This is a conference paper presented at the 2019 Symposium Histoire du Jeu (Game Histories Conference) in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Iantorno, Michael. “Generate Randomized Game: The Ambivalences of Online ROM-Patching Applications.” Game History Symposium, 17-19 Nov. 2019, Stationnement Grand Quai, Montreal, QC.
This presentation is titled Generate Randomized Game: The Ambivalences of Online ROM-Patching Applications. It is based upon interviews and game analysis that I completed during my master’s degree, in which I studied videogame hacking subcultures. I will mainly be discussing the community values that inform “randomizers,” a popular type of online videogame ROM-patching application.
The main argument behind this presentation is that members of these randomizer communities — which include a diverse array of videogame hackers and players — simultaneously oppose and perpetuate strategies of publisher control. This is accomplished in a variety of ways, with one of the most prominent tactics being the obfuscation of the hardware and software roots of videogame hacking. These subcultures of videogame hacking wish to conceal materials that, under a maximalist interpretation of intellectual property law, are considered to be illicit to acquire, alter, or redistribute.
This practice of obfuscation has many implications in the current digital media landscape but, before I get any deeper into analysis, I’d like to establish exactly what a randomizer is.
What Is a Randomizer?
In order to disrupt the standard flow of play, to diffuse game mastery, and to facilitate competitive races on Twitch, videogame hackers have cultivated a new speedrunning genre predicated on the procedural remixing of existing titles.
These “randomizers” are iteratively developed browser-based patching applications that create irregular versions of popular speedrunning games such as Super Metroid and The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. If a user wishes to create a randomized version of a game, all they have to do is visit a website, provide a ROM image (essentially, a digital copy of a cartridge-based videogame), and click a few buttons in a browser window.
The most popular types of Randomizers shuffle the location of key progression items within videogames, such as equipment in Zelda and blaster upgrades in Metroid. This rearrangement effectively scrambles these games’ primary objectives, forcing players to explore their worlds in a non-linear fashion, diffusing game mastery. As the randomization disrupts the standard flow of the game, players must use guesswork and logic to progress and may confront difficult obstacles much earlier than the original game had intended. These Randomizers have essentially created a new genre of speedrunning, where technical prowess is paired with meta-knowledge of game logic and systems. It’s not enough to master a single path through a videogame — a Randomizer player must learn to be flexible, reacting to changes within the game as they are discovered.
Over the past five years Randomizers have seen a huge surge in popularity, perhaps best demonstrated through the The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past Randomizer community. Organized around several public Discord channels and featuring over six thousand members, these sprawling online communities focus around three key activities: daily races between members on Twitch, huge seasonal tournaments, and the continuous improvement and expansion of the Randomizer application itself.
Unlike many videogame hacking communities, which keep a low profile due to legal concerns, many Randomizers are extremely open to publicity. The communities behind them often create websites, video trailers, and “getting started” guides designed to recruit new players. They have been featured at large gaming conventions such as Awesome Games Done Quick, their development are constantly documented in gaming press such as Kotaku and Polygon, and their online tournaments draw thousands of spectators while attracting prize money from corporate sponsors.
Obfuscation and Decentralization
Although it may seem contradictory considering the visibility of these communities, obfuscation plays a key role in their success. On one hand, these hackers and players are fairly transparent about their fandom toward a particular console videogame. Their websites and social media channels are plastered with sprites, artwork, and quotes from these titles and, obviously, interaction with the game is central to their practice. On the other hand, the games that lie at the center of their practice are nowhere to be found. Despite being necessary to use the application, you won’t find ROM images hosted on a Randomizer website. In fact, sharing a ROM image in any of their associated online spaces is strictly forbidden. Thus, one of the key tactics of these Randomizer communities has adopted is the erasure of “the game.”
Jonathan Sterne notes that technologies embody “particular dispositions and tendencies — particular ways of doing things” (377), and the Randomizer app embodies this tactical concealment through its affordances. The application allows any user to create a randomized ROM image within a web browser, without ever hosting copyrighted content or tracking who is using it. The hacking process is transformed into something that is ostensibly automated and ambivalent, shifting responsibility for providing copyrighted content from the hackers and offloading it to the individual user.
The development team have positioned themselves in this manner to evade the challenges that have stymied previous game hacking endeavours. Expansive ROM hacking projects such Chrono Trigger: Crimson Echoes and Pokemon Prism, for example, have received cease-and-desist orders from publishers due to their unauthorized use of Nintendo and Square Enix’s intellectual property. And as recently as 2018, websites such as LoveROMs and LoveRetro have faced multi-million dollar lawsuits for hosting ROM images on their servers.
For those who are familiar with some of the purported “core tenets” of hacker culture, the concept of decentralization may seem very familiar. It is made possible through a variety of already established technologies, perhaps most prominently BitTorrent, which allow for quick access to various types of media without a centralized hosting location. In this sense, Randomizers build upon long-established computer hacker values — ones that have been documented in great detail by authors such as Steven Levy and Gabriella Coleman — by expecting users to utilize these systems to acquire the raw materials for videogame hacking (i.e. ROMs). Whereas websites that directly host illicit copies of games are easier to persecute, this type of file distribution is difficult for media companies to litigate, as they can’t point to a single problematic file on a central server. As a result, the game — whether it be a Zelda or a Metroid — becomes simultaneously essential and forbidden; everywhere and nowhere.
