I’ve always been behind the curve when it comes to videogames, going back to childhood when my parents refused to buy a Nintendo and my brother and I had to rely on older PC games for entertainment. While I never developed the manual dexterity necessary to win an Xbox deathmatch (my performance in Halo is a joke), I do have an interesting series of childhood recollections: top-down terrorist control in Syndicate, the quirky adventure game-style of Quest for Glory, spinning to avoid giant feline pilots in Wing Commander II.
With the old disks lost or rendered obsolete, I thought these games existed only in memory. That is, until a few months ago when my friend Pat mentioned that he’d been playing through System Shock 2, a game I’d heard many great things about but missed when it came out in 1999. Where’d he find it, I asked – garage sale? eBay?
Five minutes later we were at Home of the Underdogs. To me, it was a treasure chest of 16-bit nostalgia. I wasn’t just reliving my gaming memories – I was discovering games I’d somehow missed, like the original Prince of Persia, the first seven Ultima installments and the first two Monkey Island games. I found myself thinking about how much money I could get for my Xbox 360; it had, ironically, been rendered obsolete.
Home of the Underdogs is a community for abandonware, games that you can’t find in stores and couldn’t install on modern computers anyway. For several years now, a small but dedicated group of websites have been quietly building up their stockpile, all with the intent of providing it to people who wouldn’t trade their 2-D sprites for anything that current consoles have to offer.
One (or Thousands) from the Vaults
Rafael “Lone Lee” Lopez, founder of Abandoneer and head of the Abandonware web ring, defines abandonware as “any game or application that is no longer supported by its copyrights-holder. The definition of ‘no longer supported’ varies, but in most cases is about whether or not the game is still sold in stores.”
This definition of abandonware means that the majority of abandonware consists of games released in the ’80s and ’90s across every conceivable genre. Abandonia, one of the largest providers of abandonware with close to 1,100 games, offers titles in genres ranging from adventure, arcade, roleplaying, first-person shooter, side-scroller and text-based games. Titles popular at the time of their release continue to thrive as abandonware, such as LucasArts’ line of adventure games or FPSs by id Software. Lopez adds the community is known for “revering some seriously underrated commercial flops.”
From a technical standpoint, the majority of these games no longer function on modern computers, which lack a floppy drive and don’t run on a DOS-based operating system. Abandonware sites compensate by offering a series of emulators, such as DOSBox and VDMSound, that allow a computer to process the slower rate of the game and produce the more “primitive” beeps and whistles of earlier hardware. Abandonware sites typically label games with which emulator handles them best, and offer tutorials to help users work through installation issues.
So who visits these sites? According to “Bakkelun,” founder of The DOS Spirit, it’s people like me: “adult males trying to find that long-lost title they used to enjoy in their youth.” Traffic varies depending on the site’s size, but larger sites like Abandonia or Home of the Underdogs see 10,000 to 20,000 unique visitors and about a terabyte of downloads every month. “Latis,” webmaster of XTC Abandonware, estimates the site sees an average of 5,000 downloads a day.
Gone, but not Forgotten
When I discovered these sites, my first instinct was naturally to download as many games as my hard drive could handle. Then a tiny little light flickered on in the back of my head: What’s the catch?
The catch is that abandonware is, quite simply, illegal. In the same way that downloading music or television shows can get you a frightening letter from the Recording Industry Association of America, anyone who provides these games for download is violating the creator’s original copyright.
“The basic rule is that copyright protects certain kinds of work like computer and video games, and gives the copyright holder the exclusive right to reproduce the work,” says Anuj Desai, an associate professor of law at the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a focus on communication networks and copyright. “The ware may be abandoned, but the legal rights aren’t abandoned.”
Companies are known to defend those rights, and on multiple occasions have issued cease and desist letters to abandonware websites asking for the removal of their titles. Much of these requests are driven through the Entertainment Software Association, which Bakkelun considers “the RIAA’s answer to the game industry.” The ESA defends its members’ sole distribution rights of their titles, as evidenced on Abandonia where my old favorites Crusader: No Remorse and Pagan: Ultima VIII are stamped with an ESA “no go!” tag.
If any legal protection for abandonware exists, it can be found under the umbrella of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. In 2006, when the DMCA was up for revision, the Library of Congress approved six exemptions related to technological controls against copyrighted works. The second of those exemptions stated that if a program or game is distributed in an obsolete format, its media can be altered “for purpose of preservation or archival reproduction.”
What this action means, Desai says, is that abandonware enthusiasts have permission to crack any encryptions that would prevent them from accessing the game files, allowing them to access games that operate on systems such as DOS platforms or floppy disks. However, the law doesn’t permit the copy or distribution of these titles by anyone other than the provider.
While the exemption will remain in effect until October 27, 2009, Desai says that he has no reason to suspect it will not be renewed when it comes up again for consideration. “They’ve had it twice in a row,” Desai notes. “Usually when somebody has asked, they’ve approved it.”
Cease and desist? Why, of course!
You might assume that abandonware providers would take an interest in preserving the only legal framework protecting their hobby. Actually, it’s the complete opposite: While many sites fit the act’s description of preserving the games, they often don’t seem to be aware of its existence. “Even though the DMCA theoretically creates ground to ‘legalize’ old abandonware due to obsolete mediums, it’s a thick dotted line not many sceners care about,” Bakkelun says.
“To be honest, I didn’t know this act,” Latis admits.
The reason webmasters don’t pay too much attention to these loopholes is that older games are a low priority for most developers. None of the sites I visited were for profit, though some do ask for donations. Likewise, none of the games offered are still being sold by the original copyright holder. Even if the company does provide the game, as Rockstar does with Grand Theft Auto, they would have to charge for it to have any conflict with abandonware providers.
“Bethesda and Rockstar probably won’t spend money chasing people who offer their free games for free on the web,” Lopez says.
And on the occasions when publishers do ask for material to be taken down, abandonware websites have a steady track record of complying with removal requests. Earlier this summer, when Valve’s Steam service began offering the full X-COM series for download, Abandonia pulled all related downloads the day after Steam’s went live. Latis recalls that when Sierra produced Sierra Classics offering Police Quest and King’s Quest among others, those links were simply removed from XTC.
“Most webmasters I know are serious down-to-retro people, heeding removal requests from their respective companies,” Bakkelun says. He adds that in some cases webmasters may contact the intellectual property holders themselves to let them know they are hosting the files, and offer to remove them immediately if the games ever move away from abandonware status.
In many cases, the decision for a company to re-release its older titles is met with praise by the abandonware community rather than annoyance at losing a popular download. Indeed, they take an almost cheerful view of it, finding new games to upload and take their place.
“The marketing guys that sip coffee all day long have finally understood that there’s green in old games – something the abandonware scene has proved for many, many years,” Bakkelun remarks. “Finally being able to legitimately get their hands on that title they played when they were young … can’t be anything less than a feeling of success.”
“We all like to play the old classics in new systems, or new games about the old classics,” Lopez says. “That’s what the abandonware community has always been about: a way to find and play the classics that can’t be found anywhere else.”
Les Chappell is a freelance writer and publishing project manager based in Portland, OR. He operates the literature blog The Lesser of Two Equals and has written for publications including The Daily Cardinal, WTN Media and BookReview.com.