With more and more classic PC titles becoming unplayable every day, the small publisher SNEG has made it their mission over the last couple of years to see as many games as possible made available again on digital storefronts.
Last year, for instance, it was behind the rerelease of 8 Dungeons & Dragons across Steam & GOG, as well as a bunch of classic Mindscape/SSI games like Star Command and Phantasie, among others. These weren't exactly easy to pull off, but have required a ton of detective work on behalf of the team to track down all the necessary rights, as well as find the appropriate team that could ensure they run properly on today's hardware.
For the most part, the company has kept a low media profile, mostly avoiding doing interviews and letting its work do the talking, but recently we had the chance to sit down with Artem Shchuiko, who is responsible for the Business Development & Operations at SNEG, to ask them a few questions about the company and the previously-mentioned releases.
The interview covers everything from the origins of SNEG to the titles that have been the most difficult to bring back for players.
Time Extension: How did SNEG start as a company?
Shchuiko: I’ve been working in games for quite some years, [going back to the late 2000s/early 2010s]. It was an era where Steam was obviously around but retail was still kind of a thing (though diminishing to an extent). So you could witness a lot of games being released physically and then just disappearing because nobody would bother to put them out on digital storefronts. Then around the same time, I ended up signing a publishing distribution deal for one of the classic games developed in Russia while working at another company.
The game was called Eador and it was supposed to be released on Steam and some other storefronts, so the creator [Alexey Bokulev] was looking for possible distribution options. That is when I first came across a storefront called GOG.com. I started talking to them and slowly this kind of thing came to me that there was something [special] about these classic games. I met somebody who was already doing something for them, and I signed a deal. Then long story short, I started working for GOG and spent the next seven or seven and a half years looking for old games and old content.
That’s kind of how it started and continued for quite some time, but then, you know, as you work at a big corporation, eventually you’re no longer doing just the thing you started with. It becomes more about things like corporate development, bigger deals, bigger objectives, and suddenly you’re not doing anything about the classic games – something that you were particularly interested in at the very beginning. That was true for both me and my partner Oleg Klapovskiy, but the funny story is that it wasn’t us who started the company; it was my wife (who is also in gaming).
She was pregnant with our son and she was like, ‘I’m a little bit bored and I’m about to jump into maternity leave, let me do some side projects.’ So she found the developer of a game that was not available anywhere. She signed a publishing deal. She figured out a team that could fix it and the game was released. That was all happening in front of me. So at some point, I decided you know, I just want to do the same thing. So I joined and my partner joined, and here we are.
[As for the name] SNEG is a word which in multiple Slavic languages means snow. It was a snowless Winter when my wife was figuring out the name of the company. So I think she just looked at the outside and said, ‘There’s no snow! Let’s call it SNEG!’
Time Extension: Let’s talk about the Dungeon & Dragons rereleases first. Were those easier for you to reissue because they were related to such a big property? Or were they still just as difficult to track down?
Shchuiko: It’s never easy. In the case of these games, it was more my partner’s work than mine. But the short story is there’s typically a company that developed it, then there’s the publisher. Then somebody acquires the publisher. Then somebody else acquires that publisher. Then it snowballs. Merger after merger after merger. So 10 years after that nobody remembers what happened. Nobody remembers where the paper trail was or what was exactly acquired by whom.
So the job is to slowly do the detective work of figuring out who was involved in the deal-making: are there any traces of that? What are the legal conditions or, let’s say, nuances of the jurisdiction because different deals done in different jurisdictions are controlled by different IP laws? So you go into this mess of a situation every time and you try to slowly unravel it.
The outcomes can be very different. The rights can be with someone who is dead, so you have to look for their relatives. It can be sitting in a big private equity company. It might be split across multiple companies. It can be split across a development team because of local laws. It might be that one party owns the IP and another party owns the code rights, but the publishing rights may be sitting with a third party. There are also the music rights too (which can also stay with the musician).
There can be so many different combinations of that. There might be also royalty obligations somewhere between different parties. So yeah, good luck figuring out all of that.
So there’s a great deal of complexity that you can encounter doing this job and there’s no shortcut like, ‘Hey, here’s how we optimized this and it became faster by 20%’ Unfortunately, you have to go in depth. You have to learn who, as in individuals, were involved with different dealmaking. Then it’s just about investing time. Going to different tradeshows, meeting people, asking them, doing interviews like ‘Do you remember anything about this deal?’ Then 30 years later, you do the deal.
Time Extension: I’m wondering, were you familiar with the SSI/Mindscape back catalogue? Were they something you played growing up? Or were they something that you came across later in life? I guess what I’m asking is was there a personal attachment to those games or were those releases more motivated by a historical/preservationist interest?
