Armchair Arcade Issue #6 - January 2005


Welcome to Armchair Arcade's Sixth Issue!


Thanks for checking out the latest issue of Armchair Arcade. We're very proud of all the hard work that went into this issue and look forward to discussing our articles with you. We're also pleased to showcase a fresh cover painting by our own cherished artist, Seb Brassard. We hope you'll agree that Seb's masterful work is representative of the fine articles beneath the cover.

Since the last issue, our Retrogaming News section has become a hit, with hundreds of subscribers to our RSS feed and regular discussion of news items. We've also enjoyed record-smashing hit counts (over 10,000 unique visitors in November!) and expect even more for this dynamite issue. Please, share your knowledge of this great resource with your friends and co-workers! We're counting on you to spread the word of all the great things we're doing here at Armchair Arcade. Remember, if you only read the articles and don't participate in our friendly forum community, you're missing out. Register on the site—it's free!

We are also pleased to introduce four new staff members to the team: Staff Writer Mat Tschirgi, Assistant Editor Mark Vergeer, and Web Editors Cecil Casey and Don Ferren.
- Matt, Bill, David and Seb

Issue 6's articles:

The editors speak in this Issue's Hot Topic editorial: Emulation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Pt. 2 - Emulation and Abandonware: Good or Evil?

Finish Him! Where have all the Fatalities Gone?
by Mat Tschirgi
In this hackle-raising article, Mat looks at fighting games and finds that the great majority lack innovation—"Sure, they have moved from 2-D to 3-D, but basic game play mechanics have remained virtually unchanged." Thankfully, Mat has found a few games, like One Must Fall: 2097, Bushido Blade, and Super Smash Bros., that do buck the trend. Expect to see some significant controversy in the comment section of this article!

Hackers, Slackers, and Shackles: The Future of Free Software Game Development
by Matt Barton
This article is the result of months of research and interviews with free and proprietary independent software developers. It provides great insight into the future of what is more commonly termed "open source" game development and asks the "hard questions." Will the games of the future be free or proprietary, and how will this affect gamers? Matt explores all this and more. Don't miss it!

A Game of Concentration: Videogames and ADHD
by Patty McCabe-Remmell

Most people think that videogames cause ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyper-Disorder), but Patty argues the opposite and offers her own experiences (as both a gamer and a mother) as a case-in-point: "Gaming allowed me to focus for once, and gave me ample practice in channeling and focusing thoughts in order to complete a task." Read it!

Atari Flashback versus Commodore 64 30-in-1
by Bill Loguidice
"TV games", or consoles that have a fixed set of games, have become quite popular and seem to show up everywhere. The Atari and Commodore names have always been part of a fierce rivalry, and while the companies behind these products are different, the competition continues in TV game form. Which device delivers? Read before you buy!

Computer Camp Catastrophes
by Mat Tschirgi
Mat is a gamer of many talents, one of which is teaching kids how to make their own games. This anecdotal piece describes his hits and misses teaching videogame development (with RPG Toolkit and Gamemaker) to kids at computer camp. It's full of wisdom and insight for anyone interested in introducing children to the creative side of computing and an entertaining read.

Shutting Down Windows
by David Torre
In the first of many Armchair Arcade articles that focuses on more than just games, David's passionate but honest editorial explains why we ought to give up Microsoft's proprietary operating system and join the legions switching to Linux. Why is Linux something we should be excited about? Read this provocative piece to find out.

A Game of Concentration: Videogames and ADHD

Author: Patty McCabe-Remmell
Editing: Bill Loguidice, Cecil Casey
Web Layout: Cecil Casey

When all is said and done, and the future reveals that all the bogeymen of technology have not created a society full of violent idiots, as the fear-mongers predict we will, I will look down from on high and have a good laugh. Just like the adage that television would rot one's brain, the notion that videogames are at the root of the demise of America's children will be dismissed with a laugh and a "yeah right, as if."

Since the advent of video gaming, reports in the media have attempted to tie the use of videogames to all sorts of bad things, not the least of which is a rising penchant for violence among school children. Indeed, ever since television entered the scene, video violence has been blamed for decades of school bullying and other aggressive behavior1. The shootings at Columbine High School and other schools during the closing years of the 1990s were held up by media and self-help pundits as proof. Parents were aghast and games like Mortal Kombat which displayed gory fight scenes. This spawned a movement of self-help gurus who, via the Internet, began advising parents the evils of too much gaming, especially if the child in question was "at risk" in any way. Because children with ADD are often seen as impulsive, and sometimes even violent, the question of the correlation between videogames and the acquisition or acceleration of attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD or ADHD2) is begged. The reason for this is mostly because of the frustration that is attendant with a disorder that manifests itself in the sufferer as a feeling that the brain is rapidly changing channels, as if on television. It is difficult or impossible to focus when one's attention is constantly being drawn to other things. Even as I write this, I struggle to stay on task and keep my paragraphs flowing smoothly, but then again, writing was my way of coping with ADD as a child.

I was diagnosed with ADD as an adult. There was no such convenient diagnosis back in the 1950s and 1960s when I was being labeled as "difficult," "moody," or "impulsive." "Your daughter is very smart but she just doesn't apply herself" is the line my mother would hear over and over again.

My reactions to being misunderstood for all those years manifested themselves through rage and outbursts. To this day, my mother remembers me as being difficult to live with. Imagine my disappointment when, at school age, my son began to exhibit the exact same symptoms. Luckily, by the 1990's, there was a name for it.

AD/HD guru Dr. Edward M. Hallowell says, "The diagnosis can be liberating, particularly for people who have been stuck with labels like 'lazy,' 'stubborn,' 'willful,' 'disruptive,' 'impossible,' 'tyrannical,' 'a space shot,' 'brain damaged,' 'stupid,' or just plain 'bad.' 3" What remains, however, is the question of whether one should simply learn to cope, as generations before had done, or whether one should medicate. Schools are all for medication because it's easier than dealing with a child who is struggling to cope, but there are drawbacks to starting children on a pill-popping habit early. One is that it sets the stage for drug dependency. The other is that the ADD label can hastily be applied to any child by overworked and harried teachers who simply wish to request a chemical babysitter.

CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder), an organization founded to champion the cause of children and adults who suffer from AD/HD, explains:

Children with AD/HD are "at-risk" for potentially serious problems: academic underachievement, school failure, difficulty getting along with peers, and problems dealing with authority. Furthermore, up to 67 percent of children will continue to experience symptoms of AD/HD in adulthood. However, with early identification and treatment, children and adults can be successful. Studies show that children who receive adequate treatment for AD/HD have fewer problems with school, peers and substance abuse, and show improved overall functioning, compared to those who do not receive treatment. In adulthood, roughly one third of individuals with AD/HD lead fairly normal lives while half still have symptoms that may interfere with their family relationships or job performance. However, severe problems persist in about ten percent of adults.4

Zelda Logo.

I decided to be one of those parents who chose to teach my child how to cope and while the road has been hard, I see the benefits as he gets older. He has learned how to control his aggression and has become more socially adjusted than other children who, in my view, are warehoused in a chemical haze. One of the things I chose for my son as an outlet is videogames. The reason is probably because I was fascinated by videogames from the time I saw my first Space Invaders console in a college bar back in the 80s. I found Pacman to be strangely soothing and frustrating at the same time. Nintendo was even better. I would lose myself in The Legend of Zelda for hours. Gaming allowed me to focus for once, and gave me ample practice in channeling and focusing thoughts in order to complete a task. As I got to know other gamers, I began to see a relationship between videogames and people who exhibited all the signs of attention deficit. This is probably because my friends who are extremely passionate about video gaming were also considered "eccentric" as children. We were the kids who daydreamed during classes. We've been called weirdoes, social outcasts, geeks: the very people who invented video gaming in the first place.

Detractors say that videogames, because of their interactive nature, are stimuli for already overworked brains, but there is no conclusive evidence that this is true. On one hand, according to the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, some studies suggest that "real-life violent video game play [is] positively related to aggressive behavior and delinquency." On the flip side, however, the article goes on to state:

"The research to date on video game effects is sparse and weak in a number of ways. Indeed, one reviewer (and many video game creators) has espoused the belief that "video game playing may be a useful means of coping with pent-up and aggressive energies" (Emes, p. 413). In brief, what is needed is basic theory-guided research on the effects of playing violent videogames."5

There is something about the rapid-response demand of most videogames that helps someone with AD/HD focus -- a rarity in the AD/HD world of any child or adult who suffers from it. Some have said this is because of a correlation between the brain's ability to produce dopamine and AD/HD:

The increase in dopamine production in the brain during video game play is no different than smoking marijuana, or a person being injected with amphetamines, or the ADD drug Ritalin. The change in brain chemistry is the first hard evidence that video game playing is addictive, like a dose of speed. Accordingly, these kids are addicted to raised dopamine levels, and can't concentrate on anything without them.5

Addiction to videogames themselves plays a very small part of a larger neurological picture. It may explain why those diagnosed with adult ADD are usually those with some type of addiction, whether it be to "legal" drugs like alcohol or illegal ones like marijuana. Stimulus addiction is a factor in the argument against videogames: the child become addicted to the stimulus rather than the play itself. Speaking from the position "inside" an ADD brain, however, I can argue that it is not so much the dopamine or the stimulus but the fact that games are havens from the incessant chaos of our thoughts. This is what makes it difficult to get us to leave that comfortable space for another which might be even more frenzied, especially if it means having to go out in public where the world is as frenetic as our own thoughts. One begins to see, then, that what makes videogames so enticing to a kid with ADD is that it is an escape from the world -- but not necessarily a bad escape. Rather than sucking the child out of reality and into some cyber-coma, the act of gaming allows him or her to focus a million thoughts into about a hundred or even ten. It's a break. It's a calming of the mind after a day of brain-bombardment. I have watched my son relax in this manner, and, when he is finished, is able to take up the task of homework or dinner or emptying the dishwasher with relative calm (emphasis on relative). The difficulty in tearing him away without a tantrum disappeared when I learned different approaches to separating him from something in which he was intensely absorbed. This is all part of strategies learned as a parent of an AD/HD child and has nothing to do with the "doping" factor of a video game.

I sit here now and watch my son as he creates a new football character on the Sony PlayStation 2 (PS2). He is god of his own little world in which he can design a football player as well as a stadium or an entire NFL team. He can virtually play an entire NFL season and has -- winning the Super Bowl several times already, never seeming to tire of the game..

I was talking to him just the other day about why he hasn't "gone Columbine," since he has been playing videogames since he discovered my old Nintendo at age four or five. He scoffed at me, and started to protest and I said, "Well you know, behavioral scientists have been saying for years that violent videogames produce violent children." This was met with a derisive laugh and the usual look that said "mom, you are SO uncool" and I dropped the subject.

So here is my son: a typical American teenager except for the daily dance with ADD. Yes, he was exposed to violent videogames via the other kids around him: his cousins, schoolmates, friends. Why, then, has he not become violent? Indeed, why does he purposely not choose violent games? He has a propensity for aggression, yet he has no desire to play Halo unless friends are playing and then he will join in.

Madden 2005 screen

Madden 2005.
© 2004 Electronic Arts.

Beyond his PS2, he enjoys Flash games on Web-based sites such as Newgrounds (http://www.newgrounds.com/), and PC games such as Hot Wheels Stunt Track Driver and Rollercoaster Tycoon, but he draws the line at Sims, which he feels is too slow-moving. (To my eternal chagrin, I do not have a PC dedicated to games.) PS2 is his favorite system, although he would give his right arm for a new Nintendo handheld to carry around. His primary choices for games are sports games, such as EA Games' Madden and Tiger Woods offerings, but he has had the most fun and spent the most time with the Tony Hawke series from Activision. There are also all sorts of other games available to him including war and shoot-em-up games such as Medal of Honor and fantasy games such as Final Fantasy and Return of the King[/i], but he always goes back to games where he can create and build, if not ex nihilo, then from some fantastic ground constructed by some far-off Japanese developer.

So, essentially, to say that videogames are a cause of AD/HD is absurd. To say that violent videogames produce violent children is absurd. I watched The Three Stooges for years and never poked anyone in the eye. Behavioral problems, by and large, point to bad parenting rather than bad genes, and I am loath to say that bad parenting may be becoming so prevalent, it may indeed evolve into a part of our DNA, but that's too scary even for the SCI FI channel to consider. A Google search reveals articles supporting the idea that videogames cause AD/HD are mostly published by drug and attention-monitoring device companies. There may be something to my theory that videogames might be beneficial, however. Science is, in fact, revealing that videogames, despite the tolling of the doomsayers' litany about their propensity for making future juvenile delinquents, may be useful in terms of biofeedback.

The spring 2002 edition of the Berkeley Medical Journal states:

More than 15 years of studies show that with the aid of a computer display and an EEG sensor attached to the scalp, ADHD patients can learn to modulate brain waves associated with focusing. Increasing the strength of high-frequency beta waves and decreasing the strength of low-frequency theta waves, for example, creates a more attentive state of mind. With enough training, changes become automatic and lead to improvements in grades, sociability, and organizational skills.

Biofeedback, however, is much too costly a treatment, requiring up to forty sessions over several months at a cost of $3,000 to $4,000. Insurance companies, therefore, will opt to cover drug therapy rather than the more expensive but less invasive alternative. NASA, however, has funded a study by Alan Pope, a behavioral scientist, at NASA's Langley Research Center in Langley, Virginia, and inventor of virtual reality biofeedback. Pope had been researching the level of interaction between cockpit controls and pilots in an attempt to design controls that monitor the brain waves of pilots and automatically switch to "auto" if a pilot began to get drowsy or lose consciousness. This type of study is beneficial for those who are looking for non-prescription treatment of AD/HD.

According to the BMJ:

Pope applied his findings to help AD/HD patients stay focused by rewarding an attentive state of mind. He realized, however, that the simple displays that were already part of biofeedback treatment may not be enough to hold the interest of restless youngsters. He then chose several common videogames and linked the biofeedback signal from the player's brain waves to the handheld controller that guides the games' actions. "In one auto-racing game, a car's maximum speed increases if the player's ratio of beta to theta waves improves. The same sort of feedback also controls the steering," Pope says.

