Sunday, December 29, 2002

Over at Samizdata, Perry De-Havilland is talking about the way in which computer games have evolved over the last couple of decades, and how high performance games are now just about the only thing driving the development of high performance PCs. I have to admit that at this point in my life, I am to computer games what William Gibson is was to computers when he wrote Neuromancer: I am more interested in the culture that surrounds them than I am in the games themselves. It was not always so, however. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I wasted much time and money on early coin operated games such as Pac-Man, Galaga, Penguin, Donkey Kong and the like, and spent far too much time hanging out in less salubrious environments than I should have in order to do this. I am very capable of being obsessive about games, and I know this, so these days I tend to avoid actually playing them in order to spend my time doing other things.

However, I feel a lot of nostalgia for those late 1970s and early 1980s games. And the nice thing is that I can still play them today. The hardware they ran on was by today's standards incredibly simple, and due to the tiny amounts of memory these machines had, the programs themselves are absolutely tiny (many of them run on machines with less than 10 kilobytes of memory). It was simply amazing just how much functionality programmers of the 1970s could fit into a few kilobytes by programming extremely efficiently. With memory now being cheap, these skills seem to have largely been lost to the world.

However, nostalgic programmers have written emulators, programs that run on your PC that make the PC emulate the hardware of those 20 year old arcade machines. The most famous such piece of sofware is the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which is a piece of software capable of emulating virtually every piece of arcade machine hardware built from 1975 to 1990. It is really amazing.

The games themselves are copyright. However, nobody generally cares at this point. In most cases the games have not generated revenues for the copyright holders in years, and various people have put up sites on the internet containing hundreds and hundreds of games to download. We download them, and we play all those old games. It's great. Virtually the only time I do spend playing games is spent playing those old 1970s and 1980s classics. New games may be more sophisticated, but I like the old ones. This probably means I am officially an old fogey.

Of course, we play legal games to do this. If I did actually own an old Space Invaders machine, then it is just possible that it would be legal under fair use for me to play the same game on my PC. Therefore, whenever I do download a game over the internet, I am made to declare that I do own an old machine of the same game and I am downloading under fair use. This is ridiculous, and the owner of the download site knows it. (It is also unimaginable that the owner of the download site owns all the games). It is really unlikely that this defence would ever stand up in court, but still we do it. (My preferred solution is that copyright law be changed to allow copying for personal use in instances when works are "out of print" as it were, but I am not expecting such a change in the law any time soon).

There is now an interesting development, which is that there is another class of computer that is limited in similar ways to old arcade machines: mobile phones. There is lots of demand now for games on these phones, and they are clearly not powerful enough to play current PC games. In particular, the phone companies see a market in downloadable games: games that can be downloaded (for a fee) over the phone network and then played on a phone. Now though, the bottleneck is not memory and processing power. Modern phones have a lot more computer power and memory than 1980 vintage arcade machines (although a lot less than current generation PCs, due to cost constraints and the limitations of current generation batteries. However, phone network bandwidth is extremely limited. If we are going to download a game, the program has to be extremely small. It so happens that the extremely efficiently written arcade games of the late 1970s fit the bill. An emulator of the 20 year old hardware is written to run on the mobile phone, and these already written, tiny games can be downloaded. You can now get Pac-Man, Galaxian and the like to run on some mobile phones. As these are commercial enterprises, the original copyright holders have to be compensated, and the old games are again worth something to the copyright holders. One would think that this might lead to some sort of crackdown on unauthorised uses of the copyrights, such as people playing the games on PCs (particularly given that people are doing things like porting MAME to their cellphones so that they can play all the old games they like for free). Although the emulation world is wary, this doesn't seem to have yet happened. I have to say I think this is good.

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