I use emulators a lot.
I have an Android phone and a PC; between the two of them I can emulate games from more or less any classic console. Emulation exists in a legal grey area. Technically it’s a form of piracy, however most game companies turn a blind eye to it because, most of the time, it isn’t affecting their profit margins. Nobody is buying Illusion of Gaia because no onecan buy Illusion of Gaia, so where’s the harm in us playing it for free, right?
Whenever anybody tells me they have nothing to play, I am surprised. There is never nothing to play. The gaming community has access to thirty years of content, a significant percentage of which is damn good.
One of my friends recently complained about the lack of JRPGs and in the same breath complained about the quality of modern JRPGs. So go play old JRPGs, dumbass! They are out there waiting for you!
Popular in China
Emulation devices are massively popular in China, where they have been sold under the radar for years. It’s impossible to guess how many of these devices are sold but the PSP-style device pictured below has been seen for as little as $33 in some Chinese markets. Personally, I have noticed a surge in emulation-based- consoles connected to TVs which allow gamers to play classic titles like Street Fighter, Double Dragon and Final Fantasy.
Some would argue that this is piracy, but I disagree. I’d argue it’s piracy only when it impacts on the profits of the companies involved — sure maybe there have been re-releases on iOS, Nintendo’s eShop or the countless other “legitimate” online stores, but the people playing these emulators were never going to shell out for an exceptionally expensive piece of imported hardware and then pay extra money for a game that’s 10-15 years old. It’s just not going to happen.
Why this is a good thing
My colleague Charlie recently pointed out that Chinese gamers don’t have the same gaming culture as most other nations. This is mainly because for the last 13 years games consoles have been banned/out of the budget for most of the Chinese population. This, along with other factors, has kept China isolated from the worldwide gaming community. A great example is the Final Fantasy series which most of my Chinese friends are only vaguely aware of and few have actually played.
However this is changing as people are playing classic games on their phones and other devices. I recently saw a friend playing Final Fantasy 7 for the first time on his android phone and it made me happy because anything that allows others to join the community and to share our experiences is good in my book!
An investment for the future?
However the most important thing is profit right and emulators certainly don’t help with that do they? Well actually they might. As I noted before China does not have a tradition of console gaming meaning that many of the games we take for granted just aren’t that big here. That doesn’t mean that they won’t be.
Emulation is a great way to get gamers hooked into a series or a genre that they otherwise may not have bothered with. It’s a great way to tempt a new audience that costs the companies nothing, all they have to do is continue to turn a blind eye.
However, as a gamer my loyalty is not to the company, my loyalty is to the game and I treat them same way that I do literature and art. Any interaction with the medium I love is good! Many of my Chinese friends simply could never afford to game if they didn’t bend the rules, and I’m sorry but their enjoyment of an art-form I love is more important than shareholders’ profits to me.
A grim future for emulation
Earlier I mentioned that emulation is in a legal grey area and that few companies will actually take legal action against it. However, I predict that this is going to change. With the advent of iOS, Android, and other portable consoles, these companies have already gotten a whiff of profit potential. Nostalgia is a powerful motivator for consumers to spend money. Without nostalgia Sonic would have been put down years ago, when money is in the air, our friendly game companies can quickly turn into sharks.
I suspect over the next few months we are also going to see more and more re-releases of older games on current-gen consoles and Steam. Re-releases are cheaper and are a much lower risk than innovative new IP; just ask Square Enix. When these companies begin to really churn out their older properties for cold hard cash they are not going to want free competition existing.
That being said, game companies should be warned that a crackdown for short term gains may help fuel a long term failure in the worlds biggest gaming market. If their access to an emulated game gets taken away, Chinese gamers may well choose to just switch to a different game rather than seeking it out through official channels (which often work poorly in China anyway).