The test groups, utilizing 22 children between the ages of nine and 13, had "fewer no-shows and no drop-outs " according to Pope, who also noted that "both groups showed substantial improvements in everyday brain-wave patterns as well as in tests of measuring attention span, impulsiveness, and hyperactivity. Parents in both groups also reported that their children were doing better in school." The article goes on to say that this type of biofeedback can be self-taught since children are already familiar with video gaming and systems are already being marketed. There is a caveat, however: only specifically developed systems should be used and no other videogames should be substituted, but this comes from the company marketing the system. Another warning, from Professor Stephen Hinshaw, a clinical psychologist at UC Berkeley: "Biofeedback is a promising potential alternative, but unfortunately the kinds of really well-controlled studies that might support its clinical benefits have yet to be performed." What is promising is that biofeedback, while requiring a longer period of time to learn (as opposed to quick-acting drugs such as Ritalin), "has the potential for longer-lasting effects."6

Videogames have other potential benefits. There is evidence that they can also be used for treatment of phobias. According to Game Industry News7, "Researchers at the University of Quebec in Outaouais found that videogames can be more effective in treating patients with phobias than commercially developed virtual environments costing as much as $10,000, and the games do it at a fraction of the cost." The GIN goes on to say:

"Patients were given a chance to get used to the environments without anything to trigger phobias, and then exposed to the stimulus. The researchers found there was little simulator sickness, which can be common in virtual realities, and that the programs stimulated the right level of anxieties for use in therapy. The modified therapeutic environments, which under the game licenses must be distributed for free, can be downloaded from the University of Quebec at Outaouais's Cyberpsychology Laboratory Website.".

Ultimately, videogames are not the "Big Bad Wolf" that a lot of self-help and behavioral gurus would have us believe, and, of course, moderation is the key to success with anything. Overindulgence can only be achieved if we allow it -- both in ourselves and in our children. As human beings, we are endowed with free will and the power to make good or bad choices. The prevailing trend of blaming external causes for our own bad habits is merely the result of decades of self-indulgence and self-absorption. At least in my own household, with a little time management and a lot of behavior modification, videogames do not seem to be taking over our minds, making us prone to violence at the drop of a hat. Quite the contrary: video gaming has offered a safe haven from a world of stimuli and another triumph against a society that would have us medicated and complacent.

Notes

1 "Violent Video Games Under Attack." Wired News.
2 The common acronym is AD/HD according to the Children and Adults with ADD organization (CHADD).
3 Ibid.
4 Anderson, Craig A. and Karen E. Dill. "Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. American Psychological Association. Vol. 78 No. 4. pp 772-790. April 2000.
5 ""Disorders: ADD/ADHD". Accu-Cell 12/04/04.
6 Kwan, Gordon. "http://www.ocf.berkeley.edu /~issues/spring02/ADDplay.html>Play Attention! Can custom-made video games help kids with attention deficit disorder?" Berkeley Medical Journal Issues 2002. 16 Dec., 2004.
7 Game Industry News.

Atari Flashback versus Commodore 64 30-in-1


Atari Flashback versus Commodore 64 30-in-1

Author, Screenshots and Online Layout: Bill Loguidice
Editing: Matt Barton

Special Thanks: Evan Koblentz of Computer Collector newsletter for providing the systems for and participating in the brief, but intense, hands-on review process

Special Notes: A version of this review appeared in the Computer Collector newsletter, Vol. 3, Issue 46: Dec. 20, 2004

 


The popularity of "TV games", which are the class of devices with a fixed number of built-in videogames that plugs directly to the inputs of a television set, has exploded over the past couple of years. TV games have a simple plug-and-play appeal and often impulse purchase price point. The obvious mass market appeal of these devices has left manufacturers looking for ways to either outdo one other in value or to appeal to a niche audience with nostalgia. Two of the latest such devices, the Atari Flashback and the Commodore 64 30-in-1, try to do a little of both, with varying degrees of success.

 

The Atari Flashback comes in a colorful, oversized box, but the system itself and the two detachable controllers are surprisingly tiny. The device features a nice selection of not only 15 Atari 2600 games, but also as befits the obvious inspiration for the design of the unit and its controllers, five Atari 7800 games. Since this is a review of the hardware and implementation, the individual games will not be specifically reviewed. Instead, this unit, as with the Commodore 64 30-in-1, will be analyzed in several key categories, including the way the games are implemented.

 

The 20 games for the Flashback are as follows, listed with their original publisher and release date, as well as with AtariAge's original cartridge rarity scale of 1 - 10, with ten being the hardest to find:

 

Atari 2600

Adventure (Atari, 1980, Rarity 2), Air-Sea Battle (Atari, 1977, 3), Battlezone (Atari, 1983, 2), Breakout (Atari, 1978, 2, Paddles), Canyon Bomber (Atari, 1978, Rarity 2, Paddles), Crystal Castles (Atari, 1984, 2), Gravitar (Atari, 1983, 2), Haunted House (Atari, 1981, 2), Millipede (Atari, 1984, 3), Saboteur (Atari, 1984, Officially Unreleased), Sky Diver (Atari, 1978, 2), Solaris (Atari, 1986, 2), Sprintmaster (Atari, 1988, 4), Warlords (Atari, 1981, 1, Paddles) and Yars’ Revenge (Atari, 1981, 2)

 

Atari 7800

Asteroids (Atari, 1984, Rarity 1), Centipede (Atari, 1984, 1), Desert Falcon (Atari, 1987, 2), Charley Chuck’s Food Fight - originally just Food Fight (Atari, 1984, 2) and Planet Smashers (Atari, 1990, 5)

As can be seen from the list above, all 20 games are originally Atari properties, so no other manufacturer is represented in this collection. Further, most games are generally of the commonly collectible variety and developed fairly early on in each system's lifecycle, with the exception of the 2600's Sprintmaster and the 7800's Planet Smashers, which are both notable for being among the last games officially released for their respective platforms and relatively unknown to even hardcore gamers. Saboteur is also notable, because it's not only programmed by the infamous Howard Scott Warshaw - developer of games like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (Atari, 1982, 1) and Yars' Revenge (included) - but also boldly listed as "unreleased". While this is technically true as the game was never released by Atari originally, AtariAge had recently worked with Warshaw to create a full color boxed cartridge version complete with manual. Warshaw was even at AtariAge's booth at Philly Classic 5 signing copies of the game. Unfortunately, with the pending release of Flashback, Atari felt it was in their best interest to have AtariAge remove all copies of Saboteur from their sales channel, so Flashback is presently the only way to play the game, which, as will become clear later, is not necessarily ideal.

 

It is important to note that while the original Atari 7800 had superior visuals compared to the Atari 2600, they both shared the same sound chip. In fact, the Atari 7800 was almost completely backwards compatible with the Atari 2600, hence the logic behind modeling the system design on the 2600's lesser known sibling and including games for both.

 

In a rare move for a TV game, the Flashback does not have the ability to run on batteries, only with the included AC adapter, limiting its immediate portability. After plugging in the AC adapter, the composite video and mono audio cables, and one or two of the joysticks, the unit is ready to be powered on. After a short intro screen, the game selection menu is displayed. Any of the alphabetically listed 20 games is selectable, or, by highlighting the on-screen system's cartridge port, a very brief textual history. The menu, while attractive, does not display the name of the game on the virtual cartridge until you highlight it, and the menu must be browsed sequentially by moving the joystick up or down, not left or right. The included manual does a nice job of explaining the operation of the unit and how to play each game.

 

After highlighting the game of your choice and pressing the joystick's fire button, the game begins. When holding the diminutive joystick in your hand, you will be surprised to notice how well it seems to fit. Unlike the Atari 7800's somewhat bulky controller, the Flashback's feels just right. Also, unlike the 7800 controller's awkward stick and stiff fire buttons, the Flashback's is highly responsive, which is practically a revolution in the world of TV games, where overall controller quality is often overlooked. In fact, even those games that originally required Atari's paddle controllers, like Breakout, Canyon Bomber and Warlords, work as well with the included controllers as could be reasonably expected with a joystick, save for the paddle's unique ability to accelerate quickly. Despite the joystick connections externally looking the same as the original systems, the internal wiring is different, so the included controllers are the only option. One upside to the proprietary nature of the controllers is the fact that the 'Pause' and 'Select' buttons are now on the front of the joysticks rather than the console itself (sadly, the reset button to return you to the main menu is still on the console). Finally, unlike the normally single player nature of other TV games, the Flashback's two controllers are refreshing, delivering authentic multiplayer gaming for every game that supports it, save for Warlords unique ability to originally support four simultaneous players with two sets of paddles.

 

Sadly, where the Flashback fails is also where other TV games have failed—the quality of the emulation of the original system's abilities. Whether it was the rumored short development cycle, insufficient processing power (apparently based off of a NES/Famicom-on-a-chip!) or some other reason, the fact of the matter is these games are markedly different than their original 7800 and 2600 counterparts. The Flashback version of Asteroids for instance, has washed out colors, elongated (almost oblong) graphics and poor sound. Add to this the fact that the player's ship moves too fast and the asteroids move too slow, you have a recipe for disappointment whether you're aware of how the original is or not. The Atari 2600 games on the Flashback seem to fare a little better, but overall the presentation of all the games leaves something to be desired.

 

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 Classic Plug & Play Video Game or simply Commodore 64 30-in-1, comes in a pyramidal plastic housing for packaging, which, while nice, is not nearly as slick as Atari's standard box for the Flashback. The same can be said for the included manual, which, while not as professional as Atari's version, nevertheless describes the system and games in some detail, albeit in very tiny print.

The 30-in-1 runs exclusively on four AA batteries, which make it more portable than the Flashback, but nevertheless requires the use of a screwdriver to access the battery compartment. After placing the batteries and connecting the included composite video and mono audio cables, the unit is ready for action.

 

When the 30-in-1 starts, after a few credit screens, the Commodore 64's (C-64) familiar blue basic prompt screen appears and the classic 'Load"*",8,1' and 'Run' commands are automatically typed and executed. This is clever the first few times, but every time the unit is reset so another game can be selected from the menu, this screen and sequence is displayed. Regardless of whether this is a necessity or just something the developers thought of as a clever trick, it does get repetitive after a short while, even though it can be bypassed each time with a button press.

 

The 30 games are as follows, listed with their original publisher and release date based on information available from Lemon 64:

 

Bull Riding (Event from World Games, Epyx, 1986), Championship Wrestling (Epyx, 1986), Cyberdyne Warrior (Hewson, 1989), Cybernoid (Cybernoid: The Fighting Machine, Hewson, 1988), Cybernoid II (Cybernoid II: The Revenge, Hewson, 1988), Eliminator (Hewson, 1988), Exolon (Hewson, 1987), Firelord (Hewson, 1986), Flying Disk (Event from California Games, Epyx, 1987), Gateway to Apshai (Epyx, 1983), Impossible Mission (Epyx, 1984), Impossible Mission 2 (Epyx, 1988), Jumpman Junior (Epyx, 1983), Paradroid (Hewson, 1985), Pitstop (Epyx, 1983), Pitstop 2 (Epyx, 1984), Ranarama (Rana Rama, Hewson, 1984), Silicon Warrior (Epyx, 1984), Speedball (Image Works, 1989), Summer Games (Epyx, 1984), Super Cycle (Epyx, 1986), Sumo (Event from World Games, Epyx, 1986), Surfing (Event from California Games, Epyx, 1987), Sword of Fargoal (Epyx, 1983), Tower Toppler (Hewson, 1987), Uridium (Hewson, 1986), Winter Games (Epyx, 1985), World Karate Champion A (World Karate Championship, Epyx, 1986), World Karate Champion B (World Karate Championship, Epyx, 1986), Zynaps (Hewson, 1987)

 

While technically, the list does total 30 games - mostly from Epyx and Hewson - some unusual decisions were made to reach that total. Bull Riding and Sumo are events from within World Games, and Flying Disk and Surfing are events from California Games. Neither World Games nor California Games are included in their entirety, but Summer Games and Winter Games are. Finally, there are the variants of World Karate Championship, World Karate Champion A and B. However the total was achieved, it is nevertheless an impressive number of games for a device of this type.

 

The controller itself is self-contained, with all functions on the same device. There are two large main action buttons (C-64 joysticks always had one), a smaller reset button and four auxiliary buttons, labeled A - D, intended to help replace the C-64's keyboard functions for certain games.

 

When the game selection menu appears - in what is surely another nod to original C-64 fans - the list of games appears on a moving star field with energetic background music and scrolling credits at the bottom, bringing to mind the demo screens pirates and hackers of the day would develop to try and outdo one another in demonstrating their mastery of the hardware. The games are listed alphabetically and highlighted sequentially by moving the stick up or down. A game is selected by pressing the action button.

 

After a game is selected, it quickly starts and you're ready to begin playing. If you're familiar with the original games, you may be surprised at what appears. For instance, with Impossible Mission, after the title screen, the famous elevator sequence displays with your nemesis Elvin's voice saying, "Another visitor. Stay a while, stay forever!" What's surprising is that everything looks and sounds almost exactly like the original, certainly better than any other TV game to date. I'm sure a lot of this has to do with Jeri Ellsworth's - of C-One fame - intimate involvement in the project, since it was one of her goals to accurately recreate the C-64 on modern hardware. I'd say based on the accuracy of the emulation in this low cost consumer product, that's a realistic goal.

 

With a large and diverse selection of accurately presented games, what's not to like? Unfortunately, a classic TV game Achilles' heel has found its way into the 30-in-1 as well. The control stick, the heart of the unit, has a far "throw" (or lots of "play", the distance the stick has to travel to interpret a direction) and does not accurately register directions. For instance, in Sword of Fargoal, moving diagonally, left or right, up or down, was often an exercise in frustration as the character would be moved left into a wall rather than up as intended. This movement inaccuracy is present in every game, though some games are slightly more forgiving of this flaw due to their basic design, such as the racing game Pitstop. Nevertheless, with everything else that's so good about the unit, including the action buttons, this is a serious let down.

 

An interesting note about the 30-in-1 is that it contains the complete original C-64 BASIC ROM, so the device can be hacked to work just like an original Commodore 64, with an ability to use add-ons like keyboards, disk drives and even joysticks. Also contained within the unit are interesting Easter Eggs, or hidden surprises that need to be unlocked, like developer photos and more games.

 

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 is available exclusively from QVC and is priced at $30.00 for one unit or $52.00 for two. The Atari Flashback is available at many major retailers and priced as low as $39.99 (sale prices can be even lower).

