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The Future of Games: We Need To Protect Our Past

The Future of Games: We Need To Protect Our Past

Mon 29 Jul 2013 8:05am GMT / 4:05am EDT / 1:05am PDT
Development

With two of his games gone from the App Store forever, Will Luton asks if there's a better solution to preserving old games than piracy

"The farther back you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see" - Winston Churchill

In the last year I've seen two of my games silently slip from the App Store never to be playable again. This set me thinking on a problem that is unseen over the hubbub of next-gen chasing: we are losing access to our past.

Our games run the risk of becoming inaccessible as the data evaporates and servers retired. This danger is made more likely by self-interest of individuals and corporations, yet is fought against by those we criminalise. Here is why we need our history and how we can protect it.

"Our games run the risk of becoming inaccessible as servers retire. This danger is made more likely by self-interest of individuals, yet is fought against by those we criminalise"

In 1888 a group of well-to-do Victorians shuffle exaggeratedly around a garden in Leeds, West Yorkshire. This scene is remarkable in that, 125 years later, it's the oldest captured on film. Today it is readily available on YouTube within seconds.

Film, seen as culturally important, receives a comparatively liberal level of support of its antiquities. The British Film Institute, a charity afforded a Royal Charter, promotes the cultural and creative importance of film by protecting, restoring and distributing its relics.

What this meticulous preservation of film affords the world is an insight into the solution the medium discovered: The first reverse angle shot, the evolution of the montage et al. This informs academia, giving rise to formalised theory that pushes film forward.

Additionally, the collection also exists as a documentation of a society's constant metamorphosis, silently detailing, for example, how stresses of war gave rise to comedy escapism and sci-fi invasion allegories. Films, it is seen, documents a time intentionally or not.

Meanwhile, videogaming history remains largely ignored. Phoning the National Media Museum, who digitally remastered the 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene footage, resulted in voicemail boxes of since-departed staff and nobody knowing who, if anybody, ran their own National Videogame Archive.

"Firing up MAME is much more realistic than sourcing, transporting and installing a four player The Simpson Arcade Game"

As an industry we regularly spout videogaming's financial dominance over Hollywood yet we seem to shy from the discussion of our comparative cultural relevance, ostensibly afraid of our own perceived vacuity.

Yet video games have incredible cultural relevancy. Our industry has already seen movie tie-ins (both ways), Andrew Lloyd Webber pop songs, national moral panic, international crazes and IPs as recognisable as Disney's finest. But this is just the start. Mobile devices and the social web have expanded our reach well beyond the traditional boy's club, whilst the indie revolution allows thousands of creators to make experimental and non-commercial titles that challenge conventional wisdom and stagnant genres.

Videogames are significant in the lives of more and more people every year whilst academics struggle to formalise models to build understanding. Yet, despite private collecting increasing, the public cataloguing of our games falls to those we criminalise: pirates and hackers.

P2P file sharing has allowed for game data to be preserved, from dumps of original carts, discs or files on a scale happening nowhere else. The most obscure or forgotten game is today passing in binary from machine to machine via bittorrent, ensuring it's perseverance for generations to come. Meanwhile hackers are removing DRM, circumventing security and reverse engineer hardware to create emulators that allow the data to be usable.

However, this data is messy and the user experience sucks. Aligning the moons of ROM, emulator, config files and operating system is the kind of command line witchcraft that can make controllers meet walls at the pace of rage.

But still emulation is considerably more practical as a reference than the real thing. Firing up MAME is much more realistic than sourcing, transporting and installing a four player The Simpson Arcade Game for the sake of "seeing how they do the bonus stage".

"A single device that can give me complete unfettered access to the complete history of video games delivered digitally on a pay-per-title or Spotify-like subscription"

All of this frustration and law breaking has made me fantasise for a better solution: A single device that can give me complete unfettered access to the complete history of video games delivered digitally on a pay-per-title or Spotify-like subscription where I get great experience and license holders get paid.

The practicalities of licensing is likely to make this an impossibility for all but the most dedicated of startups, leaving devices like Ouya to occupy a middle ground of distributing emulators but no content. A no-win situation for all.

However, whilst many physical media games are emulatable or otherwise playable to a high degree of accuracy, non-standard controls systems aside, the new generation of always connected, always updating gaming is not such an easy proposition.

