Emulation: Getting a Fair Shake?
by Russ Perry Jr.

It strikes me that emulation is often misunderstood, and even maligned, in gaming media. Incorrect or inflammatory information seems to roll from manufacturer to media to gamers. For the most part, the magazines will admit they have little problem with emulators for old, obsolete systems, but when it comes to newer systems, they have to temper their opinions a bit, or maybe even follow the party line.

So far, there are two emulators available that have been causing havoc, Bleem! by Bleem! (for PC), and Virtual Game Station by Connectix (for Macintosh). Though there are Nintendo 64 emulators out there, and even the beginnings of Dreamcast emulation, they've so far remained underneath the radar since none of them have been released as commercial products. Both Bleem! and Connectix have been sued by Sony, and though reviews of these products don't seem to be unfair, some of the commentary about them does seem a bit misguided, or misleading. Examples and commentary follow...

Bleem! Attacked For The Wrong Reasons

Back in the July 1999 issue (volume 4, issue 8), PS Extreme printed "A Candid Conversation With The Creators of Bleem!" (pages 40-42). In the intro there were some phrases that hint at bias... "[Emulators] were typically hard to configure and buggy to the point that some were unplayable" (at least they wrote "some"); "currently the legal status of emulators is in question" (no, only CERTAIN emulators); "since the early emulators could only run the pirated ROM images [...]" (total BS! they could run ANY ROM; the fact that most WERE pirated has no bearing on what they COULD run), "[...] emulation quickly became synonymous with piracy" (what manufacturers wanted you to believe and some sources stated or implied).

On the other hand, the intro also had some positive bits (like "we'd like to see the gaming industry give emulation a fair chance"; in truth, they have when they sell the emulators themselves) and the interview with Bleem! CEO David Herpolsheimer is pretty honest and open. Read the bit about E3 and Sony's Nazi-like response to Bleem!'s booth, and see if you have any sympathy for Sony. David also has a pretty good answer about the piracy issue…

Then, in the September 1999 issue, they printed a letter from one Patrick Calderaz, in response to the interview, which stated certain opinions that bothered me enough to respond. My letter was published in the October 1999 issue (volume 4, issue 11), with a bit of a hand-waving response from the editor. Let's revisit what Patrick said, why I objected, and what PS Extreme's final response was…

First, Patrick complained that "Sony loses out on the hardware that that would normally be required to play the game". He acknowledged that "the games may sell more...", but he doesn't seem to understand that manufacturers do not make much profit from selling systems. In other words, if someone buys Bleem! instead of a Playstation, Sony hasn't really lost all that much, especially if that person wasn't going to buy a Playstation anyway. But now, that person may be tempted to buy Playstation games instead of PC games (else why purchase Bleem!?), which Sony DOES make good money on, due to the licensing structure of game publishing. For every game sold for Playstation, Sony gets a cut, and most people buy at least 5 games for their system. There is no reason to suspect Bleem! users won't buy as many games as other gamers, so I believe that Sony, on a whole, benefits far more from Bleem! than they lose.

Patrick goes on to say "a problem with the emulators is [that] we don't have laws that target them directly (well, we don't yet. Hopefully that will change)". Yikes! This is a noxious opinion to me... We already have laws that cover piracy - if you use an emulator to play pirated games, you're doing so illegally - but there's nothing illegal with the emulator itself, nor should there be. We don't NEED new laws.

The editor's reply to my points? "[Bleem!] isn't all that great, anyway. The number of games you could actually sit down and play, start to finish, glitch-free [...] could be counted on one hand". Ah, but isn't that what a review of Bleem! in the August 1999 issue (volume 4, issue 9) said, not in so many words, but definitely relating that there are problems with it? So, why was this brought up to answer my letter rebutting misconceptions about emulation in general? It seems as though they just waved my opinions aside rather than accept or debate them, which I suppose is fine if they thought they stood on their own, but it more seemed to be just a bit of waving me off instead. Saying it's not a good product misdirects a bit from I was trying to say. To be fair though, their answer to Patrick's letter was more direct and DID make some similar points to mine.

EGM Didn't Want To Print My Letter,
So I Will

[My original letter to EGM follows in its entirety]

I'm afraid I must wholeheartedly disagree with your Final Word column [page 138] in EGM 117 [April 1999]. I might have put the whole thing down to an opinion until I read the caption: "Emulation is a cool idea - but it's not so cool when it could kill the gaming industry".

