The Problem: Just because a video game is old does not make it any less awesome. However the hardware used to play old games can be cumbersome to maintain, and the legality of classic software available posted on the Internet is dubious at best. I legally owned Zyll back in the day, but now I have no 386 PC on which to play it, nor a 5 1/4″ drive where I can insert the disk, and as such I am left yearning.
The Idea: Start a company that buys the rights to old video games, and then legally redistributes them on modern form factors (PC, mobile phones, tablets, etc…).
How awesome would it be to play the Lord British classic Auto Duel on your iPad? Or Karl Buiter’s epic E.O.S.: Earth Orbit Stations on your Android OS phone? Or the glorious Silicon Beach Software original version of Dark Castle on you Java enabled TV! In case you haven’t guessed the answer: it would be AWESOME!
Effectively this is taking the Netflix model and applying it to classic video games. With Netflix, today you can watch a movie shot on celluloid film in 1925 on your TV, PC or any of a myriad of hand-held devices. They are successful, in large part, because they eliminated the technology burden on the content owners. Via Netflix, studios can deliver their content securely and legally, delighting consumers and still making money. If we extend that concept to classic gaming, it would likely be financially viable, especially as the number of potential target devices grows.
The good news is, most of the engineering hurdles surrounding emulation, playing a game written for one device on another, seem to have been solved. Google’ing for game emulators, you can pretty much play any old game on your PC with the proper emulator installed. The problem, as noted above, is the proper rights to play those classic games are hard to come by.
This leads me to believe that 98% of the company would be lawyer/salespersons who are working with existing license holders to acquire content. It would seem there would be two typical cases: 1) rights are fully acquired, and any gains made through redistribution are kept, or 2) rights are shared, and gains are split based on some agreement. Depending on the complexity of the port (converting the game to work on new devices), age of the game, expected number of downloads/plays, and other factors, it would take some time to find the right balance that works for everyone.
The sales pitch for most cases would be pretty straight forward, in that if you produced a game the Commodore 64 in 1983, it is not likely producing much revenue in 2013. If someone (this proposed company) came to them with the low-effort, profit-producing, opportunity to expose their game to a new generation of gamers, they would likely be delighted. The target audience would likely be nostalgia gamers, like me, but the market for new gamers who may just play because it’s “retro chic” is there, and in either case, you have paying customers.
Possible Complications: One of the harder problems to solve will be when just re-releasing the original code on a new device will not work because of game-play limitations. For example, the aforementioned E.O.S. is a non-networked multi-player game, but it is unlikely my friends and I will sit around one iPhone to play each other. This game would need to be updated (err, re-written) so it could be played over the Internet.