With EA's closure of The Sims Social and Pet Society, both important titles in the evolution of F2P and social gaming, is their legacy lost? Or indeed will we be able to study FarmVille's transformation by rolling between versions? Or are these games simply transient leaving only a recorded, non-playable history? Will hackers afford them the same level of reverse engineering that they have World of Warcraft which surely survive any official server closures?

I am unsure of the answers to any of these questions, however I am sure that these games, like all games, are worth protecting and preserving. Yet that protection requires the cooperation of a great number of parties.

I hope that as more and more social games get shuttered that the companies behind them provide the knowledge and access to technology, such as server code, needed to keep them in some form playable for ourselves and the next generations of game makers.

Furthermore, a British Film Institute equivalent is needed to not only protect the physical and digital history of video games, but also promote it. At the very least a company commercially exploiting these games by offering a library that is consistent, accurate and accessible for immediate play, offering a viable and legal alternative to piracy.

We need all these things to happen because if we lose contact with our past, making the future becomes much more difficult.

28 Comments

Nicholas Lovell
Founder

183 166 0.9
This is a great point, Will. I don't know the solution, but I do know that cultural artefacts provide an insight into social history that can be hard to find elsewhere.

Maybe the British Library should step up? But it's much easier for a library to insist that a publisher sends a single copy of every book to them than it is to imagine how they could preserve, say, Pet Society.

Posted:A year ago

#1

Eric Pallavicini
Game Master

259 165 0.6
We have more or less private museums like this one but we definitely could do with some foundation (funded by the industry?). Steam (indirectly) and mobile games are also the platforms of many old games/franchises being revived. For online games it may be a bit more complicated than for offline ones (with the exception of "private servers" - which means that companies don't always need to provide the source code "willingly", since some people manage to extract it time to time) but at the end of the day nothing is impossible there either.

Posted:A year ago

#2

Sam Brown
Programmer

235 164 0.7
I think about this mostly in the context of Mass Effect. Besides the games there are novels, comics, films, etc. that are considered pivotal to the plot. Initially they were just remote backstory, but just prior to ME2 they started using them to set up the games. In other words you really need to experience all of the media to get the whole story.

So, when the auth servers for the games finally get turned off, not to mention the DLC servers (particularly for ME3 as DLC for that was only available through Origin), what happens to the story? A dedicated fan is left with a massive hole in their re-experience. It's going to be like being able to read or watch anything in the Star Wars universe except the films. O_o

The problem can't even be solved by leaving it installed (as it can with most mobile games) as the auth check is done on startup, not install. One can only hope that IP owners release anything they cease authorising into the public domain. After all, they clearly don't intend making any more money from anything they don't authorise any more, and it'd give them good press. Far better than "Evil corporation snatches games from paying customers," anyway.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 29th July 2013 10:39am

Posted:A year ago

#3
If the iPhone is a serious gaming platform (which it is) it should get the same abuse the big 3 get for not providing backwards compatibility.

Updates to the device shouldn't break old games.

Posted:A year ago

#4

Tom Keresztes
Programmer

632 239 0.4
So, when the auth servers for the games finally get turned off, not to mention the DLC servers (particularly for ME3 as DLC for that was only available through Origin), what happens to the story
Pirates solved this problem years ago.

Posted:A year ago

#5

Sam Brown
Programmer

235 164 0.7
Pirates solved this problem years ago.
Agreed. However the subheading of the article does ask "if there's a better solution to preserving old games than piracy". ;)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sam Brown on 29th July 2013 11:02am

Posted:A year ago

#6

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

479 444 0.9
This is an issue I've been raising for a while now. As we move more towards games being an on-going service, more and more of them are being lost to history when their servers shut down. I have my original BBC Micro at home, and (as long as the physical media holds together) I can still play all my old games on it, 30 years later. A lot of modern games don't even last 30 months before part or all of the experience becomes unplayable.

Developers and publishers generally archive their old products, but when a company goes to the wall, what happens to all that data? Say Zynga shuts down one day, does that mean that it becomes impossible to recreate Farmville? Now that THQ is gone, what happened to all their old games that weren't picked up in the auction by other companies? An independent archive could ensure that at least a cross-section of potentially significant titles are preserved for history, whatever the vagaries of technology and business may throw up in future.

