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Is game preservation a losing battle?

Preservationists talk about the challenge of safeguarding and documenting the industry's past, present, and future

The field of game preservation has grown considerably in recent years, but it hasn't been keeping pace with the growth of gaming itself.

"We need more people," says Andrew Borman, digital games curator at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY. "We need more support in terms of money and time to be able to do things. Just as an industry, we will always need more. As more and more games are being created, we're going to require more people and time to preserve those things."

Borman has been working at The Strong for almost five years now, but has been doing preservation work in games for nearly two decades. At The Strong he handles a collection of about 65,000 game-related objects, with hundreds of thousands of magazines, books, trade catalogs, and other printed material on top of that.

He is well-versed in the challenges associated with game preservation to this point, and quick to note that preservation efforts in some areas have been quite successful.

A glimpse of gaming history preserved at The Strong. (Image courtesy The Strong, Rochester, New York)

"When you look at [preservation around] retail games in the pre-Xbox One/PS4 era, they're in pretty good shape," Borman says. "There are plenty of people out there buying things, plenty of people backing things up. There are exceptions to those rules being that there were exclusive digital titles, but for the most part, a lot of retail games will be preserved, and I don't think that many will be missing."

But as the industry has increasingly moved beyond boxed products and embraced digital distribution, Borman says things get a lot trickier.

Modern complications

"Nowadays physical copies -- as great as it is they exist -- they either don't have a complete copy of the game, they have an old copy of the game, or they just serve as a license key to download a copy of the game," Borman says. "So physical copies are not going to be the magical preservation tool for much longer as time goes on."

"Physical copies are not going to be the magical preservation tool for much longer"

Andrew Borman

That sentiment was echoed by Chris Young, librarian and curator of the Syd Bolton Collection at the University of Toronto Mississauga. The UT Mississauga preservation program hasn't been around as long -- it was kickstarted when the university acquired Bolton's collection after his death in 2018 -- but it consists of 14,000 games, 5,000 magazines and a range of other materials and is large enough that it still hasn't been fully documented by school staff.

"For preservationists, it's going to be a lot harder to preserve games like we'd been used to before now, which was just having access to the cartridge or disc and preserving it based on that," Young says, adding, "The way the game environment is now, games have become very contingent in the way they're constantly updated. Keeping track of the changes to those games over time is pretty much impossible, to a certain degree. Some of these mobile games that came out 10 years ago, they look nothing like they do now because they've been updated so many times with patches, new storylines, interfaces, menu systems..."

Even if a developer were to keep a copy of every update and tweak they ever make to a game, that doesn't solve the problem if the game is dependent on an older version of middleware that is no longer available, or abandoned APIs.

"I've spoken to developers already who have worked on games that use language recognition APIs from companies that have either gone out of business themselves or have just gone past that product," Borman says. "So even if you have the game developer with their source code and everything else for the game, they still can't make it work because those services just don't exist anymore."

Lawyer up

And then of course, there's the question of whether or not preservation efforts run afoul of companies' intellectual property rights. Young calls it the biggest issue he's facing because it makes it challenging to make these older games accessible to anyone beyond having them visit a room where the collection is stored in order to access or study pieces.

"This question is becoming more precarious because companies will release a game with a mandatory online connectivity component to it where you have to sign on to a server," Young says. "And once that company shuts down that server, whether it's in a few years or ten years, no one can access that game and the legal route to come up with your own server to run it and let people use it is legally precarious for the person or organization that wants to do that."

Borman says there are some Digital Millennium Copyright Act exceptions that allow for researchers to circumvent copyright protections like a company no longer running authentication servers to allow single-player games to work -- he gives Tron Evolution as one example -- but that only goes so far.

"Legally, we can bypass that," Borman says. "On a technical level, it's a lot harder to do that. That requires time, and then you think about all the other games you have to do that for."

"For us at the university, how confident are we that if we start to make materials accessible in certain environments that we're not going to be sued?"

Chris Young

Fair dealings laws in Canada and fair use laws in the US may appear to give academics the right to make copies of games available in educational settings for research and study, but Young says that right hasn't been tested in court, creating something of a crisis of confidence for preservationists subject to those laws.

"So for us at the university, how confident are we that if we start to make materials accessible in certain environments that we're not going to be sued by certain companies?" Young asks. " Until enough organizational groups are confident enough to do it -- and if they do get sued, they win the case -- it's hard to know what the path is going forward."

