Good Old Games
First posted on 06 March 2011. Last updated on 06 March 2011.
|Lukasz Kukawski is the PR and Marketing Manager at GOG.|
For more information, visit GOG.com.
The increasing popularity of digital distribution in recent years has led to a rapid resurgence in classic gaming. This revival is particularly strong for the adventure game genre. Understandably, developers and publishers are eager to bring their library of once popular games to fans seeking nostalgia from classic games of yesteryear. At the same time, these same developers and publishers are also interested in introducing their catalog of older games to a new audience of gamers who may be curious about the classic oldies that have long ago helped to define the genre. However, getting these games to run in modern PC can be a technical challenge. Many of these games no longer run in modern platforms, owing to software or hardware incompatibility with the original platforms on which these game are made.
Launched in 2008 by Polish developer and publisher CD Projekt, Good Old Games (or GOG) seeks to change this—by offering classic, and otherwise hard to find, PC games that have been tweaked to work on modern hardware and operating systems. Moreover, unlike other digital distribution services that lace their games with draconian DRM (Digital Rights Management), GOG offer these games free of any copy protection (beyond the legacy copy protection that is in the original releases) so that they can be installed and reinstalled freely. Indeed, GOG's vocal criticism against the use of DRM in video game distribution is in stark contrast against the opinion of most other distributors that regard DRM as a key strategy in battling the rampant piracy that currently threatens the gaming industry.
We are pleased to have an opportunity to interview Lukasz Kukawski of GOG. A graduate of University of Warsaw in journalism and in PR and Media Marketing, Kukawski works at present as the PR and Marketing Manager at GOG, after joining CD Projekt in early 2008. As an avid gamer himself, Kukawski has a deep passion for classic gaming (particularly of classic adventure games) and is not afraid to voice openly his strong dislikes of copy protection in video games, even when his opinions fall outside of company lines. In the interview, Kukawski speaks of the mission of GOG, the lure of classic gaming, the catalog of adventure games currently available at GOG, the technical challenges of tweaking these games to run in modern systems, the debate of DRM in video game distribution, and what holds in the future for the company and its service.
- What is the history of GOG? How does GOG differ from other game digital distribution services?
- The concept to offer old games to gamers had long been germinating in the minds of CD Projekt's management. You have to know that GOG.com is part of the CD Projekt group of companies that also includes CD Projekt RED development studio, the creators of the acclaimed RPG The Witcher. CD Projekt started their business as retail distributor of games in Poland in mid-90's. One of company's biggest successes on the Polish gaming market, which was heavily pirated at that time, was introducing a budget series of classic PC games to Polish gamers.
With such experience in this segment on the Polish market, an idea about conquering the worldwide audience was just a matter of time. Sometime around 2007 they started to form a concept of digital distribution service that would offer classic PC games for cheap and optimized to run on modern operating systems. As many games aren't available anywhere to buy legally and even if you own them you'd have lots of issues running them on modern computers.
The next couple of months were strictly dedicated to analyzing the digital distribution market, expanding the concept of the service and preparing the design and programming side of the project. At first the team was a small group of designers and web-developers, but it quickly grew into group of 20 people including more designers and developers :), business development people, a band of support/testers and some marketing folks. With two acclaimed publishers on board, Interplay and Codemasters, we were ready to announce the service in June 2008, launched a closed beta in September and finally opened the service for everyone in October. Since then we've finished the 2-year beta stage, signed more than 40 partners (publishers and developers) and released more than 300 classic games.
As for what differs GOG from other digital distribution platforms there are couple of things. First what you will notice is the offering - we only sell acclaimed classic titles like Baldur's Gate, Gabriel Knight series, The Longest Journey, Myst, Tex Murphy series and many more. Second very important thing is the lack of any DRM at all in our games. This means if you buy a game at GOG it's practically yours - you can install it on any computer you own, back it up on a CD or HDD, play it without the need of being connected to the internet. But that's not all, if you use other dd services you will notice that prices are different for different parts of the world. On GOG you have the same prices worldwide, no matter where you live, be it USA or Honduras, you'll always pay $5.99 USD for Broken Sword or $9.99 USD for Sanitarium. Sounds like the best digital distribution experience there can be? Well, feel free to visit GOG, create an account, download 4 free games and check for yourself if we're doing the job right.
