Abandonware, DOSBox, GOG and the Unsung Heroes of the Games Industry

During the early 2000s, when I was at high school and the first few years of university, I struggled to keep pace with contemporary gaming. I didn’t really “have my shit together” as you might say — like many young people, I was fairly irresponsible with the meagre funds I had available to me, and I just couldn’t afford to upgrade my PC hardware. However, games being the great passion that they are for me, I found a way to overcome my PC hardware limitations.

One of the outcomes of my situation was that I relied on internet cafes for my modern gaming fix (a topic that deserves an article in its own right). Another outcome, and the topic of this article, is that I began to look to the classics of the past for my gaming fix. In hindsight, this is probably one of the most important and formative stages of my life in games.

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But can it run Crysis?

One of the consequences of the intrinsic relationship between games and hardware is their perishable nature. Hardware, such as processors, graphics cards and digital storage, are constantly evolving, as is the low-level software that manages it — operating systems like Windows, Linux and MacOS. This development is not just driven by games, far from it. Almost every industry relies on perpetual improvements to hardware and software — medicine, engineering, science, economics.

High-level software (such as a game, word processor or web browser) is built atop the foundations laid by hardware and low-level software, and their functionality is often reliant on the systems that they are built upon. So when the hardware and low-level software evolves, the games we love may cease to work. One example of this was the large-scale shift from the text-based MS-DOS operating system to the Windows operating system in the 1990s. Another has been the gradual progression from 16-bit to 32-bit and now 64-bit operating systems. If you don’t understand all these technical terms, you don’t need to really. All you need to know is that, often, programs that were made for older computers stop working on newer computers.

Abandonware

In the late 90s and early 2000s, there wasn’t really a “retro gaming” scene; that didn’t start to appear in any significant way until the late 00s — but we’ll get to that shortly. Instead, there was the abandonware scene.

Since I was running some slightly older hardware, I needed to look for older games to play that I could run. Sometimes I got lucky, and these old games would run quite well. Unfortunately, for many games, I had to do all sorts of software configuration acrobatics to get the games running, and they might be glitchy and unstable. One perpetual hurdle was availability. Popular games from several years ago were easy enough to find, but if you were looking for a niche title? Game stores simply didn’t stock them anymore. Digital distribution didn’t exist yet. Steam first appeared in 2004, and that was almost exclusively for Valve products. It wasn’t until the late 00s when digital distribution started to overtake physical sales.

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The seemingly invincible Home of the Underdogs, a bastion of the abandonware scene

And here is where we enter the legally grey territory of abandonware. What do you do when you want to use software that is no longer available for sale, but still protected under copyright law? Well the simple reason is “you can’t” — unless you break the law. There were (and still are) dozens of sites dedicated to providing this software (mostly games) that had been “abandoned”, hence the name. It was these sites that I would trawl trying to find classics that could run on my PC, and it was the abandonware scene that sucked me into the world of classic gaming and fostered my passion for game preservation.

The games industry, for the most part, turned a blind eye to the abandonware scene. These games had long since ceased being profitable, and the owners weren’t making money off them anymore, so what’s the harm? Likewise, copyright authorities were busy enough dealing with the rise of software like Napster and Limewire spreading music and movies — it was hardly worth their while trying to take down some tiny website hosted in Poland that was sharing a handful of 15 year old games. Piracy of modern games was another matter, however, and so-called “warez” sites were aggressively pursued by publishers and authorities. So the abandonware scene, a small fish in a sea of sharks, was mostly ignored by everyone — even gamers, as most gamers were probably playing more recent releases.

One thing that helped delineate abandonware sites from other piracy sites was the Abandonware Code. I don’t know if the term “Abandonware Code” already exists, but if it doesn’t, then I officially claim credit for identifying it, so make sure you update your Harvard referencing. But I digress.

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The Abandonware Ring clearly outlines their stance on abandonware in their FAQ

The Abandonware Code is a loose set of principles that most reputable abandonware sites hold themselves to. The central tenets of the code are as follows:

1. A game is abandonware if it is no longer “reasonably available” for sale or officially supported.

2. Abandonware games must be older than about four to five years old (this rule varies somewhat, but “new” software is strictly forbidden).

