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Gaming's short-sighted treatment of its own history | This Week in Business

Disinterest in making old games easily accessible misses out on a modest opportunity now and a much larger one in the future

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

I've been able to interview Peter Moore a number of times over the years, and every time has been a struggle to stay on topic instead of just reminiscing about basically my favorite system of all time, the Sega Dreamcast.

Moore helped launch the system during his days at Sega of America, and helped pull the plug on it while he was there, too. I would understand if he had some complicated emotions regarding the machine's success at building a base of dedicated fans alongside its fleeting lifespan (less than a year and a half from US launch to discontinuation) and failure at keeping Sega in the hardware game.

But Moore's always seemed happy to indulge a trip down memory lane, effortlessly rattling off Dreamcast deep cuts that Sega itself seems to have forgotten about long ago even when he's supposed to be there to talk about his current employer, be it Microsoft, Electronic Arts, or now Unity.

He gives the impression of someone with a genuine affection for that era and the games of the day, whether they were bolstering the Dreamcast or burying it. So I was a little surprised during our recent interview to hear him talk about gaming's inability to sell itself on its history (with the possible exception of Nintendo).

QUOTE | "With games, because of the progression of technology, it's tough to go back. When I was at Sega, man, we leveraged Sonic the Hedgehog every different way you possibly could. But gaming moves so fast." - Moore, when asked how games could do a better job of capitalizing on the history and legacy of the medium.

It called to mind current PlayStation president Jim Ryan's unfortunate comments from a few years back.

QUOTE | "I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?" - Jim Ryan, in a 2017 interview with Time, explaining why Sony wasn't terribly interested in adding backward compatibility for the most successful home video game console of all-time and the gem of Sony's career in games, the PlayStation 2.

Moore's comments weren't quite as discouraging as Ryan's, but they surprised me, coming as they did in a discussion about his three-year sojourn in the world of pro sports as CEO of Liverpool FC.

QUOTE | "Liverpool formed in 1892, and most of our marketing we would do was about the history, the legacy, and the nostalgia. Now we're a very successful modern team, but we stand on the shoulders of giants and we embraced our history because our fans craved that legacy and that history." - Moore, clearly understanding how the idea of historical significance can add to the passion and fervor of a fan base.

As a hockey fan, I can see the power that past brings, with the NHL itself and many of its teams holding their past up front and center, giving whatever happens in the present added significance. As a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, I know it doesn't even matter if that history is a successful one. There is something captivating about being part of a legacy that stretches back generations, no matter how unpleasant parts of it might have been to actually live through.

Obviously gaming has only been around a handful of decades, and we're not yet at the point where there are many lifelong gamers old enough to instill in their grandkids the same kind of generational love that sports teams can receive. But it doesn't sound like Moore thinks we'll get to the point where gaming history is capable of leaning on history the way sports do, even given time.

QUOTE | "I worry a little bit that we get nostalgic for the old games and we go back and play them and go, 'Eh, it wasn't quite like I remembered.'" - Moore again, bumming me out.

I mean, he has a point there. Human memory is amazing, but it is also garbage. We smooth out rough edges of our memories, confuse and conflate details, and go back to games we loved as kids and wonder when the controls suddenly got so unwieldy or the AI got so cheap. But this is not unique to games.

QUOTE | "It's really more about the IP. With Liverpool, I could go back into the archives and show footage from games in the 1930s and people would lap that stuff up. You tapped into that warm feeling." - Moore, who apparently thinks people won't tolerate the aging of games when they will "lap up" blurry, scratchy footage of pro athletes from an era when cigarettes could be marketed as health products and who would be rewarded for their efforts with a maximum of £8 a week (the equivalent of £20,000 today for a 37-game season) even though the alternative is brilliant 4K coverage of athletes who had a personal trainer before they lost their first tooth and dedicate themselves body and soul to the sport because the rewards are worldwide fame and money in equally obscene measures.