 

Price: The 30-in-1 is usually at least $10 less, but also lacks direct support for two simultaneous players that the Flashback has. Winner: Draw

 

Number of Games: The 30-in-1 has more games, even though it's debatable if there are really 30 (not counting hidden content). Winner: Commodore 64 30-in-1

 

Features: The Flashback features detachable controllers, AC power and two player simultaneous support. The 30-in-1 features an all-in-one unit, battery power, hidden content and the ability to hack the unit for expanded functionality. Winner: Commodore 64 30-in-1

 

Playability: The Flashback features a simple and quick-to-access menu system and excellent control. The 30-in-1 has a slow-to-start menu and poor directional control. Winner: Atari Flashback

 

Hardware Construction: The Flashback, despite its small size, feels solid and works well. The 30-in-1 feels solid but the control stick lacks precision. Winner: Atari Flashback

 

Graphics and Sound: The 30-in-1 emulates the original games almost perfectly. The Atari Flashback fails to properly recreate the graphics, sound and speed of the original hardware. Winner: Commodore 64 30-in-1

 

Overall: The 30-in-1 contains almost 30 full games whose depth benefit from originally being on a game-centric computer. The Flashback contains 20 full games that err on the simple pick up and play side as befit their console origins. The Flashback supports two players at once on certain games, while the 30-in-1 does not. The 30-in-1 will be of particular interest to those who wish to hack the unit. The major downside to the 30-in-1 is the control stick, while the major downside to the Flashback is the emulation. Final Verdict: While the Flashback controls better, the actual games are so poorly implemented that most of the fun is diminished. Alternately, the 30-in-1 controls poorly, but the games are presented basically as they were meant to be. With more games that are rarely available elsewhere, a price point that's usually at least $10 less and bonus content, the Commodore 64 30-in-1 edges out the Atari Flashback.

 


The Atari Flashback console, detachable controllers, audio-video cables and manual

The Atari Flashback unit, detachable controllers, audio-video cables and manual

From top to bottom, consoles: Atari 7800, Atari 2600jr and Atari Flashback

From top to bottom, consoles: Atari 7800, Atari 2600jr and Atari Flashback

From left to right, pack-in controllers: Atari Flashback, Atari 7800 and Atari 2600

From left to right, pack-in controllers: Atari Flashback, Atari 7800 and Atari 2600

Atari Flashback screenshot of main menu from television

Atari Flashback screenshot of main menu from television

A look inside the Atari Flashback manual

A look inside the Atari Flashback manual

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 with audio-video cables

The Commodore 64 30-in-1 with audio-video cables

A look inside the functional Commodore 30-in-1 manual

A look inside the functional Commodore 30-in-1 manual

The Commodore 30-in-1 startup sequence, sure to look familiar to any C-64 fan

The Commodore 30-in-1 startup sequence, sure to look familiar to any C-64 fan

Commodore 30-in-1 screenshot of main menu from television

Commodore 30-in-1 screenshot of main menu from television

 

Also see:

Extensive Commodore 64 30-in-1 photos and a detailed review of the Atari Flashback with photos

Computer Camp Catastrophes

Author: Mathew Tschirgi
Editing: Cecil Casey, Matt Barton
Online Layout: Mathew Tschirgi, Matt Barton

Note: The names of campers used in the article are not the actual names of the campers that I taught while working for the computer camp.

While I was in middle school, I attended computer camp during the summer. For two weeks in the summers of 1994-1996, I took classes in programming in BASIC and C++. While this was fun, the dry worksheet approach to learning zapped the fun out of the learning experience. The programming courses distracted me from what I truly wanted to do: design games.

In the summer of 2004, I experienced a sort of role-reversal. I had the opportunity to teach kids workshops in Game Design—precisely the same thing I had wanted to learn almost a decade before. RPG Game Design workshops used RPG Toolkit, a buggy program which allowed users to create their own RPG in the style of the original Dragon Warrior for the NES. Action Game Design workshops used Game Maker, an easy to use program which allowed users to create anything ranging from a remake of Pong to a side-scroller similar to the classic Commander Keen games.

For the Action Game Design workshop, I decided to spend the first few days showing campers how to download images from Google for their games. I also had them create title screens for their games. While this was optional and not included in the curriculum, I thought giving more time for campers to come up with concepts for their games would be more rewarding for them in the end.

Tommy, a camper that was in the 5th grade, was having trouble finding graphics for his game. I asked him if there were any games that he enjoyed playing at home. Tommy stopped for a second, thinking. I left him to think for himself as I walked by other campers computers to see if they were doing OK. John, an older camper that was in high school, downloaded pictures of characters from Inuyasha, an animé (Japanese cartoon) that he enjoyed watching.

I returned to Tommy for a moment, who had stumbled across a website with pictures from the Sonic the Hedgehog games. Now that he had an inkling of an idea to make a game off of, he seemed more engrossed in the project. As the first few days progressed, it was clear that some campers didn’t care about making a title screen. They wanted to get started with making their game.

As different sessions of campers went through the class, I tried to make the title screen design aspect more exciting. Once, I downloaded various pictures of title screens for different video games, trying to prove how important a title screen was to a game because of the impression it gave. Campers that were more artistically inclined enjoyed the title screen creation process more, but everyone appreciated them more when I eventually let campers try out games that other campers had made. A well designed title screen or a catchy title might make more campers attracted to a certain game.

After everyone had a reasonable title screen finished and their initial graphics rounded up, I started giving tutorials on how to use Game Maker to make the hero avatar (the avatar controlled by the player) move left and right. Other introductory tutorials were more complicated, teaching campers how to make their hero avatar jump, how to make enemies move, how to create weapons, and how to make multiple levels.

Notice the large amount of icons used in the Game Maker interface
Notice the large amount of icons used in the Game Maker interface.

This very linear method of teaching was a bit slow to start off with, but once the basic tutorials were completed, campers could go off and create lots of levels of their game without much interference from me. What made things even slower was the nature of Game Maker itself. Instead of typing in programming line by line, campers had to drag icons onto certain areas of the screen to make various aspects of their game work correctly. This drag and drop approach to programming made it easier for non-programmers to understand, but made it rather dull to teach. Rattling off something along the lines of “drag this icon over, then change its value to 9” several times over made some tutorials stale. As things progressed, I could say, “Experiment with the gravity settings to adjust the height of the jump” and most campers would get the gist of what I was talking about.

Tommy struggled with some of the early programming concepts, but eventually got them down. One day he asked me if he could have different buttons control different characters. I showed him quickly how to do such a thing, and he worked on redesigning his initial level so players could guide three separate avatars through it in separate ways. Imagine a simpler take on Blizzard’s The Lost Vikings with Sonic the Hedgehog characters and you can sort of see what direction he was taking.

On the other hand, John was getting burnt out on his Inuyasha side-scroller. His levels were lacking, as if he threw them together in a few minutes. Several times he would be exhausted, sleeping in class. It didn’t help that I had to teach a dozen kids in a classroom where a second class was being taught simultaneously by a different camp counselor. As much as I tried to motivate him to come up with better ideas, he slogged his way through the class. Part of this was personal problems he was going through at home, and a large part of it had to do with this being his second two-week session at computer camp; things were nearing the end and he simply wanted to relax at home instead of taking a class at a camp. This proved to be frustrating, but I feel that a teacher can not force his student to be interested in a subject. It is ultimately up to the student to motivate himself or herself to want to participate

It really puzzled me why younger kids consistently were more creative than older kids in my workshops. I think part of it might be because younger kids have so much less going on in their lives. A younger kid can work on his game for the hour or so every day in class and just focus on making it the best game possible. Older kids might be thinking about a girl they like at school, what’s happening in the latest episode of their favorite animé, and other topics more important to them than the rinky-dink side-scroller they are working on. Older kids tended to focus on things from more of a technical angle while younger kids focused on things from more of a creative angle.

The RPG Game Design class had its own unique kinds of challenges. An RPG is much more complex kind of game than an Action Game, but in some ways creating one was easier. To get an avatar to move around the screen in RPG Toolkit was much easier than in Game Maker. On the other hand, their actual software had several bugs in it. The nastiest bug managed to make the game campers made in class not work on their computers at home. Needless to say, this made more than a few campers upset.

RPG Toolkit is more straightforward, but is a good deal more buggy.
RPG Toolkit is more straightforward, but is a good deal more buggy.

Teaching RPG Game Design was similar to Action Game Design in that you had to build off of certain concepts. Campers started learning how to create maps, then how to link them together, then worked on statistics for their avatars, then worked on creating items, and so forth. The faster pace of things made more campers interested in RPG Game Design than Action Game Design.

Due to the more story-intensive nature of RPGs, the concepts campers often came up with were more interesting as well. Lucy created great graphics for her game which dealt with a female warrior having to ally with a dragon in order to fight against evil dragons. Susan came up with a plot in which the player controlled Nick York, a male warrior who had to defeat evil cats in order to find the Magic Sweet Potato!

Though there were not many female campers, they were consistently more creative than the guys. Guys focused on making interesting dungeons or ugly monsters instead of crafting an interesting story. I think this is because girl gamers are more interested in stories in games than most guys. This also tends to be true when it comes to animé, a type of fandom that usually has a high amount of gamers in it as well. I’ve noticed that girls get wrapped up in the complex over-arching plots and relationships of characters in the shows while guys are more interested in the fight scenes or busty beauties which populate the shows. Obviously, this is not true for everybody, but I do tend to think that girls respond to situations on a more intellectual level while guys respond to situations on a more gut-reaction visual level.

Regardless of the quality of the games that different campers created, most of them enjoyed the process. It was great to see the kids get excited playing their own game and playing games they their friends had made. Some kids got so into making their game that they worked on it during their free periods. Making games in a “game toolkit” or “level editor” is not as complicated as programming from scratch, but makes game creation much easier for the average person to get into. As a kid, I would have had a lot more fun making a side-scrolling level than programming IF…THEN loops in Q-BASIC!

Letting kids make games on their computer lets them do something productive. They are creative something to suit their fancy instead of lounging back playing somebody else’s creation. Even if they don’t stick with making games, the experience of creating something on a computer for others to enjoy stresses a positive side of technology: using it for education. Various message boards on game design or geared to specific level editors thrive on the Internet, helping aspiring game designers from getting stuck on certain problems. It’s an easy enough hobby to get into and is well worth a try for those wanting to make their next gaming experience a little bit more personal…

Finish Him! Where have all the Fatalities Gone?

Author: Mathew Tschirgi
Editing: Cecil Casey, Matt Barton, Bill Logiduce
Online Layout: Cecil Casey, David Torre
Screenshots: Cecil Casey, David Torre

Mortal Kombat 2 - Fatality
Fatality from Mortal Kombat 2 (Arcade)
©1993 Midway

Fighting games are still a fairly popular video game genre. Mortal Kombat: Deception managed to become Midway's fastest selling games selling over a million units. Despite their popularity, fighting games are a genre that has shown little innovation over time. Sure, they have moved from 2-D to 3-D, but basic game play mechanics have remained virtually unchanged. We're going to examine the lack of innovation in the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises, then take a closer look at a trio of fighting games that tend to innovate instead of merely replicate what has come before: One Must Fall: 2097, Bushido Blade, and Super Smash Bros.

Before we begin, I'd like to give my definition of a fighting game. Fighting games are so varied that they should be classified into three different sub-genres. 2-D Fighters, like Capcom's Street Fighter franchise, are games in which your avatar has to fight against computer/human avatars one-on-one in an arena in a 2-D environment. 3-D Fighters, like Namco's Soul Calibur franchise, are games in which your avatar has to fight against computer/human opponents one-on-one in an arena within a 3-D environment. Beat-em-Ups, like Capcom's Final Fight franchise, are games in which your avatar has to fight against multiple avatars in a series of levels in either a 2-D or 3-D environment.

This article is going to focus on 2-D and 3-D Fighters. Try not to be too upset if your favorite game isn't covered-if you want to suggest a good game that I might have glanced over, please do so with the instant feedback option at the end of the article or send me an e-mail.

Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition
Street Fighter 2: Champion Edition (Arcade)
©1992 Capcom

Although it is not the most popular 2-D Fighter anymore, one of the more important ones is Capcom's Street Fighter franchise. The first game in the series isn't as well known as its sequel. While you can only choose from two avatars, the Japanese Ryu and the American Ken, it did let you fight against a variety of opponents who had special moves in a variety of international locations. Pulling off special moves in Street Fighter was a bit tricky, but you could kill your opponent in one or two hits!

While most 2-D and 3-D Fighters have a variety of standard punches and kicks at their disposal (one button might make your avatar throw a Weak Punch while another button might make your Avatar throw a Strong Kick), special moves were secret attacks that knocked off a lot more damage than regular attacks. To perform one, a player had to memorize a combination of joystick movements and button presses; to have Ken or Ryu toss a Hadoken (a blue fireball) at another avatar, the player had to roll the joystick a quarter circle clockwise towards the opposing avatar (moving the joystick in a fluid motion from down, to down-towards, to towards), then press one of the Punch buttons.

Such special moves sound simple when written out, but often took several tries to nail them down. Before the Internet made it easy for any stumped gamer to grab a FAQ, gamers had a few different options to track down the latest special move. A few arcade machines had basic special moves printed on the case itself. Clever gamers could try out random moves while playing a game, hoping to stumble upon a winning combination (though Street Fighter pioneered the Hadoken special move, nearly every other 2-D Fighter released afterwards used the same button combinations [quarter circle forward, then punch] for fireball special moves). Those wanting the quick and easy way out would purchase an issue of Game Pro or Electronic Gaming Monthly to see if they had the latest special moves printed in the newest issue.

Karate Champ
Karate Champ (Arcade)
©1984 Data East (source: Wikipedia)

This is not to say that Street Fighter was the first 2-D Fighter to feature a lot of these options, but it was arguably the first one to do it well. Data East's Karate Champ featured your avatar fighting against a computer opponent in some varied locations, although there were no special moves. Konami's Yie-Ar Kung Fu had much more varied opponents with a cartoony quality that undoubtedly influenced Capcom's muscular yet stylized look in their Street Fighter franchise.

Street Fighter II: The World Warrior was the first game in the series that most people are familiar with. Allowing players to select from a whopping eight different avatars of different nationalities (ranging from the hulking Russian Zangief to the demure Chinese Chun Li), the game play was a bit more involved than Street Fighter. Each character now had several different special moves, some of which were more difficult to pull off than others. It was a huge hit in arcades around the world.

Capcom milked this franchise for all it was worth, but ultimately not improving the game play by much. Street Fighter II: Championship Edition allowed players to play as the four boss characters while Super Street Fighter II introduced four new avatars to the mix, including the Bruce Lee-inspired Fei Long. Regardless of the extra avatars players got to choose from, the game play didn't change a whole lot-there might have been a few new special moves, but ultimately you had to move around, block, punch, kick, or complete special moves until you bested your opponent.

Later on Capcom introduced the Street Fighter Alpha series (known as Street Fighter Zero in Japan), which was a prequel to the first Street Fighter game. It introduced more complex combo systems, meaning players could link their attacks in proper succession to score more damage on their opponents, but game play was the same song, just a slightly difference dance.

