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For the purpose of this question, let's say an "old" game is one released over 20 years ago, or for which the platform it runs on has become unavailable.

Do the developers still earn revenue off of titles this old?

If the answer is no, why aren't more of these titles made available for free (officially)?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ What do you think the current surge of companies releasing retro consoles and their titles is about. Or nintendo's virtual console. \$\endgroup\$ – ratchet freak Oct 30 '18 at 13:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ Tibia makes more money than ever, and it's almost 22 years old. \$\endgroup\$ – Sopel Nov 1 '18 at 10:49
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Yes, they do. You never know if an IP you considered worthless might become valuable again.

For example, 10 years ago nobody thought Sega and Nintendo would ever make another cent from their 8 bit and 16 bit games. But then came the pixel art retro boom. Sega released a bunch of their Mega Drive catalog on Steam and Nintendo created the Virtual Console to re-release their old classics on their new systems. I don't think any of these old games really sell that many copies, but it's nevertheless revenue on investments which were already written off ages ago.

There are also specialized stores like Good Old Games which try to re-monetize older PC titles (although they recently re-specialized and also sell new releases).

But often releasing an old classic can be more trouble than it's worth. Possible barriers are:

  • Unresolved copyright questions. Game companies get formed, sold, merged, split, renamed, closed, liquidated, bought etc. all the time. Often multiple companies work together and share the copyright to a game. Sometimes you have things like music tracks, brands or technology which are licensed from 3rd parties and the contracts do not explicitly allow a re-release. Trademarks might have expired and other game companies might have registered similar trademarks in the meantime. The resulting chaos can often lead to a situation where nobody is really sure who has the necessary rights to re-release an old game. If the game would have a large economic value, it might be worth it to pay some lawyers for a few dozen hours to find out, but often just that alone might be more than the economic value of the game. A good example was the drama surrounding No One Lives Forever. tl;dr: multiple game companies said "Maybe we have the rights to the game according to some contract buried in some file cabinet, but we don't care enough to find out. But if you try to release it, we will find out and if we do we will sue you!"
  • Waiting for the right moment. They want to see if the IP might become more valuable. Maybe the company got some plans in the shelf to revive an old review in form of an HD re-release? Maybe they are waiting for the retro gaming boom of that particular era of gaming history? If they release it now, they might lose out on larger profits in the future.
  • It might cannibalize your actual market. People don't need to buy any of your new games while they are busy playing all your old games. While you might not really lose a large number of sales that way, you might lose at least a few sales if the timing is bad.
  • The PR effect for your company might actually be negative. One could argue that releasing your old games for free could be a great advertisement for your new games. But keep in mind that the perception of old games through nostalgia goggles is often far better than it is when you actually play those games. So the halo-effect* your old game has on the perception of your new game might in fact be negative. This is a risk which is hard to estimate, but it is there and might cause management to hesitate.
  • There is no reason to do it. Even if you release an old game for free in an "as is" state, you need to write a press release, add a download page to your website, pay for server capacity for the download, might have legal liabilities, might have to offer support, etc.. All of these are peanuts compared to the costs associated with a "real" release, but the benefit minus cost calculation of $0 minus peanuts is still negative.

*has nothing to do with the game Halo

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At least some do although perhaps not in the way you are thinking. Old, but still new enough to be digitally distributed games could still bring in the occasional revenue. But games with physical aspects (cartridges) are eventually no longer manufactured and eventually their first-party sales revenue will dry up.

However, it may still be possible to make money on the licensing of the IP or sale of related property, and a company may account that as revenue from from products.

As for why “old” games aren’t always released for free, well, it tends tends to come down to the fact that the owner wants to maybe make money re-releasing the game in the future or that making it available for free would actually cost them (in manufacturing, hosting or support for example) and thus not be an attractive business proposition.

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