Microsoft's Game Room
for Xbox Live Arcade is a leap into the legal age of emulation -- for years, people have been illegally playing ROM files of old Arcade games over the internet with little thought on where they come from, or who owned the rights to them.
Although there have been PC services like GameTap offering legal play of classic titles, Game Room
changed this for consoles at the end of March 2010, with over 30 titles with the promise of new games getting released each week thereafter. While there has been a delay, the next batch of Game Room titles will hit this Wednesday.
We got in contact with Lead Designer Dan Hooley and Lead Arcade Board Technician Barry Jones from Krome Studios, the Australian developer behind the Game Room, to see what their background in Arcade machines were, and what we can expect from the service in the future.
Tell us a bit about yourself - when did you start playing games, and when did you get into the industry?
DH: I think I started playing games at around 5-6 years old; I have fragmented memories of my cousin owning an Atari 2600 - and then my first machine, an Acorn Electron personal computer. Spectrum +2's and C64's ensued and I think my first console was aged at around 7-8, when my mum came home with a giant Nintendo box. ROB the robot and hex code loading screens were pretty much the hook for me to get into games.
After an education that was very IT and computers focused, I eventually entered the industry 7 years ago at Bits Studios as a Junior Designer - Game Room
being my 8th release and 10th project so far (but nothing to the 20 years + programming vets who are pulling the code from the arcade boards)
BJ: I started playing space invaders in about 1980, and loved it. That got me keen to get into the business, so I managed to get a job handing out change, sweeping the floors etc, at a video arcade in Brisbane. That was great because I got to play the games for free.
Later they moved me to the workshop, where I began wiring up cabinets and doing general repair work. After that I went on to learn the tech side of things, and had my own business repairing game boards, which led to an interest in programming the games, so began learning to do that. As time went by I found myself designing custom game boards for various companies, and writing games.
Eventually, many years later, I came to Krome as a programmer. When this Game Room
project came along, I got very excited by it because it made good use of both areas I'd had experience in, hardware and software.
How did this project get started, who came to whom?
DH: Microsoft had a good idea of what they wanted to produce, ultimately a service/hub that catered solely for retro games. To authentically emulate the original game code along with a new top-level competitive element to give the old games a new edge.
What was the process that you took for getting those old arcade titles? Were you given official ROM files or did you extract the games from the original arcade boards?
DH: A bit of both, really. We've had official ROMs sent through to us from many of the licensees but the majority are pulled directly from the boards themselves. This is done by our large and very talented team of emulation programmers - who are getting their hands dirty probing chips and playing with logic gates to extract the data.
We're very proud of retro authenticity in Game Room
- no ports here just pure emulation of the original game code.
BJ: Mostly we read the ROMs right off the original game boards, although we have been given the ROM files for quite a few of the games. That's the easy part. The hard part is that most of the arcade games ran on custom hardware, unique to that particular game. Reverse engineering each board, and writing software to emulate that board is the really fun and challenging part of the process.
Which companies are currently on board for Game Room? Who should we start hassling to bring their games to the Game Room?
DH: Currently we have Atari, Konami, Intellivision and Activision, with many more fantastic publishers on the horizon! Microsoft and Krome want to emulate the world, so ultimately we'd like everyone on board.
Seven games a week is a tall order, how long does it take to get an old Atari or Intellevision game up and running without glitches? Have there been any games that you've had that have been difficult to emulate, like those with trackball controllers?
DH: It is indeed a feat ,but we have an amazing team that has become expert in backwards-engineering retro games. It's quite a variable time line depending on the game being emulated, some games with complex and unique boards may take weeks to get fully working with others just days. There has been the odd game with bespoke or unique features such as trackball control, but we've attacked all challenges head-on and produced a compatible experience on the 360 controller.
BJ: Many of the console games used relatively simple ROM cartridges, so once you had the 2600 or Intellivision system emulated, you could plug the ROM file into that and it would work. Most of the time for the console games, has gone into getting the console itself emulated accurately.
Some cartridges can get trickier though, as they contained more than just a simple ROM. Things get quite tricky on the arcade game side of things, where the game boards use custom chips. We have little detailed information on what's inside those chips, so working out how they operate, and extracting any ROM data from them can be very challenging.
It is going to get harder as we move to game boards designed from about the mid 1980s onwards. Piracy had become a big problem back around that time, costing the copyright holders millions in lost revenue, so they went to ever increasing lengths to foil the pirates, by making the hardware more difficult to reverse engineer. That makes our life very difficult, and adds substantial time to the development process for some of the games we'll do.
To answer your question on the inputs, that does get difficult, and we have to do the best we can to allow the game to play well using a joystick. The trackball issue in particular is problematic, because you can move slowly or quickly with it. One way we've dealt with that is to move the player faster or slower depending on how far you've moved the joystick
The Game Room is already getting into some really obscure stuff like Mountain Madness: Super Pro Skiing and Jungler - have there been any games (either announced or upcoming) that you had never heard of before that surprised you?
DH: Absolutely, I'm 30 years old so for me some of these games were released a couple years before I was born... it's been an exciting learning experience getting to know these old titles and bringing them back for a new generation of gamers.
I'm always surprised by how fun some of these obscure titles are, especially combined with our 8-Player Challenge System - A form of mini-tournaments that players can create and send to friends.
BJ: I've not had anything actually surprise me yet, although there are certainly some games I've never heard of before. I doubt there would be many people in the world who know every video game ever made, so it is interesting coming across titles I've never seen previously.
With so many games players will easily get lost in the sea of content - what have you done to help consumers find games they may want to try?
DH: We've made the store accessible with a range of filters to find the specific game you're looking for, and have game trailers pushed through to the in-game video feeds. There is also information about new releases displayed on the ticker and of course externally through the Xbox Marketplace. This will ultimately be something we're constantly looking at refining as more titles are added to the platform.
What are the plans for Game Room post release? Which day will new titles come out? Will the releases per week be themed (fighting week) or more of a random selection?
DH: Right now the plan is 7 games a week for the next 3 years. This is potentially a scalable figure for the future, but the overall intention is to constantly release new titles on a regular basis - there is certainly the back catalogue of content available to do this, I personally want to emulate every single game we can and I know Microsoft feel the same way!
What chances are there of old licensed titles, like E.T: The Extra Terrestrial or Raiders of the Lost Ark, coming to Game Room?
DH: Those types of titles are definitely on the cards for the future, it's really just a case of the background licensing, stay tuned for those!
Could DOS games eventually coming Game Room? As Game Room is also a Windows client I'd love to have an official way to play old Commander Keen and Jazz Jackrabbit with a controller.
DH: Absolutely, any platform is game to be emulated and there were some great DOS games.
BJ: There's no reason why that's not possible. I've not heard it discussed yet, but it would be technically practical for us to do.
Final question -- what games or systems would you personally like to see come to Game Room one day? Any hints on what we might see in the future?
DH: I think the Neo Geo and Sega consoles / arcade machines would be the killer for me, the Genesis/Mega Drive days being a big part of my own gaming past.
As for hints, I'm afraid all I can tell you is we have some fantastic new partners onboard with the Game Room
service, and many more great games on the way.