GOG.com and the challenges of retro PC gaming

Online retailer highlights the difficulty of making old games playable today.

The film and music industry has a long tradition of digging up and preserving their intellectual property so that it can continually be enjoyed by audiences both in the present and future. Some publishers have repackaged their most popular games over the years, but many fall to the wayside and are forgotten. Cyprus-based GOG.com is aiming to rectify this situation by offering gamers the chance to play classic PC games from the past.

We caught up with GOG.com PR and marketing department head, Trevor Longino, to talk about the processes and challenges in bringing back old PC games to the present age.

What do publishers think of GOG releasing old games?

GOG.com PR and marketing department head, Trevor Longino (TL): Indeed, it can be quite hard to convince publishers that there is sense in digging deep in their back catalogue. Fortunately, we have the numbers to prove that it is not a waste of their time, as we are giving them an easy opening to monetise old releases that are currently only gathering dust on the figurative shelf. The effort that they have to put into giving us the rights to remaster the games for modern operating systems, and distribute them digitally afterwards, pays off. So far all the publishers that started cooperating with GOG.com are satisfied. After all, we are practically bringing them free money.

Do publishers preserve their old game code and assets?

TL: I don't think we’ve ever received source code for anything. It's not even unusual to hear from a rights holder that they don't have any retail masters of their game lying around. Unfortunately, due to the short attention span of the gaming industry, the games are long forgotten by their makers just a few years after release. For older games, our lack of source code access is partially due to the fact that the rights holder is usually not the original developer or publisher of the game in question.

Where do you get builds?

TL: The people who work at GOG are gamers and old-school ones at that. More than a few of us have more than a thousand retail games in our collection. A fun fact is that every copy of Alpha Centauri, Magic Carpet, and Dungeon Keeper that GOG sells is based on copies of the CDs that I brought with me to Poland when I moved out here. So we don't always find the games we need in our own collections, and sometimes we have to look elsewhere. Some of the titles require us to go hunting on eBay and other Internet sites to find used retail boxes in varying condition. On rare occasions, we ask trusted members of the GOG.com community to help us out. We're old pros at this and we’ve yet to find a game that, after full investigation, we couldn't locate a build for.

How do you decide what game gets re-released?

TL: We do our best to make sure all the games we release, classic or new, fit in with the rest of our catalogue. For the classic games, we do have our community’s wish list, which acts as a beacon for our day-to-day operations in regard to signing deals. It's pretty obvious that we are bringing back games that were critically acclaimed by gamers and journalists in their heyday, but we also put a lot of effort into finding those, that for a variety of reasons, such as release timing, marketing campaign, generation shift, haven’t achieved huge commercial success, but still have a cult following of fans.

What about newer games?

TL: For new releases, we look for that elusive blend of quality and dedication. We seek out creators who fill their title with joy, delight, and hopefully a little bit of fiendish old-school difficulty. You can see it in the passion and attention to detail the game is infused with, making it much more than just another title on the shelf.

What games are easy to get to work on modern computers?

TL: The easiest games to work on, by far, are the DOS-based ones. We are remarkably fortunate that DOSBox exists, and without it our jobs would be remarkably more difficult. We owe a big debt of gratitude to Peter Veenstra and the rest of the team, and due to their hard work the games are almost ready to run. Scumm VM interpretor also proved to be a valuable tool for a wide variety of adventure games, such as Beneath a Steel Sky. We have also released quite a lot of DOS games that were beginning to use, at that time, the groundbreaking technology of the early incarnation of 3D acceleration, and for those we have found that nGlide by Zeus Software works wonders. Another instance of easy to run games are the late Windows XP-era titles that are properly coded, with great DirectX 9 support, and already prepared for modern hardware.

What about the most difficult games?

TL: The real troublemakers are the early Windows 95 games that were developed during the shift away from Windows 3.11/DOS-based systems towards the new Windows. Some of these games are still 16-bit, which makes it nearly impossible to run on 64-bit Windows versions, including XP, Vista, 7 or 8. Next are all the poorly-coded games that use tailor-made graphics engines, which tend to crash every chance they get. Additionally, they rely on tricks possible on early DirectX versions, which are unfortunately not supported by DirectX 9 and following versions.

What game did GOG really want to re-release?

TL: One of our greatest dreams right from the conception of GOG was releasing System Shock 2. We have spent quite a lot of money and time on lawyers, mostly industry veterans, to have any chance of understanding the big legal puzzle behind this game's various rights ownership, such as the trademark, the IP, the code, distribution rights, etc. The answers were often conflicting and the Gordian knot of legal connections grew bigger and bigger the deeper we dug.

How was this situation solved?

TL: After years of efforts we never lost hope, but at the same time, were no closer to accomplishing the task. And then, the totally unexpected happened when Stephen Kick from Night Dive dropped us an email informing that he secured the rights for digital distribution of System Shock 2. Being aware of our community wish list, which System Shock 2 sat proudly atop with close to 40.000 votes, he decided that GOG.com was the best place for the digital release of this cult classic. The rest, of course, is history.

Can an old game work on modern PC without access to the source code?

TL: Since we don’t have access to the source code in most cases, we apply reverse engineering and start with bug fixing, eliminating problems one by one. Our team of ninja programmers are nothing short of amazing in what kind of tricks they utilize to ensure that the game not only works, but works well. At times we also reach out to our community that, more often than not, has come up with creative solutions of their own to get a particular game to work on new systems. We will get in contact with the authors of a given solution and work together or, at the very least, get their blessing to use their custom made fix.

Any interest in porting PlayStation and Saturn games to PC?

TL: We sure have. Unfortunately, we can't do it ourselves as it's almost impossible without the source code. Also, emulating console games is subject to overarching licensing agreements, as part of the sales of any product developed for a certain console should go to the platform holder. Without any changes to this architecture, I can't see any major developments on that front at GOG.com, and all the other digital distributors for that matter.

What game do you want to see on GOG?

TL: I want Star Wars: TIE Fighter and the rest of the LucasArts games. They're all awesome and TIE Fighter, at least, is not difficult to get running on modern operating systems.

Want to read other video game interviews with key figures from Sony, Microsoft and more? Then check out Good Gear Guide's complete interview archive.

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