If you ever need to know why we’ll happily cover Star Wars Galaxies emulators and not Ultima Online emulators here on Massively Overpowered, the reason is very simple: SWG is dead. UO is not. And that tells you quite a bit about the different sorts of emulation and how fans can approach it, but we’re going to need a few more words to cover all of that.
But before we dive wholly into that, let’s talk about Mystery Science Theater 3000.
One of the interesting aspects of MST3k fandom is that there has been a sentiment around for ages, frequently put forth by the creators themselves, that fans should keep circulating the tapes of old episodes. Yes, this is for a long-running series that will also happily sell you its two-hour-long episodes in multiple formats and offer others on Netflix or Hulu, along with offering some for free on YouTube. The creators outright encourage fans to just pass along and copy some of the show’s most beloved episodes. Why? Because that’s the only way those episodes will ever be seen again.
See, MST3k deals in a lot of bad movies, frequently bad old movies, and many of these movies wind up with ambiguous copyright snarls. Many others wind up with rights holders who don’t like the fact that the movies are being roundly mocked by a guy and three cheaply made robot puppets and are thus reluctant to sign off on later distribution. Still others realize that they can now ask for a lot more money for licensing due to the sudden popularity of the associated episode.
All of this combines to mean that sometimes these episodes are just not getting legally released for sale again, or at least not for the foreseeable future. And while the staff responsible for the shows would much prefer to be paid for the work done, the mantra of “keep circulating the tapes” means that these episodes are still out there. Better to have them available somehow, even if it’s not the ideal route.
Needless to say, the creators behind the series would probably be less happy if someone just taped episode 12×01 off of Netflix, then uploaded the whole thing to YouTube. This is not hypocrisy. The principle behind “keep circulating the tapes” is not “don’t pay us for anything”; it’s “we would prefer to share these things and sometimes circulating the tapes is the only way for that to happen.”
A similar thing has happened and is still happening in console emulation. Emulators like MAME were originally developed not as a way to play games for free, but as a chance to make games available when they were otherwise lost. Some of them were never released in compiled ports; others were only available in ports which severely altered fundamental mechanics of the games. Emulators meant that in 2003, you could actually go and explore video games you might have never otherwise played.
This was certainly a good thing for me; it meant getting to play games like Live a Live, Bahamut Lagoon, Mother, and Treasure of the Rudras when they would otherwise be wholly unknown. But there was another side of the same coin, people who were using emulators to play newer games without having to actually buy the new titles or the platforms they were on.
It was easy to paint both of these with the same brush, but as mentioned before, it was a matter of two different philosophies. Bahamut Lagoon is never getting officially translated into English, and it has been largely forgotten. But it’s a fun game that in many ways serves as a forebear to games like Final Fantasy Tactics. It wasn’t being sold and thus was just going forgotten without people metaphorically “circulating the tapes.”
By contrast, people downloading Pokemon Ruby were not discovering a game that would otherwise be forgotten; they were people who wanted to avoid buying something easily buyable. The two are transparently different at a glance.
So let’s circle back to the original statement. Why will we cover SWG emulators positively but not, for example, UO emulators? Because without SWG emulators, no one will ever be able to play SWG again. The game exists only in memory and in emulated form. You don’t need to circulate the tapes to play UO; you can do that right now.
“Oh, but the live game is different from past versions of the game! It isn’t the same; that’s why people want emulators of the past.”
Yes, this is true. There are lots of games with major changes that make prior versions functionally inaccessible. UO’s move away from open PvP, Final Fantasy XIV’s version 1.0, the talent trees of Star Wars: The Old Republic, any given five-minute interval in World of Warcraft. You cannot always experience things the way they were back in the day.
Similarly, you cannot experience exactly what it was like to be stranded on the side of a road without a cell phone any longer because we all have cell phones, let’s get real. That’s just the reality of living in a world with linear time, and it doesn’t change the underlying principle. You can play the game. You may not like all of the changes, but you can play it, and time has shown that a whole lot of people have been willing to, say, remake UO as fresh and legal new games with open PvP in the hopes that it’ll light the world on fire again.
And trying to traffic on “but I can’t play my favorite version of the game” is leaning heavily into the same territory that leads to, well… trying to just get the game for free. You know, the uncomfortable territory that people with an interest in preserving our past would prefer to avoid.
Remember how long it took for the arguments about archiving versions of online games for historical purposes to be taken seriously? This is part of the reason. Because from a business standpoint, emulation is easy to paint with the same brush; the ESA cynically used that pretense as a tactic in its fight against preservation. It’s all copying a game and convincing it to run on different hardware. Arguing that there is a distinct philosophical difference between replicating otherwise inaccessible bits of gaming history and getting the game for free requires… you know, actual distinctions.
I love this genre. Heck, I love video games in general. It makes me sad to think about the titles we’ve lost over the years for various reasons, and I think I speak for everyone in saying that permanent maintenance mode for these titles would be infinitely preferable to having them wholly inaccessible. Given the choice between seeing them gone forever and seeing them in the hands of fans? That’s an easy choice.
But that’s a harder sale if you’ve got a whole lot of people who are, well, leaping from “we’re recreating the classic WoW experience because Blizzard won’t” to “well, now Blizzard is bringing back classic WoW, but… still pay for our emulated server anyhow because they’ll do it wrong.”
One of them is about circulating the tapes. The other is about stealing them.