As Street Fighter II was gaining in popularity, several other companies came out with competing 2-D Fighters. Without a doubt the most influential of these was Midway's Mortal Kombat series. Visually what set this one apart from the crowd was that the graphics for the avatars were captured frame by frame from prerecorded full-motion video sequences, giving the characters a more realistic look. This technique was pioneered in Midway's abominable Pit Fighter, a 2-D Fighter with cheap AI where one could win through button-mashing (pressing random buttons in order to win a match) as opposed to actual skill.

Along with photo-realistic graphics, designers Ed Boon and John Tobias brought plenty of blood and gore to the table. Practically every punch or kick delivered a cheesy flow of red blood from the opposing avatar which splattered onto the ground. When you won two rounds against your opponent, you had a chance to finish them off with a Fatality, an ultra-violent special move which often dismembered or annihilated the opposing avatar in a memorable way.

Despite public outcry aimed at the level of blood and gore in the game, game play was straight from the Street Fighter II mold. Controls were noticeably stiffer, with special moves relying more on tapping the joystick than the smooth rolls required for Street Fighter II. Fatalities in particular were a pain to pull off, requiring your avatar to stand at a specific position on the screen while punching in the different key combinations.

Mortal Kombat 2 - Friendship.
Friendship from Mortal Kombat 2 (Arcade)
©1993 Midway

Mortal Kombat did very well in the arcades, spawning several sequels. Unfortunately, much as Capcom did with their Street Fighter series, Midway went for more cookie-cutter game play instead of trying something truly unique for their sequels. Mortal Kombat II offered a wider selection of avatars to choose from, as well as a satirical take on the Fatality known as a Friendship (the most memorable of which had the Jean Claude Van Damme inspired Johnny Cage whip out a photograph and autograph it to his "biggest fan"). Mortal Kombat 3 offered an option to charge towards your opponent and Animalities (finishing moves which turned your avatar into an animal which would attack your opponent; these stemmed from the false rumors that you could do Animalities in the original Mortal Kombat), but it brought nothing terribly new to the table.

Mortal Kombat 4 took the series to 3-D, with rather simplistic polygonal graphics and sloppy controls. Mortal Kombat: Deadly Alliance upped the ante with better graphics, giving the game more of a darker feel than Mortal Kombat 4, but also introduced a host of new avatars to pick from. The marketing for the latest game in the series, Mortal Kombat: Deception, was rather odd since it focused more on the various side game play modes (including one which was a blatant rip-off of Capcom's Street Fighter 2 spin-off, Puzzle Fighter).

So we've taken a brief look at how the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat franchises managed to grow in popularity while failing in advancing the game play mechanics to any noticeable degree. Why did Capcom and Midway keep things so similar in their games over time? Probably because it's the safest thing to do-if you change the game play of a sequel too much, it just pisses off the new fans while alienating newcomers to the franchise.

Just take a look at Shigeru Miyamoto's The Legend of Zelda: The Adventure of Link. The second game in the Zelda franchise is not a fan favorite because it changes the overhead exploration game play into a side-scrolling action title with RPG elements. Where the original game focused on solving puzzles in dungeons with light action elements, the sequel was almost pure action. Though the game still sold well, it's not what most gamers would rank as their favorite Zelda game.

One Must Fall: 2097
One Must Fall: 2097
©1994 Epic MegaGames

One of the more innovative 2-D Fighters was Epic Megagames' One Must Fall: 2097. Having a sci-fi setting in which players had robot avatars which fought each other to the death, the single player mode was rather interesting for a couple of reasons. One of these was the RPG elements added to the game-depending on how many points your avatar scored, your avatar earned different amounts of money. This money could be spent on upgrades to the statistics of your robot, adding an element of strategy to the game-having the chance to work on balancing the various statistics for your fighter made the game that much more interesting. Another novel element of the game occurred between rounds. Commentators gave a play-by-play on your match with stills from your fight, making the illusion that your robotic avatar was fighting in a TV show that much more convincing.

Bushido Blade
Bushido Blade (PSX)
©1997 Squaresoft

Squaresoft pulled off a more realistic take on 3-D Fighters with their Bushido Blade series. Set in medieval Japan, players controlled their mostly Japanese avatars armed with various Japanese weapons. Unlike most fighting games that gave players a life bar, Bushido Blade took a more realistic turn. Your avatar could die by the sword (or spear, or gun) after only a few hits. One well placed hit could knock your avatar out in a single blow. This really put a new sort of energy into the fighting, making a match between two skilled players look more like a ballet than a bloodbath. Katanas would clash as one avatar fought the other, and knowing that one wrong move could doom the other player made matches that much more invigorating.

Super Smash Brothers
Super Smash Brothers (N64)
©1999 Nintendo

Nintendo took an arguably more simplistic take on the 2-D Fighter that made the genre more accessible to non-gamers with their Super Smash Bros. franchise. Limiting attacks and special moves to a few simplistic button presses injected a healthy dose of fun into the genre. Anyone from a toddler to a stoned college student could pick up a controller and master the moves in a matter of minutes, which was a refreshing antidote to the increasingly complicated special moves, combos, and fatalities found in other 2-D Fighters. Having Super Scopes, Pokéballs, and Hammers randomly drop on the playing field also helped mix things up a bit, making a fighting match less predictable than usual.

While fighting games overall have lacked in the innovation department, a few have stood out from the crowd. Unless a genre truly continues to reinvent itself it will die, or at least hobble along supported by die-hard fans. Just take a look at the graphic adventure, a genre that flourished in the late 1980's and early 1990's (including such great titles as LucasArts' Day of the Tentacle and Sierra Online's The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery) until a glut of bad titles and lack of innovation (most of them copycats of the overrated, yet best-selling, Myst) delivered the genre a shotgun blow to the face. The real question is can fighting games be creative in a contemporary environment where the bottom line matters more than creativity? If gaming history has proved anything, it's that no genre stays consistently popular for long.

Hackers, Slackers, and Shackles: The Future of Free Software Game Development

Author: Matt Barton
Editing: Mat Tschirgi, Cecil Casey
Online Layout: Don Ferren
Special Thanks: Daniel Horn, Mike Boeh, Matt Matthews, Richard Stallman

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

Type This by Seb Brassard

Figure 1: Type This by Seb Brassard © 2005

So far, we videogamers have been mostly unconscious of the ongoing battle between proprietary and free software developers.i After all, most of us were introduced to gaming either by locked machines in darkened video arcades or by mysterious consoles with likewise mysterious carts. Few folks had the faintest clue how the software driving these wonderful contraptions operated. Those of us with a computer gaming background were better off. Even though early personal computers from Commodore, Atari, or Apple came with hard-wired proprietary operating systems, and plenty of software was available only in binary form, countless computer gamers of the 70s and 80s spent their evenings typing in and often learning from source code printed in magazines like Creative Computing. While it's not uncommon to hear a few old enthusiasts carrying on about the "good old days" of searching for that one critical, show-stopping typo into the early morning hours-only to find out a month later that the problem was the magazine's fault-most folks would've been far happier if they could have just bought the program in binary form and saved themselves a Carpal Tunnel operation. Of course, one has to keep in mind that these were the days when mass reproduction and distribution of software wasn't nearly as well developed and efficient as the magazine industry. It was cheaper to print a collection of software in book or magazine form than to include copies on cassette tapes or floppy diskettes. Besides, this was also a time when most computer marketing campaigns focused on the educational and creative aspects of their products. The reason parents bought their offspring a computer instead of a game machine was so they could learn enough to land a high-paying job in the booming tech industry. If computers could get a few good ol' American white boys to the moon, there was good reason to believe they could get Johnny and Jenny into college and beyond.

There are a few things worth pointing out here. First, computers like the Commodore 64 came standard with a form of Microsoft BASIC (yes, Bill Gates had his hand in the cookie jar even back then). BASIC stands for Beginners' All Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, which is a fancy way of saying that, basically, BASIC is pretty basic. Any clever kid could figure out how to do some pretty nifty things with BASIC in no time. As you might expect, most kids made two kinds of programs: Games and more games. As Eugene Jarvis, creator of the popular but difficult Defender game put it, "The only legitimate use for a computer is to play games." I tend to agree, though I would change the "play" to "create."

The bulk of the early computer programming books were dedicated solely to gaming, and for good reason: Games were, and continue to be, the best and most creative way to learn about computers, software, mathematics, science, and even life itself-it's certainly no coincidence that the basic stuff of life, DNA, turns out to be expressed in code. In more ways that most of us pitiful specimens of homo ludens realize, the line between reality and virtuality is getting pretty thin. I think the best evidence of this is that most of us are quite comfortable with the notion that the majority of our monetary wealth exists as invisible bits traveling back and forth among what we hope are damnably secure electronic databases. We've moved from the gold standard, to the paper standard, to the digital standard. Can you imagine trying to convince a store-clerk in the 1800s that his descendents would be paying for merchandise with small plastic cards with magnetic strips on the back? Let's not even get into the concept of PayPal. We've come a long way, and, believe it or not, we have videogames to thank for most of it.

Now, learning is never an uphill battle; you either enjoy it or you never get good at it. Every good teacher knows that excited or interested students learn better than bored ones. One way to make sure they'll be interested is to present the subject in the form of a game. Chances are, if you can't make a game out of it, it isn't worth learning anyway. Good games, like good novels, do more than entertain: they teach us skills and give us insight into life, the universe, and everything.

The point I want to make in this article is that videogames ought to play a primarily active role in making us smarter individuals. We need to avoid games that offer only a tightly-controlled, thoroughly passive experience. To get there, we need to start turning away from proprietary software and embrace free software.ii We also need to pay more attention to movements that convert "passive players" into "creative players," that is, projects that enable players to play a vital role in a game's present and future development. To make my case, I'll talk a bit about the history of software development and describe some really interesting free software and open source videogame projects in development today. As you probably realized, I'm pretty excited about the possibilities opening up for some really innovative videogame development-not by monolithic dinosaurs like Electronic Arts, but by teams of creative people, young and old, who are coming together all across the world to ensure that the next generation of videogames will not only be more fun to play, but more friendly to change and innovation.

The Games that Hackers Played

Any videogame historian worth his ASCII knows that we wouldn't have a tenth of the wonderful software we have today if it weren't for hackers. In fact, I'd be surprised if we would even have personal computers. Now, it's important to note that by "hackers" I'm not referring to criminals who get their jollies breaking into corporate websites or others with nothing better to do with their time than "crack" the protection on proprietary software. These types have done very little to stimulate progress and in fact have hampered it just as much as the greediest and stupidest CEO. No, the hackers I have in mind are fellows like Steve Russell, one of the fellows responsible for Spacewar. Spacewar was one of the legacies passed down to us by "Tech Model Railroad Club," an early hacking group based at MITiii. When Russell was programming Spacewar, there were no personal computers, no game consoles, and very little idea that software was something that could ever make somebody rich. After all, there were very few computers actually in existence, and lumbering hulks like the PDP-1 cost upwards of a hundred thousand dollars and wouldn't look very good in your living room.

Many hackers have remarked about how much faster software innovation occurred without lawyers. Steven Levy, author of Hackers, tells us that in those days, even critically important programs (printed on ticker tape or punch cards) were simply stored in an unlocked drawer and made available to anyone who could benefit from them. Hackers earned the respect of their peers by improving these programs; if the "hack" was good enough to be incorporated into the growing body of software, the hacker rose in stature. The end result was that software improved in leaps and bounds as other hackers strove to impress their colleagues with their wizardry. Each successful hack upped the ante.

Spacewar is an example of what happens when game programmers are unfettered by copyright or non-disclosure agreements. Here's Steve Russell on the matter:

I started out with a little prototype that just flew the spaceships around. Pete Sampson added a program called Expensive Planetarium that displayed stars as a background. Dan Edwards did some very clever stuff to get enough time so that we could compute the influence of gravity on the spaceships. The final version of that was done in the spring of 1962. (From Kent, 19)

Spacewar wasn't the only game that benefited from free software development. In 1972, a programmer named William Crowther had a brilliant idea: He'd write a role-playing game that could be played on a computer. Written in Fortran for the PDP-10 computer, Crowther's Adventure traveled the Arpanet (the precursor to the Internet) and was soon installed on machines all over the country. Four years later, another programmer named Don Woods found the code and decided he'd like to make some improvements. He managed to track down Crowther, who was quite happy to give Woods his permission. Finally, a third programmer named Jim Gillogly got his hands on this code and, with Woods and Crowther's blessing, ported the code to C. Unfortunately, in 1981 the collaboration hit a bump when a fourth collaborator, Walt Bilofsky, ported the code to the IBM-PC. Bilofsky, rejecting the concept of free software, decided that his port ought to copyright and sell the software. After agreeing to pay Crowther a "small royalty," Bilofsky and Woods released an "official version." On his personal website, Bilofsky boasts that "Although many versions of Adventure were both sold and freely distributed, and although the game spawned an entire segment of the software industry, we were the only company ever to pay Crowther and Woods anything." He doesn't bother to mention that Crowther never asked for anything. Still, we shouldn't be too harsh; to my knowledge, neither Bilofsky nor Woods made a serious effort to keep people from copying and sharing the code to the game, and folks were still playing with the source code as late as 1996, when Paul Munoz-Colman released a 370-point version for DOS.

Fans of Linux might be surprised to learn that the operating system it's based on, UNIX, was a byproduct of a hacker's efforts to play his favorite game. In 1969, a Bell Labs programmer named Ken Thompson was having some problems getting a game called Space Travel to display properly on his GE 635. Thompson decided to port the game to the PDP-7 computer. In the process, Thompson developed a "a floating-point arithmetic package, the pointwise specification of the graphics characters for the display, and a de-bugging subsystem that continuously displayed the contents of typed-in locations in the corner of the screen," innovations which would lead directly to UNIX. This story shows just how critical the connection between game-playing and creativity can be, and how having access to source code--in this case the code to the game Space Travel--is to technological innovationiv.

Surprisingly, though the history of software programming indicated that innovation and development were flourishing, Bill Gates was gradually able to convince those who didn't know better that all of this freedom and access to source code was retarding the production of good, quality software. In his book The Road Ahead, Gates tells a very different story of the early history of software development:

In the early years of selling Altair BASIC, our sales had been far lower the widespread usage of our software suggested they should be. I wrote a widely disseminated "Open Letter to Hobbyists," asking the early users of personal computers to stop stealing our software so that we could make money that would let us build more software…But my argument didn't convince many hobbyists to pay for our work; they seemed to like it and used it, but preferred to "borrow" it from each other.