The Syd Bolton Collection has been made available for students and researchers alike. Image courtesy of University of Toronto Mississauga Library, Archives & Special Collections

A past in danger of becoming history

While many of the most visible preservation efforts in gaming concern the PC and console space, mobile gaming accounts for more than half of consumer spending in the industry these days and presents a massive preservation challenge.

One of the big challenges involve consumer habits around phones. Players and storefronts and collectors may swap old game systems between each other fairly freely, but old phones don't generally get the same treatment.

"One of the first things that many people do when they get rid of their phone is they also format it," Borman says. "They remove things like contact information, and the quickest way is just to reset your phone. So whatever games were on there are completely gone at that point. The likelihood of getting data already is quite low, but then you think too about how there are so many different phones out there, each one is essentially unique in a lot of ways. The methods of access for a Razer phone aren't going to be the same as an LG Chocolate phone."

Technology like on-demand game streaming further complicates matters, but Borman seems to accept there's no perfect way to save a lot of what happens in gaming today.

"If the goal is to preserve a working copy of every game, we've already lost"

Andrew Borman

"If the goal is to preserve a working copy of every game, we've already lost," Borman says. "We know for a fact there are games out there we'll never see again. And there's no chance to preserve a streaming copy of something that's a playable version, unless you work with the developers. You could work with the developers and get a copy, but that's not even the same way to play it. If I was running it off a local machine, that's not the same as playing it over the network."

The end result is that in the future, anyone who wants to understand what gaming was like circa 2022 is going to have to do so without the help of being able to actually play the game.

"For preservationists, it's going to be a lot harder to preserve games like we'd been used to before now, which was just having access to the cartridge or disc and preserving it based on that," Young says. "I think what will end up happening is we'll just have to have different ways of preserving those histories, whether it's through recorded gameplay, oral histories, and other methods to capture that kind of data for people to understand this moment in the game industry, say, 20 or 30 years in the future."

Borman agrees, saying, "Video will be a powerful tool, especially for all these games where there isn't that sustained effort to make emulators and that sort of thing. If you get video of cellphone games, that's better than nothing. I would of course love to have a playable copy of all these games -- that would make life easier -- but 100 years from now, the easiest way to know what a game was may be to just watch a video of it. At least for some of these less popular games or games people are less interested in."

That century timeframe is one Borman refers to multiple times in our conversation.

"Eventually our original hardware is going to die, so video capture is going to become increasingly important"

Andrew Borman

"Our approach here at The Strong is that we're looking at it in a bigger picture," he says. "What is it that researchers today and researchers 100 years from now are going to want to know about the video games we're playing, the industry itself, and all the other issues surrounding video games?"

That means preserving things like fan reaction to announcements, trade catalogs only seen at E3, developer source code, focus group results, scholarly books about games and more.

"Eventually our original hardware is going to die, so video capture is going to become increasingly important," Borman says. "And while there's a lot of it out there on YouTube right now, that doesn't mean 100 years from now that same footage is going to be accessible."

Preservation for profit?

Not every preservationist's goals are so wide-ranging. There's the Embracer Group, for example, which in spring of 2022 launched its own games archive initiative in Sweden, and already has 50,000 games, consoles, and accessories in its collection. The publisher now employs five people in its effort to obtain and preserve physical copies of every version of every game released.

"That's a big enough scope to have because we have big ambitions and we hope to have a quite extensive archive and collection of games and gaming accessories and hardware," Embracer chief archivist Natalia Kovalainen explains.

"We don't know really if we'll ever make money out of [preservation] because that's not the reason for having it. It's like any cultural institution or library"

Natalia Kovalainen

Unlike schools and non-profit museums, the Embracer effort is being pursued by a for-profit company. When we ask what the business case for such an expenditure is, Kovalainen doesn't try to make one.

"As we see it, we're trying to promote and preserve game and gaming history and culture. And we think that's something that needs to be done. It doesn't really have any monetary [earnings] at the time and we don't know really if we'll ever make money out of this because that's not the reason for having it. It's like any cultural institution or library."

Embracer Games Archive is just starting and already has a massive collection of games

Borman is glad to see Embracer's new interest in preservation take off, partly because he wants to see more large physical collections around the world made available to researchers, and partly because "the best preservation starts within a company."

"As they get going, theoretically they'll have a built-in relationship with dozens, or hundreds of studios to where they could foreseeably put all those company archives in one spot and create something that is really quite impressive and really important to preserve video game history," Borman says.

Unfortunately Embracer Games Archive CEO David Boström and Kovalainen stress repeatedly that it is still very early days for the initiative. The collection isn't open to the wider public or researchers just yet, so a lot of the benefits the collection could have are more aspirational than actual.

