Emulation: Why companies say they don't want you to do it, but they really do.

Emulation is one of those “love/hate” aspects of the video game industry that falls into a grey area. The ordinary day to day gamers love it, after all, what’s better than playing classic Donkey Kong on a laptop while on a flight to LA or a during a boring lecture given by a professor? The game companies hate it, seeing a potential revenue source that won’t cater to their whims. This is because emulation is the act of using a program known as an emulator to simulate a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis on a PC in order to load a ROM (read only memory) file and play it. In other words…you’re playing Super Mario World on your computer, and there is no money involved.

Emulation has been around for quite some time, but the introduction of the internet was what really set it off. Most companies have maintained a “Say NO to Emulation” stance that has chaffed with many gamers. For example, below are a few quick quotes from the current industry giant Nintendo:

“The introduction of emulators created to play illegally copied Nintendo software represents the greatest threat to date to the intellectual property rights of video game developers. As is the case with any business or industry, when its products become available for free, the revenue stream supporting that industry is threatened”

“Distribution of an emulator developed to play illegally copied Nintendo software hurts Nintendo's goodwill, the millions of dollars invested in research & development and marketing by Nintendo and its licensees. Substantial damages are caused to Nintendo and its licensees. It is irrelevant whether or not someone profits from the distribution of an emulator. The emulator promotes the play of illegal ROMs, NOT authentic games. Thus, not only does it not lead to more sales, it has the opposite effect and purpose.”

“Emulators developed to play illegally copied Nintendo software promote piracy. That's like asking why doesn't Nintendo legitimize piracy. It doesn't make any business sense. It's that simple and not open to debate.”

“…the current availability of a game in stores is irrelevant as to its copyright status. Copyrights do not enter the public domain just because they are no longer commercially exploited or widely available. Therefore, the copyrights of games are valid even if the games are not found on store shelves, and using, copying and/or distributing those games is a copyright infringement.”

Source: Nintendo of America--Legal Information

I think that’s enough of that. Most game companies say something similar. The problem is, their actions speak louder than their words. Far short of discouraging the emulation, Nintendo and other companies like it are actively encouraging it by their practices and treatment of emulation.

Let’s look at the greatest hole in their argument, that of emulation threatening the revenue stream. First of all, what revenue stream? Emulation is primarily to be able to play games that are no longer sold. If a company has not sold the game in ten years, then it’s made a whopping ZERO dollars over the years. No matter how many times the copy is emulated, the bottom line is not going to change, that’s just plain wishful thinking.

Even worse, what little commercial emulation is found these days is often flat out cheaply produced. It cuts corners and attempts to muscle the consumer out of every dollar possible. For instance, both the Nintendo Wii and the X-box 360 now have a selection of older game ROMs for sale on their respective online stores, but isn’t worth it. First of all there is a limited selection of games available and most of them are extremely overpriced. Take for example my Wii copy of Gunstar Heroes. It cost me ten dollars to download the emulated copy. What’s wrong with this? I paid ten dollars for the original game. A digital cut and paste copy cost me as much as the cartridge did.

Both of these problems (high cost and limited availability) are “explained” away by the respective companies, who usually whine about the costs involved with getting the emulation to work and hosting the game. They’re full of it. If a high-school aged teen can run an internet Rom site hosting over 1000 titles on his weekly allowance money, then anyone could easily open a cheap emulation store with thousands of instantly available titles. These companies need to realize that no one will pay ten dollars for Gunstar (except me, but it was partially an experiment) when in reality it should cost around two or three dollars. These companies are paying pennies, partial pennies, per month to host each title. People complain that Apple’s 300% profit margin on their products is bad. Sold emulated titles are in the thousands.

The service rendered is another sore point. Fan made emulators, such as ZSNES or Gens offer a wide range of services, all for free. Both offer graphic filters that smooth out the lines and edges, making older games look much newer and run smoother—by default. They offer customizable control schematics, sound options, save state options, and more. By contrast, commercial emulation offers none of these things. Nintendo’s Wii even comes with a disclaimer that unless you buy their specially made add-on controller for emulation, controlling the game will be difficult. How’s that for sticking it in your eye?

Another questionable choice is the fact that most emulation takes place on PCs. Now, anyone who doesn’t have their tie tightened so tight that the oxygen is cut off from their brain would think that with PC emulation sell emulation software on the PC. Unfortunately, the few companies that have tried it have once again run afoul of charging too much, offering too little, or even charging for subscriptions rather than just selling the games.

With so many blocks to pursuing emulation from a “legal” standpoint, it is no wonder that so many simply download and emulate on their own. Fan made emulators are far more supportive of games than any of the commercial alternatives, offering more options, availability and ease of use then their awkward and cheap counterparts. Not only is the library larger, it’s also fan regulated, the best games rise to the top while the lower games sink to the bottom, unlike the commercial services, which seem to release three bad games for every one good game.

The real root of the issue here is money. The various video game companies want to make as much money as humanly possible, leading to shoddy production and treatment of older games. However, the amount of money that these companies are willing to sacrifice is far lower then what the fans will sacrifice, leading to much better “products” on the free end of things. While companies such as Nintendo were sitting on their laurels, fans completely translated several games that were only released in Japan, making them available in English online. If these companies continue to ignore the market, it is no surprise to me that the ‘market’ will run away without them. If everyone likes chocolate, you don’t stock vanilla.

There’s a real market opening here. I would be glad to pay for my emulation if someone with half a brain marketed it. For example, why not an online distributor that sells the ROMs like MP3’s? No DRM (Digital Rights Management-- you rent the product rather than purchase it and the seller controls it’s use), you simply pay two to three dollars and download the Rom onto your computer to play as you please with any program. The seller should just host the fan made emulation software and let those be available for free, as anyone could get them already. The market needs to adapt to the system already in place rather than attempting to bend it elsewhere.

Of course, I’m just a gamer. What do you think?

GAMES I’M CURRENTLY PLAYING: Gears of War 2 (360), Sins of a Solar Empire: Entrenchment (PC), Sonic Unleashed (360), Street Fighter IV (360), Donkey Kong Country (SNES), DDR Universe 2 (360)

1 comment:

Time Enforcer Anubis said...

I've always wondered why game companies make such a big deal out of emulation when the vast majority of it happens with games that haven't seen the inside of a game store in a decade+.

The gaming companies don't pick up on the gaming community as often as they should. Hidden Path Entertainment saw the obscene amount of Tower Defense maps for WarCraft III, StarCraft, and AOE II, and said "Let's make a high-quality, stand-alone Tower Defense game and sell it" and Defense Grid: The Awakening was born. Gas Powered Games did the same with DoTA and Demigod was born.

Now if, say Sega, were create a Steam-like service where I could pay $10 to download, for example, the Official Sega Saturn Emulator, and then pay $2 to download the Cyber Troopers Virtual-On data, I would be very happy to have given Sega my 12 dollars just to be able to play Virtual-On on my laptop.

Here's the thing, though: They should do this, as long as they don't half-ass it. Because if they half-ass it, they will actually start to lost money to fan-made emulators, and it would serve them right for once again trying to take the gamers for a ride.