Shchuiko: It’s a fair thing to ask. Did you play these games? Are they important games for you specifically? And the answer is I was born in 1988. I couldn’t play a game that was released in 86 or 90 or something. So I have my golden age of games, which is the late 90s/early 2000s.
That’s the most nostalgic period for me. But at the same time, I do understand because the emotion of nostalgia is the same regardless of when you were born or what game you were playing. You understand how important these games are. So you don’t need an explanation on why these games are important for a lot of people — especially if you dig through all the archives and see how significant culturally and design-wise these games were.
Time Extension: In terms of the company itself, how many staff are there at SNEG? Do you have a development side of the company? How many people are working at SNEG at this moment?
Shchuiko: Well, it’s fair to say, it’s mostly me and my partner. It sounds harsh, but we found it a little bit useless to attempt to build from a practical point of view because it’s very hard to have just one team that is working on all kinds of different games.
Some games require a massive effort of engineering work. I think of Chasm: The Rift, which we released last year (if I’m not mistaken). The source code for that game was completely lost. We had nothing. So the game has to be reverse-engineered to a certain extent and then redeveloped with a certain feature set because there was just nothing that could be used. There had to be a bunch of new technologies adapted to make this thing work.
[The old engine] is pretty advanced technologically if you look under the hood, so that required a pretty experienced porting team that works on AA (sometimes AAA) games to make it happen. But for some games, it’s just a DOSBox release. I say ‘just’, meaning that there is no offensive development happening, but at the same time if the game doesn’t run well on DOSBox, we’re working with the original author of the emulator and he tailors the emulator for a particular game to run best on a Windows machine.
So, you see, it depends on the game what is needed for a title and there’s no one solution for all. I’ll give you a third case. We released a game called Siege of Avalon, which was written in Delphi. There are almost zero people in the world who are currently developing games professionally in Delphi. So it is very hard to find someone to address certain issues. So the point I’m trying to make is we’re always looking for particular skill sets for a particular task and it would be impossible to have a team with all of this expertise in-house at the current moment.
Time Extension: Are there any games that you’d personally want to bring back?
Shchuiko: There are a few. As I said, I'm originally from Russia. So there are quite a few amazing games that were developed in the region, which are underexposed historically for no good reason. And I would really want to see them shining again.
So the first one is Evil Islands, which was developed by a studio called Nival. It was released in 2000/2001. It’s a stealth-action game set in a fantasy universe and I haven’t seen anything like that ever since. It’s a very unique title. By the way, Nival later on in its career was the developer of Heroes of Might and Magic V for Ubisoft. So it is a pretty successful studio. Then there has been a bunch of space games, which you can think of as No Man’s Sky 20 years before then, called Parkan, which also came from Russia – all amazing games.
And I could continue making a long list of universally known games like No One Lives Forever, Neverhood, and so on. There are a lot of titles that are sitting unavailable for legal reasons, for technical reasons, or a combination of those two.
We feel like there’s just an infinite amount of work to be done. Sometimes people are confused, like ‘This is just a dead market. Why would you waste time on this?’ But if you look closely, you’ll see that more and more games are becoming unavailable. Every year something becomes "classic" and every year something becomes unavailable due to legal reasons or old technology, so it’s just a snowballing amount of games that need to be saved, fixed, and made available to users.
Time Extension: Has there been one single game that has been the most challenging to bring back?
Shchuiko: There was a game called Blade of Darkness. My partner started trying to get the rights in 2012. I later joined and started digging around. But we couldn’t figure out at the time who owned the rights.
There were a lot of stories behind that one. Somebody appeared claiming they have rights and it turns out they didn't have rights and so on. So it took us almost a decade to figure out who owns the rights.
Then once we were able to talk to the proper owners, there was another challenge to agree on signing this game and enabling it to be revived. And then the challenge of the source code being lost and figuring out who from the original development team may have an archive of the code. So imagine having some of the source code from a quarter of the year before the launch, so effectively before the crunch period begins, and having to redevelop or fix this crunch period.
All of these steps were eventually resolved and it resulted in the game being rereleased, but still with a lot of bugs and issues that we later tried to address with moderate success. It's been an uphill battle to assemble all of that and release it, but we’re quite proud that we’ve managed to assemble this thing.
There are also other games that are similarly complex but are still ongoing. We call them "cases". And we have tens and tens of cases that we’re working on simultaneously.
Sometimes, you can think you have the full picture and suddenly you go to some event and meet a random person who turns out to be aware of some particular details of this deal and they give you snippets of data that can change everything. It’s very slow detective work.