Over time, things get old. It happens to everything - DOS was taken out by its shiny new big sister, Windows, and Windows NT was taken out by Windows 2000, and from there NT's upgrade of XP and so on.
Well, some programs don't take the aging process well. Sure, there's patches, clients, and other assorted whatnot, but over time, the developers just throw up their hands and say "forget this". Technology is too advanced, or maybe the developers just got bored. Or the studio collapses and nobody acquires the rights. Or maybe it's planned obsolescence; if you're just patching your old software, you're not buying new stuff.
The program is now unsupported, there are no patches left to release, or compatibility issues mean even trying to support the product isn't feasible. The program is forgotten.
Welcome to the wasteland of Abandonware, where the forgotten languish in technology hell, since they can't keep up.
Prior to the internet, the only way to find abandonware was to to make and share physical copies. Now, websites such as Abandonia exist to allow people to play once again games that they used to have for their old 386 but can no longer be purchased in retail or directly from the publisher. Many abandonware websites maintain a semblance of good faith by refusing to allow download of any game still being offered for sale and will voluntarily remove titles if contacted by a publisher. For example, 3D Realms still offers all their old DOS titles (most notably Rise of the Triad) for sale from their website, and as such they're very difficult to find on abandonware sites.
Philosophically, the "abandonware" argument is one that goes beyond the legal sphere into the realm of artistic morality: it is the assertion that a company that refuses or is unable to profit from a work for which it has gained the legal rights, is immorally acting to the detriment of art if they choose to sit on the property and allow no access to it from the world at large. The specific obsolescence problems with computer and video game technology have forced the issue. Books, movies, and music can generally make the transition to new media with ease, whereas the rapid evolution of software can render a game completely unplayable. The best movies, books and music from twenty years ago are easy to find, easy to buy, and easy to view, if perhaps in a different format than they once were. Not so much with games.
Additionally, many of the companies that produced such games have gone completely defunct in the years since creating the game in question. There is essentially no one to speak up for or defend the rights to the game. A large number of these companies produced games during The '80s and were victims of The Great Video Game Crash of 1983. Others produced games for personal computers of that era. Because of the cottage industry nature of software and game production at that time, there were many "fly by night" companies producing forgettable games.
Since about 2005, publishers have taken interest in the desire for old games and have begun actively meeting customer demands. The rise of digital distribution has seen publishers put their entire back catalogue on services like Steam and GOG Dot Com, and on several occasions either the original developers or their new seller even go as far to develop their own upgrades to them so they'll work on modern computers.
Paradoxically, the rise of the internet has seen the creation of a new breed of abandonware. Games which require access to online authentication or which store game-critical data on company servers are entirely reliant on the developer keeping them running. In the event that the company takes the servers down or is shuttered, it is entirely possible for a game to become unplayable. In cases where the servers hold part of the data required to run, this can render a game permanently dead.
Emulation is a related topic, with related problems. The current owners of the Amiga brand, for example, have been keen to stress that the "Kickstart ROM" needed to boot an Amiga (or an Amiga emulator) is not abandonware, thank you very much. Amstrad have said that the ZX Spectrum ROM, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable for emulation purposes; and even if it wasn't, plenty of people have hacked their own version together after some crazy nutbags managed to document the function of each and every last one of the 16384 bytes that forms it, and patched it to deal with the (remarkably few) bugs.
Compare Keep Circulating the Tapes, when films, videos and music are involved. See also Digital Piracy Is Okay, though if the creator disapproves it may overlap with Digital Piracy Is Evil (but let's not start with that whole debate).
Notable Abandonware Sites:
- Home of the Underdogs was, for quite a long time, and now is again, an Abandonware 'museum', where users could find archived copies of many Abandonware and Freeware games. As the name implies, the website (mostly) focuses on underappreciated, rare, commercially unsuccessful or just plain bad games, including the ones still being sold (no downloads in this case, but a link to Steam or GOG).
- Abandonia (as mentioned above).
- Abandonware DOS is a site dedicated only to old MS-DOS games.
- Macintosh users can find applications in the Macintosh Garden, once directly part of HOTUD but now just link to each other. In both HOTUD and Macintosh Garden, Sturgeon's Law takes effect, and how!
- MyAbandonware another site dedicated to DOS games, with a nice IF catalog.
- The Internet Archive now has a large database of old DOS games.
- Games Nostalgia offers free download of abandoware games, all of them tested and configured for PC and Mac
- Old-Games.com has OVER 9000 old computer games available for download, most of which are abandonware.
- Old Games Finder is a search engine for old and abandonware games