This is so patently false as to completely invalidate any points the article might otherwise makes. The fact of the matter is that if anything even CAN kill the gaming industry, it is piracy. Do not confuse the two!

The editorial seems to boil down to the fact that emulators allow you to play illegally copied ROM dumps, and therefore emulation is a bad thing. To follow this logic, you would also be able to say that since the Playstation allows you to play illegal pirated CDRs, that the Playstation could kill the gaming industry.

This is a stupid statement, and it is just as stupid to say the same about emulators. Though we all know that some people use emulators to play games they don't otherwise own, the emulator itself is not illegal, nor is it even a threat to the industry. The fact that the industry itself uses and even occasionally sells emulators should point out that there's nothing inherently wrong with them.

Connectix's Video Game Station is obviously the lynch pin here, and I'm not seeing the support it deserves. Sony, a company that makes money off of every game sold due to its licensing program, is not happy about the ability to play their games on another platform? Traditionally system manufacturers don't make much, if any, money off of hardware, so Sony can't be too concerned about lost hardware sales, not to mention that no one is going to buy a Mac JUST to play Playstation games when the system is only $130. And here's the thing -- the VGS is made to play off the CD-ROM drive, and features the same protections against foriegn discs and CDRs that the Playstation does, so it not only doesn't encourage piracy, it prevents it.

Okay, so some hackers came along and made a patch that can cause the VGS to play foreign games and CDRs -- are we to blame the emulator for that? I should say not -- if we do, then we must also again blame the Playstation because some hackers made chips and add-on modules that allow you to play foreign games and CDRs. All this pointing the blame at Connectix and their emulator is as idiotic as blaming Sony and the Playstation. Please, let's stop and just learn to enjoy our games.

If anyone SHOULD be targeted for lawsuits, it should be the pirates -- and I don't mean the guys who put up some Atari 2600 ROMs for free, I mean the people who SELL current system's games. There's no grey area there, and yet that's NOT what Sony is focusing on, at least not in the public eye. That's ridiculous.

[I missed one thing though... The author, Shawn Smith, states at one point "Nintendo 64 and Game Boy [...] games [...] are on cartridge, making retail emulators illegal from the get-go -- you'd have to use pirated ROM images". How many times do I have to say it? That does NOT make the emulator illegal, though in this case it would either pointless or suicidal to release it. On the other hand, this has already been done, sort of. What does Shawn think the GB Blaster is? It's a cartridge adaptor for the Playstation with emulation to play Game Boy games, and no ROM images required due to the hardware part. It's still an emulator if there's any software required at all, it just requires some additional hardware, which the makers include. What if someone made a Nintendo 64 emulator for PC, but it would only run if it saw the included cartridge adaptor on the parallel port, and therefore required a cartridge to play -- would Nintendo sue? I'll be they would anyway.]

Hmm, Another Ziff-Davis Publication Takes A Different Tack

The March 1999 issue of Official US Playstation Magazine also rips on emulators... Or more precisely, the people they perceive will use it. I knew right away this one was going to be trouble, as Kraig Kujawa's quote at the top of the editorial (page 6) says "By donning the taped-up glasses," -- indeed, he did don them for the accompanying photo - "I have gotten one step closer to becoming one of the target customers of the Playstation emulator for the Macintosh." Excuse me?

Kraig ponders "Who in the hell wants to play Playstation games on a computer screen?", but I wonder why he sees fit to put a whole editorial together to ask that. If I were the paranoid type, I might suggest that the "Official" part is trying to spin the idea of an emulator in another way - 'you'd be silly to use a computer to play Playstation games'. The whole thing comes down to character assassination.

He asks "Does anyone really want to play a four-player game while they're sitting around a cramped desk with a 17-inch monitor?". Geez, Kraig, maybe they have a 21-inch monitor, maybe their desk isn't that cramped, and maybe they only use it for one-player games. Hell, I'm surprised he brought up four-player games instead of accusing potential VGS users of not having any friends, given the general tone of this piece.

Kraig ends by suggesting that the emulator isn't going to impress anyone but the "greasy-haired geek whose mouth waters at the prospect", but "why would you care about impressing that guy anyway?". Hell, I think emulators are neat, so should I be offended that he's implying that I am a greasy-haired geek with taped-up glasses? Or should I just think he's kind of an ass, possibly a knave in Sony's service, and get on to enjoying my games, emulated or not?