- As a gamer yourself (according to GOG's company motto, "Everyone at GOG.com is a gamer, just like you."), what is your definition of a classic game?
- I have to admit that calling a game "a classic" is very subjective and everyone has their own list of classics. For me a classic game is a title that I played or heard about back in the days when it was released, and which either was acclaimed by press and/or gamers, or introduced something new to the genre, or simply gave me a lot of fun while I was playing it.
Having in mind that this is pretty subjective, by GOG.com standards a game is a "good old game" if it was acclaimed by media and gamers back when it was released, but also if for many different reasons it went under the radar of journalists and mass audience, but still was considered as "cult" game by gamers. And we try to keep the catalogue diverse, so everyone can find something for themselves.
There's also the nostalgic factor which cannot be validated in any way. Some games just have something that makes our hearts beat stronger when we see them or hear the main music theme. If you feel this, looking at old, text only Zork games, that means it's a classic for you. You can't reasonably explain it, you just feel it.
- What is your favorite classic adventure game of all time?
- I'm basically a fan of point and click genre, so it's really hard for me to pick one favourite classic adventure game. I love pretty much everything that came out from LucasArts and Sierra - Day of Tentacle, Space Quest series, Larry series, Indiana Jones series... but if I'd have to choose only one title, I think I would go with Sam & Max Hit the Road.
- To what extent has digital distribution revived classic gaming, especially for the adventure game genre? Why is there a persistent appetite among gamers for classic games?
- I think we're doing a really good job on reviving the classic titles. The biggest challenge for us when we started the service was to compete not with other digital distribution services, but with abandonware sites as they were absorbing the core target audience for GOG. We've approached them and asked to join the affiliate program of ours - this way GOG gets promoted in front of our target audience, the games which are on GOG are taken down from abandonware offer and they get a share from every copy sold they referred. And most of the people who own the abandonware sites found the idea of GOG interesting and joined the program, as in most cases they are huge old games fans just like us and they are trying to preserve those gaming gems from "extinction".
The "appetite" for classic in my opinion is quite natural. On GOG we have two main types of users: older ones who played the games we're offering back in the days and come over to GOG because of nostalgia and to "revive their youth". The second group includes fairly young gamers who never had a chance to play those games and now they want to check where today's games came from. There's also the factor of being bored with new games that are being released - how many times you can play another Call of Duty? Some gamers find old games more appealing. You can play great, genres defying games like Planescape: Torment, Gabriel Knight, Total Annihilation, Duke Nukem 3D just to name a few. Plus you can grab those classics for a mere 6 or 10 bucks!
- GOG has amassed an impressive catalog of classic adventure games, including those from Access Software, Cyan Worlds, Revolution Software, and Sierra. How large is the current catalog of adventure games at GOG? What are the challenges in securing distribution rights to these older adventure games, wherein the rights and licenses may have changed hands many times over the years?
- It's true we have managed to secure the rights to release some really great adventure games, and by saying that I have in mind the old-fashioned adventure games like Myst, Simon the Sorcerer, Space Quest, Sanitarium or Gabriel Knight. But there's still loads of great adventure titles to be re-released as that was one of the most popular genres back in the 80's and 90's.
As for challenges securing the deals with rights holders there are plenty. First, we have to find those rights holders and get in touch with them. Although thanks to CD Projekt's established history, we have many business contacts in the gaming industry, but as you mentioned the rights and licenses in many cases have changed hands over the years as some companies went bankrupt or were bought by other companies, so sometimes it's really hard to tell who has control over an IP. Sometimes the rights are shattered between couple of companies which make it even harder to get them. If we manage to get pass this stage, then we need to convince the publisher or developer to sell their games via GOG. Unfortunately our DRM-free approach to digital distribution isn't helping us in this. Still many people believe that offering games without any copy protection is a bad idea as the games will get pirated immediately. In case of old games those titles are probably already pirated for many years, so this should be the least worrying thing, but still publishers tend to believe DRM is a cure for piracy, which in our opinion is exactly the opposite. We have our ways to convince them to drop the idea of DRM in old games plus our community is really helpful in this matter as you won't find that many GOG games on torrents.
