Creating a classic gaming machine is one of the best things you can do with a Raspberry Pi, and there’s no better way to do it than to install RetroPie. RetroPie is one of the single most popular platforms for the Pi, but the people behind it are “just a few blokes,” developer Herb Fargus told us. They take donations, but there’s no big money-making scheme behind the hit concept.
That hasn’t stopped others from making money off of the hard work done by Herb and fellow developer Jools Wills, though. Shady dealers that Herb calls “greedy people” have been packaging RetroPie with copyrighted content and selling it as their own, frustrating the RetroPie team while also giving the platform an unwanted association with piracy.
As a result, RetroPie’s creators are losing steam. Jools has been juggling what he calls “unfortunate legal matters,” and says that, naturally, “isn’t particularly motivating.” Herb is more blunt: “I’ve been losing motivation,” he says, before going on to talk about the criminals who profit off of his hard work. But both developers speak highly of the RetroPie community, which keeps them coming back despite their fatigue and concerns.
Jools and Herb spoke to us about these issues and more in our broad Q&A session. Our full interview is below.
Our interview with the developers of RetroPie
The Pi: What is your typical day as a RetroPie developer like?
Herb: Well, most of my day is spent on real-life activities like a day job and family, but in my free moments in between I’ll moderate the forum and try to answer questions and occasionally look at the RetroPie subreddit. I’ll update docs, check emails, and test new features that are being developed.
Jools: RetroPie is mostly done in my free time, although there have been some weeks where I have put in enough hours for it to be a full time job. I usually have a variety of tasks, including replying to emails, going through tickets, maintaining the server software, replying to forum members, and then if there is still time, a bit of coding. 🙂
Could you tell a bit about your background and how you ended up developing RetroPie?
H: I’ve always wanted an all-in-one system to play the old games I played a kid, and nothing ever seemed to fit the bill until I learned about the Raspberry Pi. I also had basically no experience with Linux, so I thought it would be a great opportunity to figure out both at the same time. I discovered RetroPie right before the 1.3 release, so this was long before it was simple to use, and it had basically no documentation. So I sat down for a few days trying to figure it out, I wrote up guides as I went through the process, made a few videos, and contacted the two devs (Florian and Jools) letting them know my intention was to make the wiki useful. After I had written the docs, they more or less told me I was part of the team, and I have been involved with the project ever since.
J: In 2012 I backed the Picade Project on Kickstarter. The Picade is an desktop mini arcade cabinet kit with controls and screen, etc. I was testing out the emulation software available for the Raspberry Pi and found RetroPie. After trying it out, I submitted a few changes, and then after some months found myself actively contributing to the project. I also work on some other projects in my free time – more details can be found on my personal blog.
Could you tell a bit about your team and the roles of its members? Or is RetroPie a two-man show?
H: Yes and no. Florian started the project, but now he primarily focuses on his hardware: the ControlBlock and PowerBlock (addons to the the Pi that allow for use of original controllers and power buttons). Jools is responsible for 99% of the code, and he also handles all the background stuff like the servers, image generation, forum, legal things, etc. I’ve done the majority of the documentation and I still maintain it, along with any other users who wish to contribute to it. I’ve done a bit of code and test new features as they are added. Rookervik has done a lot of graphic design for us. He designed the default Carbon EmulationStation theme we include with the SD images we provide. He also made the PIXEL theme, and most other EmulationStation themes are derived from his artwork in some way or other.
How is RetroPie structured as an organization? Are you a company? An LLC? A not-for-profit?
H: Just a few blokes for now, though we have discussed setting up an organisation of sorts once we sort out the legal stuff.
Does RetroPie make money? If so, how? If not, how does it fund improvements, support, its web hosting, etc.?
J: We take donations, which are used to cover server costs, hardware, and trademarks. We also split some up between contributors and send money to other projects that we build on, such as RetroArch.
What is your main motivation for developing RetroPie currently?
H: I’m going to be honest, I’ve been losing motivation recently. It’s partly because I’m running out of ideas for things I’m capable of contributing and partly because I’ve moved and changed jobs and I have much less free time than I used to in university. But I think the biggest thing is all of the greedy people who take our work and sell it as their own, typically including copyrighted content of others as well, which associates our project with piracy (much like people associate Kodi with piracy with all the third party add-ons and whatnot).
It used to be more fun. But it’s gotten so big over the last year with our new website and forum, the NES Classic Edition being released and subsequently cancelled, and of course the brilliant improvements from Jools and the RetroPie community, that it’s been becoming more of a burden than I had hoped it would be. But the reason I’m still around is we have a great community that is really supportive of what we are trying to do, and all the popularity the project has received has made me proud to be part of creating something so amazing.