The Case Of The Connectix Virtual Game Station

A while back Gamespot talked to Riley Russell, Sony's legal counsel, about Sony's lawsuit against Connectix, which alleged seven illegal acts. However, one of these was called "circumvention of technical protection measures". This refers to the lockout system on the Playstation, but I don't think there are actually any laws that this falls under, since it's not like Connectix is modifying the Playstation itself. I also don't recall Sony suing any of the manufacturers of the hardware to do the same thing.

Russell mentioned a patch for VGS that allows it to play pirated and foreign discs, to which he said "It really hurts that you can play counterfeit games". Now this is a non-issue if I ever heard one! First off, Connectix did not develop that patch, nor do they endorse it (in fact, version 1.1 of VGS added measures to protect AGAINST the use of foreign discs or CDRs) -- so why does he mention it in relation to the lawsuit Sony filed? And why doesn't he acknowledge that it's just as easy to play these discs on a real Playstation anyway? It's not like VGS somehow makes piracy easier, after all.

The thing I don't understand is that he says they wouldn't even license a "perfect emulator", but says at one point "Our interest is the PlayStation and producing good software for that hardware... and we would take action against anyone who releases an emulator for profit". Even a perfect one? Why? It would BE good software (look up the definition of perfect, Mr. Russell). Despite what he says, it's obvious that it's all really about who profits, not about quality.

Please, Sony, Treat Emulators In A Rational Fashion

So, how can I assert that emulators are legal? Well, first off, tools used to do illegal things are not automatically illegal. If I use a screwdriver to break into your house, I've broken a couple laws, but owning a screwdriver is not one of them. If I hit you with a hammer, I've committed assault and battery, but there's nothing illegal about owning the hammer. Owning a car is legal, no matter how often I speed. But many in the gaming industry (and seemingly, also the IDSA, who should know better, but appears to bow before big money every time) would seem to imply otherwise. I am aware of no court cases that act as precedent that emulators are illegal.

In fact, there is some precedence to the contrary! Although the cases I'm aware of dealt with hardware, reverse-engineering applies to emulators as well. Reverse-engineering is taking a working item and figuring out HOW it works to make improved items, or compatible items. Reverse-engineering is quite common, and it leads to much innovation. The important thing is that it be done properly, and that patented information not be used in resulting products, which is the trick.

In the old days, this came up a few times, most notably when Coleco released their Expansion Module #1 for the ColecoVision. Since the Module allowed you to play 2600 games, Atari immediately sued Coleco, but the court found that Coleco did not violate any Atari patents in producing it. Fact is, Coleco had reverse-engineered the 2600 to figure out how it worked, then created their own system to work the same way, without doing it the way Atari did. Now, I ask you, what is an emulator? It does the same thing Expansion Module #1 did, only it does it via software instead of hardware. The engineers at Bleem! looked at a Playstation to see how it works, then created a program that could do the same thing on a PC. Sony has definitely ACCUSED Bleem! of stealing Sony technology, but so far they haven't been able to prove it, and it looks to me that Bleem! properly reverse-engineered the system and is on perfectly legal ground. So far, the courts agree.

It galls me that Sony is probably spending more effort and money trying to stop Bleem! and Virtual Game Station with no real legal reason to (actually, in the case of VGS, there are allegations that it was not properly reverse-engineered and MAY contain some Sony proprietary information, but that has yet to be proven) than trying to prevent actual piracy (games on CDR for instance), which IS illegal, no ifs, ands or buts. It also bothers me that emulation has been packaged and sold by game makers before, but when a third party does it (i.e. the emulator maker does not own or package any games with the emulator), they strike out blindly with lawyers aplenty. That stinks of hypocrisy to me. Where was the outcry about Activision emulating 2600 games? Oh, but they paid the licensing fee for the Playstation product, and didn't have to pay licensing fees for the PC and Mac versions. Hmm. What it seems to come down to is that Sony is galled that they can't get money from Bleem! and VGS directly, whether or not they realize that it'll do them financial good to have their games available on another platform. Corporate greed and legal bullying, as always.

Come on Sony, give emulation a fair shake even when you can't control it, and attack those that truly ARE doing harm to the industry.

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Last updated: Thursday, May 27, 2004 01:58 PM