Posted:A year ago

#7

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

730 411 0.6
With the recent release of the PC Gamer "Top 100 games of all time" list this issue was on my mind. There were very few games outside of the last 5-10 years and Skyrim was #1. Now, I love Skyrim and I think it's a great game but (and I know it's subjective) I don't think it's the #1 of all time.

Then someone mentioned that the lists are just amalgamations of the current editorial staff's knowledge of the gaming landscape and I had to wonder whether any publications ask for an in-depth and broad gaming knowledge or even provide a library for their staff to educate themselves with? I mean, looking at films or novels, the past informs or understanding of the present (as is discussed in the article) and without that knowledge then our decision making and critiquing are sorely undermined without that context.

Posted:A year ago

#8
Here is a thought. Sell it on DVD/CD. it will never get lost. Maybe its too backwards to the futureproof?

Posted:A year ago

#9

Nicholas Lovell
Founder

183 166 0.9
Regardless of what you think of new business models, that is not a solution to all types of game. MMOs. Competitive shooters. Words with Friends. They *need* an online component. Anything which lives in the cloud (for whatever reason) poses an issue.

And it's the job of an archivist to record the present, not to change it to make their lives easier.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Eyal Teler
Programmer

75 73 1.0
Storing games at the British Library or Library of Congress is an obvious move, but I think we will need laws to make developers (or publishers) send the full source code and assets to be stored, not just the finished games. Games are a problematic art form because they are tied to a platform, and these platforms change very frequently. Source code and resources are the best way to guarantee an ability to salvage games in the future (even if not easily).

Games are also problematic in that they're a changing art form. World of Warcraft of 2013 isn't the same game as in 2004 or 2008. When archiving it would be interesting to archive such games several times over the course of their lives.

Still, even the simple act of storing every released game at a library would get us a lot closer to preserving games for the future.

Posted:A year ago

#11

Shane Sweeney
Academic

349 250 0.7
Many of the ROMs online for region specific titles like unlicensed Brazil Master System games and Australian unlicensed NES games were dumped by me in 90s. I was involved quite heavily in the tools and conventions for the Cowering naming convention to classify and archive ROMs. My area is in digital preservation and throughout the 2000s thousands of people have been dedicated to archiving our culture despite important communities like Underground Gamer being taken down. Obviously in 50 years no PS3 or Xbox 360 will be still working so emulation of all platforms is the only way to preserve such platforms for the future.

With copyright lasting life plus 95 years essentially all IP is destined to be sold and resold again until it falls into the control of one of the five major content owning companies. We live in a unique time where video games are a new enough medium that all major video game content producers aren't owned by major Movie/TV/Music companies...yet.

Despite legal issues there is quite a dedicated community to archive, crack and emulate everything on the AppStore. Your games are preserved forever. With such draconian copyright laws as the default no legitimate institution can archive video games even for academic purposes. Even Google scanning and preserving every book ever printed yields constant scorn and lawsuits despite it being an absolute imperative. The concept that Google or similar could try and archive all films, television and video games is so far away that the average citizen must conduct civil disobedience to not lose our past.

Digital preservation is a constant problem though, we have lost 90% of all silent era films and it would be a shame to repeat the mistakes of the past. We have already way to many video game casualties where there is no known copy to exist. Fortunately that became quite rare. The new boom of online titles provides a unique set of problems. Even if we emulate the World of Warcraft servers are we really archiving the types of experiences people were having. The "New Game Journalism" is the response, where we try to record in print or video first hand accounts of the experiences.
http://www.alwaysblack.com/blackbox/ngj.html

But this problem of recording multi-player experiences pales in comparison to the looming dark age. The real trouble will begin when games go streaming and no binary is ever distributed. With no binary, there is no archiving, even for artistic single player experiences. While I have no doubt the successful titles will forever be archived to be sold again and yet again to each generation. I worry more for the more marginalised less successful titles that have equal (if not more) cultural worth. What can the future archivists do to stem the coming dark age of OnLive and Gaikai?

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 30th July 2013 1:38am

Posted:A year ago

#12

James Prendergast
Research Chemist

730 411 0.6
@ Eyal:

Games are also problematic in that they're a changing art form. World of Warcraft of 2013 isn't the same game as in 2004 or 2008. When archiving it would be interesting to archive such games several times over the course of their lives.
@Nicholas
And it's the job of an archivist to record the present, not to change it to make their lives easier.

It struck me when reading these two comments that youtube and other game capturing services like "let's plays" are archiving the current experience of playing games...

