Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Joy Of Rereleasing Old Games.

Warning: This blog entry contains unpopular views, a mercenary attitude, and an unattractive display of pure, raw greed. Those who prefer a purer, more principled breed of Indie developer should look elsewhere.

A little over fifteen years ago, I started writing my first game, Exile: Escape From the Pit. (I am old.) This is quite a milestone for me. Since then, I have found that life as a self-employed Indie has many advantages, some small, some large. As I work on Avernum 6, the last game in my longest-running and most successful series, one of them has been very much on my mind.

I own my own intellectual property (or, as the cool kids call it, IP).

Why is this so awesome? Because then I get to rewrite and rerelease my older games, letting me make a bunch of money for a small amount of work. For example, Exile: Escape From the Pit came out in 1995. Its first rewrite, Avernum, came out in 2000. So, in 2011, over a decade after its previous iteration, I plan to release a super flashy new version of Avernum, with really sharp new graphics and sounds, a new dungeon or three, and some nice new features added. It won't be a huge amount of work. It'll be a great new product. I will clean up.

I once wrote a game called Nethergate, which developed quite a cult following. Then, as time passed, it became very shaky and outdated. So, two years ago, I released Nethergate: Resurrection. It took two months to do it. I really liked this game, and putting out a newer, nicer version was very rewarding, both emotionally and financially.

A lot of people have complained to me over the years about doing this. I don't understand it. It's good for me and its good for players. There are several good reasons to exploit your old IP:

Good Games Deserve To Exist

One of the most frustrating things for me about video games as an art is that individual titles die out. The older a game gets, the better the chance it will stop working on new machines. There was this awesome old Mac game called System's Twilight. It was a lot of fun, but it won't run at all on any new mac. The machines that will run it grow ever older and dustier. I think this is HUGELY wasteful.

Someday, people won't be able to play Baldur's Gate 2 or Planescape: Torment anymore. This really sucks. I want to delay my games going the same way as long as possible.

Avernum is starting to get wonky on new machines. The tech support complaints are growing steadily. Until I get some sort of universal language I can use to make games that run well forever, all I can do is freshen them up with new versions myself.

It Doesn't Keep Me From Making New Games

Sometimes, people say to me, "You should use the time to make something new." Hey, I'll still make new stuff. But if one old game dies off so I can make one new game, I haven't increased the number of games in the universe.

Releasing a nicer new Avernum will introduce it to a whole new audience. And hey, it's new to them.

It Makes Lots Of Money

A carefully done and marketed rewrite takes a fraction of the time to develop of a whole new game, and it can sell almost as much. A week hasn't gone by in the last fifteen or so years that I haven't made money off of Exile (in one form of it or another), and I have every intention of eating out on that game until I die. That is the reward of being brave, starting your own business, and making your own IP.

So Indie developers, if you put out a game and it gets some traction, and a decade passes, freshen it up, expand it a little, and kick it out there again! If it's good in year X, it'll still be good in year X + 10.


  1. Heh :) You own not only your own intellectual property :) You also own a bunch of fans, that getting inspiration from your games :) And yes - good games deserve to exist. Maybe that’s why still I keep Old 3 parts of Exile on my PC.

  2. You keep remaking exile and I'll keep buying it.

  3. making games better is usually a good thing

  4. There is, of course, another trick one can use - make games that will never look old! When we released Ultratron and Titan Attacks they were especially designed to already look 20 years out of date. Looking at them today, a few years later, no-one will ever know when they were made by looking at them.

    Another crafty aspect of these games is our use of Java. Java's development and breakage rate is glacially slow; we're actually using a version of Java (1.4.2) that's been around for over 5 years now, but because of the way Java is managed, it remains 100% backward compatible for all time. To keep our games ticking over we only have to do an occasional update of the ancillary libraries and launcher stubs that we use now and again.

    And lastly of course, about 90% of the code in all our games is literally the same library of code (like sprite engine, sound engine, etc). Making a new game is therefore only about that 10% of code on top that's different, and all the new graphics - it's barely worth our time to do a remake as we might as well be creating completely new "IP". This does mean there's a small but increasing burden on compatibility - I tweak the library and I have to check the other games haven't been broken by it - but it's mostly mitigated by being old and stable and by having a more or less automated build process to regenerate all the games again.

    So there's another polar opposite on the story! But in every way, you are absolutely correct to re-release your games and milk 'em for what they're worth. Just think about Scrabble or Monopoly. Imagine if they "broke" 5 years after people bought them.

