Interview with DotEmu: Retro-Digital-Distribution
With the history of video games being expanded upon at a breathtaking rate, it can be remarkably easy to forget, or just simply lose track of those games you once cherished. And as more games come out, there need to be more ways to play the ones being left behind.
That’s where the Parisian duo Xavier Liard and Romain Tesserand of DotEmu step in. Their company is bringing games back from the brink of being lost through the convenience of digital distribution. I was able to speak with the duo about what they do, how their company works, and how they are trying to bring back to gamers what may have been lost.
Comics and Gaming Magazine: If I could just get you to tell me a bit about what you do at DotEmu and your titles.
Xavier Liard: My name is Xavier Liard. I am one of the two DotEmu co-founders and president.
Romain Tisserand: I’m Romain Tisserand, DotEmu CTO & Co-Founder.
CGM: When and how did this project start?
RT: The company was founded in early 2007.
XL: I started to work on the company with Romain around mid 2006 but Romain was working on emulation related project since, I don’t know 2002?
RT: yes, rather the year 2000 in fact.
XL: Actually Romain was working part time in his personal project and I worked on the launch of another company.
CGM: What was it you both did before looking to take DotEmu full scale?
XL: We both went to the same university for computer science. I was more on the business side and Romain on the tech side.
CGM: How large is your team at DotEmu now?
XL: We have 10 people right now working full time at DotEmu.
CGM: What has DotEmu accomplished in terms of releases so far?
XL: We have worked on over 200+ games, around 200 for PC, around 15 on mobile, and some flash games too.
CGM: How about on the development side of things?
XL: As for development - around 25-30 in total. Our work for the PC mostly concerns distribution of games we have licenses for. But we do re-work some PC games as well. Our new edition of Raptor: Call of the Shadows is an example of that. With Raptor we enhanced the graphics to bring them into a new light. We’re not making remakes, however. Basically we are trying to re-launch games that have some magic.
RT: But since we target old games, we sometimes have to patch them to make them compatible with modern PCs.
CGM: What are some things you try to do to older games to bring them up to date?
XL: We have a good story about our release of the shooter R-Type. So we licensed R-Type in Japan from Irem. We then have the “raw” emulated version of the game running on iPhone shortly after. But, there were some major issues. To start with, we had issues with the performance of the emulation. We had to create nearly a 100,000 lines of Assembly Code detailed specifically to the iPhone to get R-Type running fine. Secondly, we had issues with the controls. You know R-Type, it’s a very hard game. Because of the limitations of the iPhone, a D-Pad was not possible. We implemented a full touch mode where the ship follows the finger, but this was difficult to do due to the emulation of the original software. We were also afraid people would be upset because the game is much more easy than they might remember. We also added a lot of rather common features (Saving, highscore etc). Finally, we had the game published by EA Mobile.
RT: We’re trying to be faithful to the games, while making them enjoyable on new platforms.
CGM: So in some capacity DotEmu is working as a developer?
RT: In terms of development, yes. We are very skilled at emulation, reverse engineering and mobile/embedded games.
XL: We focus 100% on retrogaming. But at each stage of the value chain Licensing through to development, publishing and distribution.
CGM: And where are you are working out of?
RT: We’re based in Paris, France. Near Bastille, for people who know Paris.
CGM: Is your entire operation in Paris?
XL: yes 100% in Paris. But we travel a lot. We do most of our work with Japanese or US companies.
CGM: How are games chosen? I’ve seen some reoccurring licenses like Fallout and Commandos – but what goes into choosing titles?
XL: It’s largely based on game popularity and also if the game itself is a good fit for being emulated. There are certain types of game that are not “good” for retrogaming – sport, simulation etc. It’s pretty logical for what should be pursued.
XL: What’s working best for us at the moment are RPG games, point ‘n click, and real time strategy titles.
CGM: How is it working with companies to secure licenses? Are there some difficulties working with potentially old IPs?
XL: Sometimes we have to deal with many problems. First of all, sometimes getting the license is almost impossible because there is too many right owners that don’t agree on sharing of profits or any other sort of thing. As IPs age, they often change hands a lot, and all it takes for a game to be rejected is one company to say ‘no’.
CGM: Is there an instance where this has happened to DotEmu?
RT: Just for instance, Nintendo. You just can’t get Nintendo games licensed. Their company policy is simply “no licensing”.
