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How to stem the piracy of classic games: follow Rare Replay's playbook

How to stem the piracy of classic games: follow Rare Replay's playbook

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The average laptop has enough storage and power to house and play every video game released for every video game console during the 1970s, 1980s, and much of the 1990s. If that doesn't concern video game publishers, it should.

While publishers stress about protecting new releases with irritating digital rights managements "solutions," older games may be downloaded from dozens if not hundreds of websites reachable with a quick Google search. For the past decade, the de facto strategy of pubs has been defensive: send these sites takedown requests, threaten legal action, move on to the next mole in need of whacking.

In 2015, video game piracy is fast and easy

Rare Replay, released this week for Xbox One, puts the three-decade-old developer on the offensive, countering illegal downloads by incentivizing a legal purchase. If you're a fan of Rare games, you'll want to buy Rare Replay not for the games themselves, but the digital museum in which Rare has them stored.

But before we go any further, let's talk about what piracy looks like in 2015:

Piracy, generally speaking, requires an emulator and a ROM. A software emulator recreates the system requirements needed to run a video game, essentially turning your PC into, say, a Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. A ROM is the game file, ripped from a disc or cartridge, that plays inside of the emulator.

The most popular emulators, developed by fans, tinkerers, and coders, have been slowly adding features to old games. Some emulators, for example, may improve a game's visuals, while others allow players to rewind their progress. Today, emulators often provide a superior experience to the official and legal barebones re-releases of the classics, like the catalog of Nintendo's Virtual Console.

Rare Replay

To compete with piracy, a developer will always retain one advantage over emulation: history. A developer has a game's original code, experience developing the game and any prequels or sequels, and the juicy scoop on all the ups-and-downs from behind the scenes. Rare Replay excels because it capitalized on its history, providing stability, quality, and perhaps best of all, context.

Thirty games spanning 30 years are curated in a virtual showroom, each game accompanied with its own display: a high-resolution poster, cute custom animations, in-game achievements, a brief description, and a support page. Games that predate the Nintendo 64 have rewind functionality, and all of the classics run better than I remember on the original hardware. (Some people have reported issues with the backwards compatibility functionality of Xbox 360 games in the collection.)

Playing through the games unlocks video interviews with Rare designers, past and present, shining a light on life at the studio. A mini-game collection called Snapshots breaks out moments from various games in the collection, giving players a quick taste of the classics without committing to completing each to see the best parts. There are games on this collection I had never played, and others I never liked, but I appreciate everything in the collection more within the context of this package. I don't just see the games as stand-alone objects; they're parts of a legacy shared by a crew of humans doing their damnedest to explore the medium's uncharted waters.

To counter piracy, publishers must go on the offensive

What developers and publishers can provide is a controlled experience. I wouldn't have that guided experience downloading every Rare game in a unmarked folder from who knows where. Nor would everything run as smoothly. While some PC experts will know how to operate emulators with no problems or headaches or errors, software emulation for the average person is nowhere near as approachable or reliable as seamlessly switching from one game to the next.

But piracy isn't even the Big Bad for game publishers. Music and video streaming has carved into the sales of albums, films, and television shows. Video game streaming will become, at the very least, a respected secondary option for game lovers. At that time, publishers will be even more incentivized to package their classic games in ways that interest consumers who can just as well stream thousands of games under a single monthly fee.

Some smart developers are already trying to tackle this problem; we'll see Digital Eclipses' Mega Man Legacy, which the developer hopes will bring a Criterion-like model to video games, later this year. Microsoft in particular seems to be more aware than most about the value of context, not just with Rare Replay but also The Master Chief collection. But with few similar collections announced, it's tough to say if this is the moment the guardians of video game classics catch on.

Let's not forget that in 2007, Valve released many of its most beloved games together in The Orange Box, and despite selling millions of copies. the strategy was only replicated by the king of re-releases: Sega.

Just chew on that, video game publishers; you've been bested by this guy.