  5. "Until I get some sort of universal language I can use to make games that run well forever, all I can do is freshen them up with new versions myself."

    Well there's nothing stopping you writing your games in something like Java. The JVM will always be updated and is available on all systems, you can safely run decade old Java apps on the current JVM with minimal issues.

    Before I hear "Java is slow", it really is not. It's the start up time that's slow, it runs perfectly fast enough.

    I'm not a Java advocate, I'm mostly a Python user these days, and I can certainly see the benefit of doing this financially - but this can't be a real excuse since the solution exists.

  6. I posted by comment before reading the one from "puppy" - interesting that we both gave the same answer to language concerns.

  7. I don't understand why this idea is unpopular. I love this idea, because if a game is good, people will come back for it again and again, and you serve them by re-make the games to meet today's standards.

    I still play Starcraft, a game from Blizzard that come out 10 years ago, I even bought another copy of it recently without any re-make. If they could re-make it so it will run under windowed mode, I will buy another copy.

  8. One of the issues of remakes that I have is that they don't actually faithfully recreate the experience of the original. For example, I think Avernum 3 is a very different game than Exile 3 (sometimes in a bad way).

    There are major gameplay differences between the two games. The most notable is the netting of "chain summoning" (summonses who summon summonses who summon ...) and the much lower limit for monsters on screen. Hence the Rehntar-Rho crawl is very different. Alterations in spells made challenge areas (especially the lich) very different. Even innocuous changes like " enemies can see in the dark" make the experience very different.

    I support preserving games so they can run older machines. But that means preserving the gameplay experience as well.

  9. Re: universality, emulation definitely works for sufficiently popular platforms. On the System's Twilight page you link to, Zarf discusses using Executor or Basilisk to run it. I myself played both Exile and Avernum on Linux under Wine. Once a platform becomes obsolete -- and thus permanently stable -- emulation can keep it alive forever.

  10. This has been one of my beefs in the past. Your post almost has me convinced to be happy about another Exilesque series. Almost.
    Even when Avernum came out I was annoyed that it was the same story rehashed in a new engine. Your games have as much story as a novel and especially as RPGs they tell a good story. I consider each game a new story, but this is like buying the same novel again because someone put new art on the cover and some full color page inserts.
    So at least for me, who likes stories more than gameplay/glitz, the little additions each version makes aren't quite enough to counter the rerun-factor of the story.
    On the flipside, of course I understand (and applaud) the effort to make the games run on new hardware. I don't need the new glitz and woudl be happy with Exile I (even with original graphics!) running on Windows Vista. So in the end I'm a little torn.

  11. Jeff, I did a little geek dance when you said you were updating Avernum. I hope that you do the same with Avernum 2 and 3. I've tried playing the original Avernum trilogy, I even bought Avernum 3 and played maybe 10% of it, but the interface and graphics just got too annoying. I think another reason this tactic works is that people's expectations of how a game is played and how the mouse is used, etc., change over time. If I have to use the keyboard a lot, as a rule, I won't play the game. I love Avernum 4 and 5, and am anxiously awaiting 6, as well as the rewrites.

  12. For the record, I will happily purchase another remake of Exile if it were to go back to the name Exile. The single coolest thing about the original game for me was the name, which was simple, iconic, and made both literal and literary sense.

  13. Some players might complain looking just at the art, because indeed Exile 2 was very similar to the first.
    But if you actually play the game you see the differences. Those complaining probably aren't true roleplayers ;)

  14. Jack: Ad hominem never did anyone any good (except maybe politicians), and the fact that you don't agree with it doesn't make it invalid.

    I'm definitely on board with this post, though. Granted, it's not always what people want... but from a business perspective it makes a great deal of sense.

    However, a 'remake' with completely updated graphics, sound, and/or interfaces stretches the meaning of the term for me -- particularly given the heavy references to updating games for current platforms here. If that were a major part of the goal, then the purist approach (as suggested by Paul) would be to simply update the builds, make whatever code modifications that would require, and re-release on current platforms.

    Like I said... I'm on board from a financial perspective. It just seems like there's a bit of a discrepancy between the terminology and the reality in this case.

  15. I bought the Nethergate remake. I would never buy the Original because it looks like garbage. Remakes definitely bring in new customers, and as long as Jeff keeps making new games for the current customers I think its great.