3. If a game becomes available for sale, or is rereleased in its original form (this is an important point), then an abandonware site must remove the game and provide a link to the new distributor.

What’s truly amazing is that abandonware sites, for the most part, held to this code quite strictly. These weren’t a bunch of software pirates trying to distribute freebies and rip off honest developers (although I take issue with that depiction of piracy). These were people that loved games, and wanted to share and preserve them.

There were many sites that I would go to for my abandonware games, usually starting with one of the rings. Abandonware ring sites, like the The Official Abandonware Ring, are essentially sites with a list of links to sites that provide abandonware games. They usually follow something like the Abandonware Code, and require all their member sites to do the same.

Over time, I developed a preference for a handful of abandonware sites. Home of the Underdogs was one of the most famous and highly respected abandonware sites — a site dedicated to games that had not achieved the success they deserved. HotU (as it was known) was subjected to several copyright threats and was shut down many times over the years, but it perseveres to this day. Other favourites were Best Old Games, XTC Abandonware and my personal favourite at the time, Abandonia.

Abandonia Reloaded is one of many offshoots of the abandonware scene

Many abandonware sites were also repositories for freeware games, and in the case of Abandonia, they launched a separate website dedicated to freeware, Abandonia Reloaded. Freeware game developers often tried to emulate the style or mechanics of classic games, like Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s 5 Days a Stranger and Dink Smallwood by Robinson Technologies. I could (and eventually will) write an entire article dedicated to the freeware scene, as it was ultimately the freeware scene that was a major driving force behind the indie game boom in the early 2010s.

Together with the abandonware sites were the abandonware IRC chatrooms. There were dozens of them, usually populated by gamers all over the world discussing everything from proto-memes to music and movies. One of my favourite channels was #oldwarez, where there was a bot named TheMonkey that was a repository of abandonware games. This became my primary source of abandonware games, as TheMonkey had a whole many games that usually attracted copyright issues on abandonware sites — games from publishers like Electronic Arts and Blizzard. It’s not that these publishers were making any money from these titles — these were all abandonware games. Certain publishers simply had a reputation for aggressively defending their intellectual property. Their philosophy was “if I can’t monetise it, then you’re not allowed to have it”. Unsurprisingly, these are the same publishers that today are associated with predatory microtransaction schemes.

Thanks a lot Microsoft…

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Gamers in the early 90s would have spent a lot of time looking at something like this.

In 2001, Microsoft launched Windows XP, and this had major implications for the abandonware scene. Previous versions of Windows (3.1, 95 and 98) were essentially built “on top of” Microsoft Disk Operating System (MS-DOS). MS-DOS was a low-level operating system that provided direct access to a computer’s hardware. As such, many games would launch in MS-DOS, so they could use the hardware required to perform complex in-game rendering. Microsoft eventually created DirectX as a way around this — programs installed in Windows were able to directly access hardware despite running within the Windows graphical user interface. By the early 2000s, DirectX was the industry standard, and MS-DOS was well and truly a thing of the past. So, with Windows XP, Microsoft dropped it entirely.

For the modern gamer, this was fine. MS-DOS was old, not user friendly at all, and clunky to use. DirectX and Windows was the way of the future. But this was a serious blow to the abandonware scene. Upgrading to Windows XP meant that you simply couldn’t play most abandonware games anymore. Everything pre-1995 (and a large swathe of post ’95 games as well) required DOS in order to function.

Just when it seemed like we would never be able to play classic games again, along came a crew of Dutch software developers in 2002 with DOSBox. DOSBox is a program that emulates DOS — in simple terms, this tricks a program into thinking that it is running on a computer with DOS. This requires a certain degree of additional processing power, but luckily most new computers in the early 2000s were more than capable of running a pre-1995 game in a DOS emulator.

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DOSBox initially started out with limited support and lots of bugs, but it has since become the de facto standard for running any DOS-based program on modern PCs, and almost all modern rereleases of DOS games come bundled with a version of DOSBox in order to run.

