First posted on 24 November 2009. Last updated on 24 November 2009.
Joe Pearce of Wyrmkeep Entertainment is on a mission: to introduce classic computer games to a new generation of video gamers. Retro gaming is not a new fad—decades worth of classic video games, most of which are no longer available commercially, can be downloaded from online repositories as "abandonwarez" (or "abandonware"), both legally and illegally. However, getting these classic oldies to run on modern computers is often no easy task, owing to software or hardware incompatibilities with the games' original system requirements.
Initially released for DOS and Amiga, The Labyrinth of Time and Inherit the Earth: Quest for the Orb were classic point-and-click adventure games originally published by Electronic Arts in 1993 and New Word Computing in 1994 respectively. In 2003 and 2004, Wyrmkeep Entertainment acquired the rights to republish these games and tweaked them to run on current operating systems—Windows, Mac OS, and even Linux. (Incidentally, Inherit the Earth: Quest for the Orb was also among the few non-LucasArts game titles supported by ScummVM (Script Creation Utility for Maniac Mansion Virtual Machine) emulator.) The games were otherwise untouched, thus allowing players to experience these games as they were meant to be from more than a decade ago.
We are pleased to have an opportunity to interview Joe Pearce, founder of Wyrmkeep Entertainment. In the interview, he speaks of his passion about classic gaming, his founding of The Dreamers Guild (best known as the developer of I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream), his motivation for launching Wyrmkeep Entertainment, his opinion on the legality of abandonwarez, and what the future holds for his new company.
- What were your first memories of playing adventure games? As a developer, what attracted you to the adventure genre?
- The earliest adventure games I played were Infocom text-based games like Zork and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I have always preferred story-based games, so that is why I have concentrated on adventure games.
- Prior to Wyrmkeep Entertainment, you co-founded The Dreamers Guild. The company developed a number of adventure game titles (including ports) that were published by multiple different publishers. In retrospect, how commercially successful were these titles? Which title had the most disappointing sales? What eventually led to the demise of the company? What game projects were abandoned in mid development because of its closure?
- I can't speak about the success of the ports (like Legend of Kyrandia for the Mac). I just don't have that information.
The Dreamers Guild's original titles were a mixed bag success-wise. Inherit the Earth was originally going to be distributed by Broderbund and so was tailored toward a younger audience. New World Computing switched its affiliation to Electronic Arts in mid-project, and EA really didn't know how to market the game and it sold poorly. I Have No Mouth and Must Scream was a critical success but only a modest seller. I don't know how well Dinotopia sold. Finally, Halls of the Dead (The Faery Tale Adventure 2) was completed after the company filed for bankruptcy, and it barely got out the door. FTA2 does have its fans though.
The company's demise was caused by one ill-conceived deal that led to additional bad management decisions. Also, the company tried to jump head-long into the just-emerging online multi-player market without a good understanding of design and maintenance issues for such games.
There were a number of unfinished MMOG titles. The edutainment adventure game Nick of Time was also left unfinished.
- Of the adventure games developed by The Dreamers Guild, which game were you most proud of? Why? How misunderstood did you feel of your critics in the press about your games (with examples)?
- Inherit the Earth would be the top adventure game on my list. FTA2 would be next. Those both had excellent designs, but not all the ideas ended in the released games.
I have always had trouble with the Computer Gaming World review of Inherit the Earth. Although the reviewer had some reasonable complaints about the design, the main issue was that the game was a bore to hard-core gamer. As the game wasn't designed for a hard-core gamer, that was hardly valid.
- How did you secure the rights to republish the games under Wyrmkeep Entertainment that were previously owned by other publishers? Why was this not done more frequently by other game developers of their own works years later?
- I was really the only person interested in buying the rights to The Dreamers Guild properties, so it was fairly easy for me to make a deal to buy the assets. (Actually, it was more complicated than that, but I don't want to bore your readers with legalese.)
First, you still need to be cordial with a company's former owners (of which I was one of many). I know of cases where titles have languished because the owners are not on friendly terms anymore and so no deal can be made to buy the rights.
