Emulation and the challenge of selling old games

"Emulation is the cheapest, safest and best way to republish old video games on today's hardware." This was the message from Frank Cifaldi, a self-described video game archivist and designer at Digital Eclipse.

“Emulation is the cheapest, safest and best way to republish old video games on today's hardware.” This was the message from Frank Cifaldi, a self-described video game archivist and designer at Digital Eclipse, during a session titled 'The Challenge of Selling Old Games' at GDC in San Fransisco this week.

Cifaldi, a former Gamasutra journalist, has spent much of his career dedicated to the preservation of vintage video games, many of which disappear from sale soon after their initial launch. Video games are, seemingly, more prone than other media to obsolescence. With each new generation of hardware and software, scores of titles are made unplayable.  

Emulation, which involves replicating the design of a historical computer system on current hardware in order to play game ROMs, is ideal for preserving out-of-print games, Cifaldi argued.

“There is no source code required; there’s no need to port; they are portable and cross-platform and, moreover, development work can be recycled for other titles,” he said. Emulators have, however, been demonized by corporations who view them as an accessory to piracy rather than an essential tool for preserving video game history, Cifaldi claimed.

“We've done a pretty terrible job of maintaining our legacy,” Cifaldi said. Turn on your video game-playing device of choice, right now, and you'll find limitless legal access to practically every song, film, and television show ever produced. Ironically, he pointed out, less than 1 percent of video games are accessible on these platforms. While companies are increasingly releasing ‘re-masters’ of their classic games for contemporary audiences, Cifaldi pointed out that the originals are often unavailable to buy anywhere.

He drew a contrast between the original release of Duck Tales, an NES game that has been out of print since its release in 1989, and Uncle Buck, a film also launched in 1989, which is available in scores of contemporary formats, including on both Sony and Microsoft’s current consoles. “Of the 26 most notable games of 1989 according to Wikipedia, only five are available to buy today, of which only one is available to buy in more than one platform,” said Cifaldi.

By comparison, every one of the top 10 highest grossing films of 1989 is currently in print. “Games could have been the same way, but we demonized emulation. By not embracing emulation as a tool, it’s made video game history the preserve of piracy. All of this could have been prevented.”

Cifaldi demonstrated corporate mistrust of emulation by presenting Nintendo’s official statement, hosted on its website, that it doesn’t endorse emulators. Despite Nintendo’s assertion, Cifaldi pointed out that “[Emulation] is not illegal or threatening. It’s not the same as software piracy, even though that is the perception people have. And no emulator has ever been ruled illegal in a court of law.”

Accroding to Cifaldi, there is a commercial appetite for older games, especially those which are lavishly preserved and celebrated for contemporary audiences, a video game equivalent to the Criterion Collection, an American video-distribution company that specializes in licensing ‘important classic and contemporary films.’

Cifaldi, through his work at Digital Eclipse, has tried this approach with Mega Man Legacy Collection, a boutique package that preserves six games from Capcom's Mega Man series for future generations. “We wanted to provide a collector’s edition that people wanted to keep on their shelves,” he said.

More than half of the films made before 1950 no longer exist, Cifaldi said. “That terrifies me,” he said. “We need to ensure the same things doesn’t happen to games.”

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