Emulation is a hot topic these days. Some people think you should never emulate games, but others believe that it is excusable in specific circumstances.
That begs the question, where’s the line between “bad” emulation and “good” emulation?
Recently, Kotaku stumbled into the topic and touched off a bit of a firestorm, stoking the conversation around emulation. It’s a complex issue to be sure, and there’s a lot of gray area.
Nevertheless, given the opportunity to approach the topic with a newer perspective, it’s a good idea to try and dig deeper and find the line for emulation.
What Did Kotaku Do to Incur the Ire of Gamers Now?
Let me preface this by saying I don’t have the crazy hatred for Kotaku that others do. I simply don’t pay attention to gaming magazines like that. As a result, my opinion is probably a little less biased (and uninformed) than the people with the pitchforks and torches.
Kotaku recently published an article titled “Metroid Dread Is Already Running On Switch Emulators.” The article appears to carelessly advocate for emulating Metroid Dread, a game that was very recently released.
Now, before you go running off to read the article, you should know that the Kotaku article has been updated and given a disclaimer. Going to that article won’t let you see what upset people.
Fortunately, the internet doesn’t let anything die, so we can count on Web.archive.org to show us the original posting.
I’ll save you some time with a few quotes that got removed:
“Hey, real quick: If you are a Nintendo lawyer or employee, just like… don’t read this. It was a silly mistake. Ignore this blog. You can go now. Okay, everyone else…”
“If you want to play the rest of the Metroid franchise and don’t want to shell out large amounts of money on old consoles and games, your best bet is also emulation. As is often the case, Nintendo (like most game publishers) is really bad about maintaining access to their past games outside of the few big sellers. Thank God for pirates, emulators, modders, and hackers.”
Alright, so that looks sort of bad, and it doesn’t get any better when you add in the fact that the article mentions specific emulators that you could use to play the game.
It probably wouldn’t look so bad without the initial bit about the lawyers, but it doesn’t look great when you have to edit the article and put up an extra bit about how the website regrets supporting an interpretation that emulating a newly released game is right.
Still, they don’t back down from emulation, either. The article now says:
“Kotaku believes emulation is a vital part of the world of gaming, not least when it comes to game preservation, while not directly encouraging anyone to break the law and download games they have not purchased”
Was this all a ploy for clicks? That’s always possible. Click-bait is modern journalism.
Did an ambitious writer simply fail to mention that the game should only be emulated if you own it and rip your own ROM? I want to think that was the interpretation.
Yet, the opening joke about Nintendo lawyers and the article linked in that section seems to suggest that people emulating Metroid Dread would be using third-party (pirated) ROMs to play the game.
Otherwise, why would you link to an article about Nintendo filing lawsuits against a site that hosts pirated ROMs?
Kotaku Backs Off, But Not Too Far
The site issued a mea culpa quickly as they started to get backlash, and the article was edited to include a part where they still support a moderate form of emulation. They made it clear that they didn’t support ripping a just-released game.
The line that seems to have everyone in a tizzy is the aforementioned section that ends with “Thank God for pirates, emulators, modders, and hackers.”
But that didn’t seem to be pointed at ripping Metroid Dread, just pirating the older stuff that Nintendo has made hard to get.
Sitting here, it’s hard to say what the intentions of the article were. The writer may have been a little cheeky, but I think the only “bad” thing the article did was not clarify where the reader was supposed to get the ROMS.
Emulating Current Games Is Problematic in Many Ways
Kotaku’s article about Metroid Dread renewed the conversation about emulation. I’m not going to accuse the writer of saying go rip this game and forget about the developers! Mwahahaha!
Nevertheless, Kotaku’s take on emulation was wrong and lacked the nuance that the discussion of such a topic requires.
The topic of emulating recently released video games is multifaceted and complex, so I want to look at a few of the problematic elements before trying to figure out the place that emulation has in the world today.
The Impacts on Developers
A major problem that people had with Kotaku apparently supporting the emulation of Metroid Dread is that pirated ROMs of video games negatively affect the games’ developers.
To be clear, I’m talking about pirated ROMs, not dumps and format shifting that you perform yourself. That distinction is crucial in this conversation.
“Determined to make an objective inquiry, the researchers looked at 25 studies on the subject. Nearly 90 percent of these studies (22 out of the 25) found a statistically significant, harmful impact of piracy on sales.
While the TPI recognized that the question is complicated and economic theory inconclusive, again, the research all points to the same downward pressure on sales.”
But, that study did not look at video games individually; it was a study on overall piracy in digital media.
You will also find studies that claim the impact of piracy isn’t significant and does not lead to a direct reduction in sales (at least in the EU).
You should remember that an important portion of the study found:
“The results do not show robust statistical evidence of displacement of sales by online copyright infringements. That does not necessarily mean that piracy has no effect but only that the statistical analysis does not prove with sufficient reliability that there is an effect.”
The topic of pirating newly released media is complex, to say the least.
I don’t have a ton of raw data about the impacts of worldwide video game piracy in front of me but I think we can all agree that video game studios, especially small developers, deserve money from creating these products.
I know some people play the world’s smallest fiddle when Nintendo doesn’t reach its quarterly sales goals, but it’s not like the big companies are the only ones that would lose money if people decided to pirate a new game instead of buying it.