  16. Well said, Jeff. I don't see anything wrong with re-releasing an old game if you do it right. I know what you mean by this being an unpopular, even despised thing in some circles, but if the game is good and you re-make it into something even better, that's totally fine by me.

    However, taking the route of other developers-publishers that milk their own IP into submission is indeed a bad thing. Some that come to mind are Final Fantasy's hundred or so incarnations and Street Fighter's multiple editions with different prefixes and suffixes. Those (and some others) are good examples of milking a franchise beyond necessity.

    I did enjoy Mega Man 9, however and a couple other re-makes that were done correctly.

  17. *drools*

    A new Exile remake? I can't wait! I totally understand what you mean about IP. As a musician, whenever I'm planning on making a new recording, I feel like making half of it re-recordings of my old favs I've written. Music isn't as good of a format for recycling like that though, so I usually curb my impulses. Part of it too is the "Man, if I could do then what I can do now, that would have REALLY slayed!!" element. ;)

    I've got a huge gameworld I've been developing with different eras and stories throughout... of course it'll probably never get done since I've got so many other fish to fry. However, one thing that's occurred to me about having a large world and timeline to work with allows for different games types. Have you ever considered making, say, a strategy series that would cover the larger picture of the battles over Exile/Avernum, like the Empire War, the original war with the Sliths, or the first war with Grah-Hoth (of course that'll prolly be covered in the prequel ;)? Obviously, it'd be an entirely different game type, but since your older battle engine is practically a Tactics engine, it might not be that far of a leap. Heck, you could actually make Tactics game, but that might under-use some of your mad world building skillzz!!

    I don't know if this would ever happen, but I've always LOVED going through your games singleton style, a game that actually focused on one character and his/hers/it's story development would be cool to me. You could expand on how that one character party interacts with the world instead of a bunch of folks running around. It'd be a different dynamic. Of course, he/she/it could develop whatever powers the player chose. Hmm, actually I think I just described Geneforge without the minions... ;)

  18. Mr. Vogel, I'm not a game writer nor programmer, but rather just a regular joe who plays the games. I would like to point out one inconsistency (as I see it) in the "trouble" with refreshes *while also* producing new games. (Don't get me wrong, please continue to do both refreshes and new games!)

    There is certainly nothing wrong with extending the life of a great game. In fact, thank Heavens you are willing to do so instead of letting a great older game die out. Having said that, what I would appreciate having as a customer is (what I will call) more "one-time buying power" for a refresh of an older game.

    As an example, I have paid for and own four Spiderweb games - and they are Geneforge 1 and 2, and, Avernum 3 and 5. I'll use Avernum to support my argument. As one can see, I came into the series too late for the first couple of Avernums, and I missed out on Avernum 4 because life was happening.

    So for myself, I would be looking out for refreshes on Avernum 1, Avernum 2, and Avernum 4. I am a return customer - having already purchased over $100 worth of the games. And, I'm aware that Avernum 6 is coming this year.

    What I'd like is for there to be some more formal way to track customer loyalty and gain a return for that loyalty. After all the end result is me spending more money.

    So let's advance to, say, the month of May of next year. There is Avernum 6 sitting there, I can click on that and get it for $29. It's hot, it's new, it's ready. At the same time I am also aware that it would be nice to own my three missing titles, and those are - well, not hot, not new, and have been readied a long many years (but now refreshed!)

    If there were some interface backed up to a record of my previous purchases at the point of buying which would also reward my repeat customer nature, it would be nice to also select all those previous games at a discounted price. So, in my example, I would be offered Avernum 6 for $29, but at the same time: "Mr. Vois2, we notice that you do not own Avernum 1 and Avernum 2 and Avernum 4. They have been refreshed for new vitality - would you like to purchase those other three refreshed games at this time for an additional $30? That would make today's total $59." My greatest regret at this time is that such a coordinated loyalty plan is not currently offered at the point of purchase.

    (I do not know of other loyalty plans which may have been offered in the past, so please excuse a lack of institutional knowledge or memory here.)

    Why am I likely to click to spend the extra $30 and get the extra three older games? Because it's a point-of-purchase satisfaction, not to mention the discount of course. How likely am I to come BACK at some later time and individually purchase refreshes of older games at $25 a pop? Not likely at all. And why? Because you are always working on new games. So if and when I do come back later, I am much more likely to spend my next $25+ on a totally new game.

