Game preservation is a topic close to my heart. For me, video games never age. I spend just as much time playing games from decades ago as I do with modern titles. My favorite games are the ones I’ve never played before, and that isn’t exclusive to the future.
Accessibility is therefore important, especially when it comes to PC titles where changes in operating systems, graphical processing, and even monitor resolutions have rendered a lot of old titles unplayable on modern setups. GOG has, for a long while now, been an important fixture to people like me. It provides easy access to retro titles from the DOS and early Windows days in formats that are typically simple to get working with minimal configuration.
Recently, I’ve been interested in what drives the business of retro games. Is preserving old games on new platforms viable from a business standpoint, or is it always just a matter of passion? I got the chance to speak with Urszula Jach-Jaki, Managing Director at GOG, to dig deep into the details.
There are only so many classic titles still up for grabs these days. Some might argue that the most important titles of yesteryear are still accessible, but that’s proveably bupkiss. Some large, significant publishers like EA and Warner Bros. hold on tightly to some of their most significant titles in their backlog. EA is perhaps the most vexing, as titles like SimCity or even The Sims aren’t readily available on even their own storefront.
I asked Jach-Jaki if GOG has tried working with these companies and why they’re so tight-fisted with their properties. “We can cite a few examples of well-known franchises that were not initially available in digital distribution,” they responded. “Thanks to our efforts, a re-release became a reality – Diablo, for example. However, it’s always the publisher’s decision, and we can only provide them with convincing arguments.
“There could be various reasons behind not releasing well-known titles. Sometimes, it’s due to intellectual property ownership issues, with the publisher uncertain about whether they own 100% of the rights to the property (and proving this can be quite complex), or they simply lack the capacity to work on the old build and re-release the game on modern systems.”
There’s also the theory that the availability of games that have newer iterations, such as The Sims, would have their sales cannibalized by older, cheaper versions. However, SimCity has the 2013 version, but you can still purchase SimCity 2000, so the validity of the assumption is questionable.
For that matter, I wondered what games are actually fit for re-release. Specifically, how does GOG estimate the profitability of re-releasing old titles. “The key metrics we assess before making a decision typically involve a blend of our experience, conclusions drawn from the past, certain business metrics, and the developers’ vision and assumptions,” Jach-Jaki explained.
Further than that, they explain that sometimes it isn’t about how many sales a title will get. “It is not always about pure profit. Oftentimes, we invest to bring back games that didn’t achieve commercial success, aiming to make fans of the game and our community happy – especially if fixing the game is not time-consuming. What helps us with these decisions is our community wishlist which we monitor on a regular basis. Some of the games at the very top are challenging to get, so we focus our attention on whatever’s next in line, based on level of complexity (and that’s usually a mix of who owned/owns the code/IP and what’s the history behind the title).”
Since, as I said in the intro, I have to wonder if a lot of game preservation is a matter of passion over profit, I asked if all the games GOG has made available turned a profit, whether after launch or even during its lifetime. Is it worth bringing them back, even if they don’t turn a profit?
“Reviving many ‘forgotten’ titles may not be profitable in the short term,” Jach-Jaki told me. “Despite marketing efforts around these games, it won’t change the fact that many of them may not garner enough attention. While we acknowledge this reality, preserving the legacy and keeping those games alive and accessible to all the gamers who appreciate them, as well as introducing them to new generations, is an important factor. This commitment sometimes means having to wait more time to recoup the investment. However, we can name many examples of re-released games, that continue to be very popular and profitable.”
“This may sound somewhat idealistic,” she continues, “considering we are a store and our primary concern should be generating profits from all the titles in our offering. Game preservation goes beyond financial gain for us and by bringing old games back to life we aim to stay true to our roots and recapture the spirit of our early days with games when we were children. For most of us, these old games played a crucial role in shaping our identities. We strive to extend this opportunity to the younger generations of gamers, whose gaming experiences differ significantly, allowing them to experience the same excitement we felt.”
“As long as this ambition is achieved, it’s perfectly acceptable even if it doesn’t yield immediate profits.”
