Best Little Emulator Ever Made!
Having a dream in the world of game production is a little like moving to Japan: The culture is different, they speak a language you don't understand, and you run into more problems than you'd ever thought possible.
In 1998, a small cadre of people in Los Angeles came together with one simple dream: to bring the world of PlayStation gaming to the PC. Sure, there were other emulators - programs designed to make a PC "think" like a console - out there, but they were hoary things that ran like they were moving through mud. Their emulator would be different; their emulator would zip and work perfectly; their emulator was going to be the next big thing.
It was doomed to fail.
First, a little background: Emulators work by reverse engineering the software and hardware processes on a console (or any device which you'd like to mimic). When bleem!'s team formed, early consoles were already popular: Super Nintendo, Nintendo, Sega Genesis, all were relatively easy to bring into existence, because a computer can easily crunch 8- and 16-bit numbers on top of running an operating system. The PlayStation was a different beast, however. Rather than working from storage cartridges with 256 MB of space, it could read from multiple CDs containing full-motion video and 3-D graphics. And that addition of a third dimension made emulation especially difficult, because emulator developers had to reverse engineer the way consoles processed information through their proprietary graphics accelerators. Emulators at that time used software rendering to create the 3D graphics, which proved too much for even top-of-the-line machines in the late '90s.
The real star of the PlayStation emulation scene was bleem! (short for the Best Little Emulator Ever Made). Coded in assembly, this small executable made use of video cards on PCs and used filtering technology that, in many cases, made the games look better than they did on the actual PlayStation. Also, unlike most other emulators, bleem! worked on compatibility for each individual game, instead of trying to generally reverse engineer the console process.
Elsewhere, the concept of emulation was viciously attacked by the Interactive Digital Software Association (IDSA, now the Entertainment Software Association [ESA]). In 1998, the "great sweep" took place, shutting down most of the major emulation sites in existence within a six-month period. But they had no preparation for the flood of emulators that appeared in 1999, chief among them bleem! All the major players were concerned. Console manufacturers often lose a great deal of money on the consoles and make up for it in licensing fees for games. At the time, Sony's per-game licensing fee was around $10, its largest profit margin. If people could play PSX games anywhere they liked, how could Sony justify that exorbitant fee?
bleem!'s developers spent a year analyzing how the PlayStation read and processed games, making sure not to accidentally learn any secrets to which they had no rights. Despite the long development time, bleem! did have its problems, since reverse engineering is rarely an entirely stable procedure. Bugs racked most every game, though they remained, by and large, playable. And, unlike other emulators for earlier consoles (which obviously couldn't read the cartridges) bleem! could read and use the original PlayStation games, which had to be bought in order to work with the program. This, they thought, was the best way to keep Sony from causing them grief.
"We don't expect any problems from Sony. We've taken every possible step to ensure the security of not only our software, but have also worked to protect the rights of Sony and PlayStation developers in general. ... So I don't know how we can protect ourselves any more than we have," David Herpolsheimer, bleem!'s President and CEO, told IGN in '99.
It didn't work. In March of 1999, two days after bleem! began taking preorders, Sony filed suit against the fledgling company. bleem! was a small company of just two people: Herpolsheimer and coder Randy Linden. They just wanted to make PlayStation games more accessible to people, and perhaps make some money off of that.
In its complaint, Sony's vast army of lawyers said that use of high-quality PlayStation emulators would increase the black market in games, which was their main concern. That licensing fee was so very important to them, and they had to defend it at all costs, lest the game manufacturers use emulation as a way to decrease their fee. "If Sony can't retain a hold over the PlayStation, they'll start to see us, the developers, balk at paying royalties," said Robert Stevens, spokesman for the now-defunct Boss Game Studios.
While all this transpired behind the scenes, bleem! was garnering mostly positive reviews. Gaming site Happy Puppy gave it an 8 out of 10, with more than a few users hailing the graphical improvements as "revolutionary." The dream of PlayStation games brought to the PC world was materializing, if only it could get over the war being waged in California courtrooms.
bleem! quickly ran into money trouble. In April, its publisher cut off the company's credit line, which forced Herpolsheimer to borrow $17,000 from friends to pay the company's attorneys. "[The publisher was] afraid of losing their licensing from Sony," he told Forbes. Over a fifth of the money bleem! was making went to pay for its defense against the industry giant.
Sony's attempts to unseat bleem! were not limited to the courts, though. At a software expo that May, Sony and bleem! staffers got into a shouting match because bleem! was using footage from Gran Turismo to demonstrate its performance as an emulator. Sony ended up prevailing and bleem! removed the monitors to avoid being ousted from the event.
bleem! marched on unabated and finally won in court; the court ruled the company wasn't violating Sony's rights or unfairly competing with them. One court even went to far as to issue a protective order to "protect David from Goliath."
Sony's legal death rattle was the last item to be decided: screenshots. Sony claimed bleem!'s use of screenshots of PlayStation games on its packaging were copyright infringement. bleem! cried fair use, which was denied on the initial motion. In an appeal, the court noted that bleem!'s use of copyrighted screenshots was considered fair use and should be allowed to continue, a precedent-setting decision.
After a year of legal battles, threats and intimidation, David had prevailed over Goliath. Unfortunately, this was not without a price. Defending itself against Sony had engulfed the partnership, and it found itself unable to continue doing business after all the legal fees it had spent. In November 2001, bleem! shut its doors for good, auctioning off its property on eBay, which included a vast library of games it used to engineer into the software.
Was this Pyrrhic victory worth it? Perhaps that's a matter of perspective. Prior to bleem!, the world of emulation was regarded as the seedy underbelly of the videogame industry, laden with imagery of pimply-faced hackers toiling in a dark basement. bleem! brought sunshine to that process, and did it better than any other emulator. Not only that, but it made improvements wherever it could to the gaming experience (double the resolution, support for newer 3-D cards, etc). Anyone could see that the man behind the curtain wasn't some faceless hacking group; he was just a guy that loved games.
It was all about the love, the dream and the dedication. Maybe those can become nightmares, but isn't it better to burn out in a blaze of glory than to never have tried on those wax wings?
"We'd like to see the gaming industry give emulation a fair chance," Herpolsheimer told PS Extreme. Something not likely to happen now, or ever.
But hey, it's a nice dream.
Tom Rhodes is a writer and filmmaker currently living in Ohio. He can be reached through Tom [dot] Rhod [at] gmail [dot] com