MercurySteam is an independent game developer from Spain that has worked on several Castlevania titles and now Metroid Dread. They’re not too big, and they deserve every bit of credit and money they can get.
It’s bad enough that some of the devs were left out of the credits for not working during 25% of the game’s production, even though the game used their assets and ideas.
The point I’m trying to make is that it might be best to err on the side of caution and say “pirating new games is probably harming independent developers” so that we can keep resurrecting franchises, like Metroid, that we all love.
If smaller developers are hurt by pirating the games during the initial release cycle (seems sensible, right?), then gamers will also pay the price in the long run by not getting releases of their favorite games.
Emulators and ROMs Can Be a Vector for Malware
Another issue with emulating modern video games that does not get enough attention in the larger conversation is the spread of malware through sites that offer emulators and ROMs.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately about malware, ransomware, and phishing attacks, you probably should. The problem is huge. We’re talking about shutting down major oil pipelines, food production companies, and stealing data from 3 million computers through pirated games and a cracked version of Photoshop.
This directly ties into the topic of emulating, too. Emulator software has been utilized to install malware on computers. ROM files and the websites that host them have also been used to install malware and engage in phishing tactics.
Even online video games not related to emulation are seeing increased malware issues, so much so that hundreds of thousands of online players have had their devices infected.
I know what you’re going to say “you only get rekt if you’re not careful.” That’s always been the case, and I’m sure it holds true today.
One way to increase your overall gaming safety is to use Atlas VPN to block access to sites with malware, provide a shielded connection, and provide gamer-specific protection, then you will be much safer, and you’ll be far less likely to get a crazy virus on your computer after downloading an emulator or playing online games.
I’m not advocating for emulating new games (see how easy that was to say?), but if you’re going to take part in emulation of your own format-shifted ROM or some ethical emulation, then you need to be safe.
Dubious Legality of Ripping Your Own ROMs
The final problematic element of emulating new video games stems from the dubious legality of format shifting and emulation.
Basically, you need two pieces to run a game on an emulator: a ROM (the game) and the emulator software (a virtual console). That’s a simplified explanation, but it should work for you.
I’m not going to provide a recipe for ROM dumping here. However, you can technically make a copy of a game, a ROM, that you bought legally.
That is precisely what happened with Metroid Dread.
Even after making the ROM, you still need to use an emulator to play the game.
I’ve covered the topic of whether emulators are legal in the past, and the answer is quite simple: yes. Emulators are legal. It’s akin to buying a “tobacco only” pipe from a gas station. The emulator itself is just a virtual console; you have to load it with a ROM to make it a problem.
The ROMs are illegal as all heck if they are pirated copies of the game. However, there is quite the gray area as it pertains to making your own ROMs.
Various statements by Nintendo and others have not outright forbidden making ROMs of their games, but some of the processes involved are apparent violations of the general system ToS.
Many people have postulated that you’re allowed to make a backup of the media you’ve bought. I did a little looking, but I couldn’t find any legal records of someone getting taken to court for making their own ROM and minding their business by not sharing it.
So, making your own ROM and playing it on an emulator probably cuts it close in terms of legality, or exists in a legal gray area. You’ll certainly step over that line once you share the ROM online or if you get someone else’s ROM.
The complexity of making a ROM for someone unfamiliar with the systems is probably enough to drive someone to just download the game from a website.
When you consider the legal quagmire that exists with emulating, it’s clear that emulating current games adds another level of difficulty to the situation.
Is There Room for Emulating Games Today?
Where is the line for emulation today? Should we emulate newly released games? In my opinion, making a single ROM of a game and running it on another system isn’t problematic. Everyone gets their money and you get your enjoyment from a product you bought.
In that specific sense, sure, we should emulate modern games.
That isn’t the only type of emulation that exists, though, and it’s important to extend the discussion on the topic.
So, let’s take a look at what potential problems exist for emulating older games. The legal issue certainly exists in the case of downloading pirated ROMs. Simply put, it’s not your property.
Then again, there are some extenuating circumstances on this, too. What if you bought the game but your system broke. Is it right then? If so, how about if you bought the game and lost it?
These questions plague the emulating community.
You also run into the same risks for being infected by and spreading malware. I’m not pointing any fingers, but a fairly well-known retro ROM site got busted for allowing infected ROMS to stay up on its website a few years back.
It seems like the only difference is that emulating an old Game Boy game probably won’t rob the developers of any revenue.
The Line of Ethical Emulation
When is it right to emulate? That’s probably more of an ethical question, and I’m far from an expert on that. The most acceptable forms of emulation appear to be:
- Emulating old games that are impossible to find because of rarity/age
- Emulating new games using ROMs that you’ve made and don’t plan on disseminating
You could make a case for emulating in other cases, too:
- Games you own but lack the system to play
- Games that are so old that nobody would lose money from you playing it
The latter of those options is probably the point where the line starts to blur between what we consider good emulation and bad emulation.
Kotaku’s take on emulation, based on that article at least, was off the mark. They’ve dialed it back, but the publication has also been somewhat vague about their stance.
I’m not trying to just dunk on them; plenty of others have done that already. I just think we should collectively do right by the developer by supporting them so we can ultimately benefit from getting quality games.
I still think it’s important to talk about emulation as a whole. As time goes on, we’re going to lose access to some games and entire series unless we embrace emulators and ROMs on some level.
The topic is difficult to parse, and it has a lot of gray areas in there.