The "Open Letter" Gates refers to is a work of rhetorical sophistication. In this letter, we already see a great deal of the powerful rhetoric that would allow him and his ilk to gradually erode the freedoms enjoyed by the hackers. Unlike the countless hackers who came before him, Gates saw programming purely as a means of getting filthy rich. Rather than share his knowledge for the betterment of society, Gates wanted to secret it away and protect it--both functionally by keeping the secrets of its working to himself, and ethically by convincing other computer enthusiasts that it was wrong to share. "As the majority of hobbyists must be aware," Gates writes, "most of you steal your software. Hardware must be paid for, but software is something to share. Who cares if the people who worked on it get paid?" Indeed, almost thirty years later, we are still asking ourselves that question. Indeed, the only people who seem to know the right answer to it are billionaires like Gates, whose shoddy and unstable products like Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office have consumed the lion's share of the market and severely inhibited public innovations in the industry. Gates wished to shackle hackers; to tame their youthful exuberance and channel their creative energy into a sickly form from which he could squeeze maximum profit.

How did Gates successfully convince so many hackers who had personally benefited from the openness of software that chaining it up was a good idea? The answer is, of course, that he didn't. Gates' target was not the hackers who had cut their teeth on machines like the PDP-1 and knew firsthand how quickly software improved when allowed to be free. Gates owes his success to the personal computer manufacturers and the thousands upon thousands of new programmers who were first introduced to computing in the form of closed-source, proprietary operating systems like Microsoft Basic and MS-DOS. These new users had no idea what they were missing; why should software be free? The old hackers foolishly looked at these waves of new computer users with contempt; after all, their pitiful little consumer boxes paled in comparison to the giant mainframes they were accustomed to working on. Later, when it became obvious that software could be sold as surely as hardware, most hackers abandoned their ideals and jumped on the bandwagon, signing non-disclosure agreements as fast as their new bosses could draw up contracts.

However, not all the hackers were so quick to toss away their freedom. There, amidst the falling turrets of the cathedral stood a righteously indignant young man whose personal integrity and philanthropy would always trump the base desire for mere physical wealth. That man was Richard Stallman, whose significance we are only now beginning to understand. Stallman has come to represent the Free Software Movement, whose principles stand in stark opposition to the legal morass that permeates and retards modern software development. Stallman's argument is that software should be free; not free as in zero-cost, but free as in free speech. Dismissed by many as a hopeless dreamer or scorned as a dangerous rebel, Stallman has resisted the pressures put on him to conform to proprietary development. Now, the success of GNU/Linux and countless other free software projects has prompted many programmers to take Stallman's philosophy more seriously. This article is an attempt to explore the implications of the free software movement for modern games.

The history of software into the mid-80s is a demonstration of the ineffectiveness of proprietary software development. As bloated software companies flooded money into Congress--that shameful practice of state-supported bribery we call "lobbying"--stronger and finally tyrannical intellectual property law formed, and innovation suffered. Innovation became the exception rather than the rule. Programmers receded into the background and the tailored suits stepped forward. Software development was now a business whose profits depended on keeping source code secret, excluding access to only those willing and able to pay for it, and eliminating competition by securing state-supported monopolies in the form of "intellectual property rights." The folks who bought this software became "end-users," or, to put it more accurately, "dead-end-users." They were permitted to use their programs only by paying, and could use them only as their corporate owners dictated they should be used.

Of course, there are many readers who will rightly call me to task on this point. I'll stop for a moment here and address what I expect will be the most common objections. "Are you serious when you say that there have been no recent innovations? Are you blind? Look at how far graphics have come!"

If we compare a game like Spacewar to Half-Life 2, it's hard to deny that there has been significant innovation, and I don't intend to. There have been significant innovations in hardware over the years which have allowed software designers to make their images more realistic. Surely, we can't call it a breakthrough in software when it's the hardware that makes the difference. What's even more critical here is to realize the hardware industry is free from the creative restraints imposed by copyright law. Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, puts it best:

The world's best example of the benefits of freedom in business is a comparison of the computer hardware business and the computer software business. In computer hardware, where freedom reigns for both suppliers and consumers alike on a global scale, the industry generates the fastest innovation in product and customer value the world has ever seen. In the computer software industry, on the other hand, change is measured in decades.

Of course, someone may well object that hardware is protected by another body of powerful law called the patent system, which are in some ways even more draconian than copyright law. However, history shows us that computers with "open standards," such as the IBM-compatible computer, ultimately triumph over computers with proprietary standards such as the Commodore Amiga or the Apple Macintosh. The reason for this is easily explained under elementary economic capitalist principles. Under capitalism, innovation flourishes only when competition drives it. A company with no competition has no reason to waste its resources in improving its product, whereas a company with significant competition has to work very hard to drive down costs while improving the quality of the product. Consumers benefit immensely when there is a Best Buy across the street from a Circuit City. The open standard of the IBM-compatible won out because hardware manufacturers were allowed to compete with each other and thus offer consumers a better deal. If the same had been true of software all this time, I'm convinced we'd be playing games on our own holodecks by now, and some of us might be doing so on an intergalactic starship.

I challenge anyone else who defends the status quo to show me some innovative new titles from the major developers. If we remove those embarrassing games owing their existence to a "license" from a hit movie (or even a suck-bomb!) and the dreary sequels of sequels, I daresay we might find a few games that we might loosely describe as "innovative." We usually hear a lot about them because they are so very rare and thus worth celebrating. The vast majority of titles will be the near-identical members of narrowly defined "genres." Another first-person shooter is released and because millions of dollars went into its development and promotion, we're supposed to hail it as a miracle of modern science. If there were truly paradigms broken in Half-Life 2, Halo 2, and Doom 3, I'd love to hear about them.

I started this article with a discussion of the early days of personal computers and how they served primarily an educational function. More than one excited child caught the programming bug and went on to create dazzling new videogames and other programs. Unfortunately, many of these children had been taught to guard their code and refuse to share their innovations with others. Business-savvy coders learned to release their games only as executable files, and then later as copy-protected executable files. They'd taken a page from console gaming. It's worth pausing a moment here to reflect on the differences between console and computer gaming.

Console gaming might be better described as "closed gaming." The systems are proprietary and the games are typically delivered in proprietary formats on proprietary media. All of this is designed to limit what the user can do with the system. The argument, of course, is that such restrictions are necessary for software development. After all, if the industry can't keep people from making their own copies of games, no one will be willing to spend $50 for the latest titles and the developers will lose money. Stiff, impenetrable copy protection is necessary to keep unauthorized people from accessing the software-a "pay to play" model that many people assume is a great motivator for innovation. After all, the cost of developing an A-list title can run upwards of $5 millionv. Such incredible production costs can only be met by attracting some rather wealthy and willing investors. Investors survive by minimizing risk and maximizing gain. Put away the myths of venture capitalists as risk-taking daredevils willing to hop on every promising new project that shows up on their doorstop. Any idea, no matter how potentially innovative, is shutdown the moment it appears risky to investors: "Just take that great movie property we just bought and make another Halo, the kids love it."

Again, such talk begs a lot of questions. First, a good deal of that $5 million worth of production costs is spent in ways that hardly promote innovation, such as licensing, marketing, insurance, and other types of "overhead" that just wouldn't impede a free software programmer. Other costs, such as the recruiting of voice talent or professional musicians, may add some cool frills, but can't be shown to truly add innovation to game development. Ask a programmer if she's ever been offered some innovative suggestions by a member of the marketing staff--but not when she's in the middle of drinking a Coke. The modern game industry is about as good at making videogames as the modern film industry is at making films. Crossroads, anyone?

We tend to see less innovation in the console market precisely because of their increased security. The public is inhibited from making illegal copies of games, but they are also inhibited from feeding their ideas into the development of new ones. The public is silenced and denied a voice; they aren't even allowed to see how the games they love so much were made. Historically, the public hasn't liked having secrets kept from it, particularly when those secrets play such a critical role in producing their culture. A good example of what happens when the public gets fed up with such tyranny occurred in 1517, when an angry monk nailed a scathing critique of the corrupt and overweening Catholic Church to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. The same man forever ended the proprietary nature of Christianity by translating the Catholic Bible from Latin, which was only understood by priests, into the vernacular, which could be understood by anyone who could read. His name was Martin Luther, the Richard Stallman of his agevi.

Reclaiming Creative Computing

Today, a great deal of "dead-end users" are rediscovering the fundamentally liberating and empowering roots of their computers. They are beginning to understand software as something to interpret as they see fit, and learning how to code and modify programs as well as execute them. These new hackers are, as anyone might expect, radically different than those who came before them, yet they have a few powerful advantages: There are a hell of a lot more of them, and they have the Internet.

There are plenty of good and thoroughly bad books out there about how the Internet will change our society. Some of these claims are just as preposterous as the wildest science fiction. Still, there is one way the Internet has changed a good many of us that can't be denied--it's brought a lot of folks together to share ideas and information who would otherwise never have met, much less built commercial-quality software together. Perhaps the groups that have most visibly benefited from this newfound communication are the modern hackers, more commonly known as free software programmers.

It's doubtful that Linus Torvalds really knew what he was getting himself into when he announced that he was "doing a free operating system" on a USENET group in 1991. With a degree of humility and nonchalance that has become characteristic of the grand high priests of the free software movement, Torvalds has come to represent all that is good and right with modern software development. Under his gentle stewardship, Linux has grown from a small hobby project into a free software juggernaut that even has Bill Gates quaking in his boots. The overwhelming success of Linux has inspired countless other programmers to join him in taking back control of software development from the greedy hands of the mega-corporations. The majority of new applications posted at Freshmeat, a bulletin board for open source project announcements, are utilities and applications, yet games are becoming more common. One of the projects you might find there is Vega Strike, an action space-simulator project founded by brothers Daniel and Patrick Horn.

Vega Strike screenshot

Figure 2: Vega Strike screenshot

Daniel says he got his inspiration for Vega Strike from the DOS game Privateer, a game which those of with a bit more historical background will recognize as a descendent of Elite, the classic Firebird space trading and combat simulation. All of these games follow a similar premise-the player becomes the captain of an intergalactic spaceship which can be used for good or ill-it's really up to the player to decide whether to play the game as an honest trader or a voracious pirate; it's more than a little apposite that one of the biggest open source game projects is based on one of the most "open gameplay" games. Some of Vega Strike's innovations to the genre include a powerful multiplayer option, the ability to manage a whole fleet of starships, and plenty of interesting missions. But what's really innovative is that, unlike the previous games in the genre, Vega Strike allows fans to not only play the game, but get to help out with its ongoing development!

Originally, Daniel didn't intend for Vega Strike to be open source. Like most gamers turned programmers, he'd grown up with closed-source, proprietary gaming, and had dreams of selling "secret bits." All that started to change, however, when Daniel discovered Linux and open source software development. "As I learned about Linux," Daniel told me, "I realized that this was how it had to be. This is what would differentiate me from my competition." Like all free software developers, Daniel made a deal with his fans-he'd give them access to his source code, and, in return, they'd help improve and extend it. It didn't take long for the project to attract some strong talent, including another free software developer who had been working on another open space simulator. "He tried my game, realized it was further along, and joined my project," said Daniel. Although participation ebbs and flows, Daniel figures there's always at least 3 or 4 coders working to improve, refine, or debug the program. However, most of his contributions don't come from coders, but from artists-graphic wizards who want to use Vega Strike to realize their artistic visions. Others contribute by writing stories, composing music, inventing missions, or working on the manual, which is stored on a special type of website called a wiki. The wiki allows anyone who wants to edit the manual.

I asked Daniel if he felt there was any money to be made in free software development. "If I wanted to make money, I'd have to start over. I would probably just delete all the downloadable files and take off the source code and just offer that with a CD. People could re-distribute it, but probably wouldn't." This model has worked for a great many other free software developers, who find that most people appreciate the convenience of ordering a quality CD rather than download such huge files (particularly if they are limited to slow internet connections). Even with the source code and files available for free online, Daniel has still managed to sell $200 worth of CDs. The tactic of selling CDs and various accessories (manuals, books, T-shirts, coffee cups, etc.) to support free software projects is a common one; Richard Stallman adopted it early-on to support his Free Software Foundation and various GNU projects.

Another possibility Daniel raised was releasing the code under a free software license, but copyrighting the images, sound files, and storylines of the game. "It takes a lot of work to make a saleable game from just an engine," said Daniel. "Having a good data set is the difference between a bad game and a good game." However, there is a catch to this scheme: Many artists currently working on the project would be unlikely to offer contributions if they knew someone else would be profiting from them. I emailed Richard Stallman and asked him what he thought about this model. He replied in the affirmative:

A game scenario can be considered art/fiction rather than software. So it is okay to split the game into engine and scenario, then treat the engine as software and the scenario as art/fiction.

This compromise between free software and proprietary software seems to have its advantages. Developers would still be able to profit from their work while sharing their code base. Thus, budding programmers would have the opportunity to study from the masters. Even if these programmers decided to create and sell their own games based on this code, their games would likely feature substantially different graphics, sounds, and storylines and thus not unfairly compete with the original. In the event that a programmer did deliberately copy these materials, he or she could be sued for copyright infringement.

Finally, another model Daniel proposed was to initially release the game under a proprietary license and keep the code closed, but later, after it had exhausted its sales potential, release the code to the public. Daniel cited Id software as an example of this policy. Id released their original Doom game as closed-source shareware; fans were required to purchase the full version and were not free to share it. Eric S. Raymond mentions the same game in his essay "The Magic Cauldron":

The technical and market trends raised the payoff from opening the source; Doom's opening of specifications and encouragement of third-party add-ons increased the perceived value of the game and created a secondary market for them to exploit. At some point the payoff curves crossed over and it became economically rational for id to shift to making money in that secondary market (with products such as game-scenario anthologies) and then open up the Doom source. Sometime after this point, it actually happened. The full source for Doom was released in late 1997.

Doom is clearly one of those games we might describe as "innovative," or, at the very least, "influential." Very few games can claim the honor of establishing an entire genre, and, though first-person shooters (including Id's own hit Wolfenstein 3D) had been around for some time, Doom was the first to reach truly critical mass. Ironically, Doom was also responsible for establishing establish Microsoft's DirectX as a valid platform for PC gaming. Here's the story according to Brad King and John Borland:

Microsoft technology didn't have a good reputation for multimedia applications…In hopes of breaking through the skepticism, a talented Microsoft programmer named Alex St. John went to John Carmack and asked if the company could make a version of Doom that ran on DirectX. Carmack agreed and gave St. John the Doom source code, and a team of programmers was hired by Microsoft specifically to work on the projectvii.

