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We're in the era of the perennial game: plan accordingly | Opinion

Technological progress once swept games into the retro bin within a few years, but no longer – publishers must learn about how to support, not destroy, their older titles

How old does a game have to be before it becomes "retro"?

To answer that, of course, we need a working definition of the term "retro." For the sake of argument, I'd suggest that it implies a game which, while quite possibly fondly remembered and even beloved, has now fallen outside the window of what might be considered a contemporary game, thus becoming a historical curiosity rather than an entertainment product competing for attention with this month's new releases.

Lots of people go misty-eyed at the mention of their favourites from the 8- and 16-bit eras or the original PlayStation, and some may even go back to play them every now and again – but nobody expects those games to compete with modern games or to be judged on the same criteria. We understand that they're outside that window.

So, returning to the original question; how wide is the window? How much time must elapse before a new game ends up being considered retro?

Depending on your age and a few other factors, you may answer that question very differently. For a very long time, console hardware generations gave us a decent line in the sand; within a few years of the PlayStation appearing, the 2D games of prior generations seemed obsolete, while the PS2's vastly improved visuals made PS1 games look outdated.

The line was never perfectly focused, but each console created a step change in consumer expectations that shoved the previous generation's games out of the "contemporary" window.

Today, that mode of thinking seems outdated to the point of being retro itself. We're in the fourth year of the PS5's lifespan, and the notion that a PS4 game could be considered "retro" – or even on the way to earning that label – is nothing short of baffling. Even the vast majority of the PS3 / Xbox 360 era of games is still more or less within the "contemporary" window, especially when given a slight digital lick of paint thanks to things like Microsoft's high quality backwards compatibility systems.

You have to reach back to the PS2 before you start hitting games that most consumers would agree are "old" in the sense of being an artefact of a different generation, rather than being a game that more or less stands up alongside present-day releases.

If that assertion raises an eyebrow for you, consider the data from Newzoo's recent PC & Console Gaming Report, which showed that in 2023, the average years elapsed since launch of the top ten most-played games in the world (judged by monthly active user figures) was more than seven years.

The number is even higher on the PC, where the average age of the top ten games was nearly ten years. Of course, these games are not exactly as they were at launch – most have been updated and patched and given fresh content along the way – but the point remains that players spent more time in 2023 engaging with decade-old games than they did with brand new games, even in spite of the incredibly high standard and commercial success of new releases last year.

In 2023, the average years elapsed since launch of the top ten most-played games on PC was 9.6 years. At the top of that chart is Fornite, launched in 2017, Roblox (pictured above, released in 2006), and Minecraft (launched in 2011)

This speaks to a major shift for the games industry. For decades, this was an industry driven almost exclusively by novelty – with only the first few weeks of a game's lifespan being commercially relevant, and the breakneck pace of technological progress condemning games only a few years old to either fond rose-tinted memories or complete oblivion.

Today, however, this is a medium in which games have much longer lifespans – reaching into decades, in some cases – and the horizon for player interest and engagement with a game is far broader. Many games now have long tails that would have been unimaginable in the past, and while technological progress has by no means stagnated, there was definitely a plateau in the early 2010s where many aspects of game visuals became "good enough," leading to players still being happy to consider those titles contemporary even as they age past the decade mark.

Obviously there is enormous potential in this transition. Games businesses have lamented the lack of a long tail for their products for a long time, and now that tail exists, at least for some games. The companies whose games are in the top echelons of the MAU charts after almost a decade know very well the potential that has been unlocked by this change. However, it has been far from smooth sailing in many cases.

Another side of this story to consider is highlighted by the provocatively-named "Stop Killing Games" campaign, a passionate grass-roots effort by consumers to push publishers to stop disabling games entirely when they shut down their online or live service components.

Games have much longer lifespans – reaching into decades, in some cases – and the horizon for player interest and engagement with a game is far broader

They argue in essence that publishers should have a responsibility to shut down games in ways that preserve consumers' access to offline or peer-to-peer multiplayer content they have bought and paid for – an extremely sympathetic position, and also one which speaks to consumers' own perception of the value of these older games.

This wasn't an issue that really existed in the past, of course, but it's not unreasonable to suggest that it's exacerbated in the present day by the fact that many of the games being shut down and rendered unplayable are still, in players' eyes, perfectly modern, contemporary titles – for which they paid good money not so long ago.

The perspective of publishers on this new reality is rather different, especially if you're one of those publishers who hasn't had an evergreen mega-success propping up the MAU charts for a decade.