    However, with credit card in hand on that day of purchase as described above, I am much more likely to go ahead and spend a total of $59 to get all four games above, and be extremely satisfied that I own them all; that I had the chance to get all of them on refreshed platforms; and that I also got a discount.

    I do understand that all of the above implies some sort of registration or inherint purchasing tracking. However, I know for example that all of my purchases have been stored under a single email address. And I know that you/your company has some record process, because I can email your company and they will come back and report to me: "You own G1 and G2 and A3 and A5." So that trackability is there, at least its potential. (By the way I have always found Spider customer service to be second to none.)

    Well, just my fifty-nine dollars and two cents worth. Thanks for years of fun!

  19. I find it hard to give any credence to people/persons/idiots that would be against you doing what you need to stay in business (with implied caveats re: legality and ethics). Nothing says you've got a good handle on that more than your 15 years of continued success with Spiderweb.

    It would be insanely counterproductive all around to deny you the fruits of your labor, however you see fit to pick those fruits (see above caveats).

    Still, it made for an interesting insight into your "process".

  20. The thing with say re-releasing an old game is if original owners can't get the re-release for FREE just to say run it on newer OS, they won't be happy. You are making them re-pay to play an old game they actually already own.

    I understand it's probably a pain in the neck for a developer to take their own time to get the same old game going on a newer OS (if the OS changes majorly), but hey -- you got to find a way to really get gamers to want to commit their money to every product you plan to put out as soon as you release a new product.

    I think though, if you want to say sell a re-release, adding a good deal of new content to an old game can be the reason someone would re-buy an old game -- especially if they love an old game and really just want to play it on say a newer OS. Adding extra content -- especially if it's say expansion pack size worth of content or bigger -- can really make a gamer think they're really paying here for the new content, more so than anything else.

    The reason older games like Starcraft and Diablo 2 are still around and kicking b/c Blizzard every now and then FREE patches these old games to keep them alive and kicking mainly on newer OS's.

    I'm sure that even in THIS era, if Blizzard released FREE patches to their games just to run them on newer OS's and they decide to SELL some DLC (DownLoadable Content) for even an OLD game, gamers would buy it -- namely just to get the new content.

    I'm sure if say I dropped $50 on The Witcher (which I did) and was FORCED to re-buy Witcher: Enhanced Edition to experience the re-release of the game, I'd be pretty upset. But, CD Project was smart and realized this would not be a good idea -- even more so true, since especially after The Witcher was only out for a year or so (more or less). So, they let owners of the original version of The Witcher be able to download a FREE PATCH to get the new Enhanced version -- even if it meant taking a good deal of time to say download GB's worth of content, as long as you had Registered your copy of the game with its serial code to them (so you could get the patch). Now, for North Americans gamers, who bought a censored version of the game (if they didn't import it), they will be able to upgrade soon FOR FREE to The Witcher: Enhanced Edition - Director's Cut (with all the nudity intact that its Europeans versions already have, since the ESRB approved the Director's Cut as also passing for Mature 17+ rating) -- this is so they don't have to be forced to buy (another) re-release of what is essentially the same game.

    Oh yeah, here's more info -- Enhanced Edition added FREE additional downloadable content to the game and the newest FREE Patch 1.5 added Community Made Mods that CD Projekt likes to the game. Now that's a gaming company I can really get behind.

  21. People still play Tetris and Pacman, so hey, don't worry!

  22. I completely support this policy and process. It's always nice to awesome new versions of games I've always enjoyed. This is a good business model for independent development, and I support it.

  23. "The JVM will always be updated and is available on all system..."

    The first part could only be said by someone young or inexperienced (or both). I've seen any number of "sure things forever" die off. And the second part is patently false.

  24. I'm of extremely mixed feelings, myself. On the one hand, I can very much get behind wanting to keep your games available for the following generations, and I can dig the financial incentives for investing a little more time and energy to add content as well as simply update it and then charge full price with a discount for previous series entrants.

    But, at the same time...

    1) The new versions are not new games. They're the same game with some tweaks and a new dungeon or two. I'm not personally really excited about paying even the discounted price for that, which is one reason why I didn't buy Avernum 1-3 until a little while ago, given that I own the three Exile games. And if I'd played the originals extensively, I'm not convinced that the new content would be sufficient incentive to deal with all the repeat content. I'd be more interested in a brand new game, even though it takes longer to make one of those.