Posted:A year ago

#13
@ James
yeah, they run that list all the time, One,its funny that it changes year to year, and second as you point out, its clear they have very little knowledge of the games of the 80s.
But I guess thats the point of this article, if not preserved the history of this industry and hobby will be lost.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 29th July 2013 5:21pm

Posted:A year ago

#14

James Boulton
Tools & Tech Coder

131 168 1.3
Currently piracy is the best way to archive games, for sure.

It would be nice to have some kind of body which would preserve a non-drm version of a game for archival purposes. One of the issues in archiving current media is drm protection -- the image you are archiving may well be completely useless to play again due to physical media or electronic drm. However this does mean a developer would need to produce a non-drm version for archival purposes (assuming the drm is intrusive to the game code), which I can see wouldn't be popular with developers... :) And not to mention the cost of storage and administration, I'm sure that'd soon rack up a hefty bill.

In general don't think you'll ever get a better way of saving the past than piracy. Content is cracked such that it works drm free and put into compact distributable form and then widely spread such that it is very unlikely to cease to exist. Plus this is all done by the masses for free. As much as piracy isn't popular, it certainly does a bloody good job of preserving things for eternity.

Posted:A year ago

#15

Roland Austinat
roland austinat media productions|consulting

122 59 0.5
@Chee Ming Wong, I tried to install my original Interstate '76 CDs the other week on my Windows 7/64 machine. Did not work.

Then I tried to rip the soundtrack off the second CD for a FLAC treatment. Read errors on the last three songs. And the disc was clean and not scratched.

Not sure that DVDs or CDs are future proof.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Roland Austinat on 29th July 2013 7:08pm

Posted:A year ago

#16

Christopher Bowen
Editor in Chief

402 526 1.3
Here's the real problem:

If we gave the choice to the publishers of every game, ever, 98% of them would choose to make it so their game could never, ever be archived, for any reason. It's simply not in their financial interests to allow this without getting a heavy cut. Who cares if the company eventually went out of business? That's back there.

So there is literally no reason for companies to not go online for everything. There is no reason to not run Farmville, or Candy Crush, or any game where, once the company shuts it down, it's game over. They can make those people move onto the next game. Twenty years later? Who cares about that? I won't be here, you won't be here.

It's a horrific mindset for the consumer, but honestly, the consumer has no real say in this unless they break the law by hacking. It's a tough position.

EDIT: To clarify my earlier statement: if you asked every publisher from the 80s that's still around if they wanted to pull their games, 100% of them would make every ROM, ROM hack and other archival form of video game that we rely on today disappear. "But I have no other way of playing Devil World!" "That's nice. We'll release it as a 3DS VC game for $6... if you're lucky."

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Christopher Bowen on 29th July 2013 11:33pm

Posted:A year ago

#17

Meelad Sadat
[a]list daily editorial director

51 30 0.6
if i had a quarter for every time i thought this:
"A single device that can give me complete unfettered access to the complete history of video games..."

Posted:A year ago

#18

Shane Sweeney
Academic

349 250 0.7
No physical medium can be archived safely. Distributed storage is really the only long term view. Original copies of mediums are also worth preserving as a separate exercise though.

@Christopher Bowen
Another real issue is that many of the titles deserving to be saved have such complicated and poorly understood copyright statuses. I am less concerned about losing to time the Marios the Call of Duties the Freespaces or even the 1984 Alley Cats. I am worried about losing the titles that have already been forgotten. Who owns the copyright? Waiting for a copyright owner to step forward simply will not work.

A current preservation mission would legally have to assume everything is copyrighted unless shown otherwise, a completely impractical solution. Google faces this same issue with books and has decided to scan all books within copyright or not. This is truly the only solution but they must make the legal groundwork so we can all benefit.

Other legal factors include that despite copyright lasting over 100 years their is no expiry on cracking DRM. So in most western nations if a piece of Public Domain material is locked behind DRM it is still illegal to crack the software. Video games are in a unique legal position where emulating them is permanently illegal in the currently legal climate even if in the public domain. This and many other legal barriers result in any meaningful preservation attempt is driven underground.

Thank you Will Luton for writing about this topic.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Shane Sweeney on 30th July 2013 3:45am

Posted:A year ago

#19
@ Roland I am not sure if there is a "futureproof" system as Most media suffer degradation at some point even with redundancies. I doubt if we'll go back to magnetic tape or ROM either.