Appearing alongside DOSBox was SCUMMVM. SCUMMVM started as an independent project to enable modern PCs to run old games that used LucasArts’ SCUMM engine, such as Sam & Max Hit the Road and Day of the Tentacle. Support eventually broadened to other adventure games as well. SCUMMVM had a narrower focus, but was generally considered to be a more stable emulator for adventure games with more consistent performance.

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While the release of Windows XP had major implications for abandonware gaming, within two or three years, the scene began to recover, and classic gamers finally began to feel comfortable with moving to the newer operating system — I delayed making the switch to Windows XP for a few years in order to avoid compatibility issues with older games, but it was DOSBox and SCUMMVM that eventually encouraged me to move.

This was essentially the state of the abandonware scene in the late 90s and early 2000s. The games industry as a whole hadn’t yet matured to the point where there was a “retro games” scene like there is today, so if you wanted to play an older game, you needed to rely on an abandonware site, or in some cases, IRC channels. Major shifts in Microsoft Windows were a speedbump, but generous developers had created free programs to mitigate any problems. Yet it was still becoming harder and harder to find some classic games, as many websites on the scene began to shut down due to the changing landscape of the internet — advertising was becoming less lucrative and internet users were changing their browsing habits. The administrators of many abandonware sites were getting older, and were either giving up their hobby or they simply couldn’t afford to keep hosting their sites.

Enter GOG

In 1994, Marcin Iwiński and Michał Kiciński founded the Polish software company CD Projekt. Initially, they specialised in importing and localising games for the Polish and Eastern European market. By the early 2000s, profitability of localisation started to wane as globalisation began to hit the games industry, and Western games were increasingly available in Eastern Europe with localisation as a standard.

In 2002, CD Projekt established a game development arm called CD Projekt Red. They acquired game development rights to one of Poland’s most renowned fantasy fiction book series, Wiedźmin (The Witcher). Utilising BioWare’s Aurora Engine (which was created for 2002’s Neverwinter Nights), CD Projekt Red eventually released The Witcher in 2007.

The Witcher received fairly good reviews, and was praised for the depth and maturity of its storytelling. Most importantly, it put CD Projekt on the games industry map, launching them from an unknown Polish independent studio to an internationally regarded game developer.

Having established for themselves a strong foundation, CD Projekt turned back to their roots. By the late 2000s, digital rights management (DRM) was becoming increasingly restrictive and intrusive, an effort by studios to combat software piracy. The unfortunate side effect was that gamers who legitimately purchased games often had to deal with DRM-related software that prevented them from using the software they had legally purchased in the way they wished to. DRM sometimes caused major performance issues, or would include what was essentially spyware or malware (from a security point of view, it was ironically sometimes safer to install pirated versions of games).

This went against the philosophy of Iwiński and Kiciński, who had grown up in the heady liberal days of post-Cold War Poland, where copyright laws were rarely enforced and the freedom to buy, trade, share and play games was a hallmark of the Eastern European games industry. Iwiński and Kiciński also recognised that this shift towards overly-intrusive DRM came with IP-hoarding, and classic games were increasingly difficult to acquire. So, in 2008, in response to the state of games distribution, CD Projekt launched what was then known as Good Old Games.

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GOG, circa 2009

It’s hard to describe the pervasive sense of joy that erupted from the abandonware scene when Good Old Games launched. Finally, a site dedicated to classic games, that was offering them DRM-free, for very reasonable prices, and preconfigured with DOSBox to work on modern PCs. Every single abandonware site celebrated the appearance of GOG, and instantly began removing downloads for any game that was hosted on GOG.

Here’s a screenshot from Abandonia on 30 October 2008, shortly after the launch of GOG:

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It wasn’t just the abandonware sites either — the mood in abandonware IRC channels was ecstatic as well; although I must admit they stopped shy of removing a lot of games. Of course, the real appeal of GOG was that they made some effort in ensuring modern PCs could run these old games. Abandonware downloads were usually provided “as is”, while spending a few dollars on GOG (most games were no more than about $10) ensured that you could skip the hassle if you weren’t technically minded.

