Armchair Arcade Issue #3 - June 2004


Welcome to Armchair Arcade's third issue!


We hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as we enjoyed preparing them for you. We apologize for the long delay in releasing our third issue, but are proud to welcome our newest and youngest member (baby Zoe Feris!) to the world of retrogaming. Before we begin our discussion of this latest issue, we'd like to run some stats by you:

* Armchair Arcade has received almost 30,000 unique visitors since the end of January 2004!

We'd like to thank Slate, Slashdot, Digital Press, AtariAge, Insert Credit, Ludology, ClassicGaming, and all the other sites and individuals in the community who have supported us (check out our Links section for more!).

* Armchair Arcade now has almost 300 permanent members!

It's free to join and there's no advertising ever! Why not customize your Armchair Arcade experience and become a more active member of the community? We'll keep an LED on for you.

* Armchair Arcade forums now have more than 4,000 posts!

Our dedicated members post intelligent topics that delve into issues that Armchair Arcade was built to explore. Please feel free to drop by and read all the exciting news and discussions on our forums. We think you'll be surprised by the depth and maturity of our community.

The Armchair Arcade Website has also received several upgrades, such as browser games that keep track of high scores. More exciting features are planned on an ongoing basis to make Armchair Arcade a great place to visit even after you've read all the articles!

Finally, we'd like to welcome our newest staff member. In addition to the founders and Editorial staff of Buck Feris, Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice, David Torre joined the team as our first Editorial Assistant. Over time, Armchair Arcade will continue to expand staff as necessary to bring you more, longer and better issues faster. If you would like to volunteer to help with the technical aspects of Armchair Arcade, please drop us a note.

Our latest issue features eight articles that continue the editorial precedents set by our previous issues. We have three fascinating interviews, several reviews and analyses, and a few surprises. One article is focused on why and how you should write for Armchair Arcade and drives home the important point that the publication is open to submissions from anyone with decent writing abilities and a great idea. Submit your article idea today!

Issue 3's articles:

Discworld MUD: Slinging Dirt with David Bennett
by Buck Feris
Many of our readers may be unfamiliar with MUDs, or multi-user dungeon games. These games introduce players into a shared gaming environment fraught with perils from popular fantasy or science fiction literature. Bennet's Discworld MUD is based on Terry Pratchett's humerous fantasy novels. Read all about the modern MUDDING scene in this candid interview.

Keeping Things in Perspective: First Person Shooters Vs. Platform Games
by David Torre
Most modern games offer players a "first person" perspective that supposedly immerses them more deeply into gaming environments that their older 2-D counterparts. In this article, David questions this assumption and demonstrates how, in many cases, 2-D perspective offers players better control over their avatars.

Atari 2600 Expanded Homebrew Review: Thrust+ Platinum Edition
by Bill Loguidice
Bill takes a look at the latest version of the popular Atari 2600 homebrew title, Thrust+ Platinum Edition. Is it worthy to stand alongside the best commercial releases of the past? Read-on to find out...

The Videogame in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction
by Matt Barton
As multinational corporations move further to enforce their law-given monopolies over their "intellectual property," videogame players and makers are sure to suffer. This article, intentionally polemical, explores the issue of intellectual property in the context of videogame history, revealing how innovation is stifled when intellectual property law becomes too severe.

Good Deal Games: An Interview with Michael Thomasson
by Bill Loguidice
In this interview-based piece, Bill gives us the latest news from Michael Thomasson and Good Deal Games, which among many other things publishes new games for classic and orphaned systems.

The Power Glove Lives!
by Matt Barton and David Torre
Remember the Power Glove for the NES? This is a brief tour through the history of the Power Glove and review of the new P5 controller.

Songbird Productions: An Interview with Carl Forhan
by Bill Loguidice
In this interview-based piece, Bill gets the scoop from Carl Forhan of Songbird Productions on what it means to be a modern day Atari L y n x and Atari Jaguar developer and publisher.

Why Write for Armchair Arcade?
by Matt Barton
In this editorial, Matt describes some possible categories for videogame criticism and offers advice for aspiring writers, scholars, and critics who are eager to write about videogames.

Our thanks to everyone who has supported us and we look forward to a continued bright future with both old and new friends.


Atari 2600 Expanded Homebrew Review: Thrust+ Platinum Edition

Author and Photography Credit: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice and Buck Feris
Notes: All photographs were taken directly of the actual products in the author's private collection. Screenshots were captured running the latest ROM version of the game on the Stella emulator.
Also see: AtariAge Thrust+ Platinum product page and Stella, the multi-platform Atari 2600 emulator
Thrust+ Plantinum Edition
(© 2000 – 2003, 16K AA Edition Programmed by Thomas Jentzsch, part of Xype; Published by AtariAge; Cartridge by Pixels Past; Sound Design by Paul Slocum; and Label Artwork and Manual by David Exton; Thrust+ is based on the 1985 Commodore 64 Thrust game sold by Firebird)

Regular readers of Armchair Arcade know that there is a thriving homebrew development community for classic or orphaned game systems. No such system today has a more active homebrew developer community or consumer support than the venerable Atari 2600 Video Computer System (VCS), which debuted in 1977 and held its own in the mainstream consumer market until the late 1980’s. There are now dozens of homebrew titles for the 2600, with more on the way. A common question is, how do some of these homebrews compare to the commercial games of the past? What follows is a review that answers that question for one such game, Thrust+ Platinum Edition (PE), which has been described as a cross between Atari’s arcade classics Gravitar (1982), Asteroids (1979) and Lunar Lander (1979).

Scan of the back of the Thrust+ Platinum Edition box, which distinguishes itself from the prior D.C. Edition with a sticker on the front declaring “PLATINUM EDITION” and describing the product’s genesis. Thrust+ PE is the third revision of Thrust+, originally released in 2000. Thomas Jentzsch, the author, and part of Xype - a loose organization of 2600 homebrew programmers who decided to join together to present high-quality homebrew titles - has steadily provided modifications to that original release. The latest versions are the 2003 cartridge edition, which will be described here, and 2004’s ROM edition, which is the version used for the screenshots.

Thrust+ Platinum Edition cartridge scan.Those familiar with the Commodore 64 (C-64) Thrust (Firebird, 1985), will immediately recognize that it was the direct inspiration for the first 2600 version. The latest version, Thrust+ PE, goes one step further and incorporates a rendition of Ron Hubbard’s original Thrust music, as interpreted by Paul Slocum on the 2600’s more limited sound hardware. So 2000’s Thrust+ replicated elements of Thrust’s gameplay, 2002’s version, Thrust+ DC Edition, added additional controller support, and Thrust+ PE expanded the sound design, creating the final revision that will likely ever be made available on cartridge.

The Thrust+ PE backstory, found on the manual’s inside cover - which also covers some of the gameplay elements - follows:

The Resistance is about to launch a major offensive against the Intergalactic Empire. In preparation for this, we have captured several battle-grade starships, all we lack are the essential power sources for these formidable craft, Klystron Pods. The Resistance would like to commission you, Captain, to retrieve these pods from the Empire’s stockade planets.

Many of the pods are stored deep under the planet surface and are heavily protected by batteries of “Limpet” guns, powered by a nearby nuclear power plant. By firing shots at the power plant, the guns can be temporarily disabled. The more shots fired at the nuclear reactor, the longer the guns will take to recharge allowing you to slip past their defenses. Warning, should you fire too many shots at the reactor, it will become critical, giving you just ten seconds to clear the planet before it is destroyed. Remember, we need those pods. DO NOT LEAVE THE PLANET WITHOUT ONE. Of course, if you have retrieved the pod and feel like wasting the planet, the Resistance will reward your efforts. Once you have retrieved the pod, proceed directly to low orbit where we will jump you to the next stockade.

Intelligence reports indicate that further into the enemy system, they have engineered planets with REVERSE GRAVITY and something…even more deadly…

Scan of the inside cover of the Thrust+ Platinum Edition manual.When played on a real 2600 system, Thrust+ PE offers four different control options, all with a nod to the hardcore gamer. The first option is to use the standard joystick, which rotates the ship using left/right stick movement, fires using the fire button (or thrusts when the shield is active), thrusts by pushing up, and activates the shield or tractor beam by pushing down. The second option is to use a standard joystick with the BOOSTER-GRIP, a device originally packaged with Omega Race (CBS Electronics, 1983). This allows the BOOSTER-GRIP to fire using the trigger button and thrust using the booster button. Atari’s Driving Controller.The third and most optimal control option, which was the one used for this review, is to use the Driving Controller, which was originally packaged with Indy 500 (Atari, 1977), for ship rotation and optional firing, and the FOOTPEDAL, which fires on the yellow button, thrusts on the red button and activates the shield or tractor beam on the green button. The fourth and final option is to use the FOOTPEDAL as above, but also utilize the joystick via the FOOTPEDAL passthrough connector.

Partial FOOTPEDAL box scan.

Thrust+ Platinum title screen.With the controller configuration set, it’s time to begin the game. The first screen is a nicely rendered title screen with energetic opening music. Once fire is pressed, the game begins, with no “grace period.” The player ship is immediately warped into action and the planet’s gravity begins to have an effect. Ready for action!The first order of business is to use short thrusts to keep the ship from crashing into the ground. Seconds after that’s achieved, a green Limpet gun, on the lower right, begins firing. A quick use of the shield - which drains energy - takes care of any shots from the Limpet that get too close. To the lower left is a yellow fuel cell, which can replace lost energy from the use of thrust or shield. In order to acquire fuel, the ship must be directed over a particular spot above the cell to activate the tractor beam, which is the same function as the shield, so using one negates use of the other.

With the Limpet gun destroyed, the ship successfully captures a Klystron pod and must now thrust away from the planet.Once drained, the fuel cell goes away. If shot, the fuel cell is destroyed. In this initial level, it’s important to destroy the Limpet gun as quickly as possible, because the goal – capture of the green Klystron pod – is just to the Limpet’s lower right. In lieu of destroying the Limpet with the ship’s gun, the blue nuclear power plant to the far right can be attacked. The ship descends into the planet’s depths in search of the Klystron pod.The more times the power plant is hit, the longer it takes for the Limpet to get back online. If the power plant is hit too many times, however, it goes critical and the ship must escape – with the pod – within 10 seconds, or the planet blows up and the mission fails. The Klystron pod is captured by hovering over a certain spot and activating the tractor beam, which, as with gathering fuel, takes some maneuvering. If the ship is not over the correct spot, as before, the shield is activated instead.

Additional levels follow the same basic theme, albeit adding more Limpets to contend with and twisty underground caverns to navigate. Other level additions include switches that need to be shot to activate doors, reverse gravity and other surprises, such as the one hinted at in the manual, with “a reward at the end…but only if you’ve completed enough missions!”

There are five game variations and three difficulty levels which affect certain in-game factors, such as the force of gravity and the ship’s rate of fire. There are eight total levels, or planets, but only six – either 1 – 6 or 3 – 8, are available based on the variation chosen.

The graphics are extremely well-done, with no flicker, and are reminiscent of vector graphics, but in a “chunkier” style. Perhaps even more surprising, the visuals compare favorably to Thrust on the C-64. Thoughtful visual touches abound, such as the smoke that rises from a working nuclear power plant, until after it takes a few hits and the smoke is no more. The scrolling of the playfield is also well-done and apparently utilizes a new technique invented by the author just for the game.

The music was discussed earlier, and again compares favorably to the C-64’s Thrust. There is no in-level background music, which is actually preferable with a game such as this that requires so much concentration.

The sound effects are minimal, but every action is accompanied by an effective sound. This effectiveness carries over from the ship’s thrust all the way to the countdown to a planet’s destruction.

I mentioned earlier that the optimal controller configuration is the one that uses the Driving Controller and FOOTPEDAL. Unlike the other methods of control, the Driving Controller allows the ship to freely rotate 360 degrees, which takes both hands, particularly if that controller is also used for firing. The FOOTPEDAL then allows the player’s feet to control the rest of the action, creating a very unique and fun setup. In fact, this setup makes an otherwise single player game into something of a party game.

When I first tried Thrust+ PE and attached the Driving Controller and FOOTPEDAL and started the game, I had two other people with me—my sister and wife. My sister, a non-gamer, took control of the red thrust foot button. My wife, who rarely plays games, took control of the green shield and tractor beam foot button. I used the Driving Controller to steer the ship and fire. At first, it was a challenge coordinating all of our actions, but after a while, a natural rhythm formed and we started having success. Each player had an important function and was dependent upon the other for the single ship’s survival. It was at times frustrating, but the game has this indomitable “just one more try” vibe to it that only the very best arcade-style games have. We played for hours, taking turns at each of the controls, laughing up a storm, shouting at the screen and each other, having a great time; again, with two people that are fairly typical non-gamers.

More recently, a childhood friend - who I hadn’t seen in about 10 years - came over for a visit. Of course it was a great opportunity to play videogames like we used to. Out of the huge collection of classic and new videogame and computer software that I have, the most fun we had and the most played was – you guessed it – Thrust+ Platinum. I worked the FOOTPEDAL better than he did and he “drove” better than I did, so we had our tasks set before us, and, just like in the old days, we did our best to beat this game together. Unfortunately, we didn’t get all the way through, but of course there were several “just one more try” play sessions.

Photo of an “optimal” game setup consisting of Thrust+ Platinum on cartridge, an Atari 2600, Driving Controller and FOOTPEDAL.Besides the audio-visual elements, production values and unique control scheme that can make friendly cooperation an unexpected gameplay element, the way the game “feels” is just right. I want to stop short of calling it physics because that has negative connotations to some in regards to modern gameplay, but nevertheless, the gravity feels sufficiently “heavy,” the ship’s thrust must be handled carefully because of momentum, and “hooking” the Klystron pod and trying to fly with it has an effect on your thrust and inertia, often acting like a pendulum at the bottom of your ship if you don’t maneuver carefully with it attached. This almost real-world environmental reaction is certainly a big element of what seems to make the game enjoyable for so many different people. Add that to literally pixel perfect collision detection - meaning if you crash into something you know it’s your fault - and you have a nearly faultless game experience.

The Thrust+ Platinum 2600 cartridge is presently available from the AtariAge store for a reasonable $35.00 (US), which includes a full color box and manual. For an extra $10.00 (US), you can bundle the FOOTPEDAL, which can be used with any game on any system that uses standard Atari-style controllers, such as the C-64. The FOOTPEDAL is also available by itself for $15.00 (US). Generously, the game is also available as a free ROM download for use in your favorite 2600 emulator. Without the use of one or more Stelladaptor’s on your compatible computer and the right peripherals, you’ll have less of an “authentic” controller experience, but the game is still highly enjoyable using just a keyboard.

Thrust+ Platinum Edition
Advantages – Because homebrew games such as this cater to hardcore consumers, interesting controller options can be and are supported. This is a classic Atari 2600 game that deserves to be placed near the top of any all-time “best of” listing. Can be purchased as a cartridge or freely used in an emulator.
Disadvantages – The most interesting control options will be difficult for many to pull together.
Overall – Must Have (5 out of 5 stars)

Guide to Game Rankings:

Discworld MUD: Slinging Dirt with David Bennett

Author and Interviewer: Buck Feris
Editing: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Buck Feris
Special Thanks: David Bennett for being the subject of the feature

Cover of Terry Pratchett novel - The Colour of Magic.

