Why shutting down ROM websites is a mistake
Oh man, remember that game from your childhood that you used to play so much? Yeah, the one with the swords, colourful animals, and the jumping and what-not! You should replay that, it’s going to be so much fun! But wait, your parents sold off your old NES/Genesis/Playstation when you moved out and you can’t find ANY copies online. Well, except that one on Ebay that costs 300 euros, but you’re not THAT nostalgic! If only there was a way to replay these old games that shaped your youth and formed a part of gaming history… And then it hits you: let’s try emulators and ROMs! Sure, it’s technically not legal, but you used to own this game, it’s 20 years old at this point, and it’s nigh impossible to acquire. The software gods will understand, right?
And that’s when you find out the biggest ROM websites were shut down last week because they didn’t want to/couldn’t deal with all the legal issues that come with operating a ROM website. Thousands of obscure games that have gone out of print, are lost in legal-hell, or never were released outside Japan are now gone. Games that influenced other games, adventures that inspired new developers, stories that entertained gamers: all gone.
You can’t really blame the game developers and publishers: they see ROMs and emulators as tools of piracy that steal their intellectual property. It’s not different from downloading books, films, and music in their eyes. But a lot of the older mediums are still accessible with or have been adapted for modern technology. That one weird video game from your youth or that Atari 2600 game that was only distributed during a 2-week period in Warsaw have rotted away or are not playable on anything other than an old Cold War calculator. And good luck breaking into a forgotten Soviet nuclear bunker to find one of those calculators!
And a significant portion of those who download ROMs and emulators DO pirate the games that they could track down and buy. One of the most popular games that is being played with the Playstation 3 emulator RPCS3, is Demon’s Souls. This (amazing) game is a Sony exclusive, and while you can find a second-hand Playstation 3 and a digital copy of the game for around 80 euros most users have stated that they just want to play the game and not buy a console. This is bad. However, there are players who create and collect ROMs to preserve these games for the future. If the developers and publishers won’t make their old library accessible, someone has to. This is good.
Until developers and publishers make their own catalogues widely available, ROM websites are the only method gamers have to access these older games. Barring a better solution, closing down ROM websites means closing down a part of gaming history. The tremendous success of GOG.com (Good Old Games) and Nintendo’s (S)NES Mini Classic and its Virtual Console store show that there’s a huge market for the re-release of old games. Sure beats visiting dodgy websites or shelling out 300 euros on Ebay, right?
What’s your stance on ROMs and emulators? Piracy or digital archive? What game would you like to replay, but can’t?