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Why Can’t Official Emulation Compete? Copyright, of Course!

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By Nelson Schneider - 04/17/22 at 04:47 PM CT

Last week I raked Nintendo (and to a lesser extent Sony) over the coals with the help of a YouTuber. But we never really got to the root of “why” corporations like Nintendo and Sony – who have been so foundational to the history of videogaming on the whole – refuse to engage with Games Preservation, backward compatibility, and official emulation support in any meaningful way.

Even as I slap Nintendo across the face with one hand, I have to wipe away their tears with the other, since they actually have done quite a bit for backwards compatibility compared to other Big Gaming industrial players: They made the Game Boy Advance compatible with original/color Game Boy cartridges, and further put in the extra effort in creating the DS with an entirely different cartridge slot at the bottom so it could continue that legacy of backwards compatibility. They’re also the company that created both the Super Game Boy cartridge shim for the SNES AND the Game Boy Player expansion slot for the GameCube, allowing handheld-haters like myself to enjoy the limited number of decent handheld exclusive games from those generations on the big screen. If you stop time during the 6th Generation, Nintendo really looks like the Good Guy… and so does Sony, allowing the PlayStation 2 to natively play PlayStation 1 discs, no questions asked.

No, it’s only in the immediate present, when the Games Industry spends so much time digitally re-releasing old products instead of simply continuing to support them – and maybe issuing an update or ten thanks to the Release Now, Patch Later mentality of the digital sales ecosystem – that the very idea of backwards compatibility or emulation is treated exactly like piracy.

Xbox is currently the only console platform that has even bothered to pay attention to the issue, and the division big-wig, Phil Spencer had some interesting and revelatory things to say about it back in November 2021. It turns out that in the Post-Nintendo era, when one company no longer dominates gaming to the point of being synonymous with the very concept, and can no longer browbeat game developers into perpetual licensing deals, the good ol’ Copyright and Patent laws that were written centuries ago, and should really have no influence on software or digital economies, are getting in the way.

Indeed, while Microsoft says they would love to continue expanding the backwards compatibility and official emulation capabilities of the Series… uh… series of consoles, they’ve hit a legal wall and simply can’t. On the other hand, what Microsoft says and what Microsoft does don’t exactly line-up. Back when the Xbox SeX first released, the Libretro Team were able to put RetroArch – the all-in-one emulator front-end that I personally love – up for free download on the Xbox Store. It only lasted about a month before Microsoft discovered the program, and delisted it. Emulation fans have been able to install RetroArch on their SeXes since then by switching the console into Development Mode and downloading the emulator from there, but it’s both a janky work-around to constantly have to switch between Retail Mode and Dev Mode, plus Microsoft has started de-activating idle Developer Accounts, meaning that people who created Dev Mode accounts just to download RetroArch and a handful of other Homebrew games are being cut-off from that loophole: No Emulation for You!

So, if legal BS is the problem, then what’s the solution? Obviously better legal BS! Instead of constantly signing short-term, single platform licensing agreements – much like how our dysfunctional Federal Government can only vote to fund itself for a few months at a time – the Games Industry at large needs to switch over to licensing in perpetuity, both for publishers, platform-holders, AND end-users. Stop trying to double-, triple-, or quadruple-dip in getting gamers to buy the same game over and over. Stop being so pissy about “virtual” hardware running a game. Remember the Long Tail of sales, and make old stuff available in perpetuity, for dirt-cheap. Don’t be a dragon, sitting on a hoard of treasure: Be generous with games licensing and you’ll probably find that the economics of the situation will enrich you too.

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