In 1991 David Bennett created an online game inspired by Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series. The Discworld books have been a welcome departure for many from the sometimes tired and formulaic fantasy genre, providing a satirical look at sword and sorcery novels since 1986. Pratchett has created a world as rich in characterization as it is in one-liners. Bennett’s game world is a lovingly crafted extension of that universe, and has provided pleasure to thousands of gamers for over a decade.

MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons) were born as an online extension of text adventures (now commonly referred to as Interactive Fiction (IF)) and were the first real Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). In true retro style these games contain no graphics, and most of them can be played absolutely free of charge. Unlike most of the new graphical MMORPGs that seem to disappear as quickly as they are released, MUDs have withstood the test of time. Imagine if you will, a role playing universe that has had over a decade to mature. Sometimes the old saying is true—the best things in life are free.

Bennett grew up in Australia. I would like to tell you that he lived in the outback, fighting off dingoes and fierce koala bears while he learned ancient game programming techniques from the Aborigines, but that wouldn’t be very good journalism. I can tell you that he attended the University of Western Australia, and learned much of what he knows about programming from the university’s computer club. He has had many jobs in software engineering and telecommunications, and currently works in Seattle, Washington. On top of his many professional accomplishments, he is also a guitarist and a published writer. To my knowledge he has never harmed a koala bear.

The Discworld MUD first opened its doors on May 9, 1992, using a modified version of the LPMud language. Mr. Bennett and the other creators of the Disc have been tweaking the code and adding functionality ever since. Even though players are unable to view the game world, there is a level of interactivity that is sorely lacking from modern day MMORPGs. The following quote was taken from the Discworld MUD Website:

“The Discworld mudlib goes beyond the norm with the number and variety of objects available and the level of detailed interaction that is possible with them. For example, books on Discworld can not only be read, they can be written on, they can be published and printed, you can even tear pages out of them.”

However, good programming and design are just the beginning to a successful game like the Discworld MUD. Getting a project like this off the ground requires dedicated people. Thankfully, there has been no shortage of enthusiastic players and programmers. Over the years Bennett has had help from all over the globe. The good will and camaraderie of the game world has spawned many friendships. The creators and players of the game will often come from all over the world to meet one another in person at one of their annual parties.

Mr. Bennett was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to be interviewed by Armchair Arcade. We tried to learn a little more about this man - better known on the Disc as “Pinkfish” - as well as what it takes to make a project such as this so successful. Armchair Arcade would like to extend a warm welcome to our guest, David Bennett.

Buck Feris from Armchair Arcade (AA): I assume that since you have built your own MUD, you must have played a few games in your time. What were some of your favorites and why?

David Bennett (DB): Some of my favorite names were Lemmings and Civilization. Before that I got into this game on the Amiga called Bomboozle or something like that. I don’t think many people have heard of it. Before building the MUD I played a few online MUDs, but they always struck me as being very limiting. I tried to write Discworld with the idea of expanding and extending a lot of the code ideas from MUDs. I liked the concept of a MUD, I just thought the implementations were lacking.

(AA): Had you designed or programmed any games before the Discworld MUD? If so, what were they?

(DB): I had programmed up a few small games before attempting the MUD. I did a version of Tetris and a version of light cycles (Editor: also known as Snake). I also wrote a fairly bare bones operating system for a home built 32000 machine and a fully featured version of basic for the same machine. Those were my two biggest projects before writing the MUD. One thing I should point out is that I never did any coding on any MUDs before I started on Discworld. The Discworld MUD was actually the first MUD-like project where I had any input.

(AA): What about Pratchett’s work initially drew you in? How did it lend itself to a multi-user environment instead of something such as a text adventure?

Cover of Terry Pratchett Novel Mort.(DB): I really like the sense of humour in Pratchett’s work. It is clever and witty while being fairly easy to read and enjoy. It has multiple layers in some ways, you can see it on the surface and if you look a little deeper you can see the parody and satire of much larger things. Mostly though, I just like his humour and timing.

(AA): Pratchett states that some of his critics have “accused him of literature.” The success of his books comes not so much from his parody and comedic style, but from well developed characters and plots. Have you tried to do this in the Discworld MUD? Could anyone accuse you of literature?

(DB): I doubt anyone could accuse me of literature. Online text games tend to have quite a different emphasis than a book. I am not trying to tell a story as much as I am trying to describe a location and an atmosphere. I try to make the descriptions detailed and interesting enough for people to believe they are actually there. I think this is one area the creators and I have tried hard to do well from early on, making the room descriptions very detailed. We also tried to make the game amusing in as many ways as possible, small comments that pop up here and there to keep the atmosphere of the game as light as possible. We try and keep as true as we can to Terry Pratchett’s humour to keep the game amusing and funny.

(AA): A few years back, I frequented one of the Discworld newsgroups. One of the interesting things about it was that Terry Pratchett himself often used to post and respond to questions. Has Terry Pratchett ever paid a visit to the Discworld MUD?

(DB): No one really knows.

(AA): While we are on the topic, I understand that you are a published writer yourself. Describe some of your works for us.

(DB): I have only been published in fanzines, not in any paying publications. I write science fiction, up to a point. Pure science fiction magazines say my stories are not right for their magazines, but literature magazines also say the same thing. I think I write stories that are not very genre specific. I try to write amusing stories, although my success on that note is somewhat variable. I have some small stories and poems up on my Website (http://discworld.imaginary.com/~ddt ). I also ran an online mud magazine for two years, but I stopped because I didn’t have the time to spend working on it anymore.

(AA): Among your other accomplishments, I have found that you are also a rhythm guitarist. That’s a lot of creativity for someone who is so technically minded. Do you find the left and right sides of your brain battling for dominance?

(DB): I don’t see the division between left and right brain activities all that clearly. I like doing things associated with both sides of that equation. I like playing the guitar but I am also interested in visual arts. I have been doing more art lately, painting of various kinds and recently some stained glass projects. I also do quite a bit of woodworking, making furniture for example. At the moment I am working on making a couple of boats and a cherry dresser for the bedroom. I like making things that are real, which is one quality that Discworld lacks. I also like working on more than one thing at a time. I do finish projects, it just takes me a while. I disagree that programming is specifically technical. There is a lot of creativity involved in coding things up, and doing the design in the first place. The technical aspects help inform your decisions, but I see programming more as a structured creative outlet.

(AA): Tell us a little about your technical background. Did your experiences help with the creation of the Discworld MUD or did you have to learn about technologies that were unfamiliar to you.

(DB): When I first started coding the Discworld MUD I was still a student at the University of Western Australia. I learned about object orientation and understood its basic concepts. Some friends and I looked at other MUDs running at the time. One of them managed to become a wizard on Boiling MUD, and saw just how badly the underlying mudlib infrastructure was written. This was partly due to the changing nature of the interpreted language that had been used for most of these games (LPC). I was lucky to come into the scene when I did, since LPMud had progressed to a much more useful state for coding at that point. Mostly though, I made up things as I went along, writing things from scratch and my own imagination since there were not many templates out there to follow. Almost everything I did was not based on other ideas. In some cases I had to do a little research on specific types of algorithms, but that was a lot harder before the Web.

(AA): Explain a little bit about how an LPMud is different from other types. What are some of the special features of the Discworld MUD in particular?

(DB): LPMuds are written in an interpreted language. They are designed to be extremely flexible and extremely easy to modify while the system is still running. This means that bug fixes and updates can be added to the system as it is running. The downside to this is that it is also easy to accidentally break the running code. The other side of the coin to LPMuds is something like a DIKU which uses a fixed code base that has to be rebooted for any changes to be made to the basic logic.

Screenshot of Discworld MUD.As far as special features of Discworld, we have a very strong emphasis on player run and player controlled aspects of the game. We have player controlled clubs and families, as well as councils for imposing laws, housing and shops which are extremely customizable. We have very detailed and interesting guilds and a massive number of original and detailed rooms. There are lots of quests and puzzles to solve, as well as the more classic combat orientated aspects of things (which is also quite detailed). We also have a very strong pervasive sense of humour running throughout the game.

(AA): It is extremely hard to control the technical side of a project such as the Discworld MUD. It is even harder to control the human side. Many games like this degrade into a war zone where roleplaying is abandoned. What are some of the techniques you have used to keep the Disc a friendly place?

(DB): A lot of the problems with MUDs tend to stem from problems with the administrators. We have been very lucky in that regard, attracting a lot of good people. Although I also think that the style of the game attracts people who are more easy going than some other MUDs. We have a very flat hierarchy, so people are not always jockeying to try and move up to the next abstract level in being a creator (within the creator base) and outside of this politics has little to do with your ability to rise in skill levels. This means people tend to try and make themselves stand out by being very good at something, or specializing in a type of coding. We also have very fixed rules about creators interfering with players. Early on we created a liaison domain whose sole purpose was to deal with player/creator interactions and player problems.

Creators monitor and control the public channels and boards, moving things to more appropriate locations if the notes are out of place, and making sure that the language on the public channels fits within PG guidelines. In private we do not restrict what a player does, so long as it is not harassment.

You can see from my above statements that I think the main reason why most MUDs end up with problems is political fighting within the administrators and between the creators and players. Anywhere there is a noticeable power gap problems seem to fill the void.

(AA): Have you ever had anyone take the Discworld MUD too seriously or spend too much time playing? Have you ever had to intervene?

(DB): I have never intervened. We have some controls in the game that let people lock themselves out of their characters for periods of time. We implemented this after many requests from people, since they couldn’t stop themselves from playing.

(AA): Running a successful online game for over a decade is something that not many game designers can put on their resume. Your experience would surely be valuable to modern gaming companies. Have you ever thought of entering the fray and doing this professionally?

(DB): I have applied to a few companies now and then. Generally most people are looking for commercial gaming experience. However my personal contacts through the MUD have helped me get a few jobs in the past. Problem is, I do not really want to live in most of the places they do game development.

(AA): You, of course, couldn’t have done this by yourself. The Disc has many administrators. Who are some of the people who have helped you along the way?

(DB): Well, the original group of friends I started coding with helped a lot, they were Craig Richmond, Sean A. Reith and Evan Scott. After this period and a little further down the track there were some people from the UK that helped push Discworld down the right path: “Bil,” “Zoroaster,” “Bastian,” “Deutha,” “Sojan,” “Signe” and “DrGoon.” In more recent times the administration of Discworld has become a lot more stable with Kars de Jong, Patrick Nyman, Derek Harding, Jake Sebastian Greenland, David Gardener and Robert Boerman.

(AA): What advice would you give to anyone starting a project like this?

(DB): It takes a very long time for anything to happen, you need to stick with it for the long haul. You should expect that you will have to do 90% of the work yourself for the first few years, until things pick up and other people become interested enough to help.

Author’s final notes: Thanks to David Bennett for taking time out of his busy schedule to talk with us. Hopefully this interview has wet your appetite for a little online gaming—it’s free, needs no installation, and is only a mouse click away.

Click here to play the Discworld MUD.

Good Deal Games: An Interview with Michael Thomasson

Author and Interviewer: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks and Notes: Michael Thomasson for being the subject of the feature and providing use of the images
Also see: Good Deal Games (Staff), Game Informer Magazine Interview by Matt Helgeson, Planet Dreamcast Interview by BenT and Totally Retro by Jim Lenhan

Good Deal Games (GDG) is a hard Website to classify. In fact, at first glance it can be rather overwhelming. GDG offers new games for sale for classic videogame systems, an online store featuring items that cater to orphaned consoles, articles, news, classified ads, an audio feed, online games and so much more, like helping hobbyist developers publish their creations. In short, GDG is a great destination for any classic gaming fan. Much of the site’s diversity can be directly attributed to GDG’s founder and president, Michael Thomasson, whose gaming involvement goes far beyond collecting. What follows is a partial listing of Michael’s background and accomplishments:

  • Owner, Web designer and content director for GDG
  • Teaches many classes for Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. These are mostly graphic-oriented courses like design and animation, but also teaches "The History of Videogames"
  • Owns all kind of unusual gaming items and just about every game ever made for the systems in his personal collection
  • Sponsor of Classic Gaming Expo (CGE), JagFest, Mid-Atlantic Game Festival, Philly Classic, Oklahoma Gaming Exhibition, Midwest Classic, The Videogame Summit, East Coast Gaming Expo and more
  • Column in Manci Games, a print classic gaming magazine and price guide
  • Caricature of Michael Thomasson

  • Syndicated Knight-Ridder ResN8 newspaper videogame journalist
  • Book cover designer for Phoenix: The Fall and Rise of Videogames 4th Ed.
  • Book cover designer for ABC to the VCS 2nd Ed.
  • Pixel and cover artist for Songbird Productions, an Atari Lynx and Jaguar game developer and publisher
  • Artist and cover designer for Classic Gamer Magazine (issues 2 - 7)
  • Station Manager of WGDG Videogame Radio
  • Committee member and contributor to the CinciClassic Videogame Expo
  • Beta tester and cover designer for Classic Game Creations’ Gravitrex (Vectrex)
  • Cover artist for Ralph Baer’s (“Father of Videogames”) autobiography
  • Logo designer and artist for Syzygy Magazine, which is focused on the coin-operated and console video beat
  • Cover Designer for Classic Game Creations’ Vectopia! (Vectrex)
  • Founding member of BETA (Beta EPROM Testing Association) Club
  • Volunteer for Bluegrass Electronics Center, a service organization
  • CES Software Analyst for “Video Supreme” chain stores

What follows is a partial listing of new games published through GDG for select classic and orphaned systems:

Sega CD
• Citizen X
• Star Strike
• Bug Blasters: The Exterminators
• MarkoCitizen X for the Sega CD
• Battle Frenzy

GCE Vectrex
Vec Sports Boxing

Philips CD-i
• Jack Sprite vs. the Crimson Ghost
• Go
• PlunderBall
• Space Ranger

Coleco ColecoVision
• Cosmo Fighter 2
• Cosmo Fighter 3
• ColecoVision Game Pack #1

At this point, we would like to welcome Michael Thomasson to Armchair Arcade…

Bill Loguidice from Armchair Arcade (AA): Can you tell us a little about your “The History of Videogames” course at Canisius College?
Michael Thomasson (MT): I taught this course for Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, for the first time last summer. I had previously been instructing animation and design courses for the college, and many students were asking the department for videogame content to be offered. The course deals with all the classic systems and covers material up to and including the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Canisius' facilities are top notch, and there is something truly remarkable about playing classic games on large projection screens larger than life. The "blips" of the 1970's and 1980's boom through modern day state-of-the-art sound systems and the Atari 2600's video pixel size is bigger than a human head!

