Game Philosopher

The philosophy of games and gaming

The case for abandonware

Posted by gamephilosopher on September 25, 2006

First off, let me say that I am 100% against piracy for all formats: DVD, Games, TV Shows, etc. If the content is economically profitable for its owners, duplicating or freely distributing it should be illegal.

So where does my definition of piracy stray from your average copyright holder’s? That would be around the point where the need for the game to be in the public’s hands outweighs the revenue gained from selling said game.

Let me explain. Putting a game on a shelf is very expensive. At a certain point, the publisher realizes that they’d rather focus their effort and money on a more profitable game, and so they stop selling an older game. At this point, the amount of buyers is so low that spending time and money to publish the software just isn’t worth it.

Sometimes the games get compiled into a collection and re-released years later, but its usually saved for the really great series, like TSR’s old Dungeons and Drangons games, or Sierra’s King’s Quest.

For the rest of the games, you have to rely on Abandonware. The term is used to refer to the games that have been abandoned by the publisher to never see the light of day again and therefore are released freely on a website for download. This is, of course, illegal but there are many websites that get away with it. These abandonware sites allow us to play games that are never, EVER going to be on any shelf at Circuit City again, and give us gamers and opportunity to relive our childhoods. Here, the demand for the game outweighs the game’s profitability, and while I understand it is illegal, I support the concept.

Please note that just because a game is old, does not mean it is not profitable. Starcraft, released by Blizzard in ’98 is still, to this day being played by hard core fans. Despite its age, Starcraft would never be construed as abandoned because Blizzard is selling the product and making money from it.

I support abandonware because I’ve been a gamer since 1986, back when some games didn’t have graphics at all, and some of the best ones only used 4. Yes, thats right, FOUR colors. Here’s the first game I ever bought: Ninja by Mastertronic. It’s also important to realize that old books have libraries and used book stores, but a similar mechanism for getting used games does not exist.

I respect gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment and don’t believe that because something is not profitable to the publisher, it should never be played again. Books get reprinted by other publishers whose sole purpose is to release classics. Movies get repackaged and copied on to the new media of the decade and released, but Ninja will never be put on a DVD collection and released again.

I understand that it is illegal, and many websites do too, often removing download links when oldies become available on the market, or even pointing you to where you can find and old classic for sale by a collector.

This is true love of a game. At a certain point, the publishers should step back and realize that they put out such a great game that 10, 15, 20 years down the road people still want to play it.

I would have no problem with paying the publisher $5 to get an oldie from ’86 because I believe in copyrights, but until that day comes, I’ll take my abandonware.

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4 Responses to “The case for abandonware”

  1. zkip said

    Should we really have wait for something to be unofficially labeled as abandonware?
    I’m probably a little younger than you. That doesn’t mean I never played Zork or Commander Keen when I was a kid, but I associate the Genesis more with my childhood, and I remember that particular console the most vividly. Regardless, this is only a hypothetical example, and the generation of gaming doesn’t really matter.
    Say I wanted to play Sonic 3, but the battery is dead. Bummer, no saves. I already own the cartridge, and it’s in my hand. I remember the day I bought it. So why can’t I hook up the controller to a computer and play a ROM that I can download anywhere on the net? Is it morally wrong to do something you feel you have the right to, even if it’s illegal? Is it wrong to play the ROM because the same exact game is available on the Gamecube, as part of the Sonic Mega Collection, and it’s technically still profitable for Sonic Team? Should I have to pony up for a new game to make up for the outdated battery save technology of the previous decade? Sega certainly won’t fix it, and Sega wouldn’t profit from the battery I could buy and solder into the cartridge, if I were so inclined. (This is hypothetical, once again. The cartridge actually still saves, last time I checked.)
    Now there are subtle changes in this little story that could make downloading the game a little more controversial. Let’s say I lost the cart. Or sold the cart. But I still bought it at one point in time, right? From Sega, so they got the cash for that. Do I deserve to play a game I paid for, even if it’s not in my possession? What if I never had it, but I want to play it, and I decide I don’t want to pay for the Mega Collection because I have no interest in the other games on the disc?
    Better yet, what if Sonic Team made a GBA or DS port of Sonic 3, and sold it all by itself for $20. Not good enough for me, quite possibly; there’s no handheld in my possession, I don’t like the lower resolution screen, or I don’t think the graphics revamp is enough to warrant $20. Maybe $10. Maybe it’s on the Wii’s Virtual Console, but I don’t have a Wii and can’t justify paying $200 to play to play a working copy.
    So what’s the verdict? There is none. There are a ton of shades of gray when it comes to any form of piracy, and identifying where you draw the line is the first step to understanding where your morality and rationale lie. “Piracy” runs the gamut from making a copy yourself of a game you legitimately own to downloading a leaked, cracked game that hasn’t even come out yet.
    In my opinion, there needs to be more discussion about this. At one point in time, renting and reselling video games was illegal. Without us, the industry doesn’t stay alive. We should decide now how best to shape the industry with our wallets, to preserve the rights and freedoms we deserve from our software. Because I’ll tell you one thing, morality doesn’t matter to most game developers or manufacturers, just the bottom line. Microtransactions and console downloadables are taking over.

