How does Abandonware Live?

by Rene Ralph

A recent conversation with Paul Pridham (author of the Sword of Fargoal remake) caused me to consider the phenomenon of abandonware further. Some of Paul’s thoughts will also undoubtably trickle into this essay, so apologies to him in advance.

Can abandonware sustain itself?

As a meme, it seems that abandonware is not a good cultural vehicle. It seems extremely hard to grab new people into the community of abandonware.

Many of us (including me, and I’m only 20) are already ranting nostalgically to the next generation on how “argh these damn young’uns don’t know a thing” and how newer shitty games are taking over the world (I actually don’t agree with this as I think a lot of new games are excellent moves forward, but I digress).

Especially with this curmudgeonly attitude, it seems quite unlikely that the “young’uns,” especially if they are as hardware-hugging and gameplay-ignoring as some of us make them out to be (and I doubt they actually are) will stumble onto abandonware by pure chance.

However, the scene still chugs along, sort of (nevermind The Underdogs, the Fast Lane, or TART… tis just a flesh wound!). Is there a reason for this?

Then I realized something (and this is probably obvious to many of you, but it hit me later, so sorry). Abandonware isn’t really a unique concept.

In fact, it is very similar to concepts like old cars, films, or music, in the abstraction that they are still functional/playable/drivable/listen-to-able, but they have become obselete in comparison to the current standard. And people still like old cars.

Note that I did not include old books, for example. The problem with these analogies is that computer software has a platform that also evolves. The “platform” for books have been pretty constant for the history of mankind, unless you really want to make an argument for shells or parchment, or binding improvements.

The music and film analogies are also stretched, in that there will always be a huge following because of the self-sustaining nature of well-developed media.

Things like Christmas songs or oldies will never go out of style since you need to play oldies in films and TV shows representing older times, and you need to play the same old Christmas songs every Christmas.

This answers at least partially (there are a lot of other reasons such as the existence of older movies, books, and music in education) why many of these things live on healthily. This is because they are all integrated into culture.

However, Abandonware is NOT like Christmas songs or oldies. With very few exceptions of seeing Pac-man or Pong mentioned, there simply isn’t enough integration into the current culture which lets abandonware live on with the same vitality. When games are mentioned, it is usually some generic portrayal.
Paul is quite more optimistic than I am. He teaches his son to play on the C64. And there are people still in love with old cars, comic books, action figures, whathaveyou. Somehow, the scene lives on. But it can’t all be through parent-offspring knowledge passing alone, can it?

My hypothesis here, is that abandonware is doomed to die. But it is also blessed to live forever by an evolution of the scene. Let me explain what I mean.

While there won’t be many totally timeless games from really early on (I’ve named a few exceptions), I predict the scene will live on by a “sliding window” of abandonware. Right now, the key abandonware games that I happen to embrace span the 1990-1996 period.

I’m sure that in 5 years, there will be another me who remembers the games fondly from 1995-2000 but really have forgotten the games before that (I am ashamed to mention my knowledge of anything before the NES is extremely low).

And in 15 years, there will be a dedicated but aged following who remembers back to the heydays of the XBox 360, when the “young’uns” are playing the XYZBox 72000.

The key to the survival of the “scene,” or rather, some incarnation of it, is that successive generations overlap just enough to have something in common (my overlap with the next generation will probably be the PS1/2 and the N64, while they forget about the SNES entirely) for the idea of a common community to live on.

Eventually though, I think there will really be a very insignficant amount of even the abandonware population who will ever play, say, Lunar Lander.

Then there will be nobody who will ever play Civilization II (gasp). Then, Halo. But the concept of abandonware will live on, with a passing of the torch between generations who at least shared something. Anything.

This could be corroborated if the scene’s demographic makeup is what I predict it is – a mixture of people who swear by the C64 and Atari, and those of us who remember the NES and the SNES. Those of us who remember Wizardry, or those of us who remember Master of Magic.

Many of us remember both, so we associate with each other, but I think for all of us the “window of association” tend to be different.

They just happen to overlap – in 100 years in the future this will be a completely different history – our period is special in that we have just lived through the beginning of video games.

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