AA: Can you tell us a little about your 3D animation profession? Surely between Good Deal Games, Canisius College, your full-time job and other types of freelance pursuits, you must find it a challenge to actually PLAY games while still having time for family and other pursuits?
MT: I actually retired from professional 3D animation just over a year ago when I relocated to Buffalo, New York. I do still do some freelance work. I currently teach for Canisius and manage a “GameStop” store, as I missed my old retail days with the seven games stores that I used to operate in Kentucky and Indiana known as “Let's Play” and “L.A. Videogames.” Personally, I am way behind on my game playing. I purchase games at a much faster rate than I can actually play them. I have a giant pile of Sega CD and Sega Saturn role-playing games that will take an enormous amount of time to catch up on... *sigh*

AA: I think purchasing more games than you can play is a common “complaint” among collectors, and as one myself, I’ll agree with that sigh.

You gave me a list of your “classic gaming involvement”, which I’ll include in the article. Is there anything on there you’d like to elaborate on?
MT: At one time last year, I had a classic gaming television show in the works with IBC Digital with some help from Tommy Tallarico of G4techTV's Judgment Day and Electric Playground, but it fell through the cracks and has yet (if it ever will) to debut.
Vec Sports Boxing for the GCE Vectrex
I am now a regular columnist for Manci Games, writing a coin-op (arcade-related) article each month for my column known as "Just 4 Qix." I'm also working on a feature story for issue three of Manci Games.

Good Deal Games also just released two new classic gaming products known as the Arcade Ambiance series (audio CD), with a 1986 volume in the works and more to come.

Back in March we went to Philly Classic 5 where we premiered Arcade Ambiance, autographed the premiere issue of Manci Games and showed off Ralph Baer’s original Brown Box (prototype for the first pong games)!

AA: Do you have your personal collection published anywhere for our readers to browse?
MT: Well, I do not have my personal collection listed anywhere, as I do not have a full and comprehensive list for myself. I certainly need to accomplish this, as often I come across a game or item that I'm not sure that I already own or not. Fortunately, I always make it a point to grab such items. If I find out that I already have the object, it simply becomes one more item up for sale or trade on the Good Deal Games Website.

I can state that I own the vast majority of games released on cartridge format, and most CD-based games. This encompasses videogame systems and not computer software, of which I have very little. I am a console player primarily.

AA: You mention you're a console game collector and player primarily, as opposed to computers. Can you tell us a little of your reasoning behind this, in particular what attracts you to one format over another?
MT: Well, it is primarily a reason of personal preference, I suppose. While I was very active in the early computer scene having access to a Commodore Pet, Commodore VIC-20, TRS-80, Atari 400, Texas Instruments 99/4A and others, I always seemed to have more fun with the console machines. This is perhaps because I prefer a joystick to a keyboard, or sitting on the couch instead of on a chair in front of a computer. Playing with a friend was always enjoyable side-by-side instead of fighting for space behind a computer desk. Simple as that, really.

AA: Anything you’d like to talk about in your personal collection? A photo of the real Michael Thomasson
MT: I do have some unique items, such as a leather jacket from Don Bluth Studios that was worn by the team during the production of Dragon's Lair and Space Ace; hand-painted art cels from the early 1980's Donkey Kong Jr. cereal commercials; Coke Wins for the Atari 2600; Aussie Rules Footy for the NES; promotional items such as a Sega Saturn Nights jester cap; and dozens of unreleased game prototypes such as a Tiger Game.com prototype for Command and Conquer, Sega Saturn Capcom titles like Werewolf and Major Damage, Sega CD Penn & Teller and many more. I even have the last copy of one game that was ordered to be destroyed by a court order and is so secretive that I cannot even mention the title...spooky!

AA: When did you start collecting?
MT: My collection started with my love for the ColecoVision. As a young teen I was obsessed with owning the entire ColecoVision library. My childhood friend, David Lewis, used to type up a silly little ColecoVision checklist on his mother's IBM Selectric typewriter for the task. A few years later I was old enough to drive, noticed girls and the ColecoVision was lowered on the priority scale. When Sega released the Sega Genesis, I sold the ColecoVision lot for a steal to get money to purchase the Genesis. I was then hooked on games again! I immediately started seriously collecting all the games I loved as a child and also games and systems that I had never previously owned to experience older games for the first time—better late than never!

AA: Can you tell us a little about how GDG came about?
Jack Sprite vs. The Crimson Ghost (Philips CD-I) screenshotMT: Well, I used to work as a consultant for a small video rental store called “Video Supreme.” I volunteered my time in exchange for passes to the Consumer Electronics Shows (CES), which was the place where new games and hardware premiered before E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) came about. It was held in the summers in Chicago, and was open only to those in the industry, so such an opportunity was very appealing to me. This store was the first and only rental store that I have heard that carried ColecoVision games for rental as well as purchase. The game rental business didn’t really take off until years later when the NES was introduced by Nintendo. I later operated a chain of videogame stores in the early 1990’s called “Let's Play” and “L.A. Videogames.” I met a great deal of fantastic people during this period and became friends with many of them. When I left the chain and entered into computer animation, I was constantly being contacted by old associates about trying to locate a certain game or two for them, since they knew that I had an extensive personal collection and many contacts. It became so time consuming and tiresome that I decided to teach myself Website programming with a copy of HTML for Dummies and placed my trade items online, which was just really starting to take off. The idea was to let others know what I had for trade, so that my phone would stop ringing so much. It was meant to save time, but instead it grew into Good Deal Games and now takes more time than ever!

AA: What do you see as the future of GDG?
MT: The future is never predictable, so I will not even speculate. I've been asked this question many times before and answered it, only to be proven wrong in time. Perhaps I'll answer with SNK's old slogan, "Bigger, Badder, Better!"

AA: It was great meeting you at Philly Classic 5 and purchasing some of your unique products, like Marko for the Sega CD. Certainly you’ve published some intriguing titles for systems like the Sega CD, Vectrex, Philips CD-I and ColecoVision; do you see this as something you’ll stick with? I understand publishing these games has not been as lucrative as some might think. Can you give your thoughts on why that might be?
MT: The real task is locating lost and unpublished games, obtaining the licensing rights to them, and getting them on the shelves. We've published every game that we can to date, regardless of the title or possible success. Our goal is first and foremost preservation. If we kept these games in our personal collections, then only I would be able to play them. Sure, I could sell some of these one-of-a-kind prototype games for huge sums of money, but the public would miss their opportunity to play them again, as most collectors would hoard them to keep their value high. If I were smart and profit-minded, this would be the thing to do. However, I operate GDG for the love of the hobby.

As a matter of fact, most of our retro-published titles have lost money after paying for licensing, royalties, printing costs, production and other expenses. However, when someone orders one of our titles, they often add another game from which we do profit a bit from, and that income goes to fund the next project. To further back up this claim, no one at GDG has ever taken a single penny from the organization. All income is used to operate the Website and release new classic gaming related products. Why are there not other companies doing what we are doing? Well, most organizations are in business to gain profit and not to actually lose money. For instance, two of our Sega CD games cost well over $70,000 to develop. Our best selling title has sold over 400 copies. At $19.99 each that is only $7,600, which is just the gross income. Again, it doesn't include any operating, licensing, production, manufacturing or other costs. Who would be crazy enough to do this but fans and hobbyists!

AA: If you plan on continuing this route, what types of new games for old systems are you most looking forward to or do you think would have the greatest chance at success? Or, to put it another way, what type of game, if anything specific, do you think would be most “accepted” by the typical classic gaming consumer?
MT: We do plan on releasing more titles in the future. However, it is getting harder and harder to locate lost titles as time goes by and formats change. At some point, the "well of unpublished games" will simply dry up.

We also create new games for classic systems, but this is very time consuming and few individuals have the skills to develop a new game. If anyone reading this has a game that they have finished, Good Deal Games would be happy to fund your project and get it out to those that would appreciate your time and work.

Sure, there is demand for games for certain platforms, but there are also obstacles. For instance, we wanted to release some Sega Saturn games, but their proprietary discs contain an information "ring" that is not available on modern day CD-ROM discs and cannot be duplicated. We have licensed two 3DO games for release, but they will only play on development units and we have yet to break the encryption. Fortunately, we have a record of releasing games for which there is not heavy consumer demand. There is a reason why we are the only Sega CD publisher left on the planet. Do you think that there are people screaming for new Philips CD-i titles to play? Absolutely not! Again, these actions are for the love of the hobby and definitely not for profit.

AA: I’ve personally noticed a fairly recent trend in England with a large influx of mainstream magazines (Edge Retro, Retro Gamer Magazine, etc.) and television specials covering classic gaming and computers. Certainly the US has a large classic gaming community (Internet, live events like Philly Classic and CGE) and potential market, but we’ve still not quite seen the same mainstream penetration as England has enjoyed. Considering what you teach, your involvement through Good Deal Games and other related interests, do you think the US market is quite ready, or will it EVER be ready, for a newsstand magazine and regular history programs? In other words, how much bigger do you think things can get in the US?
MT: Well, I was the cover artist and contributor to Classic Gaming Magazine a few years ago, and although the magazine was of high quality both visually and in written content, the magazine folded after just over a half a dozen issues. I was also involved with Syzygy Magazine, which unfortunately only lasted three issues.

I currently have my own column in the new classic gaming magazine and monthly price guide entitled Manci Games. If you’re reading this interview and love your hobby, then I encourage that you subscribe and not only promote the magazine, but get a healthy dose of classic gaming goodness in the process. Such magazines keep cropping up, so there is obviously demand. I believe that the inclusion of the price-guide will help promote the hobby to that of a more collectable status. Although you can't go to a K-Mart and purchase a classic system, there are still hundreds of millions of classic game playing machines in homes, which is a much larger number than Sony has PlayStation 2 units in homes, or ever will. So, is the market untapped? Definitely!

AA: I'm sure our readers would be very interested in how you get some of these previously unreleased games to market. Can you tell us a bit of the high-level process in finding previously unreleased games, procuring rights to these games if possible, the decision to manufacture, decision about when to publish (timing), etc.?
MT: Unreleased games have populated my collection through several sources over the years. I often attended trade shows such as the CES and E3 over the years, and in the process obtained many test or review copies of upcoming games.

Sometimes these games were never released for one reason or another, and I'm left with the game in hand. In some cases, an employee leaves a company and takes copies of their work with them. Years later they come across them and contact us stating that they would like for someone to be able to play their game that was never published. In these cases, we contact the developer and see if we can obtain the rights to license and release the title.

Bug Blasters: The Exterminators for Sega CDIn the case of releasing Star Strike and Bug Blasters: The Exterminators, when we contacted the original developer to license the games, we received a response something like, "We'd be interested, but we do not have the original files preserved to allow such a project to happen." It is at this time that already owning a copy of the unreleased games is an incredible advantage. Companies change, and during the course of such changes, cancelled projects are not always backed up as they should be. Others incorrectly assume that the work is properly preserved, computers and systems change, and company priorities change, so it is amazing how much work is lost over time.Scan of the CD label for Star Strike (Sega CD)

I find it very interesting that GDG actually supplied the games to the original developer almost a decade later. We also licensed a third game from Stargate Films, entitled Wing Nuts. Unfortunately, a copy of the game has yet to be located, so until it is we obviously can't release it. So, if anyone reading this has a demonstration or test copy of Wing Nuts for the Sega CD or 3DO, please contact us!

Since such games are not common, we release the games when we can tie up the loose ends. The nice thing about publishing classic games is that there is really no rush to get them to the market, as they just become more classic over time. We do what we do for the love of the hobby. As stated, contrary to what some may believe, there is not a huge demand for such releases and publishing for less popular systems of the past such as the Sega CD and Philips CD-i is done first and foremost for the pleasure and not for financial gain.

AA: With the previous question in mind, can you relate the same process to how you handle homebrew or 100% original titles?
MT: Homebrew games are much easier to publish, but require more work upfront. Obviously, when Good Deal Games releases a new original game, an unpublished game is not found, it is created...from scratch. This takes a great deal of time, not just in the engineering and programming, but also in the development of actually designing the game. Designing games for older consoles is a task that many programmers are unfamiliar with. For instance, they have to learn to program in a very limited and finite amount of space. 2K of memory is an absolutely tiny amount of room to work within, especially with the huge amount of data current modern-day programmers are accustomed to having at their disposal. It is difficult to find a programmer that can work within such constraints.
Cartridge for Comso Fighter 3 (Coleco ColecoVision)
There are also technical issues, such as hardware limitations. When an Atari 2600 game is being developed, the programmer must realize that the console itself can only speak to the television through certain processes. You have limited numbers of sprites, and only so many sprites can occupy certain horizontal rows. The programmer has to synchronize the screen refresh rate with that of the television, or else the results are not even legible. There are dozens of specifics that could be mentioned, but the truth is that such programming is very difficult. The good news is that now much of such information is documented and toolkits have been designed, so now game design for these classic systems are actually easier than they were during their original reign on the home market. If you go to the GDG Website through the following link, one can download a complete development suite for the ColecoVision. We chose to share these tools to help promote such development and hopefully offer the ability for those that may be interested in an opportunity to create a new title. If anyone reading this takes the time to use the tools, and they successfully make a game, Good Deal Games will gladly help you publish your title.

AA: With your stated console preference in mind, will GDG ever get into computer game publishing? I know I'd be interested in getting some re-released or even new computer software for systems like the C-64, Apple II and Atari 8-bit as an example...
MT: We have not yet published a computer title, but perhaps in time. It is certainly a much easier process to copy a file to a diskette than manufacturing new cartridges. Our sister company, Older Games (OG), has published a new text (Interactive Fiction) game titled Weird World for the Commodore 64 which we carry and promote.

AA: Actually, I was initially made aware of Weird World through Lik-Sang when it was first released, so it's fascinating that there's an association. What can you tell me about Older Games, in particular your and GDG's relationship to them? For instance what does it mean to be "GDG's Prime Minister To OlderGames?"
MT: The Older Games crew attended the GDG booth at CGE years ago, and was impressed with what we had accomplished. They were big CD-i fans and decided to form their own company, and we have since co-published several titles together. We help them out a lot, and they help us. Our mission of preservation is the same, so it is a natural fit. With OG on the West Coast in California and us on the East Coast in New York, it helps us serve classic gaming fans more efficiently.

Author’s final notes: I would like to thank Michael for taking the time to participate in such an in-depth and fascinating interview for us. We encourage everyone to check out the Good Deal Games Website.

Keeping Things in Perspective: First Person Shooters Vs. Platform Games

Author: David Torre
Editing: Bill Loguidice and Matt Barton
Online Layout: David Torre
Screenshots of Games: David Torre

Perhaps the single most popular type of game in the history of PC gaming is the First Person Shooter (FPS). A First Person Shooter is a game that takes place from a first person perspective, essentially putting the player in the shoes of the character. The player rarely sees the character being played; the player sees exactly as his or her character sees. Universally known for an emphasis on multiplayer network combat, First Person Shooters were some of the first types of games to be played on the Internet. Most people will acknowledge that Id Software’s Doom (1993) started the First Person Shooter craze, others point to Id’s Wolfenstein 3D (1992). For me, there were two games released around the same time that practically guaranteed the domination of First Person Shooters: 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem 3D and Id’s Quake, both released in 1996. It was during this time that the mouselook control scheme was invented, which would soon become the standard control scheme for just about every PC game. Eventually First Person Shooters would dominate PC gaming. New games like Half Life (Valve, 1998), Quake 2 (Id Software, 1997), and Unreal (Epic, 1998) continued to push the graphical envelope, and, being the most popular games around, were often used as benchmarks for the latest three-dimensional (3D) graphics cards. Adventure games and other genres would soon sink into obscurity, while others like Real Time Strategy (RTS) games and Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG) would eventually provide some competition for First Person Shooters, but overall, FPS games took over.