In 2010, to the dismay of many, GOG announced that they would be closing down. I remember speculating that maybe it had all been too good to be true, and that maybe the market for classic games simply wasn’t big enough. The gaming press bemoaned the disappearance of the sole bastion of DRM-free classics, as did the abandonware scene, who were hit with the bad news particularly hard.

Thankfully, it all turned out to be a rather clever marketing ploy. A few days after shutting down, and receiving a lot of press because of it, GOG relaunched on 23 September 2010 with a new direction. They would retain their position as the gold standard for distribution of classic games, but within a few months they would be expanding their distribution into indie games and the AA and AAA games market.

Throughout this, they held to their core value of only providing games without DRM. It was, and still is, a contentious strategy. The general idea among software publishers is that gamers are a bunch of freeloading thieves that will use any form of piracy available to avoid paying for a game. GOG took a different approach. They believe that, by offering games at a reasonable price, without DRM, they would garner good will in the community. They also made the rather intelligent assumption that, in most cases, gamers would only pirate a game if they couldn’t afford to buy it — so you weren’t necessarily losing money, you were merely gaining exposure.

Whether those perspectives are reflected in the data is up for debate, and to my knowledge, there has not yet been any large-scale empirical research to give an indication either way. But anecdotally, I can certainly vouch for this approach. I always buy from and promote GOG, and I do so not because of some vague preference — it is because I strongly believe in their values, and in particular their support for classic games.

GOG’s rise was rapid, and surprising. The undisputed king of the digital distribution market was, and still is, Valve’s platform Steam. But Steam’s dominance was no longer a total monopoly. Prior to the arrival of Epic Games’ distribution platform, estimates put GOG’s digital distribution market share as somewhere between 10 and 15 percent, second only to Steam and a remarkable achievement for a small outfit from Eastern Europe. Epic has sinced supplanted them thanks to their aggressive pursuit of Steam’s monopoly, but GOG has concurrently continued to grow at a steady rate, and the last few years has seen GOG booming with several high-profile game acquisitions available nowhere else.

Kickstarter and the Retro-Revival

GOG’s meteoric rise highlighted two important facts to the games industry. Firstly, it was that Steam’s dominance was by no means assured, and with the right strategy, a platform like GOG could convert customers and inspire unflinching loyalty. The second fact had far larger consequences, and that was “retro equals money”.

By the early 2010s, “Retro-Revival” was starting to hit its stride. GOG was no longer the only platform for classic games, and DOSBox-enabled classics started to appear on Steam as well, then eventually also on EA’s Origin and Ubisoft’s Uplay. Remasters were still in their infancy, but were gradually becoming more commonplace.

GOG wasn’t the only contributing factor to this Retro-Revival, but it seems clear that they played a significant role. Their huge initial success through the distribution of classics showed the industry that the market was ripe for classic games, but it also highlighted an important demographic that had often been ignored by the industry — older gamers. Industry associations like the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association had been producing reports for years showing that the average age of a gamer was steadily increasing, and had been comfortably sitting in the 30–40 age bracket for many years. These older gamers remembered the classics, and were often disgruntled at emerging trends and clamouring for the “good old days”.

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In 2009 Beamdog was established by ex-BioWare developers Trent Oster and Cameron Tofer. They acquired the rights to BioWare’s classic late 90s Infinity Engine games, and in 2012, released Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition, followed by Baldur’s Gate II: Enhanced Edition in 2013. These beloved classics rocketed back into the spotlight, giving the Retro-Revival a solid kick in the direction of classic RPGs.

The other factor in the Retro-Revival, apart from GOG, a handful of remasters, and general gamer demographics, was the indie scene. The sudden explosion of indie games from about 2012 onwards highlighted some key design trends that the AAA industry had either ignored or simply didn’t pick up on. First and foremost was an aesthetic that became synonymous with indie games — low-fidelity, pixelated graphics. Graphics in indie games were nowhere near as technically impressive as their AAA counterparts — indie developers, for the most part, simply didn’t have the requisite resources required for creating complex graphics. So, they looked to the past, and embraced the simple but effective visual communication of eras gone by.