These are the two most common problems when reviving old games. You can also add problems with finding game masters, manuals or any additional materials which we could bundle with the game. As you can see there's plenty of work before we can finally release the game on GOG, so if you're waiting for a title to appear on GOG, please be patient as we're probably already on it, but it just takes time :)
- What in-house or third-party software tools, such as emulators, are used to enable compatibility of these older games with modern PC? Which hardware emulations are particularly challenging to implement? How many games, if any, has GOG had to abandon in releasing because of software or hardware incompatibility that cannot be resolved?
- I'm sure our main programmer would be more useful answering this question, but I'll try to do my best :) As for software tools, we're using DOSBox and ScummVM, which probably every classic adventure games fan is familiar with, for DOS based games. I have to admit that using those 2 programs makes our life a lot easier. These great pieces of code are really great and make miracles with DOS games - this allows our programming team to focus on games that are really difficult to run on modern machines. And these are mostly games that were released for Windows 95 OS. It appears that games made for W95 were not well written for that system and had problems with smooth running, so making them run flawlessly on a different OS is even more demanding. Plus there are loads of other issues our programming team has to deal with and frankly saying sometimes I think they use "black-tech-magic" to fix those old games.
In GOG's 2+ year history we had couple games we had to put on hold due to some unfixable problems. Of course if we'll encounter a similar problem in another game and we'll manage to fix it, then we can go back to the problematic title and try to fix it in the same way. Thankfully there were just a few such games, so we're keeping our percentage of effectiveness very high :)
- In addition to the games themselves, GOG also makes available digital copies of game manuals (which are often hard to find otherwise), soundtracks, and other bonus add-ons, some of which are not included in the games' original releases. From where and whom (aside from the developers or publishers) does GOG gather these extra contents (with examples, if possible)? Since GOG does not have access to the source codes of the games being re-released, how are bug fixes, patches, and updates being implemented?
- This is the job of our able product manager. Thanks to her and the testers you can enjoy all the free additional materials that come with each game. Unfortunately we can't always count on publisher to provide us with stuff, so in many cases it's up to us to get something. Many of the old titles were published by CD Projekt so we have access to the large archive of different stuff, from artworks, to making of videos, soundtracks and posters. Also as you already know everyone at GOG is a gamer and in most cases we played and owned those old games, so we still have some materials in our own archives, either stacked somewhere in the attic or standing proudly on the shelves in the living room. We also search the internet for such materials as sometimes you can find a fan page of a game which features some cool and rare add-ons.
- Piracy is admittedly rampant in the gaming industry. In your opinion, to what extent has DRM been successful in stifling piracy? How do you convince developers, publishers, and license holders to release their games free of DRM? What objections do you hear most frequently from stakeholders who argue against the rejection of DRM?
- As I said before, we believe DRM isn't the best way to fight piracy. I would say that in most drastic cases DRM actually is forcing people to use a pirate version of the game which has been cracked and you don't have to deal with stupid limitations like registrations, limited number of installations, being on-line to play and many more inconveniences. The worst thing is that the pirate versions of games don't have those DRMs, so users of cracked copies won't be affected by them, unlike those who buy games legally. Treating a legitimate customer like a potential criminal won't convince them to buy original copies of games.
In our opinion a better way to get people to spend their hard earned money on original games rather than pirating them is to give them a good value for money - offer good games for reasonable prices, making the whole experience hassle-free (no DRM, full Windows compatibility, unlimited re-downloads, same price all over the world), adding exclusive free goodies which they won't get with a torrent download. We believe adding those incentives are well worth all the work and effort rather than just adding a draconian DRM software which will only make legitimate customers' life more difficult.
- GOG is a vocal opponent of the use of DRM in video games. What is the company's rationale, both philosophical and practical, against DRM? How does GOG address criticisms that the DRM free distribution model used by GOG is neither scalable nor sustainable elsewhere?
- Yes, offering completely DRM-free games via digital distribution is pretty big statement and GOG did it first in such a big scale. As you can see, the path we took was a good one as GOG is a successful enterprise.