Now, enter 2004. First Person Shooters are still some of the most popular PC games. Out of Amazon.com’s top ten best-selling PC games, four (a majority) are First Person Shooters. There have been some variations on the popular FPS formula (as accentuated by the success of Doom and Quake), such as having vehicles in games like Starsiege Tribes (Dynamix, 1998) and Battlefield 1942 (Digital Illusions, 2002), and games that attempt to simulate World War II combat like Medal of Honor (DreamWorks Interactive, 1999), Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003), and Return to Castle Wolfenstein (Gray Matter Studios, 2001). Further, two heavily hyped FPS games are expected to release this year: Id Software’s Doom 3, and Valve’s Half Life 2.

Four different perspectives used in Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In a rotating third person perspective focused on Link's right side, Link swings his sword at a giant spider. In a third person perspective with the camera focused behind Link, Link sprints through Kokiri Forest. In third person perspective with the camera focused on the front of Link, Link plays his Ocarina. Finally, in first person perspective, Link aims his slingshot at a smaller spider.
Various perspectives from
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64)

Many gamers like me have expressed their discontent about the current state of PC Gaming and the dominance of the First Person Shooter. Many of us have switched to consoles to get our gaming fix. This is because unlike PC games, one would be hard pressed to find a single genre that dominates console games. In addition, many console games tend to take place from a variety of perspectives, the most successful games utilizing multiple perspectives as needed. This can be best typified by Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998) for the Nintendo 64. In this game, the player navigates dungeons with the camera behind the character, fences with enemies in a rotating perspective, plays a musical instrument with the camera looking at the front of the character and occasionally switches to first person perspective to look around or aim a precision weapon such as the slingshot.

When I share my sentiment concerning First Person Shooters with most hardcore PC gamers, I am met with a variety of analogies. The most prominent analogy is that having a lot of First Person Shooters today is no different than when we had a lot of two-dimensional (2D) platform games in the late 1980s and early 1990s. By platform game, I define it as a game in which the player controls a character that moves from one obstacle to the next, usually by running or jumping.

I don't find it to be the case that the FPS dominance of today is anything like the 2D platform craze of yesterday. In fact, I find a fundamental flaw with all First Person Shooters that I feel constrains the gameplay to an overly simplistic process of repeatedly dodging and shooting.

One of the primary flaws of the first person perspective can be illustrated by using the classic platform fighting game, Technos’ Double Dragon (1988) for the NES, as an example. In Double Dragon, the character gained more and more abilities as the player progressed (a hair-pull kick, a spinning kick, and an uppercut). Naturally, most of the fun of the game was being able to see a variety of these attacks being performed. However, in a first person perspective, this same game concept is difficult to accomplish. It would be disorienting (and perhaps nauseating) if the player's viewpoint spun around while performing a spinning kick. Instead of changing the game's perspective and allowing some interesting attacks, most FPS game programmers don't even bother, limiting one’s movement only to the simplest running and shooting. In fact, most FPS shooters that do include melee combat do so in the form of a one-two punch, the Double Dragon equivalent of hitting the B button twice. Imagine if Double Dragon was programmed like this, limiting one’s moves only to the most basic attacks. Sure, the game had a variety of weapons, but without the repertoire of attacks, I'd imagine the game would be pretty dull.

Side scrolling perspective from Megaman X2 where X is on a futuristic motorcycle flying off a ramp
Megaman X2 (SNES)
Side scrolling perspective from Super Metroid; Samus is running extremely fast, breaking through a wall
Super Metroid (SNES)
Side Scrolling perspective from Contra 3 showing Mad Dog hanging from a rail over a pit of fire while firing the heat-seeking missile launcher
Contra III: The Alien Wars (SNES)
Side scrolling perspective from Bionic Commando where the player is using his bionic arm to swing from a lamppost away from an enemy
Bionic Commando (NES)



Take these four examples of platform games. In order to easily contrast these to First Person Shooters, I've chosen to include platform games that involve heavy shooting. These images are from Megaman X2, Super Metroid, Contra 3, and Bionic Commando. The scene from Megaman X2 involves X riding a futuristic motorcycle while dodging and shooting enemies. In Super Metroid, Samus is using the Speed Boots to run extremely fast and break through walls. In Contra 3, we see Mad Dog hanging from a rail while shooting. Finally, in Bionic Commando, we see the character dodging an enemy by using his bionic arm to swing from a lamppost. Although all of these games are based on shooting, they play vastly different. Megaman and Metroid share some similar elements, but the former is more action based and the latter more exploration based. Contra is a pure action shooting platformer, but contains some scenes that would be difficult to pull off in a First Person Shooter, as is obvious from the picture. Bionic Commando wouldn't easily fall into the jump-and-shoot category since it is impossible to jump in Bionic Commando.

One could say that the main problem with First Person Shooters is focus. In a First Person Shooter, the player can only focus on one thing at a time, namely a target. First Person Shooters are limited in the sense that the player cannot creatively interact with the environment and shoot at the same time. In a 2D third person perspective platformer, the player can see everything that is going on. If an enemy is running towards the player from behind, one can often do a back flip over the enemy’s head and shoot the enemy in the back. Such an action is impossible in modern First Person Shooters. It's a shame too, because it's darn fun to watch.

The limitations of a first person perspective are even more obvious when considering a successful 2D platform to first person translation. The game I speak of, of course, is Nintendo’s Metroid Prime (2002) for the Nintendo Gamecube. In order to successfully translate the traditional 2D adventure platformer elements of Metroid, many aspects of the game were sacrificed. Samus' signature "Screw Attack" (a flipping attack) was removed, along with the Speed Boots. In Super Metroid, there was a wall jump that allowed Samus to scale even the steepest chasms with ease. Sadly, it was necessary to remove this ability in Metroid Prime as well.

This is not to say that Metroid Prime is not a good game. It's a fantastic experience that aside from its limitations, admittedly felt like a Metroid game. My point is simply that something is lost when a game is translated into a first person perspective. Whether it's hanging from the side of a cliff, holding on with one hand and shooting at what's behind the player (Contra 3), or rolling around like a ball (Metroid), the capability in the first person is lost. The only way to keep these capabilities is to temporarily switch away from first person. There have been several games that have done this, including LucasArts’ Jedi Knight (PC, 1997) and the aforementioned Metroid Prime. Unfortunately, the majority of First Person Shooters either do not include a third person view, or include it only as a novelty that adds nothing to the gameplay experience.

First person perspective from Call of Duty, aiming a gun through a vast meadow
Call of Duty (PC)
First person perspective from Return to Castle Wolfenstein, a soldier with a gun blazing marching up a beach at night under enemy fire
Return to Castle Wolfenstein (PC)
First person perspective from Battlefield 1942 showing a man aiming a gun through a snow-filled forest at an enemy soldier
Battlefield 1942 (PC)

Look at some of these First Person Shooters. These screenshots are from Call of Duty, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Battlefield 1942, all for the PC. Keep in mind each one of these was a commercially successful game. Yes, I'm aware that Battlefield 1942 is a hybrid game that is centered on using different vehicles in combat, but the player does spend a lot of time on foot, so I include it here. It can be argued that each game has subtle differences in gameplay, but the screenshots make it obvious that all the games have the same basic play mechanics. In these games, a player usually has access to an assortment of guns and usually one melee weapon. Often this means a knife, a pistol, a rifle, some grenades, a machine gun, a bazooka, a sniper rifle, and some sort of gimmick weapon. It is uncommon to have more than one weapon of the same type. The player usually moves with the W, A, S, D keyboard keys and aims and shoots with the mouse. Most games also have jump, crouch and crawl commands that can be used to dodge enemy fire. In a single-player mode, one sneaks around, avoiding or killing guards, while attempting to find some item or get through the area to complete a level. In multiplayer mode, there are almost always several gameplay types -- the big ones are team play, deathmatch (a free-for-all), and capture the flag. The standardization of controls, basic play mechanics, and game modes are part of the reason why most First Person Shooters play alike.

Some advocates of the first person perspective say that it's better to look through a character's eyes than look at the back of a person because it adds to the reality—the player is the character. I don't find this to be the case. Although first person games attempt to simulate being the character, most ignore things like peripheral vision and equilibrium. In real life, one can see out of the corner of one's eye, and usually sense when someone is sneaking up on them. In addition, in most of these games, limbs and body parts are not visible (except for the hand holding a weapon). If the player is climbing a ladder, hands are not visible; if the player looks down, one doesn’t see the tip of one’s nose, or one’s feet. Essentially, the reality of the game is lost when it is impossible to see the player’s own feet–creating the illusion that the player is nothing more than a floating head with a hand holding a gun.

Do platform games have a lot in common? Sure. Earlier in this article I cited examples of platform games, and reflected on the diversity of games within the sub genre of shooting platform games alone; however, shooting isn't the only sub genre of platform games. There are street fighting games, like Double Dragon. There are also games where one can kill enemies by hopping on their heads (Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985), Hudson’s Bonk’s Adventure (TurboGrafx-16, 1990), Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog (Sega Genesis, 1990)). There are games that grant the player a sword or whip and have one gain abilities and fight off monsters RPG style (Konami’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest (NES, 1988), Nintendo’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES, 1988)). Most notably, at the time that platform games were at their prime, there were a variety of other popular types of games. There were games that took place from an overhead view (Hudson’s Bomberman (NES, 1985), Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda (NES, 1987)), others that gave the player an isometric view (CSG Imagesoft’s Solstice (NES, 1990), Rare Ltd’s Snake, Rattle and Roll (Sega Genesis, NES, 1990)), games that provided a third person 3D view (Square’s Rad Racer (NES, 1987), Sega’s Space Harrier (Arcade, 1985) and Nintendo's Pilotwings (SNES, 1990)), and even some that used a first person perspective (Kemco’s Shadowgate (Various, 1989) and Déjà Vu (Various, 1988)).

Essentially, when the two are put in context, having many platform games is nothing like having lots of FPS games today. It's time for a new genre of games on the PC that provide a legitimate alternative to First Person Shooters. If not, the little that's left of the PC gaming crowd will eventually seek alternatives, perhaps on other systems. There are graphics cards capable of displaying millions of polygons, adding unbelievable detail to environments, and the only games out there that take advantage of this power are First Person Shooters. It's time for change. It's time to experiment with different perspectives and try some new game ideas, or reinvent some old ones. The market is ripe for originality right now, and some publisher has to take a risk or the market will shrivel up.

Songbird Productions: An Interview with Carl Forhan

Author and Interviewer: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton
Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Special Thanks and Notes: Carl Forhan for being the subject of the feature and providing use of the images
Also see: Songbird Productions (About), Jagu-Dome Interview, Tomorrow's Heroes Interview, Good Deal Games Interview, Alive 4 – LynxUK Interview and MyAtari Interview

Today, for many younger gamers, the word Atari is the brand name for the French-owned game publisher formerly known as Infogrames that releases highly anticipated new games for systems like the PC, Sony PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox. For most older gamers, the Atari name conjures up images of the smoky arcades of the early 1980’s, with players competing for the highest scores in games like Asteroids, Centipede and Pole Position. For others still, Atari represents classic software creation and development of home videogame consoles, computers and peripherals like the Atari 2600, Atari 800 and the classic black single-button joystick (the CX40).

The reality is all of the above and more for the history of the Atari name, as products associated with the company have had some of the highest consumer brand recognition and most enthusiastic fan base in entertainment products for decades. With this in mind, we should not be surprised that despite Atari’s handheld Lynx (release: 1989) and full-size Jaguar (release: 1993) consoles losing their respective battles in the ongoing videogame wars long ago, there are still dedicated individuals and companies that still support those two systems with new games. One such person is Carl Forhan of Songbird Productions. What follows is a partial listing of new software either available now or coming soon from Songbird Productions, which was founded by Carl in 1999:
Box image for Soccer Kid on the Atari Jaguar
Atari Jaguar, 2MB Cartridges
• Hyper Force
• Protector: SE
• Soccer Kid
• Phase Zero Demo

Atari Jaguar, 4MB Cartridge
Skyhammer

Atari Jaguar, Unencrypted CD
Commemorative CGE Jaguar CD

Atari Lynx, Cartridges
• Championship Rally
• LexisScreenshot from CyberVirus on the Atari <code />Lynx
• SFX
• Crystal Mines II: Buried Treasure
• Ponx
• Commemorative CGE Lynx Cartridge
• CyberVirus
• Remnant
• Distant Lands
• Ultravore

Carl Forhan has come a long way from his initial idea of developing games for the Lynx with a cheap developer’s kit. Carl’s founding of Songbird Productions in 1999 to the fascinating software release list for the two very different platforms you see above makes him an especially relevant retrogaming figure. We are happy to welcome Carl Forhan to Armchair Arcade to tell us more of the story…

Bill Loguidice from Armchair Arcade (AA): Can you tell us a little about your background, such as how you got into gaming and what led to your interest in eventually developing for the Lynx and Jaguar specifically over other platforms?
Carl Forhan (CF): I've been an Atari fan for just about as long as I can remember. Well, I can remember before Atari existed, but I still liked the old Mattel, etc., electronic handhelds of the 1970’s, so I've always enjoyed videogames. My dad got an Atari when I was about 10 years old, and I was hooked!

However, years later when I was in college, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was all the rage, and I played it often but never had interest (or money, notably) to buy my own game system. So I kind of got out of gaming for a couple of years in the early 1990’s.
Carl Forhan
Then lo and behold, the Internet! Once I got hooked on that, I started learning all kinds of things, not the least of which was Atari was still making videogames! The Atari 5200 was the last Atari system I had heard about (Atari marketing at work, eh?), so I was pumped to find out around 1994 that they had both a portable system (Lynx) and a home system (Jaguar).

I started hanging around Usenet boards for Atari fans and soon discovered people were even trying to hack their own games. Having an Electrical Engineering (EE) degree and a strong programming background, I thought this sounded really fun. And I was right. (smiles)

AA: Tell us a little about Songbird Productions. It must have been quite a challenge to learn how to do the coding, EPROM burning and packaging designs, etc. Can you tell us a little about how that all came about to make Songbird into what it is today?
CF: Coding is always a huge challenge, whether you're trying to do a project from scratch or take someone's existing code and learn it and enhance it. You can waste tons of hours chasing a shadow problem and make very little real headway on the overall project.

