Thursday, February 21, 2013

How Important are retro games?

I note that the recently announced PS4 will not initially be backwards compatible with PS3 games but Sony are looking at ways that might make it possible to play PS1, PS2 and PS3 games play on their new console.

That made me think about the importance, or lack of importance, of older games and retro gaming. Do older games actually matter at all?

I play a lot of older games myself (witness my recent sojourn in Baldur´s gate) but I am an old curmudgeon. I remember when these classic games were released so they have significant nostalgia value for me. I am also fortunate that my gaming platform of choice, the PC has unparalleled backwards compatibility. This is not representative I suspect. I guess that the majority of gamers have neither the desire nor the mechanism to play ten year old games.

Are retro games important from a business perspective? I guess not very. Sure there are websites and forums dedicated to retro gaming and at least one company (gog.com) seems to have built a successful business out of it. It still seems like a niche niche market though. How do gog's sales of retro games compare with sales of recent releases? I don't know but I suspect very poorly even on that most nerdy of gaming platforms the PC.Unscientific Experiment: Looking at Steam's list of 100 most played games for today (http://store.steampowered.com/stats/) I count 12 of out of 100 that are more than 5 years old which is actually more than I expected. Multiplayer games (shooters and mmorpgs) top the list of older games but some RTS games also seem to have longevity (possible multiplayer also). Valve's  own Half Life 2 is the only resolutely single player game that still has longevity. Most of these old games don't actually make the list of current best sellers on the Steam store suggesting that these are being supported by long time players rather than new players but there are a few older titles making an appearance on the 100 best selling games: Garry's Mod tops the list while Baldurs' gate, Half Life and the Fallout collection are all in there.

Even if we assumed the retro gaming market was 12% of the overall market (I suspect it is far far less).  it probably isn't enough to get the big players interested.  From a purely financial perspective there is more money to be made  selling new games for $60 than old classics for $10 classics. Perhaps access to a back catalogue is a marketing advantage when a console first comes out and is not yet well supported but does anyone really buy a new console to play old games?

What about the cultural value of retro games? I can still watch the movies of Charlie Chaplin. I can read the works of William Shakespeare. Surely it would be a tragedy if gamers of the future could no longer experience Monkey Island or Doom or Halo or Uncharted? Would anybody care? Would gamers be content to see these games being displayed only in museums. My reaction is "Of course not!"  but then again I am not representative. I find it impossible to play a modern game without making links to its antecedents. I wonder how many players of recent blockbusters like Skyrim and Black Ops 2 even have the means of playing Morrowind or the original Call of Duty?

Software emulation could be a solution to saving older titles from eventual demise by allowing them to be played on newer hardware. Even today emulation is a very powerful way of resurrecting some older games and platforms but the area remains technically obscure and legally questionable. It tends to be the domain of nerds. A particular difficulty is that the emulating hardware needs to be many times more powerful than the device it is emulating so emulation always seems to be about ten years behind the latest technology. That is more than one generation of gaming hardware and creates a black whole in the retro gaming time-line. In a couple of years time it could be easier to play PS2 games through emulation than to find system that is capable of playing PS3 games. It might be possible to shrink that 10 year gap if a major company was to embrace emulation and put its resources behind it but Sony seems to be looking for a different route involving streaming older games to the PS4. I am a little sceptical about the ability of the streaming experience to complete with playing a local copy but it probably makes commercial sense. Sony won't make money by allowing you to stick your old PS2 disc in their new machine. They might make money charging you a monthly sub to stream that PS2 game from an online service.

However I did have a thought. Given that the PS4 is built on X86 PC architecture surely it wouldn't be impossible to emulate a gaming PC on it. Linux and Wine probably have most of what you need. Imagine if Sony did a deal with gog.com to open up their catalog of classic PC games for the PS4. I am not sure how they might handle the mouse / keyboard issue but that is surely solvable with a custom peripheral if required. Imagine playing Homeworld and System Shock 2 on a PS4. I think it would be great but then again I am not representative.

Another final thought. If you are a PC gamer or even if you are a gamer who has a PC why not dip in to the unrivalled back catalogue. It is the only gaming system on which it is still possible to play and enjoy 20 year old games. Regardless of whether the future of gaming belongs to PCs, consoles, tablets or smart phones the past of gaming belongs to the PC and it is still very much with us. I have a personal fondness for the period from 1998 to 2002 a time when hardware and software developments came together to produce some of the most innovative and creative works in gaming history, including may genre defining titles that still influence the games we play today.

Edit I should of  course have given a nod to Nintendo's virtual console as an example of a big company using emulation to keep older games alive.

4 comments:

Cap'n John said...

I have a SNES emulator on my PC that runs pretty much any of the classic SNES titles I downloaded.

While emulators and ROMs could be construed as piracy, as far as I'm concerned, at least in my case, it's not, because all of the SNES ROMs that I did download I own the original cartridge. Okay, so they're no longer physically in my possession but are in a box back home in Australia with my Mum, but I did buy the games so I figure that gives me the right to have a copy of the ROM. RIAA be damned.

In a world that includes games like Zelda: Twilight Princess, Uncharted, and the Resident Evil series, why would I download 20+ year old ROMs?

Zelda: A Link to the Past, Chrono Trigger, and Secret of Mana, of course. In the 8 & 16-bit era graphics alone couldn't sell a game, so developers needed to create games that were actually worth playing, and these three are definitely games worth playing.

I have a feeling that when Sony say they're looking at ways to make it possible to play older games on the PS4 console, that they're going to sell downloadable versions of those games, rather than allow you to use your older discs in your new system.

mbp said...

In fairness to Nintendo they did make a lot of classic game available for the Wii via "Virtual Console" but $10 a pop for a 20 year old game is not great value. I have to agree with you that that is probably also what Sony have in mind for the PS4. I doubt they plan to allow you play PS2 games for free. You will have to buy them all over again.

Tim said...

I agree with Cap'n John--I'm still attached to my SNES collection, but I'd rather be able to play it from my iPad or phone than break out my old SNES. I own the cartridges, but I definitely play the ROMs.

I think retro gamers make a small but dedicated force of the gaming community as a whole. As you mentioned, there are always those connected to the past in any hobby (music lovers who only listen to Classical, movie buffs who are addicted to black and white, etc. etc.). Gaming is a relatively new community compared to others, and the concept of 'retro' for games is comical when considering how long some of them have been around.

Still, I think retro gamers are in the minority of gamers, and this portion of the community is shrinking as rapidly as the technology advances. One of your older posts (http://mindbendingpuzzles.blogspot.com/2012/01/do-you-have-obsolescence-recovery-plan.html) really hit home with me. As someone who rarely uses a PC anymore, I have to find ways to play older games on my phone or tablet. The days of multiple emulator options are over. There's one or two that work well, and you're pretty much stuck with those. Maintaining the ability to keep playing old games gets harder and harder.

Overall, I think the importance of retro games is something that will dimish as the generation that grew up on those games fades. I'm not terribly old myself, but I'm literally the only person my age that I know that still cares about retro games. We're a dying breed.

mbp said...

Hi Tim and welcome. I do agree with you that fewer and fewer folks are interested in playing retro games but I would be more optimistic than you about the ingenuity of the remaining diehards. If the PC does go the way of the dodo then I bet someone will figure a way to hack an Ipad or Android tablet to play those games.