GOG: DRM-Free Soldiers and Building a Digital Distribution Service
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Last month, Good Old Games, better known as GOG.com, celebrated its fifth birthday. In the short span of its existence, the service has come a long way, becoming one of the biggest and most well-known DRM-free digital distributors on the PC platform.
Launching a digital distribution service, especially one that’s adopted a policy that’s staunchly against digital rights management on a platform about which publishers are extremely wary of piracy, is no easy feat. For the young service, it’s been a mixture of experimentation, passion and treating customers well that’s helped grow GOG to what it is today.
CD Projekt and Bringing Back the Good Old Times
GOG first launched in 2008, but the core idea behind the distribution service had been incepted long before. CD Projekt, GOG’s parent company, had its origins as a PC game distributor in Poland. At the time, Poland was still recovering from the effects of transitioning away from Communism.
“Back in the late ’90s in Poland, they didn’t that much have money to buy games,” said GOG Managing Director Guillaume Rambourg in an interview with Game Front. “The Berlin Wall fell, I don’t know, 10 years before? They still had pretty weak computers in terms of power.”
Of course, this meant that games were a scarce commodity. CD Projekt was founded on the basis of reviving and localizing classic games for Poland.
“Polish gamers loved it,” Rambourg said. “Good price. Good package. The games were localized in Polish. There were goodies in the box. They loved it.”
Come 2007, digital distribution was rising in popularity. Steam, which had launched in 2003, was already doing fairly well for itself. Marcin Iwinski, CD Projekt’s founder, saw the opportunity to recreate in the digital marketplace what CD Projekt had already achieved a decade ago in Eastern Europe: carving out a niche of distributing PC gaming classics. Thus, GOG.com was born.
Reviving the Classics: The Pitch
As a new distributor, GOG faced quite a few obstacles. Not only did it not have a catalogue of games to point to for legitimacy when approaching publishers, it was approaching publishers about games that they viewed as being no longer relevant.
“Publishers, they have lots of brand-new blockbuster titles to promote and to develop and to sell,” Rambourg said. “You go to them and say, ‘Hey, we’re interested in your oldest titles … the titles that you probably do not even remember, the titles that you probably don’t even have the master copies for. We would like you guys to spend time talking to us and give us rights to those games.’”
It was a hard sell. Publishers weren’t sure if they still retained the rights to many classic games, and they were worried about compatibility issues with operating systems. GOG promised it would take on the entire revival and remastering process itself. All publishers needed to do was to give the fledgling distribution service the rights to bring the game over to the digital side of things.
Thankfully, GOG managed to win over a key partner with their pitch: Interplay. With a body of work that included Fallout, Descent, and Baldur’s Gate, Interplay was a boon as a first partner for the service. The publisher’s work gave GOG the legitimacy it needed to approach other companies.
“We started with one partner,” Rambourg said. “We were relatively unknown, but this was great. There was no digital market for classic games. There was absolutely nothing. We made up this niche market. The only way — back in 2007 and 2008 — to grab a classic game was to pirate it.”
Fake Drivers and DOSBox: The Art of Remastering a Video Game
After acquiring the rights to a game, the real work at GOG begins. When I asked Rambourg to detail the entire remastering process, he laughed and responded, “Phew. I don’t know how much I should get into the details. It’s quite a lot of steps involved here.”
It begins with tracking down a copy of the original game. There’s no magic to the process.
“Most of the time our partners do not even have the original copies of the games,” Rambourg said. “We have to buy them over eBay or Amazon. We try to find the best possible complete editions. That’s how it starts.”
Then, it’s a matter of seeing whether the game runs on modern operating systems. Obviously, this usually isn’t the case; an incompatible game is sent off to GOG’s developers for bug fixing, Rambourg said. “We fix the bugs one by one and hopefully, the game is fully compatible with modern operating systems.”
The team is never provided with the original source code of the game, which would simplify the remastering process. This means that GOG often has to resort to “hacks” to figure out how to get the game running.
“Sometimes, we have to create fake drivers to fool Windows believe this game, which was natively made for 256-colors, can run without any problems,” Rambourg said.
Other times, it’s a matter of ripping a game’s sounds, converting them to MP3s, and re-rigging them to make sure they play at the appropriate times during play.
“We have lots of small tricks and practices to make the magic happen,” he said.
The GOG developer team, over the years, has also come to work quite closely with the DOSBox team. DOSBox is an open source emulator that allows modern OSes to run old DOS games.
“They’ve been helping us for a few years now,” Rambourg explained. “We use DOSBox for many DOS-based games.”
In fact, DOSBox and GOG have developed a mutually-beneficial relationship.
“We find bugs that they (the DOSbox team) didn’t find. They improve DOSbox for their community thanks to our help.”
And in return, DOSBox aids GOG in getting DOS-based games up and running.