On the manufacturing side of things, I have several people that help me with the EPROMs, assembly and so on. No way would I do it all myself—it’s simply too time-consuming. I've also started recruiting more help for graphical layouts, ad designs, etc. There are many people with more talent than me in these areas and the end result is a much nicer product I think.

AA: In regards to Songbird, do you consider yourself a businessman as well as a programmer, or does the business end serve the programming as a means to an end? Certainly the business aspects of having your own publishing company must put demands on your ability to program. Further, do you have a full-time job outside of Songbird? If so, can you tell us a little about how you manage all of the demands on your time that so many endeavors must place on you?
CF: I definitely have a full-time job apart from Songbird. Songbird does provide some income, but nothing near enough to pay the bills. (smiles)

But the interesting part of carrying lots of stock, particularly "New Old Stock" (NOS) from the original Atari days, is that I spend a fair amount of time packing orders every single week. So the dilemma I face is do I fill orders which makes money but cuts down on my programming time, or do I prune my stock which frees me up but lowers my income?

And there's no doubt that real life takes higher priority, and rightfully so; I'd rather play with my kids for 30 minutes than program a game these days. So game programming for me at this point is more of an indulgence than a driving schedule.

AA: What has the response to Songbird Productions been? You've been around since 1999 and certainly there must have been many challenges and obstacles along the way. If so, can you elaborate and bring us up to date?
CF: I think overall the response has been positive. I've been able to rescue some otherwise lost games as well as get a few new titles out the door. And I get the whole gamut of replies on what people like or don't like in various games.

Box image for Ponx on the Atari <code />LynxFor example, some people are absolutely thrilled by Lynx games like Ponx (one of my best sellers) or Lexis, while others are unimpressed by these, instead preferring a CyberVirus or Championship Rally.

The biggest challenge is really lack of free time. The small base of fans has proven time and again that they will buy decent games when they are published. I just don't have time or resources to push out multiple titles per year like I've sometimes done in the past.

Finally, my hat's off to anyone who can develop and publish a game for an orphaned system. You've got virtually no technical support except maybe for a small community of hobby developers, no manufacturing plants, no distributors and no outside funding. Simulated screenshot from Alpine Games shown on an Atari <code />Lynx (Model II)It's pretty amazing that people are still releasing games for the Lynx and Jaguar even in the past 6 - 12 months, like Alpine Games (Lynx) and Painter (Jaguar CD). Keep up the good work, everybody!

AA: I'm sure our readers would be very interested in how you get some of the previously unreleased games to market. Can you tell us a bit of the high-level process to find previously unreleased games, procure rights to these games if possible, the decision to manufacture, decision about when to publish (timing), etc.?
CF: Boy, I could probably write quite a few chapters on this. I've certainly spent enough time on it over the years—I’m talking about 100+ hours spent just in researching and licensing games, not even counting development, testing or production! But I'll take a shot at a high-level summary.

Finding the games is half the battle. The two ways I usually find unreleased games is by either tracking down the original developer myself or by acquiring the game from a fellow collector. Locating a former Jaguar developer often requires *tons* of time, as people have changed jobs, moved to different countries, had a good/bad relationship with their boss, etc. And then once you find them, there's no guarantee they still have demos of their games or source code or even rights to let you do anything with said properties.

So, after a lot of pain and effort, I've got a game. Yay! But what do I do now? Getting the proper rights to publish is the other half of the battle.

Protector was an example where I found the developer on Usenet, but he understandably wasn't able to share the source code to this previously unknown Jaguar game without proper consent from his former employer, Bethesda Softworks. I first managed to secure educational use only rights so I could see the source, but within a matter of days we began negotiations on publishing rights. Fortunately, Bethesda was simply wonderful to work with, and it really helped that the developer, Joergen Bech, was quite happy to discuss the code with me and give me some pointers on how the guts of it worked.
Box image for the original Protector on the Atari Jaguar
I then proceeded to do quite a bit of development on Protector to finish it properly and publish it. I eventually found myself wishing I had made even more improvements to the game, and thus two years later Protector: SE (Special Edition) was released. All told, I added a considerable amount to the original core game—I once did a "before and after" lines of code comparison, and I know I had added at least 30% new code. That's a lot of work for what was essentially a playable title when I received it.Box image for Skyhammer on the Atari Jaguar

Other games have fortunately been much easier to license and publish. Games like Hyper Force, Lexis and Skyhammer came with no source code provided, so I had to pretty much publish the games as received.

The original publishing effort back in 1999 was quite scary to me. I had just done a small publishing run of SFX, Ponx and Lexis on the Lynx, which was several thousand dollars. Box image for Lexis on the Atari <code />LynxThis was a lot of cash, but didn't make me too nervous because the orders were coming in at a reasonable pace. Then I was faced with the prospect of publishing four new Jaguar games at roughly the same time, and the costs were in the tens of thousands of dollars! This was more than my checkbook would allow, so I put a partial pre-pay system in place to help assure that fans would indeed support such a risky venture.

I'm quite relieved to say that the fans did indeed support the new games, and since then, I've never had to require pre-orders on other Songbird releases. (smiles)

AA: Incredible! With the prior question in mind, can you relate the same process to how you handle homebrew or 100% original titles?
CF: Homebrew titles have their own unique challenges, including lots of testing and to some extent assistance with the code, graphics and/or audio. The hard part is definitely long-term motivation—how do you get basically an unpaid hobbyist to keep plugging away at a game over months or years? And this is no slight to any hobby developer... I get pulled in a dozen directions each week, too, so it's no wonder very few people find time to write a game from start to finish in their free time.
Screenshot from Championship Rally on the Atari <code />Lynx
Once the game is completed, I set up either a one-time fee or a per-unit royalty for a certain time period. This has worked very well so far, and since we discuss the terms well in advance of publishing the game, the developer knows what to expect. My experience so far, for example on Championship Rally, has gone very well in this area, and I hope to work with additional hobby developers in the future.

AA: Are you a collector as well? If so, can you tell us a little about your collection? Is there something that attracts you to one format - be it videogame or computers - more so than another other than personal history?
CF: I don't collect PC’s or PC games or older computers. I do collect videogames and board games. The board games tend to all be light strategy types—think Axis & Allies or Star Wars: Epic Duels and you'll get the idea. I have a pretty good Atari 2600 and Atari 7800 collection, with over 200 carts total for the two systems. And of course I have just about every Lynx and Jaguar game and accessory available. (smiles)

I also have a Nintendo 64 with about 20 games and an Xbox with about 20 games. The Xbox gets a lot of play lately thanks to the strong multiplayer games... I really enjoy Halo and Fuzion Frenzy, for example.

AA: Sounds pretty grim for this next question then, but here goes anyway... Will Songbird Productions ever get into computer game development or publishing? I know I'd be interested in getting some re-released or even entirely new computer software for certain classic computer systems.
CF: I'm occasionally asked if I will make Sega Dreamcast games or 3DO games or Atari ST games or whatever. Bottom line, I'm already stretched thin, and I love the Lynx and Jaguar. So if I'm going to produce hobby games, they will be on these platforms. Mainstream commercial work would be a different story entirely, but so far the pot of gold hasn't appeared...

Author’s final notes: I would like to thank Carl for taking the time to participate in such an extensive interview with us. We encourage everyone to check into the Songbird Productions Website, which includes a large catalog of games and accessories available to order.

The Power Glove Lives!

Author: Matt Barton and David Torre
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Matt Barton and Bill Loguidice

The history of videogame controllers is a pretty dull affair. We truly haven’t come very far since the first videogame controller—a simple device rigged up by the Spacewar! team to spare them elbow pain while playing the first videogame, which ran on a giant mainframe computer. Though many early games used paddles or trackball controllers, the winning majority of pre-NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) games favored joysticks, while the majority of post-NES games favored game pads. Modern joysticks and game pads offer various degrees of analog and digital circuitry with very precise control. Still, one wonders about the future of videogame controllers. Have we reached a plateau, or are more intriguing possibilities on the horizon? What we are concerned with here is a peculiar strain of what seems to be a very promising type of controller: An electronic glove that detects hand movements. Conceivably, such a device would allow players a stunning degree of control over their avatars.

Mattel's Power Glove, bottom view.
Mattel's Power Glove.

The Power Glove from Mattel, shown with wraparound television sensor, top view.
Mattel's Power Glove.


In 1989, the Mattel toy company unveiled a new product for the Nintendo Entertainment System—the infamous Power Glove. I say “infamous” because the Glove did not live up to most young player’s expectations, especially those who had seen The Wizard, a movie starring Fred Savage that glorified Nintendo and suggested that the Power Glove had serious virtual reality capabilities. The film’s antagonist uses the Power Glove to play a flawless game of Rad Racer. Most kids were under the false impression that their Power Gloves would offer them unprecedented control over their videogames, too. In fact, the Power Glove lived a very short life on the NES, and remains a fairly obscure device in videogame history1, though it still serves an important role in a few modern low-budget virtual reality applications.

The Power Glove is able to detect finger motion and “wrist roll” via a simple ultra-sonic detection system. The glove emits sounds (inaudible to humans) that are detected by a unit that wraps around the outside of the television. One problem is that the detection system’s "microphones" are of inferior quality, and a significant amount of distortion results. Players found that controlling games like Ninja Gaiden was more difficult with the Power Glove than with the standard NES controller. Another problem is that Nintendo’s original Entertainment System is not technologically sophisticated enough to handle the three-dimensional environments that could truly take advantage of a device like the Power Glove, despite Mattel's intriguing attempt with Super Glove Ball, a type of handball simulation that was the only game to specifically utilize the Glove's features. Needless to say, players were never able to achieve the fantastic effects shown in The Wizard, and Mattel eventually abandoned the product.

The P5 Glove.
The P5 Glove.

Over a decade later, a new company with roots in the creation of the original Power Glove, is trying out a new version of the technology. That company is Essential Reality. Essential Reality has made some broad claims about the potential applications of its new P5 Glove:

Brandish a mighty sword in a video game, walk through an online room, or pick up objects on screen - with the power of P5, not in, but on your hands, you can fully harness the potential of today's lifelike 3D and virtual gaming environments like never before.


The P5 Glove does not work with audio signals like Mattel’s Power Glove, nor is it intended for a humble videogame console like the NES. Instead, it tracks the finger movements with an optical system—infrared signals rather than sound waves. It offers six degrees of tracking—x, y, z, yaw, pitch, and roll. The device is designed to be compatible with the Microsoft Windows and Apple Macintosh operating systems. Essential Reality has prepared some impressive demos that show players using the P5 to navigate first-person shooter games. The device has also appeared on Tech TV and The History Channel—snippets are included with the demos on Essential Reality’s homepage. Unfortunately, game development for the P5 is lagging, though some companies are offering custom patches for the P5, including Lionheart Studios’ popular God-sim Black and White, which seems an especially fitting choice.

What are the problems with the P5? Well, as anyone can imagine after watching the demonstrations or actually using the NES Power Glove, holding one’s hand up in front of the sensor can get quite tiring after an extended period of time. Another problem is that the P5 and other low-end virtual reality devices cannot convey the sensation of touch to the player. How can such a device determine that one is trying to pick up an apple from a table rather than smash or knock it off? If game makers really wanted to allow players to experience grasping a sword, they will need a more sophisticated (and expensive) device than the P5. These facts may make the P5 unacceptable for long-term PC use, but the potential for arcade games - considering that the average arcade game lasts from three to five minutes per play - could be an exciting new offering for those operators desperately searching for ways to draw visitors.

Visitors to modern videogame arcades - at least those familiar with the arcades of the 1980's - are often struck by the number of novelty games and electro-mechanical machines occupying spaces formerly shared by a string of Ms. Pac-Man or Donkey Kong machines. Almost all modern arcade machines feature an elaborate cabinet with an expensive control system; the idea seems to be that arcade machines should offer an experience that cannot easily be duplicated by today’s powerful videogame consoles. Modern videogame arcades are stuffed with networked racing simulators complete with steering wheels, pedals, and gear shifts; shooting games sporting pistols and rifles with vibration and recoil; pinball machines; fire-fighting simulators with virtual fire hoses, and, of course, those omnipresent Dance Dance Revolution dancing games. As a result, many see today's arcade as more amusement park than game center.

What is the P5’s real potential? It’s hard to say. If the goal is immersing the player in a more corporeal gaming experience, the answer is probably not much. There are and have been many other devices that arguably detect hand and body movement more accurately than any VR glove. Some are Konami’s arcade Para-Para Paradise, Police 911, and Mocap Boxing, as well as Sony’s home PlayStation 2 Eye Toy. These games and devices often rely on a camera’s detection of movement rather than sound or infrared triangulation. While the P5 is certainly a chic new controller, and sure to make a splash at gaming parties, most reviewers seem to value it more for its novelty than its possible utility.

Other Power Glove and P5 Resources:
Glove Files. Some (dated) articles and materials related to Mattel's Power Glove.

A review of the P5 glove by Ala Shiban.

NOTES

1Broderbund released another strange controller for the NES called the UForce. The UForce promised to be a "hands-free" controller. The only review I could find for this device was not kind.

The Videogame in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Author: Matt Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Artwork: Buck Feris and Elizabeth Katselis
Online Layout: Matt Barton

Creative Commons License
The following text (not including illustrations) is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

1. The Innovations and Aggravations of New Technology

Picture by Buck Feris.
Recognize this old game?
The New Galaga

Let us begin this rather ambitious article by proposing that someone finally gets around to inventing a nifty Star Trek gadget: The replicator. We’ve all watched as Jean-Luc Picard approaches this device and calls up his favorite beverage: a cup of steaming Earl Grey. We can assume that this replicating device works by rearranging subatomic particles to form whatever objects one cares to copy, be it a beverage or a diamond—other science fiction accounts for such devices with references to nanotechnology, or incredibly tiny, self-replicating machines. In short, this machine has the rather amazing (or alarming) effect of eliminating scarcity. If we can assume for a moment that the replicator runs on very little fuel, we can realize why there is no money or exchange in Star Trek: With an increase in supply comes a decrease in demand. If everyone owned a personal replicator, we could not become wealthy by cloning billions of diamonds and tons of gold nuggets. The worth of those diamonds and nuggets would diminish proportionately to the number of them we brought into existence. Thus, in a world where everyone owned a replicator, no object at all, including other replicators, would have any intrinsic monetary value. Even works of art like the Mona Lisa would fall in value as atom-perfect clones appeared that were utterly indistinguishable by even the finest scientific equipment. Walter Benjamin, a celebrated 20th century philosopher, argued that the "aura" of artworks will fade away once industrial technology permits the rapid, accurate mechanical reproduction of such works. The point I'm making is that at the very moment “replicating” technology becomes freely available for all objects, capitalism becomes feasible only with direct legal intervention. The only method by which capitalism could be preserved in the face of replicators would be to impose strict and utterly arbitrary legislation to prevent people from “illegal” replication of legally protected objects. There would be no practical reason to impose such legislation; it would be intended only to protect those people fortunate enough to be legally entitled to monopolies over certain pieces of “intellectual property.”