Second, you have to be able to find the current owners. Personally, I would like to contact the owners to the rights to such games as The Faery Tale Adventure and Dark Seed, but I don't have that information.
In the case of a company with interesting old properties that is acquired by a larger company, the new parent company may not want to expend any of its resources on negotiating a deal with someone if the money involved is too little.
- What contacts did you have with the developers of the Amiga originals on which the ports were based?
- I was one of the original developers on Inherit the Earth (which started as a DOS game). I had no contact with the German team that ported the game to the Amiga. I did have contact with one member of the German team much later.
I was friends with both Michal Todorovic and Brad Schenck, the creators of The Labyrinth of Time. Michal actually licensed some code from me that was incorporated into the CD-32 (Amiga) version of the game.
- How much of the code base had to be rewritten in the ports? Was an emulator (either propriety or third-party) used? What assets (such as graphics and sounds) from the originals were left untouched in the ports?
- It was an advantage that The Labyrinth of Time and Inherit the Earth were DOS-based games, as both accessed the hardware in a limited scope. I just needed to emulate a graphics buffer and change the games to write data to that buffer. The games were up-and-running fairly quickly. Audio was more of an issue and actually took most of the porting time.
All the ports are original code except that I used a third-party, cross-platform graphics and audio library named SDL (Simple DirectMedia Layer) for The Labyrinth of Time ports and the Linux release of Inherit the Earth.
In Wyrmkeep Entertainment's initial re-release of Inherit the Earth, the assets were exactly the same as the NWC release. Later, I recorded a digital audio score from the old MIDI data so that the music would sound just like the original composer, Matt Nathan, wanted it to sound. The Mac and Linux releases plus a later Windows version incorporated the digital audio score. (I should note that the soundtrack is available on an audio CD from Wyrmkeep Entertainment.)
The graphics in The Labyrinth of Time are unchanged. All the sound effects and music in game were 8-bit, which sounds really scratchy on a modern computer. So, I had to resample everything to 16-bits and clean-up the audio.
I wish I could have re-rendered The Labyrinth of Time graphics to higher resolution, but I was unable to access the original 3D data from the back-up tapes.
- What changes, if any, had been made in the ports, particularly those to address criticisms of the original releases?
- No changes were made to the games to address criticisms. No game-play was changed at all.
- What fairy tales inspired the story in Inherit the Earth: Quest for the Orb?
- Inherit the Earth was influenced by things like Watership Down, Wind in the Willows, and the works of Beatrix Potter.
- What are the challenges of marketing classic games to a new generation of gamers who may not be familiar with their deep history to fully appreciate their values?
- I haven't tried too much to reach new gamers if they aren't already interested either in the subject matter or the style of game. I don't have the advertising budget to do that. I mainly target web sites where the visitors will likely be interested in the games.
- Admittedly, Wyrmkeep Entertainment targets a very niche market of nostalgia gamers. How do you compare Wyrmkeep Entertainment with other services such as GOG (Good Old Games) that are also re-releasing classic games?
- This is the first of heard of GOG, but a quick look at the site would seem to indicate they are selling more recent games (meaning games from the last decade, not the early 90's). That's a bit easier than my task.
- What is your opinion of abandonwarez (or abandonware), beyond its legality? How can games be preserved for prosperity that may otherwise be lost forever without violating the rights of their original owners?
- I have contacted a number of "abandonware" sites about removing Inherit the Earth – some have complied. Unlike some forms of intellectual property, copyright (at least under US law) does not have to be defended to remain valid. So, I don't worry too much about such sites. Honest people will pay for software, especially if a company provides free support, etc.
I would prefer the US revert to pre-1980's copyright law with a 22-year copyright renewable once for an additional 22 years. Of course, even under that scheme, only games released before 1987 would (possibly) be in the public domain at this point!
- What holds in the future for Wyrmkeep Entertainment? Will it expand beyond developing ports from the Amiga?
- Wyrmkeep Entertainment's goal is to eventually release sequels to the classic games it publishes. It's just taking longer than hoped.
Some original, web-based, mini-games have been released based on Inherit the Earth, and there are plans to create original titles. Time (and money) will tell.