But the reason sports fans will watch old games is specifically because they are so different. They're time capsules from eras fans either grew up in or never experienced, and for diehards they're a fascinating document of how much has changed, from the quality of the competition to the tactics on display to the way the game was marketed and consumed. The chance to see a significant moment in a club's history, the opportunity to relive the "glory years" of the thing they built their identity around, is just a bonus.

There's already ample evidence that people will pay for this with video games, enough that you can actually see the market splintering into a variety of options. Hyperkin has built a tidy business on selling its Retron clone consoles that emulate old systems economically. For those with a load of old cartridge and disc-based games, Polymega offers an emulation console that can support more than a dozen old systems for a total of $650, with adapters to add even more systems on the way. It even lets you rip those games to a hard drive to limit wear and tear on the original media.

For those who prize accuracy above all, Analogue makes a number of FPGA systems replicating single platforms like the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis for about $200. It continues to roll out new products, with a $200 system running games from NEC's TurboGrafx line of systems and a $200 Analogue Pocket that runs Game Boy games and can be fitted with adapters supporting four more platforms.

One common thread between these offerings is that -- at least with the high-end ones -- the companies can't make them fast enough to keep up with the demand. Some of that is no doubt due to the pandemic, but Analogue systems were routinely selling out years before COVID-19.

This market may be too small to be worth the attention of a Sony or a Microsoft today, but instead of investing in it now to reap greater benefits down the line, platform holders have taken a fairly antagonistic position toward these most dedicated and passionate of players. Playing old console games is, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass. Aging hardware breaks. CDs get disc rot. Is that cartridge dead, or just in need of a more thorough cleaning? You probably need to figure out a way to convert the signal to HDMI because modern TVs don't support the original inputs.

Backward compatibility is a great feature to address this, but companies only ever seem to demonstrate a passing interest in it. Rather than create ways to legitimately preserve and enjoy the games we already own, they would rather remake and re-sell a small subset of those games ad nauseum or rotate them through a subscription service while tossing the rest straight down the memory hole, sending their legal teams after people circumventing copyright protections to keep these games available and accessible because nobody else will.

I know this isn't the easiest problem to solve. The variety of formats and the walled gardens of consoles have always been designed specifically to give the platform holders control over who can play what and how. But their insistence on holding onto that control long after the platforms themselves are discontinued is a missed opportunity. The apparent lack of concern or interest in preserving the experience of live service games -- the hostility toward fans setting up their own servers to relive the games in certain eras, for example -- is similarly short-sighted.

I have some hope Microsoft might be coming around on the issue. It's agreed to relax its grip on Xbox repairs following pressure from activist shareholder group As You Sow, and has so far looked the other way as a number of emulators have become available for Xbox Series X|S for those willing to do a bit of fiddling (and shady ROM sourcing). Neither step really addresses the problem directly, but both show a willingness by the company to at least put aside the traditional platform holder's insistence on control, a necessary first step here.

In the short term, the industry is leaving a little money on the table by not doing a better job of preserving its past and making it accessible. In the long run, it's missing out on far more and undermining gaming's ability to trade on its history.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "I would also like to see a world where the games that we make at PlayStation can be enjoyed by many tens of millions of people. Perhaps hundreds of millions of people. Right now success with the current console model, a really great PlayStation hit you're talking ten or 20 million people being able to play that game." - PlayStation president Jim Ryan's comments suggest Sony views the "current console model" as limiting its potential. (I'm including this here because even though PlayStation Now and Sony's PC ports suggest the same thing, the company's comparative lack of enthusiasm for them have been more indicative of a company perfectly comfortable with the current model that seems to be doing just fine for the moment.)

STAT | Six hours - The length of time Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus, and other services were down this week due to self-inflicted configuration errors on Facebook's part. Oculus owners were unable to use their pricey VR headsets during the outage because the company last year started requiring users be logged into Facebook accounts.