Now, of course we don’t need anyone to point out that the science of Star Trek is about as realistic as the notion that human beings will eventually stop arguing with each other and decide, once and for all, to “just get along.” Clearly, any one of the inventions of Star Trek, be it the replicator, the transporter beam, or the holodeck, would be in themselves enough to transform our current society into something far less conceivable than the pleasant Star Trek fantasy. It is more likely that any one of these inventions would spark a horrible world (or perhaps intergalactic) war that would plunge humankind back thousands, if not millions, of years. The current heads of multinational corporations would take an invention like the replicator about as kindly as the Church took Galileo’s telescope, which helped destroy a significant portion of the Church’s authority. Kings do not lie idly by as the serfs run away with the keys to the kingdom. If there is one lesson we can learn from history, it’s that our leaders, whether kings, presidents, dictators, or CEO's, are perfectly willing to block any technological progress that threatens their dominion1.

However, we need not concern ourselves with such upheavals, nor declare ourselves proletariats on the edge of a Marxist revolution quite yet. Science hasn’t even figured out how to make a decent electric razor, much the less technology as startling at the replicator. A good question is whether or not our government would allow such technology in the first place. How fair is the simple and rather cynical observation that the forces of multinational corporations fight any innovation that threatens their precious financial infrastructures, progress be damned? Let’s not get this point confused with rumors, like the gas industry’s battle to keep the hundred mile per gallon carburetor off the market. Instead, let’s borrow a page from the constitutional law professor Lawrence Lessig, from whose work Free Culture I derive my own stance on this subject. His story of RCA’s mission to stifle FM radio technology ought to arouse the anger of any patriotic technophile.

According to Lessig, Edwin Armstrong invented FM radio in 1933 (or, at least that’s when he registered the patents). As anyone knows who has ever compared FM to AM radio, the aural clarity of FM is unquestionably superior. However, despite its enormous potential for the evolution of radio, Armstrong’s invention would not reach the masses until well after his patents expired (patents last for twenty years). The reason for this slow progress was not any problems inherent in the technology, but rather the legal retardation imposed by RCA—Armstrong’s company. David Sarnoff, the president of RCA, realized very quickly that FM radio would destroy RCA’s profitable AM radio network. Through a series of devious dealings and political shenanigans, RCA triumphed and Armstrong took a shortcut from a thirteenth floor window.

Okay. We’ve gone over some examples of how big business leaders squash technological developments that threaten to bounce them from their gravy train. We’d be somewhat hypocritical, I think, to claim that there is something evil about the simple desire to protect our financial interests; as a teacher, I’d be fairly upset if someone announced the invention of a “learning device” that transferred knowledge to students’ brains by osmosis and rendered human teachers obsolete. However, at some point we have to realize that such technological developments are ultimately good, not bad, and if they force us to reconfigure our lifestyles and learn new ways to make a living, so be it. The alternative is simply stagnation; yes, let’s be sure that there are plenty of old computer programmers who would have been quite happy if they had never had to learn another programming language after Cobol, but becoming a Luddite is not a wise or truly justifiable choice. A cure for cancer may put a lot of chemotherapists out of business, but we don't need to conduct a quick poll to see how many people will take their side.

2. Derivative Software and Copyright

Our discussion so far has been leading, quite predictably, I would think, to that rather nasty problem that has dogged the software market since Bill Gates secretly bought the rights to a product called QDOS for a cool $50,000 from a company called Seattle Computer Products. He then turned around and licensed the product to IBM2 and eventually other personal computer manufacturers—in short, that $50,000 investment led to one of the world’s biggest personal fortunes. The richest man in software history began his career not with creativity, but with cunning, a trait he has demonstrated on many occasions with other software products. Gates’ pattern, according to his more scathing critics, is simply to buy, borrow, or steal radical software innovations (like the Windows graphical-user interface from Apple, who took it from Xerox Parc), aggressively market them, stifle competition, and protect, at all costs, his “intellectual property rights.” Gates, in short, represents what a clever and ruthless businessperson can accomplish in a new and vigorous creative market. On the other hand, we must acknowledge that Gates and Microsoft have done a good thing by allowing a standard to develop. An easy analogy to make here is to AC plugs and outlets; European tourists are quite familiar with the hassle involved in seeking “adapters” for each electrical appliance. Often enough, a standard encourages innovation, even if it is inferior to many other possibilities. The problem begins when the standard is “protected.” What if every maker of an electrical appliance had to acquire an expensive license to make a standard plug? It’s not such a well-known fact that early phone companies tried to keep hotels from allowing guests to use the phone in their rooms; they wished to grant access only to paying subscribers3. Phone companies also tried to force consumers to rent an expensive protective coupler that supposedly protected the telephone network from dangerous third-party phone equipment, such as telephones made by other companies. Of course we see this same fight happening today with computer operating systems and the third-party applications that are allowed to run on them, or companies like Nintendo trying to block third-party development on their systems with special chips or technology built into every one of their consoles.

A history of videogames, just as a history of any software “type” or “genre,” will reveal an open-source origin and a legacy of “borrowers” and “derivers” hoping to capitalize on what was originally free, whether through buying up copyrights or creating enhanced commercial versions. With an increase in the size of a software corporation comes a decrease in the level of innovation one finds there, until finally, in 2004, gamers are confronted at the videogame store with hordes of cloned videogames and programmers are threatened at the courtroom by battalions of lawyers frantically protecting someone’s “intellectual property.” The protection that intellectual property law affords software developers is possible only by seizing the rights of the users of that software, even those who legitimately purchase it. As corporate lawyers, CEOs, and investors further entrench themselves in the software market, gamers and programmers will find themselves in the same dismal position as the ship in a game of Space Invaders.

Back in the early days of computing, programmers felt little need to copyright or try to protect their intellectual property. The world’s first videogame, Spacewar!, was what we would today call an “Open Source” project. Teams of hackers worked together to create the game, often modifying the source code to add innovations like an accurate star field or game controllers. It is doubtful that any of these programmers saw any monetary potential in their game—it could only be run on hopelessly expensive mainframe computers that were intended for “serious” scientific use. Perhaps a group of people that have not received their due credit for the invention of videogames are those kindly professors and lab supervisors who looked the other way as programmers like Steve Russell crept into the lab at night to work on “frivolous” projects like Spacewar!. The innovation that was to launch the videogame industry was not protected by copyrights or patents, nor were any of the people involved motivated by dreams of acquiring great wealth as a result of their work. The rapid development of videogames was possible because game makers enjoyed the four basic rights to software described by Richard Stallman's definition of free software:

1. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
2. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor.
4. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.


Spacewar! was, of course, not the only videogame to find its roots in an open-source community. The original adventure game, appropriately named Adventure, was created by William Crowther. Crowther saw no financial potential in his game, either, and sat idly by as the source code traveled about the still-limited 1970’s software community. A copy ended up in the hands of Don Woods, who felt compelled to contact Crowther and gain permission before maknig some substantial improvements to the game. Even later, a fellow named Jim Gillogly converted the code to the C programming language, making it available on the emerging personal computer. Again we see a critical breakthrough in videogames that originated in a freely giving, freely sharing environment, and none of the individuals responsible were inspired by greed or felt any need to protect their "intellectual property." They were people whose major interest was in building fun videogames and ensuring that their friends got the chance to play them.

The ubiquitous first-person shooters that dominate the videogame market today also find their origin in free software. Id’s Wolfenstein 3-D, released in 1992, and the later and more popular Doom, released a year later, began life as shareware3. Id relied on free, networked distribution to get its product to the masses—and it worked. Id’s strategy was not to stifle competition, but to exceed it, often with marketing tactics that would have never passed the first phalanx of managers at other software corporations. For instance, Id actively encouraged users to design their own levels and modifications to their games. This encouragement led to the forming of a huge “Doom community” that actively supported and maintained enthusiasm for far longer than anyone could have reasonably expected. Id published the source code for Doom in 1997 with certain restrictions; it was then re-released in 1999 under a general public license and has led to the near endless stream of derivative first-person shooters dominating the software charts today. Just imagine how differently the videogame market would look today if Id had been willing and able to prevent all other companies from releasing first person shooters.

Perhaps the most famous and ubiquitous videogame of all time, Tetris, was not even produced in a capitalist country. Alexey Pajitnov was a Russian living under Soviet communism, and thus could hardly be said to have created his game out of desire for profit. Like all game-makers before him, Pajitnov did not "come up with" his game from nowhere; he was inspired by a simple board game--this one called pentominoes. Ironically, the companies who shadily acquired the “rights” to the game from the Soviets, Mirrorsoft and Spectrum Holobyte, ended up battling the matter out in court. Sadly, Pajitnov emigrated to the United States and acquired the rights to his game in 1996, which he promptly decided to enforce. Now, a company named the Tetris Company, Llc. is dedicated to hunting down and stifling the “unlicensed innovations” of would-be Tetris clone makers, commercial or otherwise. One wonders if Tetris Company, Llc. has offered to make royalties to the makers of his pentominoes game.

Other examples of popular public domain, freeware, or shareware titles that were “borrowed” or “repackaged” for commercial distribution are the famous artillery style games—Worms and Scorched Earth are probably the two most popular examples. Worms, of course, is commercial, but Scorched Earth was released as shareware. The first of these artillery style games for personal computers was apparently (1983) Artillery Duel, written by one Jerry Brinson for the Commodore Vic-20, but the game existed on mainframes long before, and the names of the original programmers remain a mystery (probably a good thing for the makers of Worms). Computer role-playing games can be traced back to the many Rogue clones available on UNIX, which were freely distributed to the ultimate benefit of modern CRPG fans. Finally, though the first one-on-one fighting game, Nutting Associates' Warrior was released commercially, the fighting game that "started it all," Capcom's Street Fighter, was based squarely on two earlier fighting games--Data East's Karate Champ and Konami's Yie Ar Kung Fu.

The history of arcade games reveals thousands of borrowings and derivations of older titles. The first arcade game, Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabny’s (1971) Computer Space, could hardly be called anything but a rip-off of Spacewar!. Computer Space failed to generate substantial revenue, but Atari’s (1972) Pong hit the jackpot. Scads of Pong clones hit the market soon after, but rather than spend precious time and resources suing his rivals, Nolan Bushnell tried another strategy: Keeping a step ahead. Knowing that the money-hungry clone makers (he called them his "jackals") would have difficulty keeping ahead of the innovative team at Atari, Bushnell consistently strove to make Atari stand out with radical new videogames, and discouraged his programmers from claiming authorship of their games4. We can only wonder what would have happened if Bushnell had worried more about suing pirates and bootleggers than driving his team on to new projects; perhaps we would never have played Asteroids, Battlezone, or Tempest.

Of course, Bushnell’s “one step ahead” strategy was not the only way to deal with clones; lawyers are always a phone call and a small fortune away. In 1998, Data East decided to take Epyx to court for allegedly ripping off their game World Karate Championship. The court ruled in favor of Epyx, declaring that any young boy could tell the difference between World Karate Championship and Epyx’s Karate Champ. Later, in one of the most ironic court cases in videogame history, Capcom tried suing Data East for “ripping off” Street Fighter II, but again the courts ruled in the clone-makers favor. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), the courts are no longer displaying favoritism towards clone makers, especially when the case involves patent rather than copyright infringement. A case in point is the infamous Amazon.com vs. BarnesandNobles.com, in which the court upheld Amazon’s patent on “one-click ordering.” Many critics of the case cite it as a patently offensive example of why the patent office is long overdue for an overhaul. A flood of patents in the videogame market represents the greatest threat to innovation and creativity yet leveled at independent game developers.

Readers knowledgeable about the early history of Atari will have undoubtedly wondered when (or if) I would acknowledge that Bushnell may have “stolen” Pong, and, indeed, the home videogame console, from an engineer named Ralph Baer. Baer was completely alien to the concept of freely sharing information and ideas with others; his work was motivated purely by a desire for wealth, and he is well-known today mostly for his acquisition of many patents. Baer claims to have “come up with the concept of doing games” on a TV set in 19665. He did not develop the console himself, but allocated the task to other engineers working at Sanders, a defense contractor. The resulting product, the Magnavox Odyssey, did not sell well, perhaps due to poor advertising and legendary mis-marketing. Nevertheless, Baer, a meticulous if unsuccessful businessman, secured a number of broad patents that he would later use to extort a licensing fee from Bushnell’s more popular Atari system. It seems that Baer did not pursue the same fee from the thousands of other Pong manufacturers; perhaps he feared his patent would not stand up in court and may be overturned (Magnavox settled out-of-court with Bushnell). Undoubtedly, the history of videogames would have taken a steep turn if Baer had successfully shutdown Atari and eliminated all competition for the Odyssey.

At this point I should perhaps distinguish between some features of copyright and patent6. Whereas modern copyright is granted to an author at the moment of expression, a patent is only granted after a long and expensive formal registration process. Perhaps the biggest obstacle to securing a patent is the lengthy review process clerks must undergo to ensure that no one has already received a patent for an invention—most cost between $5,000 and $30,000. Applying for and receiving a patent, therefore, is far out of the reach of most ordinary citizens, and have become little more than an effective way for big businesses to monopolize the manufacturer of certain products and, alarmingly, secure the privileged use of various business processes, like Amazon’s one-click ordering. Patents, unlike copyrights, are limited to 20 years. Usually, ridiculously broad patents are overturned, but fighting such suits requires vast sums of money—which most small or startup companies lack. Obviously, there is some question as to whether or not patent law truly promotes progress.

Copyrights originally required a similar registration process to patents. After 1976, copyright was stretched to cover any act of expression, published or otherwise, without any need for registration or even marking materials with the famous ©. Furthermore, throughout the history of copyright law the length of its protection has gradually increased. Lawrence Lessig describes these developments quite succinctly:

In the first hundred years of the Republic, the term of copyright was changed once. In 1831, the term was increased from a maximum of 28 years to a maximum of 42 by increasing the initial term of copy-right from 14 years to 28 years. In the next fifty years of the Republic, the term increased once again. In 1909, Congress extended the renewal term of 14 years to 28 years, setting a maximum term of 56 years.
Then, beginning in 1962, Congress started a practice that has de-fined copyright law since. Eleven times in the last forty years, Congress has extended the terms of existing copyrights; twice in those forty years, Congress extended the term of future copyrights. Initially, the extensions of existing copyrights were short, a mere one to two years. In 1976, Congress extended all existing copyrights by nineteen years. And in 1998, in the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, Congress extended the term of existing and future copyrights by
twenty years.


Some people, including me, will agree with Lessig that these developments are hardly anything to feel proud of as American citizens. The problem becomes obvious when we consider what copyrights and patents really protect: monopolies. The original idea was that granting authors a limited monopoly over the publication of their work would encourage progress in the sciences and the arts; it’s simple capitalism in action. If we assume that people are by nature too greedy to reveal helpful ideas without being paid to do so, we can appreciate the “protection” offered by a sensible copyright law. However, Congress ruined this simple plan by repeatedly extending the length and scope of that monopoly. Now, copyrights are virtually infinite (we can expect them to be consistently extended now) and even wider in scope; whereas the original and most early copyright laws did not cover “derivatives” of a work, modern copyright laws do. The consequence? DJ Dangermouse gets sued by EMI for daring to create a “remix” of “the vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album and the Beatles' White Album.” Here we have a clear case of how copyright law protects the wrong people; only a fool would contend that D.J. Dangermouse’s Gray Album conflicts with the sales of either commercial album, or that consumers might mistake it for one of them. Creative artists who attempt to merge copyrighted works into new forms are the target of one infringement suit after the next, even if their work is strictly non-profit.

