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Abandonware: An Overview

This week will be focusing on the issue of abandonware, and the legal positions of gamers and the gaming industry.

What is abandonware? Like many programs which were released in the early to mid nineties, abandonware is a program, usually a game, which appears to have been “abandoned” by the owners. Much like shareware, freeware, and malware, abandonware was named by taking the identifying suffix “-ware” and adding the descriptive verb which best describes how the software is viewed by the end user community.

Some abandonware started out as freeware, released by small companies or a promotional release that incorporated a consumer tie-in in an over-the-top way. Casual or mobile games released as tie-ins to other entertainment properties tend to be the closest parallel today, although the open source community has a large number of these types of games available as well. Games which encouraged user generated content such as level designs often allowed the users to share the levels without extra cost, although a copy of the underlying game itself was required in order to use the free levels.

Other abandonware started as shareware, which tended to be smaller demos or free levels given out by the game company to get players interested in the proprietary game. It wasn’t the full game or a totally free version, hence the division in naming, but was still intended to have more of a viral marketing presence than possible through just magazine or radio ads. Doom and Duke Nukem still have demo versions floating around online, and the need to test a product before buying it has become ridiculously easy now that so many games are delivered digitally, without cartridge, dongle, or paper manual.

Then there are the companies that changed directions and made their older games available for free download from their websites after the technology changed, and demand tapered off. 3D Realms is a good example of this, as they have made many of their early titles available for download (with no tech support, of course) and still maintain clear control of the titles they are NOT releasing for free.

The original owners of the software tend not to have problems with websites hosting either of the above types of abandonware, as they were originally intended to be released and shared, and when the software is still hosted with the original license, the language reflects that. The difficulties lie when the publisher has not chosen to be so generous, still has some presence in the software industry, and where ownership or control over the games are not clear.

Gamers are now old enough to be nostalgic about old titles, and the various content distribution portals are reflecting that. WiiWare and the Playstation Store hold titles from early consoles, and even LucasArts has been re-releasing classic titles through Steam. The clash between users and the industry comes when the owner realizes that money can still be made off older games, and crack down on previously ignored practices in order to maintain their market.

Tomorrow: Abandonware: A problem for gamers?

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Posted in Monday: Legal Landscape.