CGM: Even for games that the company has almost certainly forgotten about?
XL: Yes. The term “abandonware” is used a lot. But abandonware is actually very, very rare.
RT: Abandonware means “piracy of old games”, to me.
XL: Probably two to three per cent of what is actually said as abandonware actually is.
CGM: So the term ‘abandonware’ is actually used a lot more than it should be, isn’t it?
RT: Definitely, yes! We understand people want to relive these games, which is why we intend to offer a legal alternative. That’s a win-win for everybody. Gamers win, since we ensure commercial quality products without messing with complicated compatibility, emulators, and so on, but also right owners too – which can give a second life to their IPs.
CGM: What do you think the lasting appeal for these older games is? Why are we looking to go back to these games?
XL: My point of view is that no matter the age if a game is good, a game is good. When we look at the history of what a video games is judged on a lot changed. Too many people are focusing on the graphics rather then the game content.
The true challenge is to do what we’re doing ‘right’ though. Giving the right improvement to keep the spirit of and “old” game to make it into the most enjoyable game it can be on modern devices.
RT: I think there is some magic in these old games.
Even “new” 2D HD games can’t reproduce it, because it wastightly linked to the technical limitations of the time. How can you create a great universe with only a 320×200 resolution? The game designers behind these games resolved that issue, and found some very clever tricks at doing it very well.
XL: More and more people are looking to re-play old game but in a new way.
CGM: What is some of the technology behind DotEmu. For a PC game, is there any emulation going on?
RT: It’s a mixed bag as far as emulation. We sometimes use some great projects such as DOSBox and ScummVM. We sometimes use our internal emulation technology, mostly for arcade games. Such as what we did on IREM Arcade Hits (a PC pack of 18 great IREM arcade games from the 90s). We sometimes have some source code to start with, as we did with Another World iOS (and the upcoming Android port).
CGM: So emulation would mostly come into play on games not natively made for home computers or old games with little backend remaining?
RT: It depends. For an old DOS game, if we have no source code – yes, emulation is the only way.
CGM: Speaking of that android port, what is the importance of the mobile direction of DotEmu?
XL: The Mobile market is about 50 per cent of our activity. There is a very strong market there. Apple is said to have had paid iOS developer 2.5 billion since the Appstore launch.
CGM: Putting 50 per cent of your activity in mobile sounds like a lot of committment. Why are you making mobile such a large initiative?
RT: Let’s face it: tablets are tomorrow’s computers, and soon everybody will have a smartphone.
CGM: A few of your titles are offered through the Appstore. That kind of flexibility must be important in working with a company like Apple – to be willing to release your product through the Mac Appstore.
XL: Yes. We try to not focus on one partner or one technology or one platform. Our idea is to bring quality old games to the platform players are.
RT: And to “spread” retrogaming wide in terms of the platforms it’s available on.
XL: This is ambitious, but this is where the fun is.
CGM: I was wondering how DRM works on DotEmu?
RT: There’s no DRM on DotEmu.Com. We believe in DRM-FREE distribution for these older titles.
CGM: Does that ever conflict with how a company wants their game licensed?
XL: Not that much, yes for some companies but it’s starting to not be an issue.
CGM: A DRM free experience is somewhat rare, what’s the rational behind that mentality?
RT: We don’t think we should jail customers into a DRM system for buying and playing these old games. So let not bother these people who actually buy the games.
XL: Plus it’s complicated. It would cost us some money, and therefore to customers as well.
RT: For new games it’s another matter as the first two week when the game is not cracked make a lot of difference. But this is not us, or relevant to what we do.
CGM: Where do you see the service expanding as time goes on? Do you have any plans for 2012?
XL: Hehe good question. We have a secret plan. We will do a major announcement in March/April.
RT: Many great upcoming projects, on mobile and PC.
CGM: Would like to know what your favourite game on the service is currently?
XL: Broken Sword. I am a huge fan of the series
RT: For me, it’s definitely Fallout series.
CGM: Are there any games you would love to have on the service or any surprises coming up?
XL: We have awesome projects coming up that I cannot share yet. But we would like all the big publisher, Square Enix, SNK, et cetera.
RT: Lucas Arts too, obviously.
CGM: Sam and Max: Hit The Road would be a hit.
XL: Yeah, for sure.