At first the connection between a mixed album and software may not be clear. However, when we consider that the next round of clone court cases will probably go the other way, we do have something very real to worry about. Small-time videogame makers simply cannot afford litigation whether they are in the right or wrong. Lessig makes this point by telling the unfortunate story of Jesse Jordan, who did a terrible thing (in the eyes of the RIAA) by improving the search engine at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Accusing Jesse of creating another Napster-like music-thieving device, the RIAA served him papers. At first Jesse and his family wanted to fight, but Jesse’s uncle, a lawyer, discouraged him:

The cost of fighting a lawsuit like this, Jesse was told, would be at least $250,000. If he won, he would not recover that money. If he won, he would have a piece of paper saying he had won, and a piece of paper saying he and his family were bankrupt. So Jesse faced a mafia-like choice: $250,000 and a chance at winning, or $12,000 and a settlement.


Keep in mind that Jesse was not accused of being a “pirate” himself; RIAA was accusing him of enabling piracy by creating a search engine, which users could use to easily find “illegal” music files. What chance does the small-time programmer (like the early Paul Norman, David Crane, Al Acorn, or even Bill Gates) have against the collective forces of corporate America, armed as they are with lopsided copyright power? To make a long story short, we have a situation where powerful monopolies effectively dominate the public with unfair and repressive legislation.

I have already described how so many of our most beloved videogames can trace their genealogy back to freely distributed, open-source type projects. These efforts were later cloned and distributed by either commercial entities or shareware or public domain authors. If we would like to browse the shelves of any videogame store today, we will not find a single title that can be reasonably described as an original; they are all derivates of earlier games and build willy-nilly on the foundations laid for them by “classic games,” the great bulk of which are less than thirty years old. Ironically, most videogame or computer projects that were not heavily protected by intellectual property laws have flourished, whereas many tightly-controlled proprietary projects have failed miserably. Would Microsoft’s Windows have become the standard operating system of the world if it had been impossible or even difficult to illegally copy and distribute it?

If we will allow ourselves to fantasize for a moment, we might wonder at where videogames would be today if the original copyright term of 14 years had not been changed by Congress. In this case, all games made before 1990 would have now entered into the public domain. Furthermore, the source code to these games would no longer be subject to copyright either. Clearly, Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin did not consider this to be a “fantasy” when they wrote the original intellectual property clauses in the U.S. Constitution. They were fully aware, like we are, that a large and vibrant public domain full of relevant works would be a major asset to innovation. There is a balance here between rewarding artists for their hard work and promoting progress by building a public domain from which all citizens were free to build. The current monolithic copyright system can only be described as information feudalism7.

We shouldn’t toss around terms like information feudalism lightly. This is a strong term, and ought to make the bile rise in the throat of any historically-conscious lover of liberty. Feudalism can be defined quite simply as “a legal and administrative order founded upon the exchange of reciprocal undertakings of protection and loyalty among the administrative, military and ecclesiastical elite.” Chiefly, feudalism involved property. A lord was granted, by virtue of his blood or standing with the king, control over a measure of property and the serfs who lived upon it. The serfs worked for the lord, turning over a share of their crops in return for his protection. The lord’s duty was to protect the serfs, of course, but also the king, who would enlist the lord’s aid in fighting off attackers from other kingdoms. Perhaps the most significant aspect of this system was the severe class distinction between lords and serfs: There was no social mobility possible. People found themselves born into a rigid caste system over which they had no control.

This system was rightly challenged, of course, in various revolutions including the famous American one. The Americans of 1777 had a profound dislike for feudal kings, especially when it came to matters of the pocketbook. Why should good American folk pay some distant king a share of their crops for nothing in return? Of course, good loyalists to the king were quick to point out that the king deserved what was owed him; after all, the American colonies were his property, and the colonists ought to be happy to pay up. It didn’t matter that the king did not allow the colonists any representation in government, or periodically hiked taxes or executed the occasional dissident. It also didn’t matter that good King George was prone to random bouts of madness. Americans ought to abide by the law, even if they had nothing to do with making that law.

Naturally, we should not feel obligated here to retell the history of the American Revolution, describe the original U.S. Constitution, or examine the Bill of Rights. We would inevitably paint a rosier picture than these events warranted, as almost every decision made in these times seems to have resulted more from a misunderstanding of the needs of big business than anything else. It is likely that if Thomas Payne were revived from the dead and witnessed what had happened to America, he would rush to the nearest gun shop and arm himself and anyone else who’d ride along with him to Washington, D.C. Thankfully, we don’t need Payne’s permission to say, “Give me liberty, or give me death!” (a phrase that would be subject to copyright had it been printed today.)

This is not to suggest that we start shooting the lawyers, senators, and representatives who got us into this mess. Resorting to violence of this sort does seem necessary in a fight against the lords of feudal Europe, but other weapons are needed in this modern fight against the intellectual lords of multinational corporations.

3. Pirates or Information Liberators?

We began this article by describing a rather silly device dreamed up Gene Roddenberry; namely, the replicator. I want to return now to that discussion, but discuss “replication” in terms that are far less fictional than the RIAA, MPAA, or any giant software corporation would like to imagine: Software copying.

It is difficult to copy a carrot short of growing one, and even that’s not a copy but a completely different carrot. Most of us don’t try to grow a carrot when we’re making a salad; we go to the store and pick up a bag of them. We rightly consider it wrong to take that bag without paying the clerk. Somebody put a lot of work into growing that carrot, and, assuming the price isn’t excessive, and assuming we don’t find carrots unfit for human consumption, we don’t mind purchasing carrots. However, let us assume that upon our next visit to the grocery store, we were informed that a new system had been devised for selling carrots. It went something like this:

These aren’t just carrots. These are a special hybrid carrot created by Beta Carotene Cartels, Inc. You are not allowed to share this carrot with anyone—it is ONLY for your own personal consumption. You are not allowed to modify this carrot in anyway, including boiling, baking, peeling, washing, or adding it to other vegetables (i.e., vegetable medleys). You may only eat it raw. You are expressly forbidden to try to plant this carrot and grow another carrot. You are not allowed to reverse engineer this carrot or make any chemical analyses of its structure. Finally, if you eat only part of the carrot and return later to eat the rest, you must pay the full price of the carrot again. Failure to comply with this user agreement will result in fines of up to $1,000,000.


Bugs Bunny would ask, “What’s up, Doc?” About fifteen minutes later, Elmer Fudd would be tounge-tied and close to suicide, all because of the clever antics of that wascally wabbit. Needless to say, Bugs would break every one of these rules and have a damnably good time doing it, too. In the end, Fudd would end up a poor, sobbing wreck, a victim of his own stupidity and mean-heartedness.

Thirty years after the Copyright Extension Act of 1976, and six years after the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, we still aren’t posing that simple question to the Fudds of this nation. Instead, we sit by as the RIAA takes kids to court and ruins the lives of creative artists in this country and beyond. We try to rationalize Congress’ ready granting of eternal monopolies not only to artists, but to corporate copyright owners of works created by authors long dead. We comply with all of the ridiculous stipulations attached to our carrots because we feel powerless to do anything about them, and we all fear being made an example of by the powers that be. We keep our heads down and try to stay out of the way as big business and corrupt politicians make a mockery of the Constitution.

There is no question why the RIAA and other conglomerations of copyright holders targeted Napster. Peer-to-peer file sharing marks a new stage in the evolution of digital distribution. Never before has the mass distribution of films, songs, texts, and software been so easy or so efficient—and it all took place not only without, but against the desires of multinational corporations and “copyright holders” the world over. Never before in history has it been so easy to reproduce and distribute works of art, never before has the average man or woman—indeed, child—had such access to the important works of culture and society, whether that be ancient Greek texts or the latest videogame. As far as digital media is concerned, we now have the Replicator.

How have the forces of industry and the government responded to this miracle of modern technology? The government has become a disgusting parody of that hallowed body that drafted a few half-forgotten documents in 1776; rather than promote literacy, the government fights it—first by slashing budgets to American schools and second by allowing our court system to be flooded with feudal legislation brought by the assembled might of multinational corporations against individual Americans—even youths. Instead of glorifying in the enormous potential of the Internet to disseminate information and enable progress on a global scale, our government has sided almost exclusively with those forces whose only desire is to mercilessly squeeze profit from the blood, sweat, and tears of the folk of all nations. The government talks of the importance of maintaining egregious, even embarrassing copyright laws. At the same time when a new videogame is likely to cost $50, a new CD $15 (which is often more than the DVD of which the CD is a soundtrack) the president of the RIAA earns more than $1 million a year, and the average recording artist makes $45,900. Let us not even pretend that the talent behind our favorite videogames receive the rewards of their labor; reports in the Occupational Outlook Handbook report roughly the same earning potential for computer programmers while “Many CEOs make more in a year than their employees will make in a lifetime”—even if the business fails they may still earn multi-million dollar payouts (the "golden parachute"). Considering that the only time we hear of CEOs is in reference to their monstrous salaries or decisions, we can reasonably infer that they exist purely as a means of stifling innovation and oppressing anyone with the misfortune to be under their power. We might best refer to them as mobile lords of the digital millennium.

Clearly, the history of videogame development bears out the thesis that innovation decreases with the increase in corporate control. We might reasonably infer from this that the profitability of modern software is its primary obstacle to truly radical new developments, for the simple reason that profitable ventures attract the attention of the most uncreative people imaginable; the feudal lords who lord it over us from their perch atop the shoulders of giants.

The Pac-Man copyright Game.
Copyright-Man.

There have always been those “wascally wabbits” who have made life difficult, or at least somewhat irksome, for the lords of commercial software: Namely, those pesky spreaders of “warez,” the software pirates. I do not intend here to venerate pirates or champion software piracy, even though at times the atrocities the multinational corporations commit against struggling artists is enough to make me particularly sympathetic. My wish is not that we would all become pirates, but that we could fight to change the laws and make some forms of “piracy” perfectly legal—as they ought to be. Rather, what I do wish to point out is that the pirate’s audacity in circumventing “copy protection” in a few specific conditions is often highly advantageous even to “legal owners”: One, by enabling rightful owners to make more efficient use of the product either by copying--for purposes of backup copies or installation on a hard drive, or by modifying the software for useful or creative ends (i.e., the addition of a “trainer,” level editor, bypassing annoying manual-searches and so on). In short, if a software company tries in some mechanical way to limit the uses to which their product can be put by rightful owners, then we should find no fault with pirates with the talent and motivation to circumvent such artificial and arbitrary limitations. Incidentally, it is this very type of “piracy” or “hacking” that is specifically targeted by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which is the reason why it’s so hard to find a DVD copy program capable of making backup copies of personal DVD collections. Simply put, it is entirely ethical and reasonable for the purchaser of a digital product, whether that be a CD, DVD, or software program, to decide how best to use that work, including making personal copies or even sharing it as one would share a book (not a photocopy of the book, but the actual book).

The second, and to my mind more controversial, utility of piracy is the circumvention and distribution of any software that is more than 14 years old—the terms set by the original copyright clause of the U.S. Constitution. I hold that 14 years is enough time for a creative software artist to profit financially from his or her work. This makes sense enough with printed books; almost any novel will be long out of print after 14 years, but it makes even more sense with software—most 14 year old pieces of software (99%, perhaps?) will not even run on modern computers (without emulation software, hardware, or both), and a “revamped” or “updated” version of the game is rightly considered an entirely new work—the original version ought still fall into the public domain after 14 years have expired. Those who love “abandonware” titles can either abandon their desire to play an out-of-print game or risk the legal perils of “emulation.” This last tactic is risky at best, since at any moment the owner of a copyright may surface from the deep and bring everyone responsible for this “infringement” to court, where, as we mentioned earlier, the individual has no option but to lose.

Legal emulation is difficult because (a) the owner of the copyright must be tracked down, (b) this owner must grant explicit permission for this use, and (c) emulation in general is a legal “gray area” that may itself constitute a copyright infringement even if the copyright owner grants permission (since the “emulation” software might represent a violation of the DMCA by bypassing the copy protections built into the software). Tracking down the owner of a copyright is not an easy task; since no one has to register copyrights with the government, the only way to get at these owners is a horribly expensive and tedious cat-and-mouse game. Pragmatically speaking, only rich corporations have the money, knowledge, and time necessary to track down these owners and negotiate a copyright settlement—and, naturally, that’s what we have seen happen. A given piece of “abandonware” becomes a hot item on the emulation circuit, and groups like Cloanto go to work to purchase or license the copyright. Copyright secured, these companies go to work scouring the net for the “illegal ROMS” and resort to chilling effect tactics to shut them down. Soon enough, only these third-parties, who had nothing whatsoever to do with the making of the software whose copyright they “own,” are the only companies from which it can be purchased. Much like feudal lords squatting on a piece of property granted them by birth, these information lords then demand their “fifth.” Piracy may be the best weapon to keep these practices from becoming too profitable and thus more prevalent.

My next point is not so much about piracy as the benefits of promoting derivatives of published works. As we discussed earlier regarding the derivation of all modern software titles from works that have come before, and the questionable nature of litigations against “cloning,” we ought to loudly oppose and find ways to resist practices that stifle this form of creativity. Contemporary software programmers ought to feel as free to borrow from old and new software as freely as those who came before them. The term “clone” here is misleading, because I cannot advocate the silly practice of literally copying a work and then taking credit for it. What I do fear is that software innovations will soon be challenged by the giant multinational corporations on the basis of an alleged patent or copyright infringement. Amazon’s one-click ordering is one thing, but what if the major software makers began patenting concepts critical to a genre of videogames? Let us assume, for instance, that someone owned the patent to “first person shooters,” and required all subsequent first-person shooter titles to either purchase an expensive license or, more likely, simply forbid all such derivations (to maintain a stranglehold monopoly). What about the maker of a racing simulation who threatened other game-makers because their products mimicked the “look and feel” of theirs and thus infringed on a patent? Clearly, we ought to fight software patents as much as we can; I can think of no advantages to this scheme and only looming disadvantages to everyone involved (including the owner of the patent, who ought to be worried about making further innovations rather than forbidding those of others).

What I hope to have accomplished here is a challenge to naive notions of copyright and intellectual property, especially regarding videogames. My contention here is that the copyright law is not fulfilling its obligation to “promote the progress of science and useful arts” but is functioning in the opposite manner by stifling competition, encouraging monopolies, and alienating independent and small-game developers with a “chilling effect.” As many economists point out, good capitalism requires good competition, and “copyrights and patents are superfluous and wasteful,” reducing competition along with quality and efficiency. The return to the 14-year term of the founder’s copyright is important enough for the formation of a public domain in all arts and sciences, but nowhere is this need greater than in software, where it simply isn’t feasible for game developers to wait 75+ years for a work to make its way into the public domain. We need these works in the public domain not only for the fun of playing them, but, more importantly, so that generations of future programmers can learn from, and build on, the triumphs of their predecessors without fear.

