Why emulators make video-game makers quake

The new "emus" aren't about piracy -- they're about freeing code from the chains of proprietary hardware.

Topics: Gaming, Video Games,

Imagine buying a “next generation” audio CD player — that doesn’t work with your present CD library — every four years or so. That’s the strangely inefficient model under which the video game console business has always thrived.

The game industry has grown up around successive generations of hardware, like the original Nintendo game box or the Sony PlayStation. Consumers benefited since competing formats spurred the advancement of video game technology. And the companies that owned a gaming platform made money through licensing fees, which third-party game developers pay for the right to make games for the company’s console.

But now this comfy arrangement is getting thrown out of whack by a new wave of emulators — software that in effect allows one kind of machine to impersonate another. An emulator program running on a PC or Mac mimics the hardware of a video game console, video arcade machine or another computer platform, enabling the computer running the emulator to use most software designed for the emulated hardware. Most emulators are created for fun and distributed for free by their creators. But as they grow powerful, they’re beginning to force a fundamental transformation in how the game business works, liberating code from its hardware shackles — and threatening the end of the game console as we know it.

Three years ago, about when the emulation (or “emu”) scene first started, emulators were quirky examples of programming coolness. Most emu developers weren’t setting out to start an industry revolution — they were just nostalgic for old hardware formats and wanted to resurrect them in software form on a modern computer. Today, almost every piece of computer hardware — from obscure products like the Nintendo VirtualBoy, which flopped in the market, to the Palm platform — has been emulated, or is about to be. And an expansive scene for emulators has emerged on the Net.

But in January, two events brought the console video game industry to a crossroads with the emu scene — and the companies affected, Sony and Nintendo, didn’t have much control over what happened. Connectix, a San Mateo, Calif., personal computer hardware and software company, premiered the Virtual Game Station, a commercial program that emulates the Sony PlayStation console on a Macintosh G3. Nintendo, meanwhile, faced the emergence of a free Nintendo 64 emulator, UltraHLE, on the Net. Since Nintendo 64 games come in a cartridge format (PlayStation games are on CD-ROM discs), the only way the emulator can be used is by running a “dumped” ROM (code that has been transferred from a Nintendo 64 game cartridge into software form) on it. The sudden appearance of UltraHLE has since prompted a rash of piracy throughout the Web and related newsgroups for ROMs of Nintendo 64 games.

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Sony and Nintendo responded to these events with lawsuits. Nintendo publicly stated its intent to sue the authors of UltraHLE, but has so far not followed through on the threat. Sony has been more determined in its pursuit of the authors of emulators, and has achieved a victory for now.

The company tried twice to block Connectix from selling the Virtual Game Station, and both times the U.S. District Court in San Francisco threw out Sony’s claim that the emulator violates its intellectual property rights. However, in April, the court granted a preliminary injunction stopping Connectix from shipping additional copies of the Virtual Game Station after Sony persuaded the court that the emulator had been developed by copying the PlayStation’s basic instruction set (a no-no under the legal definition of “reverse engineering,” the technique which emulation falls under).

Connectix denies the charge and has stated its intent to fight it, while continuing to provide customer support for the Virtual Game System and developing a version of it for the PC. Sony has failed, though, to stop shipments of another commercial PlayStation emulator, Bleem, developed by three emu programmers who started a small company to sell it.

As emus become more powerful and popular, enthusiasts fear that they’ll draw more negative attention and lawsuits, strangling the fledgling movement. Sony and Nintendo claim that their target isn’t so much the emulators themselves as emulator-enabled piracy; but that argument holds some major inconsistencies. In fact, both Virtual Game Station and Bleem were designed to work only with legal copies of PlayStation game discs. And though Sony has been achieving financial success lately with the PlayStation — the company’s game division contributed nearly 40 percent to its overall consolidated operating profits for its last business year — the profits have flowed mainly from licensing fees paid by third-party developers.

