Thursday, January 31, 2008

Gaming History and Piracy

Today's Gamasutra has a great article about the Apple II and its role in the history of video game development.

Actually, it's a great article about the early history of Apple with some minor notes about Apple's impact as a game console, even though the article is supposed to be devoted to the Apple II as a gaming platform.

When it comes to my early memories of video games, there are two systems that dominated my early gaming -- and thus my long term gaming habits.

I owned an Atari 2600 and played its games obsessively. Many times I played Asteroids on "flip" mode until I rolled over the score, not to mention the many hours devoted to Yar's Revenge. In fact, my modern love of "actioners" like Assassin's Creed can be directly mapped back to Pitfall and my love of "action rpgs" can be mapped back to the excellent Raiders of the Lost Ark licensed game (not everyone agrees with me that RotLA was excellent, but I'm sticking to my guns).

But many of my favorite gaming moments can be traced back to "all nighters" spent mapping the levels of Bard's Tale as my friend Sean fought against hordes of "99 Barbarians, 99 Barbarians, 99 Barbarians, and 99 Barbarians." Ah, those were the days. If memory serves, Sean owned the PC version, but the computer I learned BASIC on at school (and used all those maps made during the all nighters on at lunch while playing Bard's Tale) was an Apple II. In fact, after finishing the Bard's Tale trilogy, I wandered through the many levels of "Wizardry." For five years, and to be honest to the present day, computer gaming was synonymous with computer roleplaying for me. I wasn't much, and still am not much, for fight games and sports games on the PC, those games belong on consoles. But a "boring map game," as my wife likes to call PC RPGs, those are heavenly on the computer. And when it came to these games, during the late 80's -- and for a blink in the early 90s when Apple still had games manufactured for it -- the Apple II was the system. "Platformers" were the purview of the Commodore 64, but that is another story.

I loved RPGs on the Apple II and I always bought mine. Which brings me to the reason I actually decided to post today, sorry that I have been lax of late. Barton and Loquidice (the authors of the Gamasutra piece) briefly mention the "role" that piracy had on early Apple game development and for the most part they are dismissive of the issue. They mention at least one game, only in the text beneath an image, that went under "due to piracy's affect on sales," but they state dismissively that, "In short, the precise impact of piracy is difficult to determine, though it likely had advantages and disadvantages for the longevity of the platform."

Really? Could the fact that when it came to the Apple II, "the inner workings of the hardware was made public," have been one of the reasons Apple moved from the "open" II series to the closed and proprietary Macintosh series. To this day Apple is obsessively proprietary about their hardware and software, whether it is the iPod or the Mac. In fact, the Mac was notorious for having almost no viable gaming software (other than Marathon which eventually became Microsoft's Halo) for most of the 90s.

Maybe those businesses that claim they "went under" due to piracy should be taken at their word. Certainly, it is nice to be able to emulate games Apple (and the original companies) have "abandoned." And certainly piracy expanded the exposure of computer gaming, likely creating the modern obsession with playing video games. Free is a great way to grow a market after all. Piracy might have helped the industry develop, but it also killed some businesses along the way. I know the positive effects of freeware and "hacked games" and how they helped create demand among a less technically savvy, and more willing to pay, population. What I would have liked to see would be a little research into the real numbers.

The article dug deep into the history of Apple, and Woz, but it makes claims about piracy without ever backing up any claims with numbers. Instead, like piracy advocates (and I am not claiming the authors are piracy advocates -- I doubt that to be the case), the authors use vague language rooted in sentiments which doesn't help anyone in any discussion.
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