Together with the retro aesthetic, indie developers took old gameplay mechanics and design principles, and applied a modern spin to them. Fez (Polytron Corporation, 2012) took the traditional 2D platformer in a unique direction. FTL: Faster Than Light (Subset Games, 2012) offered a unique combination of the roguelike and management genres. The explosion of indie games flooded the market with new ideas with a nostalgic bent, and the games that inspired this era started to attract their own attention.

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Simple graphics do not equal simple gameplay

It was also this time that saw the emergence of crowdfunding, predominantly through Kickstarter. Indie developers used the platform to great effect, raising funds to support their development cycle. Some of these budgets rivalled bigger studios — but what became immediately apparent was that managing a large budget effectively was something that required a certain degree of experience and discipline, and many of these indie outfits failed to live up to expectations.

One group of developers that did have experience managing budgets like this were exactly that — career game developers. It had become clear in the 2010s that the AAA publishing industry had turned away from genres that it deemed not “on trend”. If you were a game developer in 2015 looking to secure funding for an old-school, complex RPG, you probably weren’t going to get a lot of financial backing. The thing is, despite all their claims that they understood the market, publishers like EA and Ubisoft really didn’t. Gamers wanted old school, and a lot of professional developers wanted to make them, but couldn’t secure funding. So, they took a leaf out of the indie playbook and turned to crowdfunding.

Professional game designers began to embrace crowdfunding and establish independent studios to fund AAA-quality games that embraced classic design methodology. This was largely driven by games inspired by the Infinity Engine RPGs that Beamdog had recently remastered. Torment: Tides of Numenera, Pillars of Eternity and Wasteland 2 all relied heavily on nostalgia for games of eras gone by, and their crowdfunding campaigns were wildly successful — in fact, an entire subset of the Retro-Revival was composed of RPGs. But they were by no means the only genre getting the retro treatment. First-person shooters and strategy games also started to appear, in addition to the already booming platformer scene.

The sudden rise of indie and crowdfunded studios, embracing retro design principles, put the AAA industry on notice. Before long, they too were looking to the past for inspiration, and as it turned out, one of the fastest and easiest ways to make a quick dollar in this market was remasters.

I like your old stuff better than your new stuff

Remasters, to this day, are a huge industry, and have come to define the modern definition of “classic gaming”. However, the remaster industry is also defined by endless controversy over matters such as: design philosophy, faithfulness to source material, removing contentious content, pricing and preventing access to original games. These are just a few of the many reasons that abandonware scene remains relevant in 2020.

One of the most egregious examples of a poorly executed remaster was Blizzard’s recent attempt with Warcraft III: Reforged. This remaster made significant changes to a game that has always had an incredibly devoted fanbase, and many of those changes upset the delicate balance that defined Warcraft III multiplayer. On top of this, not only did they remove the original Warcraft III from sale, but they implemented a mandatory patch that removed features from the original game. To put this in context, this would be like a book publisher walking into your house one day, taking your favourite book off the shelf and tearing out a few random chapters’ worth of pages.

One series of remasters that have come to define how to “do it right” are the remasters of LucasArts’ best adventure games. The Monkey Island series, Full Throttle and Day of the Tentacle are all presented without any changes to core gameplay and plot, while receiving a visual upgrade in the form of refined art to bring their visual appearance up to modern standards. However, one important thing that they also include is the option to play the games with their original graphics.

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The classic and remastered options in Full Throttle

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and remasters often make significant changes to the source material. As I hinted at earlier, this is where rule three of the Abandonware Code comes into play:

3. If a game becomes available for sale, or is rereleased in its original form, then an abandonware site must remove the game and provide a link to the new distributor.

For various reasons, gamers who play classic games want to experience them in their original form. Some do it for nostalgia, out of a desire to play the games as they remember them. Others see games as an important part of digital history, and want games to remain available in their original form for posterity’s sake. And in some cases, gamers might simply lack the required hardware that a remaster requires — many remasters have significantly increased system requirements. For me, it has always been some combination of all of these. But the one I believe is most important is game preservation.

