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Hardware Emulation and Old Games

Crystal Castles on Cloud 9

  • January 2, 2006
  • By Dee-Ann LeBlanc

Have you ever found yourself quoting something from a favorite old arcade game ("Elf needs food, badly!") and wondered whatever happened to that original experience? While many games have been updated over the years, those who remember their debut at times feel that the newest versions lost the something special that the original had captured. When caught in a nostalgic mood, it's a natural move these days to find out if you can revisit those old games again.

Those who collect old arcade machines have it easiest. If the machine works, they just fire it up and have a blast. The rest of us who don't have the space or the funds to do so can make do with the MAME open source project, though in the Linux and Unix worlds our choice will be the XMAME variant. This framework emulates the hardware used for these old arcade games, allowing their software to be loaded and utilized.

The MAME project actually consists of a number of different pieces. There's the ones already mentioned (MAME and XMAME), along with a related project called MESS that focuses on old computer games rather than old hardware-based games. MESS has the XMESS component for the Unix world. Support projects for both MESS and MAME include the Dumping Project and the Targets list. MAME Targets maintains a list of all possible games that fall under the MAME and MESS mandates, and the Dumping Project uses this list to track down the games they're missing and preserve them.

Preservation is a key term here. The goal of the Dumping Project is to prevent old games from eventually vanishing forever. Content producers have varying takes on this issue. According to Randy Hoffman, Coordinator of the Dumping Project and member of the MAME development team, "The current corporate copyright holders--at least the ones that still exist as corporate entities--seem not to care about MAME itself one way or the other." As evidence, he offers, "We have never received official corporate assistance in emulating anything, but we've only been asked to remove a game from MAME twice, and in both cases the company was minor (and one of the games was a bootleg anyway)."

>From Hoffman's observations, the disinterest in MAME seems to come from a combination of two business issues. The first is that MAME doesn't (typically) threaten existing revenue-generating products. This software is used mostly for ancient games that are no longer for sale, so sending legal teams with cease and desist orders isn't often worth it. That doesn't mean that some game companies haven't demanded to have ROMs taken down, however. In 2002, an unidentified copyright holder threatened Mame.dk (which no longer works) with litigation if their content was not removed. As a result of this threat along with another large issue that occurred at the same time, involving non-payment by a partner site, the entire site was pulled down and has never returned.

The reason this single company may have gone to this trouble fits in with the second issue, where most companies don't see a way to make a profit using MAME either. This particular copyright holder may have decided to sell its older games without seeing a way for MAME to be part of this picture. Certainly, many companies don't seem to see the point. Most publishers of old games don't tend to provide assistance in getting the emulation working. Individual programmers sometimes do, perhaps excited to think that games they had long considered left behind could get play again. Others, according to Hoffman, "find emulation so distasteful that they [act as though they] would rather kill their firstborn children than see their games emulated."

In addition, according to Hoffman, "Long ago, we tried to contact many of these companies about setting up systems to make arcade-game ROM images available for purchase; none of them ever responded."

There is a company, however, that has had success in this area. StarROMS has an official agreement with Atari to provide legal ROMs of classic Atari games. Royalties are paid to Atari for the use of their games, allowing the company to leverage older products that otherwise might just be fading away. StarROMS' goal is to carry more than just games from Atari, but they are working with other rights' owners--typically the game publishers--for the ability to carry a wider range of older games.

Aside from signing on individual subscribers, the folks at StarROMS have managed to extend their business base by making strategic partnerships. There are a number of companies out there who provide hardware for classic gaming. With no legally-available classic game ROMs, these companies has no real legitimate market.

According to Frank Leibly, co-founder of StarROMS, Inc., "By providing a legal source of games to work with their hardware, we're helping to establish and legitimize this fledgling industry. The legal standard for selling a commercial product is that there needs to be a compelling and substantial legal use for your product. If you're trying to sell classic gaming related products for use with pirated ROMS, you have a problem."

Not only does a company such as StarROMs provide a legal source of content for commercial products, but it also legitimizes the MAME project, to which StarROMs is a donor. With approximately 50,000 registered users on their site, StarROMs certainly does show that there is interest in playing classic games, even when they come from just a single company.

One company making use of StarROMs content and MAME technology to enhance its own product is Dream Authentics. Dream Authentics builds custom video game systems, placing a game-quality PC into an arcade-style cabinet of the customer's choice and configuring it specifically for playing games with one of their game engine products. The buyer can also place their other game systems into the cabinet and choose which they want to use (Nintento, Playstation, X Box, and so on) with the touch of a single button.

Dream Authentics, according to President and CEO Rick Barretto, approached the MAME developers and requested that a special version of MAME be created that is only capable of playing StarROMs content since StarROMs offers the only legal commercial MAME content. The MAME developers obliged. When a customer requests this feature be included, MAME and the StarROMs games are pre-loaded before the cabinet is shipped for no extra cost--Dream Authentics only charges for the custom cabinets, not the custom software included within it. (You are not limited on a Dream Authentics machine to the software that comes with it. At the core of the cabinet is a full computer running Microsoft Windows XP. Anything that can be installed under XP normally can be installed on the system inside the cabinet.)

When asked how being able to include classic game content through MAME affects sales, Barretto answered, "I think people know that our cabinets are PC-based and MAME-compatible so they are comfortable with the fact that our cabinets can play any StarROMs title or any other PC based game on the planet. I think this just gives them a little more comfort that we really know what we are doing (with our cabinet and electronic designs) and know what they want in an ultimate personal game cabinet."

Understandably, Barretto adds that DreamAuthentics hopes StarROMs will be able to acquire the rights to more titles in the future. Such an accomplishment would not only give StarROMs more games to offer its customers, but would give DreamAuthentics a larger package of classic games to include with its cabinets. If he could choose particular classic games for StarROMs to add to their list, they would include the favorites: the Tron games, Pac Man, Donkey Kong, and others.

Ultimately, MAME is an example of the open source ecosystem in action. The software has created a paying market for properly licensed content, to the point that third party companies partner with those who have the licenses in order to offer that content as well. MAME also, in a way, functions a bit as a game history museum. Without the efforts of the Dumping Project there are games that would have been completely lost in the mists of time. Many may not have missed them, but even today the game industry is still young with room for "firsts." It would be a shame to have lost a bunch of the original "firsts" from collective memory.

Dee-Ann LeBlanc is an award-winning technology journalist and computer book author who specializes in Linux.

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