As mentioned we do feel like implementing DRM in games is not helping in fighting piracy. Let's take EA's "Spore" which allowed you a limited number of installations or UbiSoft's "Assassin's Creed 2" which forced you to stay on-line for the whole time you play the game. Gamers were truly pissed that they are paying $50 USD for a game they can't play as they'd like to. I'm sure those DRMs actually pulled lots of people from buying the game or made them get a pirated version.
Let's be realistic, there is no copy protection that haven't been cracked, so you won't fully protect your game from piracy. There will always be people who will pirate your game, but are they your target audience? No, because if someone is pirating games, he'll continue to do that and he won't care to spend money on original copies. But you do care about customers who buy legitimate copies of games and you should make their experience with the product simple and hassle-free. Implementing a draconian DRM in a game won't help you achieving that.
- Many classic games employ legacy copy protection schemes. Some use manuals that cannot be photocopied; others use magnetic media that have been physically altered. What workarounds are being used to bypass the legacy copy protection in these games (with examples, if possible)?
- Yes, I think we all remember those creative ideas for copy protection back in the days. In most cases, if it's fairly non-intrusive (like finding the 5th word in 3rd line on page 7 of the manual, or to match an image with a name from the manual) we leave it intact as we believe it's actually an extra feature, it gives you this nostalgia feeling - that's the case with first Quest games: Police, Space and King's. In other cases we remove the copy protection, so our users aren't even aware that originally there were any protection schemes in the game.
- In September 2010, GOG relaunched its service with an admittedly risky (but also clever) publicity stunt by announcing abruptly an immediate shutdown of the site due to "business and technical reasons", which prompted initially many worrisome speculations from both the community and the press, until its official relaunch days later. In hindsight, how worry were you that this stunt could have backfired and would cause harm of the brand in consequence? What was GOG's backup plan if the stunt had indeed backfired?
- We have to admit that we made some assumptions which appeared to be wrong. More precisely we didn't consider our users use GOG just like they use other digital distribution outlets. With Steam, Direct2Drive and the likes you need to have the access to the service itself to play games, so if the service is down or you don't have access to the internet, you won't be able to play. Because games on GOG are DRM-free users don't need the access to the service itself to play. We assumed GOG users are downloading their game installers after they buy a game and keep it backed up on CDs or external HDDs, as they are allowed to do that. They can also redownload the game installer whenever they want and as many times as they need, but we thought it's just a cool, additional feature. Unfortunately it appears that still many of GOG users strongly rely on the service itself.
That's definitely a lesson learned for us and with the knowledge we have now we would provide our users with a solution that would allow them access and download their games during the down-time. Although we did state in the first announcement that we'll provide a solution to download games, most people seemed not to notice that. To calm down a bit our users, the next day we ensured everyone will be able to download all their games, DRM-free on Thursday which was the relaunch day for the service.
We thought the hints we left in the announcement would ensure people we're not closing the service for real, but it didn't quite work that way. That's why we posted the teaser video which hinted on some of the upcoming features and Baldur's Gate. Still some people were pissed about it and we did apologize to everyone who felt deceived by the "stunt". After all the action brought a lot of attention to GOG and we did experience the biggest traffic in service's history after the relaunch, so this was really successful for us.
- GOG is admittedly a whimsical brand name for a game digital distribution service. Out of curiosity, what is the origin of this name?
- GOG is an acronym for Good Old Games, so the name says basically it all :) We're offering Good Old Games from the Good Old Days!
- What holds in the near future for GOG? How will the game industry need to change over time with the growing demand for classic games?
- 2010 was really a big year for GOG, we've signed big deals with Activision, Atari and Hasbro which brought back such gems from PC history like Baldur's Gate series, Gabriel Knight series, Phantasmagoria, Space Quest, King's Quest, Outcast, Interstate '76 and many, many more. After two years we have finally finished the beta stage of the service and launched the new, better and faster site with cool new features. In 2011 we want to continue this trend, but in an even bigger way, so expect new big deals which will definitely bring even more great classics and new features that will improve the experience, especially in the community aspects.
Our main goal is to make the GOG an ultimate place for classic PC games and in my opinion we're on a good way to achieve this :) Unfortunately I can't reveal any details, but I encourage everyone to keep an eye on us - we have plenty to offer :)