Applied to the context of videogame hacking, this practice allows Randomizer community members to have plausible deniability regarding the existence of ROMs during development, release, and play. Their acquisition is rarely officially discussed, except in an evasive fashion: “try Googling it” or “we don’t care how you get it, but we certainly don’t have a copy ourselves.” This attitude is rooted in longer histories of material erasure in videogame hacking, as ROM hackers rarely acknowledge that ROM images are necessarily derived from physical game cartridges — a practice that is openly condemned by Nintendo (and other game companies). On the record, no one in the videogame hacking community is: a) ever in possession of a ROM image; b) has ever acquired one from a cartridge; c) interested in redistributing them. However, implicitly, every hacker and player has access to one.
It’s tempting to simplify these approaches as tactical in nature, perhaps echoing de Certeau’s notion of “knowing how to get away with things” (xix) under an imposed order (in this case, intellectual property law and corporate release structures). However, in Randomizer communities, this often (ironically) manifests as a reconstruction of corporate strategies. Randomizer development teams have co-opted the approaches of established software development to enable the flourishing of their communities in various ways:
- They have established centralized control over their projects, which can only be accessed through a single method — the online patching system. Much like digital games that update through Steam or other online platforms, typical users only ever have access to a single iteration of the Randomizer at any given time, with changes implemented by a small group of developers.
- These communities also enforce certain legal policies (most commonly, prohibiting the discussion and distribution of ROMs). Violating these policies on community and social channels can result in warnings, or even bans, from moderators. Thus, a specific code-of-conduct is enforced to help sustain the community.
- Facilitated by these first two points, at least a few Randomizer communities generate money through tournaments and advertisements on Twitch and other social media channels, transforming an ostensibly illicit practice into a self-sustaining one.
- Finally, members of these communities have essentially crowd-sourced enough legal knowledge to devise a distribution system that leverages intellectual property law to their advantage. Unlike many tactical interventions, which are subtle or ephemeral by necessity, the Randomizer teams are confident enough in their approaches to have public-facing websites that promote their work.
This accumulation of legal know-how in online knowledge communities is especially pertinent when we consider the functionality of Randomizers. The use of automated randomization software, standing in contrast to the manual alteration of a game ROM, raises serious questions about the status of the ROMs it produces — especially when considered as original works beyond the reach of the original copyright holder.
In Canada, the criteria for the originality of a new work relies on “an exercise of skill and judgement” that “must not be so trivial that it could be characterized as a purely mechanical exercise” (CCH v. Law Society of Upper Canada para. 25, qtd. in Murray and Trosow 42). Thus, while the randomizer itself might be an original work, whether or not the ROMs produced by its users are is highly debatable.
When I spoke with members of the A Link to the Past Randomizer team about this topic, they argued that their online application parallels the functionality and legality of the Game Genie — referencing the famous Lewis Galoob Toys, Inc. v. Nintendo of America lawsuit, in which Nintendo sued the toymaker for copyright infringement. Created as a “videogame enhancer” and first released in 1990, the Game Genie was designed to be a plug-and-play solution for cheating in Nintendo games, one that could selectively block and replace data from the cartridge to tilt gameplay to a player’s advantage. Although it contained no data from the videogame it was modifying, the add-on device allowed players to change aspects of the game upon booting it up.
Claiming that Galoob “infringed upon its copyrights by creating ‘derivative works’ based on its copyrighted games” (Johnson), Nintendo attempted to stop the manufacturing of the Game Genie. However, the court sided with Galoob, noting that a derivative work “must incorporate the original work in some ‘concrete or permanent form’” (Johnson). In their ruling, the Judge noted that “having paid Nintendo a fair return, the consumer may experiment with the product and create new variations of play, for personal enjoyment, without creating a derivative work” (Smith 1292), likening the practice to skipping past pages in a book or fast-forwarding through a movie.
Although the parallels with the Randomizer’s online patching application are certainly not perfect — the original game cartridge, for example, is never required — a member of the team expressed confidence in their legal standing: “It was ruled in no uncertain terms that passive, pass-through modification is protected speech and that is to the dime, what [the randomizer] is.” As this claim has yet to be tested in court, it is ambiguous whether or not online patching applications, such as the Randomizer, would follow the same fair use/dealing logic as the Game Genie.
There are currently dozens of Randomizer projects being actively developed, with videogame hackers beginning to tackle newer releases as well as PC titles. Despite this diversity of projects, these Randomizers share a set of common principles — ones that, at first glance, may seem contradictory. They both promote and obfuscate the games that serve as the focus of their projects. They employ tactical measures rooted in a long history of hacker culture, while selectively adopting corporate strategies to maintain and grow their communities. And they attempt to engage various angles of the intellectual property debate — exploiting gray areas of its enforcement while simultaneously wielding legal knowledge in the construction of their projects.
As Randomizers continue their transition from niche hobbyist projects to popular speedrunning categories (and, perhaps, minor e-sport, as seen with the Zelda and Metroid Randomizers), these points of comparison will only become more important. The role of the original game in Randomizer technologies and communities, simultaneously present and absent, raises important questions about fandom, intellectual property law, and the “afterlife” of videogame technologies.
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