Written by: Gavin Carter
About 14 years ago, I discovered a gem of a game called Life and Death. It was a doctor sim in which you diagnosed and treated patients. The most exciting and challenging parts of its gameplay were the surgery sections, when you had to perform entire operations - from laying out the sheet and disinfecting the gear all the way through putting the final stitches in the incision. Although I was too young to appreciate the title's finer nuances, I did have a tremendous amount of fun carving my name in the patient's flesh with the scalpel and listening to his resulting screams. I eventually put Life and Death aside and moved on to titles more appropriate to my temperament such as Wolfenstein 3D and Blake Stone.
Fast-forward about a decade to my freshman year in college. I started my studies on a pre-medical track, suffering through one biology and anatomy class after another. I found the classes intensely boring and medicated myself whenever possible with a healthy dose of gaming, often to the detriment of my grades. One fateful day, while surfing an online forum, I saw Life and Death mentioned in a post. It was a revelation - I had found a title I could play and not feel terribly guilty about neglecting my studies. I immediately commenced an Internet-wide search for a place from which to grab it. Sadly, the company that produced it, Software Toolworks, had long since gone belly-up and the title was as out-of-print as software can get. All was not lost, however, as I found solace in the arms of a steadily growing trend in software: abandonware.
Abandonware is a difficult concept to pin down. Put broadly, abandonware refers to any software product that's not available for purchase in any form and that has a copyright that's been released to the public domain. Games fitting this description are few and far between. The more common definition of abandonware is simply a title that has been deserted by its publisher and developer. Perhaps the companies responsible have closed down or the publisher simply doesn't offer the product anymore. Offerings like Life and Death and others not available either in retail stores or on the Internet fit this broader definition. The nebulousness of the concept is one of the prime reasons abandonware is such a hot topic. No one is sure whether it's entirely legal - and many people write it off as just another way to acquire free games.
Piracy is at the heart of the abandonware debate. Put abandonware into a search engine and it'll spit out over a hundred websites dedicated to offering - under a variety of premises - free software to whomever wants to download it. Some claim that since the original developers of a title can no longer benefit financially from the sale of abandonware, it's okay to put the game up for free download. Others claim to venerate these long-lost software gems by making them freely available for others to experience. All of these arguments are quite tenuous, and while I agree older titles should be respected and experienced by younger generations, free downloads is not the way to go about it.
The argument most often employed in support of free downloads states openly available abandonware honors the forgotten classics of gaming. This line of reasoning claims budding designers need to experience old games such as Ultima IV or Bard's Tale before designing new titles. By making products that spawned and influenced their own genres freely available, abandonware sites claim to be upholding the values of excellence those titles espoused.
The problem with this argument lies in the odds. There's perhaps a one in a half million chance someone downloading software off an abandonware site will design a game or even work on one. There's even less of a chance that playing an abandonware title will have an effect on that person's design decisions. Certainly, I'd want someone who played Wolfenstein 3D crafting the next high-profile FPS title, but I'd want a person who played it when it was new and exciting, not someone who downloaded it last week and played for a couple of hours before tossing it aside and loading up Counter-Strike.
Another argument often used to defend abandonware is since the companies that originally produced it are either closed down or no longer support the title, they either cannot receive or don't deserve the money that would be spent on the software. The argument assumes the gamer's dollar goes into the developer and publisher's pockets to facilitate development of more titles by the same companies.
The problem with this argument lies in its core logic. While it's true that when the companies are dead, your gaming dollar will never make it to those who produced the title, no one (other than the end user) benefits from a free download. A large majority of titles available on abandonware sites are indeed available for purchase in many places including collections of classics occasionally put out by publishers. Purchasing such compilations may not help the original team members, but it will aid the gaming industry in general. If the title is truly not available for purchase, then you can help by seeking out the original people associated with its production and supporting their current endeavors. You can then use that support as leverage to convince them to re-release older titles for newer generations of players.
The problems of the abandonware scene are only going to increase as the Internet and broadband become more commonplace. On a T1 connection, you can potentially download Betrayal at Krondor (one of the few games released as freeware) in under a minute. Older titles like Wasteland don't even hit the one megabyte mark. The primary trouble with free downloads is they give the image that abandonware sites are only interested in circumventing the system and offering games at no cost. This does not aid in increasing the general regard for older classics. Proponents of abandonware need to decide now whether or not they want to take on the image of a fringe group of "pirates lite".
The best thing the abandonware scene could do is remove the focus from actually delivering the software to commemorating it. One of the best efforts I've seen in this vein is the MobyGames website. MobyGames is a massive endeavor to catalog all of PC and console gaming back to the early 90's and beyond. Entries attempt to cover all aspects of the title, listing the complete staff, box shots, screenshots and gameplay summaries. Most importantly, the site allows for tremendous user input - which can take the form of reviews, comments and even full entries for excluded titles. It's a terrific place to check out what made older classics so great - and the best way to honor them.
Abandonware sites need to realize they're only hurting the availability of the titles they seek to venerate. Freely available games furthers the notion that abandonwares are synonymous with piracy. The best thing that could happen is for the scene to change to a community-based effort at getting older titles re-released by the publishers and people who still hold the copyrights. Petitions, forums and emails are the right way to go about this. Doing so would benefit the entire interactive entertainment industry. I hope gamers have the patience to try out such methods.
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