Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Reviving The Classics

Shamus Young | 7 May 2013 12:00
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Last week I suggested reviving some old Lucasarts titles. Some people wanted to see the older games like Grim Fandango, The Dig, Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle and other adventure games. Others wanted newer stuff like Battlefront. Either way, it's clear there are a lot of old games we'd love to see again.

But hang on. What exactly are we talking about when we say "revive" old games? It's easy enough to say "I liked this old game and think it deserves another chance." It's another thing when you have to figure out what that means, and then pay for it. If someone handed you the Grim Fandango IP, what would you do with it?

I assume by "do something with it" we're talking about re-releasing the game in some way. Which means introducing the game to a newer, larger audience. The existing fans already have the game. Sure, some of the floppy disks are gone, but if your target market is just people who lost their copy, already beat the game and know all the puzzles, but still want to play through it again for the sake of nostalgia, then you're aiming at a really, really small audience.

How do we go about bringing in a new generation of players? You can't seriously charge money for the game as it exists now. Some of those games don't run. Or they run, but it's hard to get the sound or the controls working right. Or the game has strange speed issues where it runs too fast or too slow because the original programmer never envisioned processors as fast as they are now, and so the game can't keep time properly. Or the control system is so archaic that new players will be put off. Or the game asks strange "Sound Blaster" questions and things about ports and IRQ thingies that made sense to DOS gamers in 1993 but are now completely mystifying gibberish to someone who grew up gaming on the N64.

You can't very well just distribute it in its current state and tell the customer, "Go download DOS Box and then read this FAQ to get the game running." If someone is paying for a game, they're going to go into it expecting that it will have a simple installer and that the game ought to work out of the box without any technical fussing.

Since you own the property, it's not unreasonable to assume you have the source code. (But not guaranteed! People were not meticulous about backups in those early days, and there are many early games where the source code was simply forgotten and lost.) Let's also assume the game was written in C and not in some esoteric, archaic, and now-defunct language (also not a guarantee). So what do you do with it? Are you going to hire a programmer to go in and fix the game up so it works right on modern systems? (Protip: Do not hire anyone under 30 for this job. Old C code will look very strange to youngsters who cut their teeth on C++ code. Everything will look wrong to them. Ideally the person doing the update should have experience that spans the decades so they can easily understand both new and old code.)

So this coder will need to go in and update all of that old code. It probably won't even compile on a modern setup. Languages and conventions change, and there's also dependency problems to worry about. Once they get it to compile, they might need to replace the sound system, or the rendering system because they're so old they just don't work right on modern machines. You might also have problems with the game data, or input devices (good luck if the old games used those old flightstick style joysticks) or a dozen other small but annoyingly complex things.

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