I am guessing the only way to ensure longevity will be the Onus on the developer to ensure their code, game copy in whatever format it is supplied is deposited at some sort of archive for future prosperity as a alternative to the private hands of citizens/piracy

In addition, with the amount of bloatware apps, its tricky to figure out what a archivist feels they want to store for continuity ad infinitum

Posted:A year ago

#20

Keldon Alleyne
Handheld Developer

427 403 0.9
@Shane: emulation software isn't illegal, just JIT emulation (via a patent if I remember rightly). In fact there are a few legally released classic games from either SEGA or Nintendo that actually used an open source emulator to execute their game (which was eventually discovered by the developers).

@Roland: how about running it under a virtual machine
A single device that can give me complete unfettered access to the complete history of video games delivered digitally on a pay-per-title or Spotify-like subscription where I get great experience and license holders get paid
Spotify-like subscription games service. First person to make work will become an overnight billionaire for sure!

Posted:A year ago

#21

Alfonso Sexto
Lead Tester

768 575 0.7
That is the reason why I love emulation and GoG.com The more the time that passes the bigger the number of tittles. Maybe not all of them should be kept (Road to hell does not deserve it, if you ask me) But it's a pitty that right now it's almost impossible to find things like Syndicate Wars or Heimdal 1 and 2

Posted:A year ago

#22
spotify games service sounds grand. I guess Gaikai goes halfway into that?

Posted:A year ago

#23

Christian Keichel
Journalist

577 790 1.4
@ Keidon
emulation software isn't illegal, just JIT emulation (via a patent if I remember rightly).
As I understood Shane, he meant the emulation of programs can be illegal, even if the games is in the public domain, when you have to break the DRM to run the program, because breaking DRM is illegal per se in certain areas of the world.

On Topic:
I too think game preservation should be enforced by law to be effective and I too think current copyright laws are hurting any private preservation measures (the takedown of Underground Gamer as one of the biggest archive for video game preservation - not only games, but also magazines, manuals, video game adverts, etc. did harm to the idea of the community doing the preservation). But I also see, it's unrealistic to think that copyright laws will be changed or that governments will pass a bill to force companies to preserve their games. This may change in longterm, but in short- and midterm the situation will be the same.

The only thing that could be done right now is a commitment on the side of publishers to voluntary preserve their games, art assets, source code, etc. Unfortunately most players aren't aware of the problem, it's unlikely that consumers will build up enough pressure to force publishers to do so.
This leaves the developers, What about an initiative amongst independent developers to preserve their games for the public in an archive and make these games accessible to the public, once the developer stopped making money from the game? I think this could help to raise awareness amongst players for the problem and it would help to build up pressure on the big publishers to do so as well. And even if this doesn't work, it would certainly help to preserve at least some more games for the future.

Posted:A year ago

#24

Posted:A year ago

#25

Richard Nunn
Graphic Designer

6 2 0.3
@ Alfonso SextoSyndicate Wars is on GOG.com!

As for the topic:
Roms and Emulators seem like the perfect way to store offline games. I play my old Spectrum games like Chaos and Laser Squad on my iPhone for example. Some online games on the otherhand would be nearly impossible to save though as patching can be near continuous on MMO's. Also, even if you did choose a 'snapshot' of an online game and saved the code, it would only be useful for technical and purely historical reasons, you wouldn't be able to actually experience what playing the game was like because MMO's are all about the players.

Without the community, games like WOW are not the same.

You could argue that's similar to watching an old classic film, as the film was made for and first viewed in, an older society with different values, and societal norms than our modern day world. Games are far more interactive though and MMO's in particular rely on the players to make them what they are. You can watch an old film or listen to an old piece of music and still get it, especially with reading literature on the subject. Running around in an empty Ultima Online server 10 years from now will give you no indication of what it was like. All you'll get is the technical game mechanics, largely without the context.

All you can do is record the video like on YouTube, or save the html/text from the community forums and blogs, to get some kind of idea, of what it was like. You can't actually archive social experiences.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Richard Nunn on 30th July 2013 4:28pm

Posted:A year ago

#26

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

2,134 1,039 0.5
Oh, good gravy. Preservation with intent to save old games for the future isn't PIRACY, so let's stop mixing this up. Nice article otherwise, arrr!

Posted:A year ago

#27

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