Confessions Of An Emulator…

2 12 2009
Piracy, emulation, file sharing. Three phrases that strike fear into the hearts of video game companies across the world. Blamed by some for the high price of games in today’s market, accused by many as the downfall of industry leaders such as SNK and yet celebrated by tens of thousands of gamers the world over, the topics surrounding gaining commercially released titles for free, are as many as their advocates and critics are passionate. It seems everyone that this microcosm of the internet affects has an opinion, yet we never hear from the people who are behind the (often very shady) scenes. MLG figured that this needed to change…

Xero: Who are you and what do you do?
Jamie: I’m Jamie Sanders, the designer of vNES, a free online emulator for the Nintendo Entertainment System. I’m also a design and marketing consultant for a few independent businesses around the world.
X: A big question for us, one we ask everyone we talk to here at Midlife Gamer, what is your favourite beverage and biscuit (I think you chaps in the US call them cookies)?
J: Mr. Pibb and Ginger Snaps. (Not at the same time, mind you…)
X: What is the main aim of the vNES website for you, is it for financial gain, a political message or a technical endeavour?
J: vNES started out as a technical endeavour, and over the last eighteen months, it’s become something more. It’s more of a community now, as a lot of gamers who grew up with the NES have sent in hundreds of their old games to assist us in building our library of games. With the exception of games that remain unreleased, games that have no registered copyright (mostly Hong Kong Originals) and games from companies that don’t mind if we publish their games online (Wisdom Tree) we have an original cartridge for each game that you can play on vNES.
X: You’re currently working on an online Game Boy emulator, can we expect to see non-8-bit or non-nintendo consoles in the future?
J: Yes, a third emulator is in the works for a short-lived 8-bit videogame system that never made the jump to Europe, which was not produced by Nintendo. You’ll see more about that in 2010.
X: What are your favourite three NES titles?
J: That’s kind of a tough one. I’d have to go for Super Mario Bros. 3, StarTropics, and Dragon Warrior.
X: As far as I understand, downloading ROMs for use with an emulator is illegal, aren’t you essentially breaking the law with the service?
J: vNES is governed by lending library laws, for the most part. We have the original games here, and the copies are destroyed when you’ve finished playing. More boring information on American laws is available at
X: Have you had any run-ins with game companies because of vNES? Does Nintendo know about the project?
J: There have been a few, especially in the earlier days of vNES. Quite often, they would send half-blank DMCA takedown demands to our ISP, which isn’t enforceable (or valid) if you leave half of the form blank. A few have been sent to some of our other servers that aren’t hosted outside of the states, and I’ve had at least one conversation explaining to my host that you aren’t American and don’t have to do anything with this. After the switch to only letting users play games from the library, it’s been much less frequent. My understanding is that NOA (Nintendo Of America – X) is aware of my existence, but I can’t really verify it.
X: Do you ever feel like you are taking money away from legitimate publishers and developers, or do you believe that there should be a time limit to how long a game can be sold before it becomes public domain?
J: I’ve never felt like I’m taking money away from publishers or developers, although I may be responsible, in part, for a general decrease in productivity in the workplace. I’ve gotten more than a few support request emails from banks like HSBC. I can’t speak for the laws of the United Kingdom, but if memory serves, the original law regarding copyright in the states was 14 years from the date of registration and the option for one 14 year renewal. Unfortunately, we’ve moved away from that, and the situation worldwide is deteriorating, with things like ACTA and this ‘Digital Economy Bill’ which was presented by an unelected politician who was forced to resign twice out of disgrace (Peter Mandelson, fact fans – X).
The worst offender, however, is Disney. Disney takes public domain content, makes a movie out of it, and then sues people who try to use characters from the fairytales that they make millions off of and didn’t create in the first place. I have an issue with that. But that isn’t what vNES does. If you’ll allow a moderately off topic metaphor, vNES is my house. And at my house, there’s always room for a second player. These games are by no means new, and from a technical standpoint, they are functionally obsolete. They are cultural artefacts, things that a previous generation is handing down to the new generation. Like a fairytale.
X: Do you condone or condemn modern games piracy? Is there a difference between modding a 360 to play copied games, as opposed to downloading Bubble Bobble for MAME?
J: I’m rather conflicted on this. Downloading arcade games for personal use is fine by me, these things aren’t readily available in the commercial marketplace, the originals were never available for home markets, and you’d be crazy to think you can find these boards new. They all go to die in the back rooms of arcade operators, perchance never to be seen again. As far as new games go, I would have to advocate buying the retail copies. Millions of dollars go into producing these games, and the chances of a sequel lie on sales.
The unfortunate truth is that the video game market isn’t making a comfortable transition to the internet age, the new global economy. Prices are by no means uniform, releases are delayed beyond acceptable levels, and many games don’t get released outside of Japan, and still others that make it to the states don’t make it across the pond. For example, here in the United States, we got New Super Mario Bros. Wii for $50.00. In the UK, you’re paying 40 quid for it, which is about $65.00. It’s the same game, but you are forced to pay $15 more, and I personally find that unreasonable. One of my favourite games, Animal Crossing, was released in Japan on December 14, 2001. It was released here in the States on September 15, 2002, and in Europe on September 24, 2004. That’s just bloody stupid – there’s no reason that should have happened, and the situation was bad enough that NOE acknowledged that this delay was unacceptable. It never should have happened, and yet the same basic issue continues to happen (although to be fair, it’s less of a problem with NOE since then, Microsoft and Sony haven’t gotten much better.)
And then, there are great games that are released in America and never make it to Europe. Honestly, it’s 2009, the differences between PAL and NTSC are a lot easier to work around than it was in the 1980s. There’s no excuse for this. European consumers are being ripped off. There’s no point to it, and it is a practice that needs to end. And on that note, I don’t have any particular objection to players modding their consoles to play games that will never see a release in their home country. If publishers would get their act together, the amount of piracy that occurs from games not being reasonably available in the commercial marketplace would drop significantly.
X: Ultimately, does piracy harm the video games industry?
J: Some types do, but as a rule, no. The pirates that take their time to copy and translate Final Fantasy III for the NES – they help sales. The pirates that want to try out the original game before they go and buy the sequel for their shiny new console? They also help sales. The guy that started a digital museum to the golden age of videogames? He should totally be hired as a marketing consultant.



