, uninspired crap fighting and racing games as the movie theaters are of awful, focus-group-driven mainstream garbage, and hardly any still have the classic machines around, or the cult favorites which never quite caught on but which many of us remember fondly anyway. Old consoles and cartridges are almost as hard to find as old arcade machines, and are often about to break or are already broken. The only way an average person is ever going to be able to find and enjoy an old game is through emulation.
Emulation was never intended to be a way to screw the original makers of the games out of any money or recognition. Only idiot scumbags sell ROMs, and only immature pinheads are looking for a way to play Playstation or N64 games without paying for them, but the IDSA, like any shortsighted organization, that exists only because corporate behemoths like Nintendo want to be sure that they are squeezing every possible cent out of anything that says "Mario," doesn't see the distinction. To them, and to many software and hardware makers, anyone who runs an old game on an emulator is a thief, plain and simple. The same pigheaded capitalist managers who are slowly but surely grinding the originality out of the PC game industry by demanding that every new project be exactly like the last one that sold 500,000 copies (in exactly the same way that Hollywood management has put itself in the sad predicament it is in today), are never going to be able to see games as enough of an art form to understand that emulation is actually about having respect for the past, and wanting to ensure that old games are not forgotten.
As a game designer, I would go so far as to say that emulation is not only good, but should be mandatory. Unlike any other entertainment/art form (however you view games), our medium is based on technology which becomes completely obsolete about every two to three years. Imagine if every two to three years we all got new eyes which couldn't read books or watch movies which were made for older eyes: this is exactly the situation the games industry is in. The mainstream gaming press even perpetuates this: read any article about a new real time strategy game or first person shooter and you would never know that there were games called Dune II and Wolfenstein 3D which started these crazes (see my last column).
Yet game design is like any other creative profession, and to be a good designer you must be aware of what has been done in the past, so that you can adapt it, be inspired by it, avoid copying it, or even drop clever references to it. It's been pretty easy for the current generation of designers: none of us are so young that we didn't grow up during the formative years of the industry, and haven't lived through the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Nintendo, Amiga, and all the others. In the coming years, though, there are going to be more and more designers who may have never even heard of some of these systems, yet the games that they are growing up with now are all influenced by earlier games they may never have an opportunity to play. Furthermore, the international nature of game development and a history of timid management and marketing groups too afraid to try to bring different styles of games from one country to another has ended up in many great titles being completely unavailable in other countries.
Emulation, however, can solve all of this. An incredible amount of very talented people have put together emulators of just about anything you can think of, almost entirely on a volunteer basis and more as a challenge to themselves than to make a product tosell, and the emulators that they have written are more tight and reliable than many pieces of commerical software. You can now run almost any game published from the beginning of arcade and computer history up until the just a few years ago, providing you can find the ROM or disk images. And thanks to the efforts of even more insane groups of people, we are beginning to see full translations of games like Final Fantasy V which are not even available in the US at the moment, and may never be. Yet ask any typical game industry executive and they'll say that the whole emulation scene should be stopped.
These people should look at it this way: they're never going to make a lot of money from these old titles, because no one is going to want to pay retail price for games with outdated graphics and sound, but if they just let people have these old games, it would increase mindshare for new titles in the same series or from the same developer. And while it would never be economically feasible for a publisher to go back and translate its old games, there will always be people on the net willing to do it for free, just for the glory, saving the publisher the cost of the project yet building more appreciation for newer titles in the same series, or even from the same developer or publisher. What the software publishers should be doing is distributing ROM images of their games themselves, even hiring some hackers to alter the ROMS if need be to include updated copyright information and whatever other legalese they want to throw at gamers in exchange for making them available. Hardware manufacturers should hire the groups that have been writing the emulators, and consider trying to market the emulators themselves - they could then share technical information directly with the emulator authors, resulting in more-capable emulation. I would pay $50 for a Nintendo-approved SNES emulator, if I could download as many games to play on it as I wanted, and I'm sure many other people would as well. The hardware manufacturers could even specify a new ROM format that only the retail emulator could run - not that some hackers wouldn't instantly break this protection, but at least then it would be clear which ROMs were legal to use.
The chances of any executives actually understanding and loving the products they sell enough to implement this plan are about equal to the chance of Hollywood making an intelligent science fiction film. However, it is an idea that every developer and game fan should keep in mind. Write-in campaigns to software and hardware makers could even possibly change all of this. I hope that something like this happens, because if I ever get to work on a classic game, I would like gamers and game designers twenty years from now to have a chance to try it out on their virtual Pentium II. And I personally would love to try out some of the awesome Japanese strategy games and RPGs from the last few years that may never make it here, like Front Mission - if some publisher is listening, get the rights from Square and bring over Front Mission 2 and/or Front Mission Alternative for the PlayStation! For now, I'll just have to hope that RPGe finishes their Front Mission SNES translation soon...
Note: Due to the current precarious legal nature of the emulation scene, I will not provide any further information about any places to get ROMS or emulators. Any search engine will get all the links you want in seconds, anyway.
- Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff is a game designer on the upcoming game Trespasser for DreamWorks Interactive.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1998 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|