I would strongly recommend that you visit the following Websites for more information on this topic:

The Creative Commons. Creative Commons is an organization committed to offering creative authors (software, music, etc.) a less restrictive form of intellectual property protection. For instance, a CC license may allow users to copy software as long as they provide attribution to the original author.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation. A heavy-weight champion of intellectual freedom, the EFF has fought long and hard against the draconian forces of multinational corporations to control information. Please visit their site and consider offering a donation.

GNU Operating System - Free Software Foundation. This is Richard Stallman's site and contains a great deal of information about the cultural benefits of software freedom.

Notes

1 A fun literary example of this is Ray Bradbury’s “The Flying Machine,” which describes an ancient Chinese emperor’s fear that an inventor’s flying machine will render the newly-finished Great Wall obsolete. Unfortunately, due to copyright restrictions, this wonderful story from 1953 is not freely available.

2IBM is now actively fighting Microsoft by dumping billions of dollars into the development of Linux, an open-source operating system.

3It is important to distinguish shareware from freeware or open-source software. Shareware is freely distributable with the expectation that users will either donate money to the programmers or buy an “official” or full version of the software. Many shareware products are classified as “trialware,” which means that they will either stop working after awhile or have many “crippled” features to encourage purchasing the full versions. Freeware is totally free to distribute, and the users are not expected to contribute money. Furthermore, there are no disabled features. Another term for freeware is “Public Domain software.” Finally, open-source software is software whose “source code” is made available to anyone distributing it. Open-Source software is not necessarily freeware, however.

4Electronic Arts got its start by recruiting "star talent" and offering their programmers much better publicity, in effect treating them like "Rock Stars."

5Source: Kent, Stephen L. The Ultimate History of Videogames. New York: Prima, 2001.

6An excellent text that clearly establishes the necessity of abolishing the patent system altogether is David R. Koepsell’s The Ontology of Cyberspace.

7There is a popular book called Information Feudalism written by Peter Drahos.

Why Write for Armchair Arcade?

Author: Matt Barton
Editing: Bill Loguidice
Online Layout: Matt Barton

Welcome to the third issue of Armchair Arcade. If this is your first visit to our Website, or even if you are a regular on our forums, you may be interested to learn about the history of this publication and what could possibly obsess three otherwise sane gentlemen to dedicate so much of their free time and energy to lovingly prepare articles and commentaries on such a seemingly frivolous topic as videogames. Why Armchair Arcade?

The editors of Armchair Arcade, Buck Feris, Bill Loguidice (pronounced low-joo-diss), and Matt Barton met on a retro-gaming Internet forum. This forum was noted for its intense and highly prolific community of participants, who often found themselves moving far beyond simple discussions of how cool old games were to in-depth analyses of what makes games tick; indeed, the participants often found themselves pondering the ontology of videogames themselves (the being of videogames). The philosophical and critical climate was so rich that it seems inevitable, looking back, that some of those board members would wish to move beyond a discussion-based format to something a bit more solid and lasting; namely, an online publication with well-researched and professionally edited articles. Buck Feris (then known only as Xyzzy) finally officially proposed the idea, and it wasn’t long before the other two members—Blacklily8 (Matt Barton) and Bill Loguidice joined the fray. Buck rented the Web space and installed a content management system called e107, and soon afterwards the team went to work.

Emulator screenshots of Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders, and Super Mario Bros.
Pac-Man, Frogger, Space Invaders and Super Mario Bros.

Armchair Arcade has never been a commercial project, and the current editors have no intention of converting to a pay-model. Instead, our reward is simply being read as widely as possible. We enjoy sharing ideas and participating in fruitful discussions of our favorite topics: Videogames and Computers. Indeed, our readership has risen far beyond what we ever expected when we began our ambitious quest; hundreds of readers just like you have visited the site, read these articles, and contributed to the site either by adding comments or joining our rather bustling forum. Of course we welcome such participation, but I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to submit a full-length article to Armchair Arcade. First, let me answer the obvious question: Why write for Armchair Arcade?

Well, I wish I could say that doing so would bring you great money and fortune, but that is unfortunately not something we are able and, as stated, willing to provide, even if you are a Famous Author. Likewise, it seems foolish of me to even guarantee fame, since our readership is hardly the type to be taken in by glitz and glam, and tend to praise only works that deserve such praise. Finally, I can hardly even promise that you will be widely read and referenced, since our previous success was hardly expected (though greatly appreciated). Why, then, submit an article?

Let me give you my own reasons for writing articles for Armchair Arcade. First of all, I do not consider our subject matter to be either frivolous or a simple matter of entertainment. Videogames are no longer the toys of geeky young men who spend far too much time in Radioshack. Rather, they are an important part of our culture; indeed, the videogame market has lately been realizing a far greater profit than Hollywood. Videogames, and characters, themes, and styles derived from videogames, are everywhere. Chances are, more people have played Space Invaders, Pac-Man, or Super Mario Bros. than have experienced any single motion picture or novel. Videogames have penetrated very deeply into the American psyche, and, just as important figures arose in the early days of novels to consider their impact on society and room for development, and a later era saw the growth of a healthy market for film criticism, the current era is birth to a whole new generation of critics eager to do the same for videogames. Slowly but surely, videogame criticism is moving from the realm of teen-age ranting “This game rawks!” or “This game sux!” to sophisticated and intelligent aesthetic and theoretical discussions. Furthermore, as the success of such books as The Ultimate History of Videogames and Dungeons and Dreamers reveals, a steady market is growing for works on videogame history and cultural development. People are getting excited about videogames—and not only playing them more than ever, but also reading and writing about them.

Certainly, some people have noticed the powerful effect videogames are having on our culture, particularly their alleged harmful effects on young people. One certainly does not need to read Armchair Arcade to be aware of all of the negative publicity videogames have received as a result of the tragedy at Columbine. Concerned parents have lobbied Congress to carefully monitor the videogame market and censor videogames they consider to be corrupting America’s youth. A rating system was adopted for videogames very similar to the one developed by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) for movies. Still, kids get access to violent and adult oriented videogames as easily as they can visit pornographic Websites. Inevitably, if a game developer releases a title allowing players to rape, murder, and commit despicable acts of terrorism, some children are going to play it. The question is, will these videogames have a psychological effect on these impressionable young players, and who is ultimately responsible for disasters like Columbine?

Sadly, almost all critical discussions of videogames have focused on the negative aspects of videogames. We see study after study on the news of the role videogames have played in crimes or childhood obesity. Kids need to get out more. Kids need to be protected from videogame violence. Videogames are a dangerous addiction that splits up marriages and turns children into mindless zombies. What we have here is a political discussion of videogames, which is usually only as enlightened as the next available politician.

Cover of Issue #1.
Issue #1

This sort of paranoia is nothing new to literary critics, who realize that every new literary genre has been pummeled by those who fear or despise it. Certainly a work of vitriol like Sven Birkert’s Gutenberg Elegies, which warns (or laments) the computer’s debilitating effects on literacy as powerfully as Plato condemned another new technology, namely writing’s, effect on orality (see Plato’s Phaedrus or his Seventh Epistle) is sure to influence the public’s attitude towards videogames. One of the most popular books ever written about videogames is David Sheff’s Game Over: How Nintendo Zapped an American Industry, Captured Your Dollars, and Enslaved Your Children. The arguments always amount to the same thesis: The old system is wonderful, the new system will destroy society as we know it. The problem is that most people who embrace the new technology don’t seem to mind the changes it brings to society. If children stop reading fairy tales and experience them as videogames on their television, does this necessarily spell doom for humanity?

Frankly, those of us who have grown up doing this very thing know better, and, furthermore, we’re getting fed up with these assertions. That’s one reason we want to introduce a new strain of criticism of videogames that gets beyond such simple, negative “gut” reactions and moves into the relatively unexplored territory of serious, thoughtful, sincere analyses of videogames from the perspective of people who have actually played and enjoyed them. This is not to say that we’re blindly positivistic or naively certain that videogames have no negative consequences whatsoever. What it does mean, though, is that we do not approach the topic with the simple prejudice that videogames are evil. I can discuss the political problem of “Gay Characters in Videogames” without concluding that we ought to ban videogames. In the same manner that a scientist sees evidence for evolution in a pile of fossils, or a Christian fundamentalist only sees evidence for the devil’s handiwork, the videogame theorists writing for Armchair Arcade are willing to move beyond “common sense” and try to get at rational (or at times, irrational) theories or criticism.

What is really interesting about videogames? Well, there is that small matter of definition. After all, what are these strange things we call “videogames?” Is a Simon handheld a videogame? Can the interactive menus on a DVD be called a videogame? What about a “videogame” for the blind, in which no video is ever displayed? These questions, called ontological questions, are simply trying to get at what the being of videogames really is. At what point does something stop being something else and become a videogame?

Besides these ontological questions, there are also aesthetic considerations. When people hear this term, they may think of the phrase, “That’s aesthetically pleasing” uttered in the context of a work of architecture. I tend to think of the effects a work has on the senses; not only how it looks, but how it makes us feel. There are obviously many aesthetic considerations to take into account when one studies videogames; graphics, are obvious, but also subtler details like the texture of an object or even the ergonomics of a joystick. What really makes a game aesthetically pleasing? Are games that appear three-dimensional, like Doom, intrinsically better than two-dimensional games like Metroid? This very discussion took place long ago in another context; namely, the use of perspective in Renaissance painting. Naturally, painters like Alberti favored the new methods, but modern artists employ a variety of techniques and can hardly be measured (at least by enlightened critics) by the proximity of their paintings to objects or scenes in the real world. Whether one talks about cell-shading techniques in the latest Microsoft XBox title or the use of color in an impressionist painting, one is having a discussion about aesthetics. Perhaps what makes videogames such an appealing subject for aesthetics is that so many senses are involved; players not only see a game, but also hear it. In a way, they also touch it, that is, they must be allowed to interact with objects and scenes in the gaming world. In these ways, aesthetic discussions of videogames are much like similar discussions of architecture.

So far, we have discussed political, ontological and aesthetic aspects of videogames. There are also phenomenologist studies, which might be thought of as psychological. Try to imagine what takes place in your brain when you play a videogame. What actually occurs as you move that frog across the street, dodging cars and hungry alligators? What is the nature of the interplay among your eyes, ears, hands, and that collection of pixels on the screen? How is that you are able to conceive of that blob of colored pixels as a frog in the first place? Imagine if someone walked by a child playing Frogger and asked, “Which one are you?” The child would point to the frog, of course, and say “That’s me.” If this question was enough to distract the child, and the frog met its untimely demise under the wheels of a semi, the child may say, “Look! You made me die!” Isn’t it a bit strange that the girl is so immersed in the game to refer to herself as a blob of pixels? If one of the main characters dies on a television show, the audience doesn’t say “I died,” but “Who shot J.R.?” There is something strange taking place with videogames that gives players the very real sense that they are the avatar. No other genre allows for this kind of identification. Trying to find language to describe this phenomenon is difficult, but I don’t think you need me to tell you that it can sure get interesting in a hurry.

Cover of Issue #2.
Issue #2

A fourth category of videogame criticism is motivated by those little green slips of paper in your purse or wallet—or, more likely, that thin plastic card. Why are people plunking down $50 for one game and letting another drift to the bargain bin and finally to a landfill? Here, of course, we are talking economics, or rather the marketing aspects of videogames. As I wrote earlier, videogames have come a long way since Ralph Baer’s Odyssey. Billions of dollars are spent each year as players scramble for the latest consoles and the CD-ROM's or cartridges required to bring them to life. Countless PC gamers spend hundreds, if not thousands, every few years just to keep their machines updated enough to enjoy the latest titles. The economic considerations are thus very serious, but also highly perplexing. Why are so many new videogames “unoriginal,” and merely the latest entry in a long string of “clones?” Why do some videogame critics speak so vehemently about “engine whoring,” that is, taking an established game and re-working it with different characters, plots, features, and the like? What is more important: Blazing hardware, or popular software? What is this strange thing called “open source,” and why are so many small-time videogame developers worried about software patents and copyrights? For that matter, what is this thing called “software piracy,” and does it hurt or help the videogame industry? Again, thoughtful discussions of these questions quickly lead to complex, enriching, and thoroughly enjoyable evenings. This is fascinating stuff!

This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. This IS all very fascinating, you say, but I’m more interested in the guts. I take a screwdriver to my consoles and peer inside. I dig chips. I get under the hood of my PC and spent last summer building a Doom clone for an Atari Lynx emulator.

Oh, yes, I say, there are also the technical discussions about videogames. Just as some people can wax eloquently for hours about the virtues of acid-free paper or the mechanics of a novel’s plot, there are plenty of videogame enthusiasts who enjoy nothing more than learning about the technical aspects of videogames and the hardware required to run them. What, technically speaking, is the difference between a ColecoVision and an Atari 2600? What are the virtues of the Commodore 64’s SID sound chip, or the Amiga’s Paula? How does one go about making a videogame? I hope I am not implying here that all technical discussions of videogames amount to highly esoteric conversations about microchips and machine language. The human brain is discussed differently at a neurobiologist conference than it would be at a Star Trek convention, or even in a college biology course. I am proud to say that, while my technical knowledge of the games I play and the hardware I play them on is considerable compared to those who know absolutely nothing about them, I am stupefied by many of the statements uttered by several regulars at Armchair Arcade. Some of the technical details in the articles elude me. Is this a problem? Well, perhaps it would be if someone got the technical details wrong, and I ended up formatting my hard drive while trying to burn a homebrew Dreamcast CD. Otherwise, I don’t have a problem. Those who will only write an article for Armchair Arcade after they’ve mastered all of the technical details of every game and game system to date will never open their word processor. Learn from what others have written and write what you know, so that others may know.

Cover of Issue #3.
Issue #3

Whether you are interested in the political, ontological, aesthetic, phenomenological, economic, or technical aspects of videogames, if you care enough to write about it, please consider submitting an article to Armchair Arcade. We are always on the lookout for well-written, knowledgeable articles that will make a valid contribution to videogame criticism. While we aren’t an academic publication like Espen Aarseth’s Game Studies, we take pride in our writers’ willingness to delve into deeper topics and take videogames as seriously as their ubiquity in our society requires. If you have an idea you would like to share with us, please submit it. If we like what we see, we will certainly work with you to develop a fine, publishable article. As those of you who have tried to publish commercial articles are well aware, the value of good editorial feedback is not to be taken lightly. Please keep in mind, however, that we keep our standards high in regards to quality writing, and will reject a piece if we deem it hurriedly produced or clumsily edited. Writing a quality article takes time and effort, but, here at Armchair Arcade, we feel the results render the cost negligible.

Thank you for reading this issue of Armchair Arcade, and please accept our invitation to write an article for future issues.