I'd like to think that Id felt guilty about helping Microsoft get such a stranglehold on the PC gaming market and offered its Doom source code in a plea for forgiveness. DirectX, like so many other Microsoft products, turned out to be a Trojan horse for free software developers. An alternative that every programmer should know about is SDL, which offers game programmers like Bob Pendleton "a library that lets me write code without having to worry about a lot of legalities and that doesn't force me to pay a small fortune in royalties if I come up with something that has commercial value."

After having such a fruitful discussion with Daniel Horn, I decided that it would only be fair to get the alternate perspective. I decided to contact Mike Boeh of Retro64 for some insight into the world of proprietary independent game development. I was drawn to Mike's work for a number of reasons. Besides the fact that Retro64 makes some amazingly professional-quality games, they are committed to reviving that creative spirit so prevalent during the Commodore 64's reign. Independent developers like Mike often have a tough time competing in a market dominated by mega-corporations with million-dollar budgets. Successful indy developers survive by avoiding direct competition and concentrate on areas the major developers ignore. Retro64 specializes in simple and addictive games that require neither sophisticated hardware nor significant time investment; Mike's three criteria for a new game is that it be easy to learn, totally mouse controlled, and "addictive or therapeutic." That last quality, of course, is the most evasive, yet there is little doubt that Mike has learned to recognize and incorporate it into his games. Games like Cosmo Bots, Platypus, and Bugatron offer a fundamentally different gaming experience than mega-games like Half-Life 2. Mike has become successful enough at selling his games via the Internet that he can support himself and his family-a hallowed goal for all indy developers.

Cosmobots Screenshot

Figure 3: Cosmobots Screenshot

Mike's development strategy is much different than Daniel's. The games at Retro64 are proprietary. Instead of offering entire games for free, Mike releases playable demos as a way for players to "try before they buy." In short, Mike is doing what the major developers are doing, only on a much smaller scale. Mike argued that what most people don't know about game programming is that there's plenty of grueling work involved. Most would-be indy developers lose interest soon after developing a prototype:

The barrier of getting a game done is the size of the task. You have to write such a lot of code. Cosmobots took about 9 months. It's easy to get lost along the way. If you have a wife and a child, it's hard to stay focused. It's cool in the first couple weeks when you get your little prototype done, and then the real work starts. When I first started Retro64 I had a day job, then I switched to part time. Otherwise, I wouldn't have been able to get it done.

Though there is lots to love about game programming, tedium dogs it at every step-debugging, or searching for game-stopping malfunctions in the code, is often a long, excruciating process, as is "polishing," or taking the game from a rough beta stage to completion. Mike also invests plenty of capital in his projects by contracting graphic artists and musicians.

Though Mike is officially a proprietary programmer, he admits readily that free software development has produced some fine products, such as Apache, the server software he uses for his website, and has benefited from sharing source code with other indy developers. Nevertheless, he rejects free software development out of fear that other, less scrupulous developers would use it to easily create knock-offs that would compete with his own games.

Even if I had the licensing in place, it would be difficult. I've had knockoffs already. I had a game called Z-Ball that somebody cloned. I've even had people clone my website. They'd take the slogan from my website, "Where the fun is never old," and change it a bit so that it said "Where fun is never old." They'd also steal the layouts and the graphics.

Whether or not a game is a clone or a legitimate derivation is more complex than one might guess. For example, Mike's game Cosmo Bots obviously borrows a lot from the older commercial game Qix--the game is even advertised with the phrase, "Fans of Qix and Jezzball" will love Cosmo Bots. Mike differentiates his practices from ripping-off, a sort of "shameless" cloning in which another developer uses the same graphics, level design, story, or music from another game: "If you look at my games and the games in the original genre, they're so different, and so loosely based on the concept that I don't feel I'm doing anything shameless." Thus, most developers, whether free or proprietary, recognize that a certain freedom to borrow is acceptable and often necessary.

The cardinal sin of cloning is false attribution, which occurs whenever another developer tries to fool unsuspecting users that his games were actually made by someone else. The problem with false attribution is not only that the original developer might lose some money in sales. What's far worse is that if the false product is low-quality, it might destroy or at least damage the original developer's reputation. A similarly vile practice is what Mike describes this practice as "hijacking," or trying to boost a game's sale by giving it the same name as an established game:

Many people enjoyed Bugatron and tried to make a game like it. The games they made were so bad it didn't matter. I'd be more upset if people took the name. They might hijack my game. If people named their game Z-Ball, and got Google ranking, and if their game was similar to my Z-Ball, it might trick people into buying their game instead of mine.

What's most important to Mike is protecting his good name, which customers associate with quality games and drives them back to try his new games. False attribution is also frowned upon in the free software community and is considered a serious violation of hacker ethics. Arguably, reputation is even more important and valued in free software development, since the key reward for a good hack is the prestige and recognition it wins from other hackers. Hackers who "fork" a project, or take it in a new direction than the current developers, are expected to give it a new name, regardless of the licensing agreementviii.

Unlike most major developers, Mike isn't worried about the unauthorized distribution of the full versions of his games on peer-to-peer networks or illegal websites. The rationale is simple: People who want to copy his games will find a way to do it. "The core audience that buys my games doesn't want to take the security risk and go to warez sites. Those people are never going to buy my game anyway." Mike's choice of audience-mostly men and women in their 30s to 40s-lack the time, energy, and knowledge to secure unauthorized copies, and when the game is only $20, seeking out an unauthorized copy hardly seems worth it.

Mike sees the cultural and societal value of releasing free source code to the public, and admits that he would like to donate the source code of his older games to the public when they are no longer profitable. "If it's not selling well, why not?" asked Mike.

Matt Matthews is one man who has been asking developers this question a lot lately. His website, Liberated Games, is dedicated to offering free and legal downloads (often with source) of games that have outlived their commercial potential. Matt, also known as Curmudgeon Gamer, is a math professor who realizes the educational value of code, and has chastised developers who have released their binary code without the accompany source code: "The rule is: free as in beer isn't good enough to ensure the survival of a game for the future; free as in Free, however, can make a game live forever." Matt pointed out in an interview with me that programmers can still learn invaluable tricks by studying the source code, even the code of older games on vintage hardware:

Through examination of disassemblies of these older programs, hobbyist programmers have not only relearned the art of programming the Atari 2600, but have even learned a few new tricks. While these programmers are clever enough that they could have reinvented a lot over time, they no doubt benefited from having available a rich library of existing code in the form of Atari 2600 ROMs.

Matt argues that the severely limited development environments like the Atari 2600's spurred programmers to produce truly innovative code: "Learning how those feats were pulled off is instructive as it shows what can be done if you optimize your code and exploit your hardware to the fullest." One of the most celebrated geniuses of all time, Sir Isaac Newton, said something very similar back in 1675--"If I have seen further than other men, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Matt has made efforts to contact copyright owners and ask them to consider releasing their games under a public license so that new programmers can stand on their shoulders. The process is long and tedious, but at least a few major publishers seem to be warming to the idea.

One reason Matt started Liberated Games was his distaste for "Abandonware" sites. Abandonware sites like BH Legends and Home of the Underdogs offer free downloads of commercial games that have fallen out of production. Home of the Underdogs explains their rationale on their About page:

We believe that providing games that have been abandoned by their publishers, while technically illegal, is a valuable service to the gaming community because these games are in danger of disappearing into obscurity, and their copyright holders no longer derive any revenues from them.

Though a complete discussion of the ethics of abandonware is beyond the scope of this article (I'll save that discussion for next time), I'd encourage anyone interested in the subject to read the Scratchware Manifesto and consider its points. Matt's take on "abandonware" is that, while it's noble and arguably justifiable to make efforts to preserve these games, making them freely available for public download is not.

Free Software Sells, but Who's Buying?

I hope that this article has at least convinced a few aspiring and established game developers to consider the benefits of releasing the source code along with their binaries. Such additions would not cost much, and would likely increase and extend innovation all across the software industry-after all, videogames typically lead the industry in innovation. I'd also like to think that a few folks might re-consider some of the other principles of the free software movement; in particular, the commitment to enriching our communities and letting gratitude triumph over greed or bureaucratic impotence. After all, the game-buying public is what makes the proprietary game industry possible; why not make some small concessions? Why not "fertilize the soil" with useful source code? The long-term benefits are incalculable and thoroughly exciting.

Many proprietary game developers have recognized the creative desires of countless gamers. They have responded by releasing construction kits and promoting the growth of "modding communites" on the Internet. The response to these concessions has been enormous and has obviously greatly prolonged the shelf-life of many games. The stunning work performed by some gamers has rivaled (and arguably excelled) the developer's; take Counter-Strike as the textbook example. Valve saw the popularity of this fan-created module and decided to release it as a standalone game. While recognizing the "value add" of such communities to their game properties, few developers seem willing to take the logical next step and release the source code itself. Tellingly, "source code leaks," that is, unauthorized distribution of source code on the Internet, are becoming more common. It seems that the industry can respond to this threat in one of two ways: One, by vamping up security and ruling with an iron fist, or two by "going with the flow" and shifting their paradigms.

Let us consider briefly what would happen if Valve Software had released its own source code. Keep in mind that I'm not talking about data sets like graphics, sound files, story boards, and the like-just the "engine," or the code that puts all of these data sets together to make the game playable. Would the consequences of releasing this code prove fatal to the game's sales? Doubtful. After all, relatively few people would care to look at it anyway--the great majority would be quite content just buying the game. The people that would be interested in and would benefit from access to the code are aspiring and established programmers, who could greatly profit from studying it. The result would be an enrichment of the programming community--which would quickly lead to a surge of radical ideas as programmers quit reinventing wheels and focused on what hasn't been done--innovation. In short, "open sourcing" projects like Half-Life 2 would likely lead to much better games, which would result in much better sales and happier end-users. As for the argument that releasing source code would make the game too susceptible to piracy--I think Machiavelli, author of The Prince, said it best: "The best fortress that exists is to avoid being hated by the people." Substitute "copy protection" for "fortress" in that quotation and you have a stunning revelation. The best copy protection is to ensure that gamers respect and value your company. Every person the RIAA or MPAA sues makes the public that much more bitter and sympathetic to pirates. If they refuse to modify their strategies or economic models-in short, if they refuse to negotiate with the public, I have little doubt that eventually their empires will fall.

To succeed in a software economy increasingly being seized by free software and open source developers, proprietary game developers need to do some serious soul-searching. Public image is important. Reputation is important. In short, what's important is that they convince the public that they're offering a fair deal.

I see two ways that game developers can flourish in the post-proprietary economy. One is by shifting to a "service model," which is essentially what Valve's Steam is all about. The future of this model is clear: Giveaway the game (with the code), and charge for access to excellent servers. If such services can offer quality support at an affordable rate, there will be no honest reason why someone would try to cheat the system. For the same reason that honest folks would get upset if they heard of someone stealing electricity or cable, they'd put the pressure on others to obey the law and not cheat it. It's important not to ignore this pressure; it's a corporation's greatest asset. Of course, what will be lost if the majority of major game developers switch to such a system is the "stand alone" game beloved by so many PC gamers. There will be little financial incentive to produce a game like the original Baldur's Gate, for instance, since the "sell of secret bits," as Eric Raymond puts it, won't be viable in a post-proprietary economy. To make money, the game developers will have to sell a "game service" that works rather like cable television.

Another approach is the "public patronage" model. This model is based on the old "noble patron" system of earlier times, when wealthy persons would commission great public works of art in return for recognition and a testament to their fine taste. Forms of this system still exist; for example, the federal government offers grants to fund research projects and the like that are highly desirable, yet not imminently profitable. The National Endowment for the Arts is a federal program that specifically awards grants to artists. With the right kind of pressure and representation, NEA grants could be awarded to game developers who could demonstrate the cultural relevance and importance of their project. Of course, another approach might be to appeal directly to the public rather than seek a federal grant. A well-known and established developer like Bioware, for instance, might publish a detailed description of a project on its website and ask people to contribute the necessary funds for its production. This would likely lead to a sort of "bargaining game" with patrons who would argue about the necessity or desirability of certain features, the game's direction, and so on. The source code would likely be published along the way, and Bioware would do well to listen and accept good contributions from talented programmers. Obviously, Bioware would listen most carefully to the patrons who donated the most money, but the public would still have plenty of power in such developments. When the game was finally finished, the binaries would be released under a public license so that everyone could enjoy it.

I will conclude this article with the observation that the future looks pretty bright for free software game development. The Internet has made the old proprietary software model increasingly vulnerable. The culture industry as a whole will be forced to reckon with the power of cheap, easy, and well-encrypted anonymous file sharing that will ultimately destroy any corporation unwilling to compromise or change. The software industry is uniquely poised to assume a leadership role in the transition to a free economy, where the public is encouraged to distribute works at its own expense and convenience. Meanwhile, game developers will learn how to provide useful services that the public will be happy to purchase. If all goes well, who can doubt that the recording and film industries will follow its example? We look forward to an era of increased freedom and a richer, better society.

Notes

i I choose the term "free software" instead of the more common "open source" for a rhetorical reason. For a good reason to do likewise, see this essay.

ii The terms "open source" and "free software" are rhetorical choices describing similar software development strategies. The key difference is that "free software" carries with it a certain ideology that all software ought to be free (as in free speech), whereas "open source" is more neutral and arguably more appealing to business. In this article, I've used "open source" and "free software" based on the term the developer in question prefers. I'm very tempted to just use the term "free source" and be done with it, since what matters is whether or not the source code is available and what end-users can legally do with it.

iii For more information, see Steven L. Kent's The Ultimate History of Videogames.

iv The information for this section comes from Bell Labs' Unix history pages.

v See this article at CNET.com.

vi The metaphor of Catholicism vs. Protestantism can be quite useful in understanding Proprietary vs. Free Software. We might think of Microsoft as the Catholic Church and Bill Gates as the Pope. They sanction all interpretations of their Bible, i.e., the code-base, collect tithes, and attempt to fight off heretics with recourse to law. Meanwhile, we might think of the Free Software Movement as Protestantism and Richard Stallman (or Linus Torvalds, take your pick) as Martin Luther. There, the idea is to interpret the code for yourself, it being the duty of all end-users to take an active role in understanding and applying the Bible's teachings.

vii King, Brad and John Borland. Dungeons and Dreamers. Emeryville, CA: McGraw Hill, p. 131.

viii For more information, see Eric Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar.

Hot Topic - Emulation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Pt. 2 - Emulation and Abandonware: Good or Evil?