So wouldn’t PlayStation emulators that use legal copies of PlayStation games just bolster the company’s bottom line? You’d think so. But as Kazuo Hirai, president of Sony Entertainment of America, told Next Generation Online in an interview at this year’s E3 in May: “It’s a matter of principle to us. I don’t think I would want to be … in a position where I am profiting from sales of software to run on something that is based on copyrights and intellectual properties that are, by the way, being stepped all over! I would say, ‘OK, we don’t need that extra unit sale,’ if that means I get to protect my copyrights.”

Despite such claims, something other than copyright and intellectual property rights violations by emulators is bugging Sony and Nintendo. These companies are fighting to reinforce the boundary separating the console and computer gaming worlds.

Emulators are finally bringing into question the need for their specialized gaming platforms and dedicated gaming boxes in the first place. If every video game console is easily emulated on a personal computer, then what’s the point in even having specialized formats in the first place?

Emulators herald the end of the era of the proprietary video game console because they render such dedicated gaming boxes technically superfluous. Emulation programs improve, PC hardware technology advances relentlessly — and the notion that games must be played on the console hardware for which they were developed is becoming as antiquated as an old Atari game system. Just as information wants to be free, code doesn’t want to be restricted to running on a single format. That, not simple piracy, is what emulation is all about — and it’s why the video game companies want to squash it.

Naturally, the console industry isn’t going to vanish overnight. Interestingly, though, the latest generation — and perhaps last breath — of the proprietary game box looks a lot like a PC. Sega’s new Dreamcast, a $250 box due out in the United States this fall, uses a version of a 3D graphics chipset similar to one already available for PCs, and Windows CE as its operating system. The preliminary specifications for Sony’s next version of the PlayStation also carry some PC traits.

It used to be that, compared to PCs, video game consoles delivered better graphics and sound because of their specialized chips and tighter integration between hardware and software. Nowadays, as the new video game consoles take on more PC-like features, PCs in turn are catching up to the graphics and sound capabilities of the latest consoles much sooner. And so, while the new Sega and Sony systems both offer phenomenal graphics quality — on par with that of a computer-animated movie like “A Bug’s Life” — PC graphics add-on cards will likely match these new consoles’ capabilities within another year or so. This faster evolution in PC technology is narrowing the market life span for a gaming platform.

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The more PC hardware is able to match the graphics and sound capabilities of an up-to-date video game platform, the more likely it is that somebody will create an effective emulator of that console. Which raises the question: What’s the point of creating a proprietary video game platform if it’s possible that somebody within a couple of years will emulate it and release the program on the Net? For the consumer, the question then becomes: What’s the point of buying a company’s video game console, and a library of games for it, when it might be emulated in such a short time?

All of this is pushing the game industry toward a whole new structure. Once it gets beyond the next generation of consoles coming from Sega, Sony and Nintendo, the video game marketplace will probably offer a variety of affordable boxes that all operate on a universal format, perhaps based on and compatible with the standard PC architecture. Such boxes will be differentiated chiefly by the capabilities of their specific components like processors, graphics and sound chips. Essentially, the future of the video game console may very well be a stripped-down, PC-compatible unit designed to play video games and priced under $200.

The biggest winners would be video gamers who, no longer restricted to a specific proprietary hardware environment, would have a greater choice of games to play. Also, some previous gaming platforms used cartridge technology, which meant that newer systems always had a hard time running software for older units. But with the acceptance of CD-ROM and DVD as game media, there’s no longer a good excuse to prevent today’s games from being played on tomorrow’s hardware.

The obvious losers in a universal video game console market would be the companies that now spend millions of dollars developing proprietary game boxes in order to reap the licensing fees. But even if Sony, Nintendo and Sega choose to resist an “open box” video game console format, the programming skills of the emu developers will continue to undermine the incentives to make a new hardware format proprietary.

The fear that legal threats and piracy could kill the emu scene may turn out to be unfounded. In fact, the more sophisticated emulators become, the more likely it is that the emulator developers will render themselves obsolete — after they’ve done the same to the market for proprietary game consoles.

Howard Wen writes frequently for Salon Technology.

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