Those publishers find themselves instead being wary of the prospect of their existing games being played for years and years; they imagine a scenario where Hot New Game 2024 achieves lacklustre sales because everyone is still perfectly happily playing Hot New Game 2017. Consequently, there has been an unseemly scramble to figure out various ways to ensure that they can continue to extract rent from Hot New Game 2017 for as long as it is being played.

That process isn't without its success stories – it's exactly how those evergreen titles with regular updates and happy playerbases were created – but it has been a disaster in a significantly larger number of cases, pushing development resources into ill-fitting live service elements that ultimately undermine sales and brand value.

A side effect is that the game ends up tied to online servers; when it fails, the publisher pulls the plug, and the game can no longer be played. As Stop Killing Games points out, in all too many cases, even games that could comfortably have continued to be playable with some online features disabled have instead been totally bricked by those shutdowns.

That was probably not intentional (never attribute to evil what can more easily be explained by incompetence), but it's certainly not an unwelcome side-effect if you're a publisher having recurring nightmares about sales cannibalism by your own back catalogue – in which case those sleep paralysis demons will definitely counsel against putting even minimal resources into a final patch to keep the game playable after the shutdown, for example.

It's worth noting that Stop Killing Games' arguments in this regard are pretty reasonable, at least in markets with half-decent consumer protection laws. Those have generally taken a dimmer view of the "oh you didn't buy it, you licensed it, so we can do whatever we want to it" nonsense that companies have taken to waving around like a Monopoly get-out-of-jail-free card for their bad behaviour. And while I don't imagine Ubisoft bricking everyone's copies of The Crew is going to be the straw the breaks the camel's back in terms of regulation, we can add it to the mounting pile of cases of purchased products being shut down remotely without consumer consent that are giving legislators in Europe and elsewhere pause.

Games face a future more like that of movies, with their decades of back catalogue still accessible and enjoyable to audiences... It creates new opportunities – but it also creates a requirement for some people on the business side to calm the hell down

Arbitrarily disabling a product a consumer bought just because you don't make enough money on it any more is generally frowned upon but most authorities would permit it (within reason) if the product is genuinely, legitimately, wholly reliant on your company's online servers.

If, on the other hand, a product that could technically work without those servers, even with more limited functionality, is being bricked because the company failed to allow for this scenario – i.e. it has happened through the company's incompetence or malice (it doesn't matter which) – then it becomes a more interesting case for regulators to consider.

Regardless of what happens to that campaign – or indeed to the live service model more broadly, since its current slow motion implosion may outstrip events in regulator-world anyway – we are still faced with a new reality for games as a medium.

The era in which old games were effectively swept off the shelves by technological progress every few years is over. There will still be new games that wow and amaze with their technical prowess, just as even after a century there are still new movies whose special effects amaze us – but games face a future more like that of movies, with their decades and decades of back catalogue still accessible and enjoyable to audiences. That necessarily requires a transition in how we think about the business models for games. It creates new opportunities – but it also creates a requirement for some people on the business side to calm the hell down and get comfortable with the idea that some of your products are going to be out in the world, being enjoyed, and not earning you a dime, because you already had your dimes from that sale.

Deliberately making contemporary, relatively recent products inaccessible and obsolete with the push of a button is a hell of an escalation

Every other medium in the world has made its peace with this, in one way or another. Books, films, music, television; there are long tail monetisation techniques, to some degree, but more importantly they have created a commercial and cultural environment in which a strong back catalogue into a source of prestige and value, even if it's not directly monetisable at every possible turn. That hasn't always been the first or even the second instinct of the people running those industries; in some cases, even legislation has been required to stop them from trashing their own medium's history in pursuit of the next buck.

This, sadly, is the position the games business is in now. Even as some companies have worked out how to build perennial products, others (mostly those who have failed in that pursuit) have doubled down on slashing and burning, viewing their creative output like disposable consumer products and treating this newfound long-term appeal as a bug, not a feature, since business school taught them that a long-lasting consumer product doesn't create repeat sales.

That this is not sustainable seems obvious.

I've seen legitimate concerns about the industry's failure to preserve its creative history be diminished and ignored at management level in this industry many times in the past couple of decades, but deliberately making contemporary, relatively recent products inaccessible and obsolete with the push of a button is a hell of an escalation – and probably a great way to get the baleful eye of the regulators turned on the industry's practices again.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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