Each Issue's Hot Topic features brief commentary from the Armchair Arcade editors on an issue currently in the news...

This issue's Hot Topic is "Emulation vs. Original Hardware Part II: Law and Ethics"

Screenshots: David Torre

This hot topic is the second part of our discussion of the emulation of classic game systems on modern PC's and consoles. This is a controversial issue for most fans of retrogaming, because the only way we can get access to certain classic platforms and machines is via emulation and unauthorized (and usually copyrighted) ROM files. Furthermore, there is the more important issue of playability—some argue that it's just not the same to play a retrogame via PC emulation. Perhaps an even bigger controversy surrounds the emulation of modern consoles on PC's. Many emulation advocates stop short of saying that emulating games currently in production is ethically acceptable.

In the previous Hot Topic, we specifically discussed "Emulation vs. Original Hardware." Now we will discuss "The Legal and Ethical Conflicts of Emulation." The big question is, given that most forms of PC emulation constitute copyright infringement and are therefore illegal, should gamers still engage in the practice? Should intelligent and ethical gamers support projects like MAME?

Special note: We also discussed this topic last month in a special audio program.

Bill Loguidice, Armchair Arcade Editor: I have to say that in the end this comes down to a question of personal ethics. Of course the copyright and other laws say that using software you don't own is illegal, so there's no question there, but just because it's a law, doesn't make it right. Laws often lag behind reality. If you are comfortable with your own actions and decisions, then it's not up to me or anyone else to judge you, as long as you also accept the reality of the potential consequences.

I for one think it's an amazing technical achievement to emulate technology on hardware that it was never intended for. Further, not only is it an amazing achievement, but a valuable means of preserving that which is generally no longer available in regular retail channels. In other words, the original copyright holders can no longer benefit. Yes, as a collector I am the first to advocate use of original hardware and software, but if something happens to either or both of those items, I at least have the option through emulation of still experiencing that which was lost. Then, of course, there are those classic items I will never be able to either afford on the used market or find at all. Add to that the ability to have a ready historical reference and that physical storage is both finite and prone to wear, it's hard to argue against emulation.

What I do have a problem with - and it will be very difficult for anyone to ever convince me otherwise - is the emulation, copying and/or outright piracy of systems and games that are still on the market. Some like to defend their actions by saying that they have no money to buy games or that the games are overpriced and are not worth what they're being sold at. Unfortunately, that argument holds no validity. To put it simply, it is not one of your given rights to be able to play any game you want at any time. The way our society works is quite simple - you work to pay for goods and services that in turn allows someone else to work and pay for goods and services. With too many gaps along the way - too much theft, not enough buying, whatever - the system and in turn society as we know it begins to break down. If you're an anarchist, you'll be happy, but for the rest of us there's an obvious problem there.

If you were a game developer, would you be happy if your game, which you worked on 60+ hours a week for 18 months, only sold a few thousand copies because 100,000 other people downloaded it, played it illegally and did not feel compelled to pay for it? I don't think you would, because you'd probably be out of a job, maybe never given a chance to work on another game again.

It bears repeating that there are very few situations where any of us has a right to take something someone else makes for free if they don't choose to give it to us for free. Games are definitely not one of those situations. Again, the choice is yours to make, but try to understand the myriad consequences if you decide it's better to emulate than to buy when the latter is a real option.

Matt Barton, Armchair Arcade Editor: Let's just cut right to it: Stealing is wrong. I want people to respect my property and not take things from me without my permission, and I'm sure you feel the same. Respecting each other's property is one of the founding principles of life in a democracy. Now, I'm not a stingy man by any means, and probably put more money into those Salvation Army buckets than I can really afford. I also am not engaged in a lucrative occupation (I'm a teacher), and don't see how billionaires like Gates can sleep at night knowing that they are not using their fortune to combat world hunger, pestilence, and war. Nevertheless, I'd do everything in my power to stop a man from stealing from even the richest man in the world. Sure, I don't think Gates is right to horde wealth when he could do so much good with it, and while he may very well be the richest man in monetary terms, in spiritual terms he's the dirtiest, rattiest pauper you've ever smelled. The worst part is that people like you and me made Gates the man he is today, and we have little right to judge him. Let the man who has never installed a Microsoft product cast the first stone.

None of us can control Bill Gates. However, we can control ourselves, and that means taking responsibility for our own actions and ensuring that they're right. If we want to make this world a better place, we've got to make sure our own choices are honorable. It's up to us to set a better example. That means, first of all, letting ourselves be guided by principles rather than convenience. Instead of asking whether doing something is faster, cheaper, or more efficient, we need to ask whether it's right or wrong.

Yar's Revenge
Yar's Revenge (Atari 2600)
©1981 Atari

Let's decide now if emulation is right or wrong. First of all, is emulating an Atari 2600 game on my PC stealing? No. For it to be stealing, I'd have to take something that didn't belong to me. Downloading a game ROM from Kazaa is not "stealing," at least not stealing in any form I can recognize. What would be stealing is if I went to your house and stuck your Yar's Revenge cartridge in my pocket while you weren't looking. The difference is this—in the second case, I took something from you and you were worse off because of it. I gained, you lost, and the whole thing is vile and dirty. In the former case, however, I didn't steal from anybody. Nobody is one Yar's Revenge short today because some chap in Northern Ireland downloaded a ROM.

However, just because something isn't stealing doesn’t mean that it's permissible. Let's say that you tell me, "Matt, I'd like to send you a copy of this story I wrote, but you have to promise not to share it with anyone." If I say "Yes" to this, I have to abide by it if I wish to maintain my honor as a gentleman. I can always say, "No, thanks," if I feel I won't be able to resist sharing it. To put it simply, if I tell you I won't share it, but do anyway, I've told a lie. As someone who values honesty and wants to earn people's respect, I know that lying is a very bad move. Not only will I have broken the trust you had in me, but, assuming you tell others about it, my reputation will suffer. In short, nobody likes a liar. If you are a liar, and I find out about it, I will have as little to do with you as I possibly can.

When a game developer sells us a game, we are generally asked to agree to certain terms before we play it. These terms are typically referred to as the "User Agreement," or the end-user license. No one is forced to agree to these terms, though most of us are too lazy to take time to actually read the things. Most of us are only dimly aware of the promises we're making when we install a new piece of software. This is a regrettable situation for everyone involved. It's rather like that childish game where you ask someone to promise to do a favor for you without telling them what the favor is. It's very important for honorable men and women to ensure that the people who we ask to make promises understand exactly what they're promising before they make them. You may have heard people say that "shrink-wrap licenses" and user agreements like this are questionable and may not hold up in court. The reason they say this is that in other forms of business, a contract is only valid under certain conditions. Most importantly, each party must understand the conditions and consent to them without coercion. If I hold a gun to your head and force you to sign a contract, and this comes out in court, the contract will be rendered invalid. The same would be true if you couldn't read English, and I lied to you about what was on the contract. We leave it to the courts to decide the validity of contracts, but it's safe to say that, just like ordinary promises, people shouldn't make them carelessly.

Most of the games we're concerned about when we talk emulation are older games that are no longer available on the market, and many fans of emulation feel that this fact justifies their activities. I don't feel that it does, and that folks shouldn't try to ground their morals on economics. Imagine what would happen if we excused other crimes simply because it was economically justifiable to do so! What should matter is whether we are breaking a promise when we emulate a commercial game on our PC. Are we somehow lying to the developer or compromising our integrity?

Unfortunately, I'm sad to say that in a majority of cases, that's exactly what we're doing. We may not realize it fully, but it is our duty as citizens to learn about the law and to obey it. As citizens of a democracy, we are also responsible for ensuring that the laws are good and fight to change them if we disagree with them. As someone who has studied the so-called "intellectual property" laws for some time, I state that they are a disgrace to this country and something we should all feel ashamed of. Nevertheless, we should obey the laws and participate in this wonderful system of government that so many of our ancestors paid the ultimate price for us to enjoy. If you don't like a law, by all means fight to change it, but don't break it. If a man can die for your right to call yourself an American, you can damn well vote and fight to make this country worth his sacrifice.

What I would like to see happen is for us to negotiate with developers. Let's argue with them and not make promises we don’t intend to keep. We need more people willing to say, "No, I won't accept that license because it is too restrictive" and leave that game on the shelf. Let us send a message to the industry that we want more rights and won't accept a product that we feel asks too much of us. If you want to be able to share a game with your friends, make sure it's released under a license that gives you permission to do that. If you want to hack the game or use its code to make a game of your own, make sure the license lets you do that. There are people out there releasing games under licenses that let you do all of these wonderful things and more. But people are turning their nose up at these offers and instead disgracing themselves by lying and cheating. In my opinion, it is better to do without than to compromise your values. If more people will say "No!" to unfair licenses and support open source, free software, public domain, shareware, and other types of licenses, things will get better. The market will adapt to give you what you want.

Now, as far as abandonware is concerned, I will say this—Let us try to get in touch with the folks who "own the promise," so to speak, and see if they will change its terms or relinquish it altogether. This may not be the author or developer, but some other corporation or entity that currently holds the "rights" to the package. Let us work together to find and ask these folks if they will consider "liberating" the software so that it might persevere beyond the obsolescence of its intended platform. Let us support good people like Matt Matthews of Liberated Games, who has been doing exactly this task for us. If a developer says "No," let's agree to leave that game alone. Let the damn thing rot. After all, the developer has paid the price of damning that work to obscurity; it's his loss. I believe many people out there would agree to release their old games into the public domain or under a general public license if they were properly compensated. We need consortiums of videogame historians and enthusiasts who are willing to buy the rights to abandoned games so that we can preserve and make them available to everyone. If enough of us got together and pooled our resources, we could enrich the public domain with thousands of great games—all without telling a single lie.

Gamers, I've grown up a lot since I copied my first floppy. I hope that some of you have, too, and the rest of you will soon. Let's respect the law, respect each other, respect developers, and agree to do what's right. Anything else is unacceptable to a true American.

Matt Matthews, Guest Editor from Liberated Games and Curmudgeon Gamer: I am increasingly uncomfortable and unhappy with the state of copyright law and old videogames. In particular, I think that even the most innocent copying of games is probably illegal under current laws and licenses.

Let me preface this by saying that I am not a lawyer, but I have spent a reasonable amount of time trying to educate myself about what the law says on copyright. I'd be happy to learn that I'm wrong on these issues.

Most recreational use of emulators, whether for a console or a home computer or an arcade machine, is based on the use of a software copy of the game program and data, colloquially called a ROM. The law permits a backup copy of software to be made by the licensed owner of an original copy of the software. Here's how the law could be interpreted such that I could almost never make use of a backup copy of software that I own.

Skate or Die
Skate or Die (C64)
©1987 Electronic Arts

I own an original 5.25" floppy diskette of Skate or Die by Electronic Arts for the Commodore 64, complete with the original flat cardboard folder and instructions. First, suppose I'd like to make a backup of that software into a more stable medium. As with most software of that era, Skate or Die was stored on the diskette along with reasonably troublesome copy prevention. It might not even be possible for me to create a perfect copy of the diskette with consumer hardware. Am I allowed, under the backup copy provision, to obtain the copy from someone else, say in the form of a cracked copy of the game from a website for FTP site? I'm not sure that's clear. Let's assume that this isn't a problem.

(Incidentally, the Commodore 64 is an easy case. There actually are pretty robust tools for making backups using easily obtained hardware. In the case of a NES cartridge or the chips in an arcade board, the backup may be extremely hard and expensive to make.) Worse yet, even if I could make a useful copy of the game on my own with additional software (there were cracking programs for this precise purpose), the method itself might put me in violation of another part of copyright law. The software which makes a copy may very well modify the original version in order to create that useful copy. That's a derivative work, something that copyright law may prohibit. Again, let's assume this isn't a problem and move on. Now, let's assume I've somehow made a legal backup copy of Skate or Die and stored it in D64 format on a personal computer. Here comes the worst part: this backup is available for my use in a situation where my original fails to work. Since I have a working original copy, by definition I cannot use the backup, therefore I cannot use the backup with an emulator. So the solution is to destroy my original, right? Ok, but am I even allowed to use the backup on anything but the original hardware, or in the original format? Am I required to make another 5.25" floppy diskette and use it only on a real Commodore 64? If you begin to see the issues I've raised as serious issues, then it becomes clear that nearly all use of copyrighted software with emulation is potentially illegal, perhaps in several ways.

Mark Vergeer, Armchair Arcade Assistant Editor: Today the attitude towards videogames is changing. Games are now widely perceived as an important cultural entity. Academic media studies are extending to include games, and games are being written about in academic journals. Let's face it—games are becoming an integral and important part of our culture.

Game publishers use proprietary formats that can only be used on proprietary hardware. When it’s not economically viable for companies to continue to support the specific hardware that plays the media, there is a big chance of “cultural impoverishment” because it’s considered illegal to use/access the media in any other way. You will even be imprisoned for trying! So culture is lost because it's not economically viable or illegal to keep it accessible.

But if companies only see dollar signs and don’t take their responsibility towards the game-culture, then the people will have to themselves, and I see emulation as a necessity for preserving this culture. Today you can still get a functioning NES, but what if the last one dies on us? Of course, some game companies do ‘preserve’ culture in their own money making ways by releasing rewrites of original games for the new incarnation of consoles. Sometimes these classic collections turn out great. But it’s almost never the same as the real thing. It’s like reading a rehashed, modernized version of Hamlet written by Ms. Rowling (which will no doubt be a wonderful read) and pretend it’s the real Shakespearean-deal.

I do not condone/approve of copying modern/recent games and running those on emulators and actually steal software this way. Especially when it concerns systems and games that are still commercially available. But I think emulation should be considered legal when it concerns older platforms that are considered commercially ‘dead’ and money is not being lost by emulation.

Why not release the old games to the public domain copy protection free after the money is earned so that libraries can preserve the games and programmers are able to create ‘players’ like SCUMMVM to keep the game code compatible and running on modern hardware/software environments? The abandonware solution is a pretty good one in my opinion.

Today the world, and especially the media industry, is going a bit overboard with all those copy protection schemes/copyright laws. Often those schemes make life pretty miserable for regular users and sometimes it even destroys the compatibility and durability of the media. Error correction and copy protection on CD/DVD media often interferes with each other and we end up with a less durable solution. For example buying an audio CD and expecting it to play on your car CD-player might give you some unpleasant surprises. Some audio CDs are so mangled by copy protection schemes that the disks aren’t technically and legally audio CDs anymore and aren’t even allowed to sport the compact disc logo!

Mat Tschirgi, Armchair Arcade Assistant Editor: Given that emulators are technically illegal, I still support it, but only when it applies to classic systems—emulating a NES game would be much more acceptable than emulating a Gamecube game.