This made me wonder about something else. Some of the releases on GOG have been modified to be playable on modern operating systems, but others have merely been packaged with DOSbox, and presented as is. This has caused some problems with games on the storefront, requiring a bit of finessing to get them working properly.
The example that still bothers me to this day is 1997’s Interstate ‘76. It’s a game that has a myriad of problems today that make it nearly unplayable. Even if you do get it running, physics are based on framerate, which makes a particular level impossible to complete. As a result, fans have had to step in and provide workarounds and fixes for the game. These haven’t been incorporated into the actual store release, so if you buy the game, you then have to dig for the fixes and implement them. If CD Projekt Red and GOG are passionate about these games, why release anything in this sort of state?
The answer was something I hadn’t even considered before.
“It depends on the specific contract provisions,” she explains. “In most cases, we do not possess the rights to modify the game build, and if bugs are reported, only the developers can address them. Our role here is to report any issues and offer technical support when necessary, but we cannot act independently to alter the game files. Of course, there are certain situations where we can implement fixes or perform deeper modifications to the game, but such arrangements are relatively rare.”
Oh, right. It’s always lawyers.
This is also why GOG usually can’t incorporate fanmade source ports on their storefront. Duke Nukem 2, for example, has the fantastic Rigel Engine that allows the game to run natively on modern operating systems with a myriad of additional tweaks. But if GOG isn’t allowed to modify the game in any way, even if they had the fan’s permission to use the port, they wouldn’t be allowed to.
A major exception with this was the Daggerfall Unity – GOG Cut, which not only ports the game to the Unity Engine, but also implements a number of fan mods that make Elder Scrolls 2: Daggerfall more comfortable to play.
“Daggerfall Unity – GOG Cut was our passion project and we were very thrilled with its critical acclaim,” Jach-Jaki said. “In many ways, what the modding community does aligns with our mission – making games look and play better, regardless of their age. Mods can enhance the overall experience with games not only by fixing bugs, but also by offering diverse content and improving gameplay mechanics. We see them as a way to cater to various gamers’ preferences and we are eager to work closely with modders to facilitate the integration of their input into the games.”
I’m hoping we get more of that from the platform. At least now, there’s some precedence.
In recent years, GOG has slowed down a bit from its original mission of making old DOS games accessible again. More focus seems to be on modern titles. As Jach-Jaki puts it, “The vision for Good Old Games in 2008 was simple: bring back games from the pre-digital era of gaming. This provided us with plenty of fuel for many years. Fast forward 15 years, and we have 1600+ classic games (10Y+) which is roughly 20% of our catalog.”
“We want to be a store that invites modern games as well because, at the end of the day, it’s about providing amazing games to our community and catering to various tastes and needs. Even better if we can do it DRM-free!”
It’s still pretty unfortunate that there are some games that may never get a re-release simply because of licensing issues. Even getting a game as historically important as Goldeneye 007 available on modern consoles took decades, and I feel we had to make a compromise as there were very few quality-of-life improvements in the releases we did get. Meanwhile, Activision and EA are sitting on piles of 007 titles that I doubt anyone would go to the trouble of re-releasing.
Jach-Jaki explains, “This is essentially why reviving classic games based on huge licenses (many of which are held by AAA publishers) is such a challenge. There are expired OST rights to consider, sometimes actor fees, product placements, or outdated credits content. All these factors, combined with the necessary involvement of legal teams, producers, and brand teams, make it a significant undertaking. It’s a lot of work, not only for us but also for the publisher. Sometimes, as harsh as it sounds, however amazing it might be to restore a game, the opportunity cost does not add up.”
“There are plenty of games like this that will probably never be enjoyed by new generations again unless game preservation is taken seriously. This is precisely what we are here for!”
The future of retro
Finally, I asked if there were any games that Urszula Jach-Jaki personally wants to see preserved.
“There are many of them!” she said. “Allow me to be somewhat vague here and refrain from mentioning specific titles, but rest assured that we have major announcements pending regarding titles we’ve been diligently working on for an extended period. The classic games community has much to be excited about.”
“Let me also take this opportunity to express our gratitude to our fellow gamers for suggesting titles that should be revived and contributing to the growth of our community wishlist. While we may not be able to fulfill all the requests, we strive to release as many as possible.”
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