Kovalainen says the team has only been working together for about five months, but left open the possibility of working with studios across Embracer's sprawling corporate family tree to help them preserve their games using best practices.

Embracer's willingness to pursue preservation efforts without that business case is simultaneously encouraging, but also a reminder of something that keeps other publicly traded companies from following suit.

"Apart from the obvious examples of Super Mario or big blockbuster titles, unless there's a financial incentive for them to bring back to life the more esoteric games, they're not going to do it," Young says.

That's actually been one of the early use cases of the Embracer Games Archive. Boström says he's already helping companies out by providing high-quality scans of cover art for their own games, presumably because they had not seen fit to save such items themselves.

That's not to say there's no preservation going on at publishers, but Young says in most cases it's basically a black box, where companies aren't even telling people what they're doing, much less making their games and materials open to outside researchers.

"Journalists have done a good job of capturing some of that [unflattering] history, but I don't think we can leave it up to the companies themselves to tell that history"

Chris Young

Borman agrees it's not always clear what steps companies are taking, but says such private steps are still necessary and welcome.

"We've seen evidence of some companies like Nintendo having great company archives, but for most people on the outside looking into a company, we'll never see much of that," he acknowledges. "I know fans of video game preservation don't really consider that part as being game preservation, but it's important. It's important companies are preserving their own history so some day we may have a chance to actually see it."

Young notes that when companies do preserve their history, what little of it they share with the outside world is generally going to be a glossy picture that ignores any unflattering realities that might have impacted development, like workplace scandals or exploitative business models.

"Journalists have done a good job of capturing some of that history, but I don't think we can leave it up to the companies themselves to tell that history," Young says. "There needs to be some sort of access to have some semblance of bias removed."

Specialization

While Embracer's approach to preservation is very different from that of The Strong, Borman welcomes newcomers to the field.

"As we start to see these other groups form up, they will have their own focuses that help form a more complete picture of what video games are," he says.

For Embracer, that focus is on physical media in all its forms. Boström says it's very difficult to answer questions like how many games were officially released for a specific console in a specific region, with internet sources often providing unverified or conflicting information. If Embracer can realize its goals -- collecting, for example, versions of the original Final Fantasy in every language and regional packaging it was released in -- it could be better positioned to give more definitive answers to such questions.

"That's one of our strong points in the long run," Kovalainen says. "Being able to actually compare different releases of the same game will be a very exciting thing to research."

As for the Syd Bolton Collection, Young says it's heavily focused on North American releases. And while UT Mississauga is interested in acquiring pieces to fill gaps in the collection, it's bigger picture goals would lean more toward preserving artifacts of the game development scene in the greater Toronto area and Ontario more broadly. A rare game is as likely to be preserved by other institutions, the reasoning goes, but there are far fewer people likely to preserve local history.

The Strong's collection is considerably more international -- Borman notes that it has hosted Japanese researchers who found its complete collection of Japanese Nintendo releases from the Famicom through the Gamecube more accessible than anything in their home country -- and its focus these days is more on backing up floppy discs and design documentation.

"Those are our priorities because if we lose those, there will be no more record of them," Borman says. "So that's where we have to focus."

This kind of specialization is likely to evolve naturally, and everyone we spoke to was optimistic that it could lead to greater collaboration between the various schools, museums, and private institutions, with preservation efforts in more established industries serving as a guide.

"No one can do everything at the same time, so we have to work at this together"

Natalia Kovalainen

"There are very few organizations doing this work in any sort of substantive way," Young says. "In other areas like rare books or film, where there are many more institutions doing this type of collecting work, we definitely see more people refer donors, saying, 'This doesn't quite fit our mandate but this institution over here collects those so you should offer your material to them.'"

Whatever form it may take, Kovalainen says collaboration is key.

"It's very important for us to be part of the preservation community and part of this overall joint effort everyone is doing because we can't do it by ourselves," she says. "No one can do everything at the same time, so we have to work at this together."

As for what today's developers can do to help preserve their work for the future, Kovalainen says it's helpful to have work saved in archival file formats so it can be opened and examined decades down the line, while Borman just wants them to save everything.

"Save their work," he says. "Save the source code, save the documentation, save video. Save it in a way that it's not going to be found on an auction site; reach out to an organization. We're happy to give advice, to accept donations of much of that material. We're here to help. We need the games industry as much as the games industry needs organizations like us to preserve things."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry International in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at CBS-owned GameSpot in the US.

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