Online music piracy remains a problem for the commercial music business, although Apple’s own iTunes Music Store and other commercial download services are determined to turn the phenomenon into a legal one. Now a company called StarROMs Inc. is trying to do the same for game ROM downloads. MacCentral talked with one of the company’s co-founders on Thursday to find out more.
“Like a lot of people my age, I played a lot of these games in the arcades and loved them,” said StarROMs co-founder Frank Leibly. “I’m not out buying new video games but I can still play the old ones.”
Arcade game Read Only Memory (ROM) files are the stock and trade of an underground movement in gaming dedicated to the preservation of classic arcade games. Most of the players of these games are adults, now in their 20s and 30s, who like Leibly wax nostalgic for the good old days.
These files, created from the original computer chips that made coin-operated arcade games work, have been distributed on the Internet through pirate Web sites and peer to peer services for years. The ROM files themselves work hand in hand with legally distributed, properly reverse-engineered emulators like MAME (and its Mac counterpart, MacMAME ).
Similar emulation techniques have been used for several years to bring the classic arcade experience home through licensed anthologies and collections from leading console and PC game publishers. Leibly and his business partner, Jay Coulson, co-founded StarROMs to offer a legal alternative to ROM file piracy. The new service just got off the ground yesterday, but Leibly and Coulson are already delighted with the response that they’ve gotten.
“A lot of our work has been to track down the owners of these ROMs and work out the details,” said Leibly. StarROMs is debuting this week with a collection of dozens of legal, licensed game ROMs from Atari’s collection. Users who sign up for a StarROMs account can buy well-loved titles like Asteroids, Missile Command, Tempest and dozens more.
Users who sign up for a StarROMs account purchase “credits” to buy their ROMs, which they can then download. Just like the arcades, each credit is valued at US$0.25. And the more credits you buy, the cheaper they become (if you spend $100, for example, you’ll get 800 credits).
What’s more, as an incentive to get users to try out the service, StarROMs is offering 15 free “credits” with no strings attached — no credit card number is needed to activate the account. Coulson said that this gives people a chance to “try before you buy.” 15 credits won’t get you a premium game, but it’ll give you a chance to try out one of the lower-priced titles to see if it’s worthwhile.
Although the service is currently limited to Atari’s top-shelf classic arcade game titles, Leibly told MacCentral that others will soon come on board. “We have a couple of other companies that should follow shortly,” Leibly said. “We’ve met with and talked to all the big players at this point.”
Leibly said that reaction from the license-holders of the classic arcade games has run the gamut from enthusiasm to skepticism. “Atari was the quickest to get it,” he said. Some companies have taken a wait-and-see approach, while others have expressed hostility towards the emulation market, which is still perceived by some as a haven of software piracy.
One big difference between StarROMs and the iTunes Music Store — StarROMs downloaders aren’t restricted in what they can do with the ROM files they buy, because no Digital Rights Management (DRM) is in place.
“We’re not pushing DRM, and that’s something we’ve gotten pretty positive feedback on from our customers,” said Leibly.
Leibly and Coulson are confident that they can turn ROM file sales into a profitable business. “Our market research suggested that half of those people downloading ROM files illegally would pay for them,” said Leibly.
The pricing of individual ROMs varies from about $2 to $6, depending on various factors like the quality of the game and its popularity. A greyscale game with simple graphics and gameplay like Atari Baseball may only cost $2, while users are charged $6 for the vector-based classic Tempest. Leibly told MacCentral that StarROMs thinks it’s priced the ROMs at what the market will bear.
Leibly’s hoping that Mac users will grab hold of the idea of paying for ROMs with the same enthusiasm that they have of paying for commercial music. “I’m a Mac user, and this idea appeals to me,” he said. “I think we’re going to do pretty well with Mac users, because Mac users like to do the right thing.”