Emulation allows gamers to experience a wide variety of games, many never released in their home country. It enables gamers to gain a greater appreciation for the history of gaming as a whole, whether they just want to see where the Ninja Gaiden series began or if they want to complete their own "survey history" course on fighting games.

The use of emulators allows me to get music for my online video game music radio show, Do the Mario!. Though most of the time I get music that is ripped by others in a proprietary format, sometimes I have to extract the music from the games themselves. A lot of video games never were given a proper soundtrack release in the first place and through some emulators, one can rip their own soundtrack to listen to on their own time.

Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (Genesis)
©1993 Sega

I really wish more companies would release compilations of their older software. Some of the most fun I've had recently has been from playing through Sega's Sonic Collection for the GC, which had a relatively smooth interface and a decent sampling of the early Sonic titles. In the home video and DVD market, lots of older titles are released over and over again in new special editions. Why this isn't done for computer and video games is a mystery? I know of a lot of friends that would be willing to check out a compilation of classic Castlevania titles...

Cecil Casey, Armchair Arcade Web Editor: We all have to say that PC emulation is a direct violation of the copyright holder's legal rights. This places these activities squarely into the realm of illegal under the current laws. But this in no way means that these activities have been detrimental to the copyright holder's interests. In fact MAME and its non-arcade brother MESS have allowed many otherwise dead systems to have commercial life breathed back into them.

Let me start with an example that we have hashed over many times: The Amiga emulation scene. For all intents and purposes, the Amiga copyrights really were of little or no value to anyone in the early to mid 90’s. That is because no one had any place to sell new Amiga operating systems. There was no hardware being built because all the core custom chips just cost too much to produce in quantities that would be used by people wanting to tinker with an old computer.

But never underestimate the Amiga user community. Yes, we all have been forced off the reservation and into the living hell that is Windows, but we are still the creative bunch of dreamers that we had been. So as soon as someone on the MAME/MESS projects announced that there was a cycle accurate 68000 CPU emulator the first faint blip of pulse awoke in the long dead Amiga.

As you all know how this story works out, I will jump ahead to the part that ties into the question of emulation. I can assure you that the people at Cloanto who own the rights to the Kickstart and Amiga DOS thank heaven that people gave them a business for free. For this gift I have to say that they have been grateful--take a look around the Amiga Forever web site and you find that they encourage making the Amiga OS open source.

Let's look at another example that Bill wrote about this month. The Commodore 64 30-in-1 game stick. There has been a lot of work by several people for that last couple of years to get a Commodore-64 emulated. And we have had one on the PC for quite some time. Along with the emulator there are several archives of C-64 software available for download. And up to this point no one has made any money on any of it. But once again the legal holders of the license have been given a gift in several ways. The software is readily available to them to download and work with, so once they get rights they can have most of the ‘warez’ available to them. Secondly Jerry Ellsworth managed to get the entire C-64 on to one ASIC and RAM/ROM. So they can lay out a whole C-64 on a board no bigger than the one in an Atari 2600 joystick PC board. At the last I had heard copyright holders had produced around 200,000 of these for sale through QVC. Not bad for a dead computer system.

From these examples I would have to say that emulation is TOTALLY beneficial to holders of copyright of older systems. You get archiving and development for free and get a built up retro fan base on the net. The thing that they have to learn is that if they bite the hand that gave them the free archives and development that people will leave them to twist in the wind once again. We don’t need what they are selling; we buy it out of curiosity, or nostalgia. Piss us off and we will put you back onto the garbage heap of history.

Shutting Down Windows

Author: David Torre
Editing: Mathew Tschirgi, Cecil Casey, Matt Barton
Online Layout: David Torre
Screenshots: David Torre

If you've been on the web as long as I have, chances are you have heard of Linux. This operating system has been slowly gaining popularity in the last 10 years and is being developed at a rapid pace. Linux is a well-rounded operating system suited for just about any task. I could go into the specifics of setting up this OS for general use, but there are hundreds of guides (The Linux documentation Project, Gentoo Handbook) on the Internet that do that far better than I could. Rather, I'd like to focus on why you should use Linux instead of the popular Windows operating system. Linux's status as free, fast, secure, customizable and compatible makes it a worthy alternative to Windows.

Certainly Linux has many merits; however, perhaps the most significant is that it is free. In the words of the Free Software Foundation, that means “‘free’ as in ‘free speech,’ not as in ‘free beer’”1. Under the GNU General Public License (GPL), the source code for Linux is freely available, and you are free to make modifications and share them with the community, as long as you also give others the same rights that were given to you. You might not be a programmer, but while having source code access may not be useful to you directly, you might find that it is useful indirectly – I'll explain this in detail later. Most Linux distributions can be downloaded off the Internet free of charge, and you'll find that the vast majority of software on this platform is also free or very close to it.

WinZip Registration Popup Window
Remember, if you don't register it after the evaluation period, it's illegal to have.

This inexpensiveness is one of Linux's greatest strengths. Feel free to install as many programs as you want – you'll rarely see a single pop up window nagging you to register your program for a fee. Sure, other operating systems have their share of free software (in price), but I'd argue that the quality of the free software on Linux is much higher than that of free software on Windows. For example, I have not come across a completely free graphics product on Windows that is as complete as the GIMP2. Unlike free programs like Microsoft Paint which is included with Windows, with the GIMP you can do things like make custom brushes, use filters, and convert from/to multiple image formats. I have also not seen a free Office suite on Windows that is as nearly as robust as OpenOffice.org. This suite has a word processor, a design tool, a spreadsheet, and presentation software, among other applications. The word processor alone is good enough for me to type up this article and revise it with my colleagues. It seems like the best “free” software on Windows is actually shareware, which usually means limited features in hopes of getting you to pay for a full version. A good example of shareware is WinZip, which technically you can use without paying forever, but each time it opens you are asked to pay for the full version.

This brings me to another point. Because the majority of Windows software is either shareware or completely commercial, many Windows users with limited incomes (minors as well as adults) are driven to illegally copy software. If one is to be productive on their PC, and cannot afford to purchase software such as Microsoft Office($399) and Adobe Photoshop CS($649) that person is usually left with no other option than to crack or illegally download software. Software is manufactured usually in an all-or-nothing mindset, in which you either get a robust, feature-filled version for a high price or an extremely crippled and limited version for free or for a modest price. Now, consider if these users had the opportunity to use free tools that had all the functionality they really needed? I admit Nero is nice, but am I really going to use half of its features to burn CDs? K3B, a free CD burning package, has quite a robust feature set and does everything I need it to do – and I do not have to pay for it. Many Linux users can say with confidence that they do not have a single pirated application on their computer – how many Windows users can say that?

File and MP3 Renamer Registration Popup
$19.95 to register this? You must be joking.

This is not to say that Linux does not have commercial software; it's just that one does not require commercial software to be productive on Linux. I have paid for two software applications on Linux, both of them are software applications that allow me to use Windows software. I really don't mind paying for the occasional application on Linux. It's just that I dislike being constantly nagged to pay for programs – especially when those programs are so simple that I could write a shell script in 15 minutes that would accomplish the same thing.

Linux is a fast operating system. Part of what makes Linux so fast is the fast filesystems that it supports. Unlike Windows that only supports a basic filesystem, Linux allows you to choose from multiple efficient filesystems, the most popular of which are ext3, ReiserFS, JFS, and XFS. One of these filesystems, ReiserFS, squishes small files together in the same area of the disk so you may store more data on the same disk. It also is remarkably fast. Have you ever tried to copy a folder on Windows that contained many thousands of tiny files and noticed how slow it was? This does not happen with ReiserFS because of the way the data is stored. ReiserFS, like other Linux filesystems, is journaled, which means that a log is kept on each successful write. This means that you can never corrupt your files and have to run a utility like ScanDisk to recover data or space. Defragmenting a hard disk is also usually completely unnecessary because of the efficiency of the Linux filesystems.

For those that are concerned about gaming performance, you can rest assured that the latest Nvidia drivers are made available for Linux. Although ATI does provide Linux drivers, they are not kept as up-to-date as the Nvidia ones on the Linux platform. Even when you play Windows games on Linux, it is a native implementation (not an emulator). This means that you will not have to endure a significant framerate drop to play games in Linux.

Networking in Linux is also much more reliable than in Windows. Unlike Windows, Linux and other Unix systems were designed from the ground up with networking in mind. Windows, on the other hand, had networking tacked on through the still-widely-used Winsock technology. This means that Linux users enjoy stable, always working network connections. With an ssh server running on one's machine, you can truly access your machine from anywhere. I currently use the gnump3d music server to listen to my music files from work.

Linux is truly one of the most secure operating systems out there. There are virtually no viruses on Linux. This is due in a large part to the separation of user and root privileges in Linux. Just about every program on Linux runs as a unprivileged user with no write access to anywhere on the hard disk except the user's home directory. Even if a malicious program was able to be executed, it would have no write access to the program directories it needed to spread. For normal day-to-day use, a limited user account is perfectly adequate. If you need administrative privileges (for instance, to install software), you can do so by typing “su” at the shell followed by the root password. A common practice is to temporarily “su” to root to install a piece of software then typing “exit” to change back to a limited user.

You'd think that the availability and transparency of source code on Linux leads to more exploitation of security holes. Amazingly, it is quite the opposite. Source code transparency ensures security holes in software are quickly found and repaired. After all, on Linux, a user doesn't have to wait for Microsoft to fix a bug. Oftentimes experienced programmers are able to submit patches to source code trees to fix problems before they become epidemics.

The componentized design of Linux is a great asset to Linux's security. Many basic OS functions that are part of everyday use, such as cron (a program scheduler) and XFree86 (the basic GUI framework) can be interchangeably replaced with alternatives that have the same basic functionality. This is possible thanks to the openness of the source code as well as Linux's great design. One can install and use dcron or fcron instead of vixie-cron for a scheduling service, or X.org instead of XFree86 for a GUI framework. Although one can use alternative programs on Windows to minimize the risk of viruses, it is not possible to replace Windows components such as Task Scheduler, Device Manager, and the GUI framework at the microcode level.

The customization options available in the Linux operating system make it, like so many other Unices, a true hobbyist OS. I use the word “hobbyist” in the same way that the Commodore 64 and Amiga systems were “hobbyist” computers. With Linux, computing is fun again! If you know a Linux user, chances are he or she is working on a project. Say that you want to put together the ultimate user-friendly media server. It is not uncommon for a Linux person to put together a shell script for a project like this.

Speaking of scripting and programming, Linux is truly a programmer's best friend. Advanced scripting capabilities are built directly into the shell – think of MS-DOS Batch files on steroids. Want to rename a bunch of mp3s all at once? Do it with a one line shell script. If I had a bunch of compressed files I wanted to extract at once, I'd type something like “for x in *.tar.gz; do tar xvfz $x; done”. It sounds complicated, but once you get into the shell, it becomes second nature and you'll wonder how you ever got by without one. If you have a scripting task that is more suited for a dedicated scripting language, fire up a python or perl interpreter and fire away. Of course, for those who prefer compiled code, you can code in C++ without buying expensive development tools like Visual C++.

Scalability is one of the best assets of Linux. I see many Windows power users turning off every graphical effect in Windows to speed things up. Imagine if these users had the option to replace the bulky Windows GUI with a slimmer, faster one – they'd set this up in a second, right? Well, as you may have guessed, you can do this too on Linux. If you are the type of person that would like to get every millisecond of performance out of your system, you can switch to something minimalistic like TWM or Blackbox. If you ever wondered how fast your system would run with a GUI slim enough to run on a 386, you can wonder no more. You would think that that would be enough configurability for just about everyone, but Linux allows you to go even farther. If you are nuts about pushing the most performance out of your game, you can set up X to launch your game instead of a window manager! Personally, I like GUIs that are full featured and full of graphical effects, so I have been known to be comfortable using either KDE or Enlightenment.

World of Warcraft running under Linux
Cedega allows you to play games like World of Warcraft
under Linux (click to enlarge)

Linux is extremely compatible. A Linux machine can read NTFS, FAT, Macintosh, and even Amiga partitions! Support for nearly every piece of hardware imaginable is in the Linux kernel – and you can set it up to load only what you need! Of course, most users are concerned about running Windows software and games under Linux. Windows support under Linux is done using Wine, a recursive acronym for “Wine Is Not an Emulator”. Wine is free to use, but some of the more cutting edge support is done with commercial versions of Wine. Rest assured, these will be some of the only pieces of software you'll need to buy on Linux. Crossover Office ($40) is a great general-purpose commercial version of Wine. With it, you can run much-depended-on applications like Adobe Photoshop, the Microsoft Office suite, Trillian, Internet Explorer and iTunes. There's even support for using Windows browser plugins under Linux, so you'll never need to boot Windows to enjoy the latest QuickTime movie trailer. For gaming, Linux users can use TransGaming Wine, now known as Cedega. This subscription service is only $5 a month (you can cancel your subscription if you don't need/want to keep current) and allows you to play games like Half Life 2 and World of Warcraft in Linux. Cedega subscribers get to vote on new features and new games supported, so the monthly fee is worth every penny. Cedega's programming team works hard to ensure popular games are supported within days of release.

Linux compatibility extends to emulation, as well. Most of the popular Windows emulators such as MAME, ZSNES, Daphne, Dosbox and UAE already have Linux ports. There is also a number of Linux-exclusive emulation projects. Retrogaming hardware also is widely supported – I use a USB-connected X-Arcade controller for most games, and a cheap Gamecube-to-USB adapter to use my Gamecube controller in games that require an analog joystick. Even if you need to use the elusive emulator that is only on Windows, you can usually use Cedega to run it (that's right, an “emulator” running an emulator). If that fails, you can always keep a Windows partition around for gaming. Once you become comfortable in Linux, you might find that you'll not need Windows but once in a while.

As you can see, Linux is free, fast, secure, customizable and compatible with just about anything you can throw at it. As such, it is a very robust OS and a joy to use. I hope by portraying Linux in a positive and truthful light that I've encouraged you to get your hands dirty with this innovative Operating System. If I had to pick a distribution to recommend, I'd recommend Gentoo (mostly for the package system), but there are many great distributions out there. Don't be afraid to get a spare hard drive and try out a few distributions. Your journey awaits!

1http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html
2I encourage all readers to download this free graphics editor. A Windows port is available. The 2.0 release was a complete overhaul both in interface and in features. Now, more than ever, GIMP is a truly complete graphics editor, and has completely eliminated my need for Adobe Photoshop. http://www.gimp.org/