J: I still enjoy developing the software, but recently a lot of my time has been spent with unfortunate legal matters, which isn’t particularly motivating. There are some things I would like to see included and improved (such as the addition of a BBC Micro emulator). I still love playing old games, so I’m sure I will continue working on the project. I’ve been less active over the last few weeks, which has given me a bit of a rest, but I don’t think I have had a single day without doing something RetroPie related for a while.
Do you have some kind of cooperation going on with emulator developers, the developers of EmulationStation, or other groups?
H: We submit improvements upstream as we find them. RetroPie includes many different pieces of software. The EmulationStation dev has moved on to other things, so we have a fork we use for RetroPie and some members of the community have provided some enhancements. We try to maintain good relationships with any devs of software we use and we respect the wishes of devs if they don’t want their software to be part of RetroPie.
J: We contribute code back to other projects we use, as well as some of our donation money. Software authors also help us. For example, mehstation (an alternative frontend to Emulation Station) recently added some code to make integration into RetroPie easier.
Do you have any sort of relationship with the Raspberry Pi Foundation?
H: We both use the same webhost (Mythic Beasts) and we’ve talked with them on occasion. Since RetroPie was originally built for the Pi (RetroPie now can run on Linux PCs and Odroids, too) we obviously are huge fans of the Raspberry Pi foundation and wouldn’t be where we are today without them. I have at least seven Raspberry Pis lying around my house doing various tasks (security camera, web server, etc)
J: We have no official affiliation, but we love what they do. Eben Upton listed us among the top software projects in the official magazine MagPi, which is an achievement we are certainly proud of. The Raspberry Pi has an excellent community of people around it working on very interesting software and hardware projects.
We’ve read that someone in the U.S. has trademarked RetroPie, and that you are trying to challenge the trademark. How is that process going?
J: We had many offers of help and advice, and finally took up a generous offer from Eckland & Blando LLP to help us with the problem. The person who trademarked it received some bad press, and emailed us saying they would cancel it – however, according to our attorney, this was incorrectly filed and so didn’t happen. They also have a trademark for “Emulation Station”, even though they have no relation to that software. We have a trademark application filed in the USA that references the cancellation, as well as proof that we were using the name before, so hopefully it will be resolved soon.
They were also using the trademark to take down “competition” whilst they sold RetroPie based devices. They had the cheek to inform us they were “helping us” by doing this (even though they also used the trademark to take down sales of people who just sold hardware compatible with RetroPie – which is totally legal). They also included copyrighted games with their devices at one point. Certainly their motivation is profit rather than helping the RetroPie project.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there trying to make money from projects like RetroPie. The RetroPie images include a lot of software and graphics with non-commercial licences, so it cannot be sold.
What’s next for RetroPie? Any new features? Improvements?
H: There’s been a lot of recent interest in EmulationStation development by members of the RetroPie community. They’ve added support for video previews and fixed a longstanding “white screen of death” bug, among other things. As a result, there have been a few new EmulationStation themes made by community members as well. Things are continually improving. RetroPie has so many moving pieces that it’s hard to keep track of it all.
J: There are always constant small improvements, but there is no long-term plan as such. There are always plenty of tickets and feature requests on the bugtracker to work on though.
What new features do RetroPie users ask for most often? Do you have any plans to develop any of the most requested improvements?
H: A lot of requests involve EmulationStation (background music, more flexible joypad configuration etc.) People are always wanting the N64 emulator to improve (though there is only so much that can be done for it on the Pi, specs-wise) I imagine once the Pi 4 is released there will be more requests with the improved hardware. As with any open source developers we develop things in our free time, and the things that interest us are the things that get developed first. I’m still bugging Jools to get the BBC Micro running on RetroPie!
J: I tend to mostly work on things that I am interested in, but do listen to the suggestions of others. People have been asking for improvements to the Emulation Station frontend, and many of them have now been implemented thanks to the hard work of some of our contributors. I plan to look at including a BBC Micro emulator as mentioned (because I want to – not because Herb keeps nagging me about it). 🙂
Have you considered creating similar platforms for other devices?
H: RetroPie was originally designed for the Raspberry Pi, but there is also support for running it on Linux PCs and Odroid boards, and there may be others in the future as well. I don’t see us developing anything for Windows, though.
J: I recently added support for the Odroid-XU3/4 boards, and have been working on getting RetroPie working on the ASUS Tinker Board, although that is still very much a work in progress. Many of these single board computers lack the software/driver support that the Raspberry Pi has, so although technically faster on paper, supporting them can be tricky. RetroPie is not an OS, but a package of software installed on top of an existing OS, so we are limited to the support included with the official Linux distributions.