    2) As pointed out previously, it's not always been enough the same game to count as a refresh. This may seem mutually exclusive but...well: Exile -> Avernum: Smaller party. Dramatically shrunken spell system. Less elaborate character building system. Changes in ways basic game systems work that aren't necessarily just modernization. I never played the original Nethergate (and since Resurrection is out and I own it, I probably never will), but while I doubt the changes there are as sweeping and possibly dismaying, I bet they're still there.

    Despite all that, though, we're talking about basically the same storylines with the same NPCs and probably much of the same scripted encounters and such. So it's not the game we all knew and loved...but there's not much discovery to playing it, either.

    Of course, all of the above is a matter of taste, and even if you don't necessarily snare repeat customers with the same game, you'll be more likely to get new people into the new version. -shrugs-

  25. One of the most frustrating things for me about video games as an art is that individual titles die out. The older a game gets, the better the chance it will stop working on new machines. There was this awesome old Mac game called System's Twilight. It was a lot of fun, but it won't run at all on any new mac. The machines that will run it grow ever older and dustier. I think this is HUGELY wasteful.

    ... Until I get some sort of universal language I can use to make games that run well forever, all I can do is freshen them up with new versions myself.

    Please don't take this as a criticism, but actually: what you -- or any other publisher -- could do to prevent this would be to release the original source code and assets under an open source license. I can guarantee you that even a small fan base would keep the thing running on newer hardware.

    I share your frustration over this kind of wastefulness. But really, releasing the source for old games that will never sell another copy seems like a minimally decent thing to do if you care at all about all the work you put into the thing. I understand that one of the reasons this almost never happens in the game-software industry is because of all the cross-licensing -- even older games are often built using proprietary engines that require royalty payments, which would prohibit releaseing the source code -- but I would think publishers would be able to think ahead and try to come up with some kind of sunset clause so they could release the code and assets to the fane after, say, 15 years. That this doesn't happen is, as you say, hugely wasteful, and it further cements fans' perceptions of publishers as short-sighted and focused exclusively on near-term profits, allowing enormous waste and disaffection for the slim possibility of making another 20 bucks ten years down the line.

    Again, not getting on your case -- we all gotta eat -- but I actually think this could set small indie publishers apart from the mainstream industry and improve profitability in the long run. It certainly bought id a great deal of goodwill, and I don't see how their regular release of code under the GPL lost them a single sale.

  26. I don't see how their regular release of code under the GPL lost them a single sale.
    Releasing the source code to a 3D engine that is unlikely to be used again is significantly different to released the source and assests for free to a game that is quite likely heavily hard coded.

    How many of those source releases from ID come with any content past basic example content?

    Don't forget too that ID wasn't just one programmer working for a living. It was quite a bit bigger. One main guy developing the core details perhaps, but it certainly had others to help him along with more menial tasks. Not to mention a lot more income than Spiderweb Software.

    Releasing source and assets through open licenses just doesn't make a lot of sense for most indie companies. Especially since they're too small to likely gain a lot from "goodwill."

  27. Another benefit to updating games is that after a certain amount of time, you forget a lot about a game you played. So it feels pretty fresh playing it again.

    As well as System's Twilight, there is a lovely little Mac RPG called Jewel of Arabia that is pretty much abandonware now. You need OS9 or previous to play it. Fans of Spiderweb games will probably enjoy it greatly. But System's Twilight is an absolute classic: its ending remains the cleverest and most unique of any game I've ever played.

  28. I'm all for you remaking old games for newer OS's. I have tons of favorites that I wish would be remade/updated to run on newer systems. I have no problem paying for these updates too.

  29. I completely understand this from the financial viewpoint. It is a legitimate way to increase profits and stay in business.

    Someone said that these games have as much plot as a book. If one of my favorite authors rewrites a series, I probably wouldn't read it unless it's different enough. That said, books don't exactly fail with age the way programs do. As far as preservation goes, I would rather have an emulator or something. Taking an old idea and remaking it only works _for me_ if its new enough to keep my attention. Spiderweb games have great replay value, but I do in fact have trouble replaying them, and not just because of a newer game engine making them look old.

    Jeff, remake the games if you want/need to. I won't critisize you for it. But if it's the same thing over and over, I won't be coming along for the ride.

  30. Hey Jeff, if you're such an ardent preserver of classics, how come Lost Souls, Ocean Bound, and Galactic Core have all been wiped off the map?

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