  2. zkip said

    Great. And there go my paragraphs.

  3. I have to disagree slightly. I think the gray area only exists in the most optimal condition where there is NO avenue to get the game at all. So if it’s on a different console or in a compilation, that’s not abandonware simply because you can’t get the game on the particular console you own or the one the game was originally released for.

    On the other hand, I will say that I think it’s bogus that purchasing a game, or a cd/DVD only legally entitles you to use that particular media as a way to enjoy that game or music. Essentially meaning that if its released on a different media, you dont have the right to have it, or if your original breaks, you don’t have the right to have it replaced.

    I also think a way to decide what’s right for you is to pretend YOU spent 2 years designing and programming a game. At what point would the sheer joy that people are just playing your game outweigh your need to get a paycheck for it?

  4. zkip said

    You can’t say the gray area exists only in certain conditions if many of the people who are actively pirating new games think they are morally correct. Just for the sake or argument, I extend my grayscale to include the best and worst case scenarios. Morality is relative, but downloading games that are coming out today and putting them on flash carts, burned ISOs, etc. is definitely the most extreme, industry-detrimental case.

    The shades of gray encompass the entire spectrum (as morality is relative there can be no black and white at all, but our culture and law give us decent approximations for where they should be), but what you consider to be white (morally allowable) and black (morally wrong) are not the same as what these pirates think. They’re stealing games, and a good portion of them think no harm is being done. There are whole communities on the web dedicated to ROMs which adhere to the motto, “If we weren’t going to buy the game anyway, no harm is being done by downloading it.” Whether right or wrong in reality, their morality (to them the purest white) lies where most people would gauge black from their own perspective.

    It’s a little bit of a hijack, but I’m not talking about abandonware in the strictest sense. I’m questioning how the spirit of the term ‘abandonware’ can extend to newer games that, even if attainable some way, may be considered, by some people, to be fair game (excuse the pun). I understand that you believe that when a developer puts a game to pasture, makes no new copies, and people still want to play it, and it is difficult to obtain, that it should be considered abandonware and played through other, technically illegal channels.

    However, there are variations even on this very specific and concise case: If you never owned the sequel to Ninja (assuming one exists, for the sake of argument), would you download the sequel in order to enjoy something that could [and should] have been part of your childhood, but is not available to you today in any other reasonably way? Or should you sit on your hands and wait for a previous owner to put their five-and-a-half-inch floppy on eBay? Or do you (not a rhetorical question), in fact, consider waiting for an eBay copy to be reasonable?

    Seeking what is moral is not easy. You need to ask the right questions, and those questions will always lead to more, more specific ones. My only suggestion above, under the assumption that all preconceived notions should be set aside for discussion, was that groups of serious gamers should come together and search for this truth.

    One other note:

    I also think a way to decide what’s right for you is to pretend YOU spent 2 years designing and programming a game. At what point would the sheer joy that people are just playing your game outweigh your need to get a paycheck for it?

    If I personally made a game ~10 years ago (not in production), and I were still programming games popular today, I wouldn’t complain that people were downloading and distributing my work. It may (and does, in most real-world cases) lead to people buying the newer ones of the same series or creator. I would not under any circumstances appreciate having people download games that are available on the shelf at Wal-Mart.

    If I made a game ~10 years ago, and it still makes up a large bulk of my personal profits (or all of them, in the case that it’s a classic, in production or in remakes, and my only or most profitable work), I would definitely hate to hear about people downloading it for free.

    The answer I’ve come up with to your question (which is a very good one) serves to rationalize, for me at least, the possible decision a person could make in my first hypothetical situation above; if he downloads an old Sonic game to replay it with a working save system, but buys the newer ones in response to finishing and enjoying the game he downloaded, I would personally agree with him.

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