QUOTE | "Was just on phone with someone who works for [Facebook] who described employees unable to enter buildings this morning to begin to evaluate extent of outage because their badges weren't working to access doors." - New York Times tech reporter Sheera Frenkel provides evidence that no matter how much they mocked the Empire for building the Death Star with a clear single point of failure in its torpedo-sized exhaust port, the nerds of Silicon Valley are utterly impervious to any wisdom or insight contained within their favorite sci-fi films.

QUOTE | "Online videos play a huge role in our lives now, particularly for children. But many people see hateful, violent or inappropriate material while using them. The platforms where these videos are shared now have a legal duty to take steps to protect their users." - Ofcom chief executive Dame Melanie Dawes explains why the UK communications regulator is insisting platforms like Twitch and TikTok do more to combat a variety of inappropriate content on their sites, or face fines and suspensions of their services.

QUOTE | "Their community is a disgusting toxic cesspool." - The stated motivation for the person who posted a link on 4chan to a 125GB torrent that contained the source code for Twitch, along with creator payout reports, proprietary software development kits, and word of a Steam competitor Amazon is working on under the name Vapor. They also said they wanted to "foster more disruption and competition in the online video streaming space."

STAT | $9.6 million - The amount of money the No. 1 top earning channel on Twitch was paid over the two years between August of 2019 and September of 2021.

STAT | 38 - The number of channels you have to scroll past before you get to the top-earning woman on Twitch for that span.

QUOTE | "We have learned that some data was exposed to the internet due to an error in a Twitch server configuration change that was subsequently accessed by a malicious third party. As the investigation is ongoing, we are still in the process of understanding the impact in detail." - Twitch confirms the breach publicly, but says it is "still in the process of understanding the impact in detail."

QUOTE | "With the understanding that trans rights is not a political issue, we will allow the team to use either of their original choices as their team name. " - MechWarrior Online developer Piranha Games backtracks on its decision to take action against pro-trans teams named "Trans Fights" and "Trans Rights." The suspension for those teams was initially taken because the game was an inappropriate venue for what the studio called "real-life political discussions."

QUOTE | "Above all, we want to increase the productivity and well-being of our employees. Concretely, we want to reduce the time at work, but increase the quality of this time invested, whether it's on a team-basis or for the studio as a whole." - Eidos studio head David Anfossi explains why the developer's studios in Montreal and Sherbrooke are switching to four-day work weeks.

QUOTE | "They're shielded in their own mind by, 'Oh, I'm a good person, so I have great intentions. Therefore, I couldn't have done wrong, and you are wrong for being offended by my thing in my game.' It's a learning thing that people have to go through, realizing that intention is not as important as the impact of the words..." - In talking about how Double Fine handled mental health issues in Psychonauts 2, Tim Schafer talks about creators who chafe at the idea of changing a game to avoid unintentionally hurting players.

QUOTE | "It's a joyous thing, I can tell you, when you pick up the Herald Sun, or you pick up The Age, and you give it a shake-out, and you don't read how games lead to slaughter of thousands, or that, 'My child sits for 19 hours in front of his computer, and he now weighs twelve stone because I have to feed him along the way.'" - Creative Victoria senior manager for digital games and fashion Fran Kerlin is relieved at how events like Games For Change: Asia-Pacific have helped shine a light on more positive stories from the world of games.

QUOTE | "If you know a person who belongs in our Game Changers feature, email us at gamechangers@gamesindustry.biz and let us know. All we need is a few paragraphs explaining who they are and what they've done to inspire your nomination." - This was from our story announcing this year's Game Changers feature, and is included here simply because we want to plug it as much as possible so we can celebrate the broadest possible assortment of deserving people. Nominations are open though October 18.

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Latest comments (2)

Eyal Teler Programmer A month ago
Selling games based on its history isn't like selling Liverpool based on its history, but rather selling football in general on the history of the likes of New Brighton.
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Alfonso Sexto Pereyra Quality Assurance Manager, DACS Laboratories GmbHA month ago
Most companies do not seem to be interested in preservation if it's not for selling the game again in a pack in most cases.
In this regard, the team behind "Retroarch", its cores and the emulation scene has done more in this regard that then entire industry together.
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