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Buying Old Games: Where Your Money Goes

Edit: cos there are various theories flying around below about my perceived intent in posting this, I shall clarify my own feelings. I would really like to see contracts between publishers and developers more commonly include an arrangement whereby key (and ideally, but rather less plausibly, all) creatives on game projects continue to see some post-release royalties, as is the case in some other entertainment and publishing industries. That so many old games are being (apparently profitably) rereleased lately highlights this disparity. That is all.

There's obviously a very good chance you already know this, but just in case: when a developer is bought out by a publisher, it's usually the case that they then don't see any ongoing royalties from the games they make for them, or indeed for any existing intellectual property that was swallowed up as part of the studio acquisition. It's standard practice, knowingly agreed by both parties during the dark deal some studios made to ensure immediate financial viability and larger project budgets. But what it does mean is that a great many of the PC games we regularly celebrate around these parts are no longer bringing in any money for their creators, despite still being on sale. Whenever we excitedly see an old classic appear on Steam or GoG (such as Thief last week), chances are very high that whatever we pay for it goes purely to the publisher and the download service. And while it may well be right that these bodies profit from projects they funded and distribute, it's sad that the men and women who toiled over that game's creation won't see another penny from it.

Veteran developer Simon Roth - now working with Frozen Synapse creators Mode 7 - has compiled a partial list of some of the games for which this is true. I have selected just a few of the most renowned, including Deus Ex, System Shock, Vampire Bloodlines, Dungeon Keeper et al, but there are many more listed on his site, and many, many more yet to be compiled.

Yes, it's part of the agreement made at the time, and many of the studios behind these classics - including Ion Storm, Troika, Looking Glass, Bullfrog and Westwood - are now defunct, and so royalties pass to the rights holder rather than the individual creators, wherever they landed up. It is a sad fact of business life, and to cry foul is almost shouting at the wind. But as it becomes easier and easier to legally purchase copies of these groundbreaking, vital games, it becomes sadder and sadder that the financial appreciation we show for them does not reach their original creators.

It's also a lesson as to why devs might want to, if possible, remain independent: even if their new owners don't close them down when times are less rosy, they just won't see the long-term royalties an independent operator would. Of course, being independent often isn't possible, at least not if you want to work on large projects. Publishers' funding enables that, and thus to some extent the success and acclaim that can result.

Ion Storm:

Deus Ex
Deus Ex: Invisible War
Thief: Deadly Shadows

Looking Glass Studios:

Thief: The Dark Project
Thief II: The Metal Age
System Shock
System Shock 2

Troika Games:

Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura
Temple of Elemental Evil
Vampire: The Masquerade - Bloodlines.


Populous series
Syndicate series
Magic Carpet
Theme Park/Hospital series
Dungeon Keeper series
Theme Hospital

Core Design:

Tomb Raider series

FASA Studio

MechCommander 1/2
MechWarrior 4

And ever so many more, big and small, profitable and unprofitable, acclaimed and despised.

Of course, those games' new rights holders - i.e. their publishers - do get a big old slice of any payment you offer. It doesn't just vanish into the digital distribution ether. EA, 2K, Square-Enix, Microsoft: perhaps they're not the guys you ideally want to be sending your love down the well to, but abstractly, there is a theoretical chance that mass purchases of these good old games might eventually encourage greenlighting of projects in a similar vein, or better support and even updates for these old titles. So it's a double-edged sword, of a sort.

Proud games and their proud creators, I salute you. I am just sorry that I cannot salute you with money, at least not directly.

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Dungeon Keeper

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Alec Meer avatar

Alec Meer


Ancient co-founder of RPS. Long gone. Now mostly writes for rather than about video games.