6 responses

2 12 2009

Great interview. Jamie sounds like a very intelligent guy.

3 12 2009
Matthew Moore

Nice find with the interview Xero.
Thanks to Jamie also for lending you his time and thoughts

3 12 2009

great job leader I mean Jaime from us over at the vNES forum …

5 12 2009

Awesome job Xero. I totally agree with just about everything jamie says. Top drawer questions from you too. Only thing I don’t agree with is Jamies’ choice of biscuits, but I forgive him because he’s American. Not his fault I guess.

12 12 2009

Great interview, i totally agree with almost everything in the interview and what was said about games like animal crossing that was ridiculous you guys across the pond should not have to wait any longer than we in the states do.

There is perhaps another direction you could look into in regards with modded consoles, i have a modded original xbox that i use to save my games on the now larger hard drive. I do this because my dvd rom is dieing this is now my second xbox and third dvd rom, it helps reduce load times as well as getting rid of dvd read errors. I own all the games that are on my hard drive and can now save the games as well as my extra xbox to share with my children when they get older, this is in addition to my collection of all major consoles from my atari 2600 on.

On a side note my favorite “biscuit” is oreo and beverage is wild cherry pepsi…

12 12 2009

First and foremost; I hope to hell Wild Cherry Pepsi comes out in the UK. Second, I think the whole back-ups thing is a little grey for me. On the one hand, yep it’s great to have another copy to save yours from being damaged, or to improve performance etc, but on the other I can understand why a company might not want you to be able to do that with your media.

Ultimately it’s a question of choice for the average gamer, support your industry and pay for your games (new or second hand), or get all the games you want and damage it. No matter how much DRM a company adds users will always find a way of circumventing the security measures in place, so it’s down to you whether your morals can justify copying games (whether you own them or not).

If you haven’t yet, you should get on the MLG boards here: there’s always intelligent discussion going on about topics like this, might be right up your street. Or boulevard. Or whatever it is you blighters call them.

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