A problem that has arisen from the remaster industry is that publishers wish to disincentivise the purchase of original games in favour of their remasters, which usually sell for significantly higher prices. In the case of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, the cost of the original game is still almost USD $20, compared with the remastered version, which sells for USD $40.

Unfortunately, this is something that is usually out of the hands of the digital distributors to control. When Beamdog released their Infinity Engine remasters, they forced GOG to remove the original games from sale — something that annoyed several gamers, who didn’t appreciate the modifications made in the enhanced editions.

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The Internet Archive has a brilliant catalogue of forgotten DOS classics that run in your browser

In recent years, the Internet Archive has played an important role in game preservation, and has become a sort of de facto abandonware site. While modern abandonware sites like MyAbandonware have done an admirable job in championing the game preservation movement, the Internet Archive has lent an air of legitimacy that has elevated the reputation of the entire scene.

Another factor to consider is that remasters have limited potential for success, and generally, it is only the iconic or financially successful games that receive the remaster treatment. Yet for every successful remaster, there are hundreds of forgotten classics. Next year, the Mass Effect trilogy will receive the remaster treatment — a mere nine years after the release of Mass Effect 3. Meanwhile, cult titles like No One Lives Forever and Rocket Jockey seem destined to be forgotten. This is why abandonware continues to play an important role in game history.

The Future of our Past

The abandonware scene has proven immensely resilient, but despite their dedication and ingenuity, the future presents unique challenges that will be difficult to overcome. The large-scale shift to “games as a service” means that a studio can simply stop supporting a game when it is no longer financially viable — sometimes rendering them unplayable if the master server is shut down. In some cases, ingenious players have reverse-engineered software (with mixed results) to re-establish a community. This is most common in the MMO scene, and until the arrival of World of Warcraft Classic, there was a thriving private server community. The same can still be said for games like Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies and EverQuest.

Digital distribution continues to dominate the modern games industry, particularly for PC gaming. Yet there is a commonly misheld conception that once you buy a game on Steam, EA Play or Uplay, you “own” that game. This is often not the case — you are simply paying for the right to use that software, and that right can be revoked at the publisher or distributors discretion. It is critical that gamers support platforms like GOG, who are committed to DRM free releases. Even if a game is removed from their store (much like the original Baldur’s Gate release), their company policy is that this game is never removed from your account, and all games come with separate installation files independent of any launcher, so you can back these games up in your own archives, if you so wish.

Services like EA Play and Xbox Game Pass have shown that there is huge appetite for an on-demand, subscription-based model of distribution, much like Netflix. In the ever-changing world of software licencing, there will be the endless challenge of having to juggle subscription services just to play the games that you love. Many commentators have suggested that on-demand gaming is the way of the future, and many titles may one day only be offered in this way.

However, most concerning of all for the future of game preservation is cloud gaming. The abandonware scene has mostly been able to survive due to clever methods of acquiring original software and where required, removing any DRM that might prevent its use. Yet a growing shift towards cloud gaming means that these essential files will be locked up in highly-secured datacentres. As we move more and more rapidly towards a world where software is entirely cloud-based, what will happen to efforts to preserve software?

The Need for Reform

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One of many organisations doing their part to preserve our digital history, gamehistory.org

Game preservation is much more than a trivial hobby. Like literature, film and fine art, games are influenced by the world around them, and they offer a unique insight into the state of society at the time they were made. They are an important part of not only our digital history, but history as a whole. What is desperately required is both legislative reform, that will ensure the protection and preservation of games (and indeed all software), and funding, that will provide a place for them to be protected. Non-profit organisations like the Internet Archive, and the sterling efforts of abandonware enthusiasts can only do so much.

Despite endless challenges, classic gaming continues to thrive, thanks to the efforts of the abandonware scene, of software developers like the creators of DOSBox, and because of values-driven distributors like GOG. These are the true heroes of the classic gaming scene, and they deserve respect and gratitude for everything that they have done so far. So to these unsung heroes of the games industry — I salute you.

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At some point in about 1989 I played my first videogames on a Sinclair ZX Spectrum. This was the beginning of a lifetime obsession with games...

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