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When digital dies, where does that leave game preservation?
When digital dies, where does that leave game preservation? Exclusive
May 15, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield

May 15, 2012 | By Brandon Sheffield
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    30 comments
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive



[When online games shut down, they could be lost forever. In this op-ed from the June/July issue, Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield argues that the game industry seems determined to lose its history.]

When your game goes offline, does anyone care?

I may be an anomaly, but I play a lot of Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG). They're like the iOS games of the console world -- targeted, often bite-sized experiences that can be had for around a dollar. My taste in games was forged largely in the 90s, when arcades still had a decent presence in the world.

Because XBLIG lends itself to this kind of single-mechanic experience, as well as odd experimental titles like the avant-garde Vidiot Game, I have amassed well over 100 of these games. And I want to keep them -- but it's not entirely up to me.

In order to play XBLIG, you have to have an internet connection and an Xbox Live account, even if the game doesn't support any sort of online content. With rumblings about a new console from Microsoft on the horizon, what is going to happen to the many hours and dollars I've put into these games, if the Xbox 360's online services are no longer supported?

On top of that, Microsoft has asserted that Windows 8 will not fully support XNA, the SDK used to make most XBLIG. XNA is almost universally loved by its userbase - it's pretty much the only Microsoft product you can say that about. But Microsoft is essentially killing it off. Five years from now, if I want to play an XBLIG that I've purchased, what can I do about that? Microsoft may come up with a stopgap solution -- but what about 20 years from now?

There's an even larger problem with games whose multiplayer resides on private servers. Most games have some content that is only accessible through multiplayer, and when those private servers shut down, that functionality is forever lost. MMOs that shut down tend to give players credits toward future games, which is a small concession (I say, if I payed 40 cents for a Purple Sword of Smiting, I want to keep it).

But then there are games like EA Sports MMA. That game came with an online pass, which was the only way to access the game's online content. It came free with new boxed copies of the game, but used players had to buy one in order to gain access. The MMA servers were shut down in March, and content people paid for was lost forever.

I live still!

At a certain point, beyond the human drama and cries of money wasted on the consumer side, this becomes a preservation issue. The teams that made these games worked hard on these creations -- if people can't play them, how much do we really care about our art? We live in a complex digital landscape, and greater efforts should be made to preserve the experience of these games. If we had anywhere near the preservation efforts seen in other industries, I would be able to play EA's MMA title 20 years into the future if I wanted to.

Preservation has largely been left to well-intentioned hackers, ROM-dumpers, and coders of emulators. There are private groups like OnlineConsoles.com, for example, which continue to privately serve games from the Dreamcast and PS2 eras. But given the affordability of scalable cloud servers and the importance of maintaining our digital heritage, a larger push is necessary, and within reach.

Any self-respecting company should preserve the work of its employees. With every game that stops getting served, and with every service like XBLIG that gets taken down by a console shift, hundreds of hours of developer work get tossed aside like so much trash. We have to care more about our industry than that.

Not two months ago, I went to a showing of Abel Gance's Napoleon, a silent film from 1927. It's not your average film. It's a nearly six-hour epic, and the finale is shown across three separate screens, creating a panorama view, complete with different tints on each screen - a sensory overload unheard of for the time. It's impressive even today.

Huge sections of this nearly 6 hour epic silent film were presumed lost forever, until they were found in the 1980s and restored. There are still pieces missing, even now. Since that time, the film industry has learned a lot about preservation, and has several organizations that work together to preserve and restore older works. These organizations have set up preservation guidelines, so we never even have to worry about losing our ability to see crap like American Reunion, 50 years into the future.

Napoleon is a difficult experience to replicate, though. You need a full orchestra to perform the score live. You need three projectors running the film at the right speed, three screens, and a theater that can accommodate all of this. Because the film industry cares about its history, I was able to watch this film in almost the same way an audience in 1927 might have.

Can we say the same in games? In 20 years will I be able to take a group of friends and play Ultima Online? If I wanted to discover the early days of the Korean online game scene, and learn about the roots of microtransactions first-hand, could I? How will I play a 3DS game?

In a recent feature on Gamasutra, Frank Cifaldi proved that we can't even accurately pinpoint when Super Mario Bros. came out in the U.S. We can't tell you with 100 percent accuracy when one of the most popular games of all time was released in the world's largest console market. This is how behind we are.

I've written before about the importance of preserving our digital culture, but as we move to an increasingly online-based industry, it is even more important that we set up guidelines for preserving content as soon as possible. We may not need to preserve every game out there, but then again, who knows what will be perceived as important in the future?

How many painters were underappreciated in their time, only to be lauded later? Compared to how many game players there are in the world today, and how many developers it influenced, how many people have actually played MUDs, the foundation of our online game worlds? I can look at a Van Gogh painting, even today. But can I play Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast?

It is my assertion that an organization that already gets funds from large publishers and developers -- such as the ESA or IGDA -- should be leading the preservation charge; defining best practices, collecting games, and figuring out how to serve them at low cost. If we don't make this happen, we forget our history. Would anyone care about Van Gogh if he were just a legend, and we could never see his work?


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Comments


Joseph Anthony B. A. Tanimowo-Reyes
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This is why, when my current project is completed, if received well, there will be a physical edition in the works immediately, to be made available at a later date.

This is a big problem, and not enough is being done about it - not enough will ever be done about it unless people wise up before it's too late.

Wolf Wozniak
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A small extremely limited physical copy of the game is the answer.
Maybe even a year or two after the digital release.

Joe McGinn
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Physical edition will help you less and less ... any true online game requires a vast/complex infrastructure on the back end. When that's turned off your disc gives you bupkis.

Not sure how you solve that either (though I agree it is a shame). Let's say TF3 or League of Legends dies off, stops making money. Running the backend is *expensive*. Who's going to pay for that?

Kyle Redd
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I can think of a good solution: All publishers could take a pledge to release an offline, DRM-free version of all their single-player games after a pre-determined time frame, or once sales drop below a certain threshold. This would ensure long-term preservation and ease fears of loss of ownership on the part of the gamers.

Of course, I can't imagine any of the major publishers would actually agree to this, since it would conflict with their goal of creating the expectation of an online requirement for all games in the minds of consumers. This way they can eventually fully transition to the "games as a service, not a product," when no one will ever own a piece of software ever again.

Instead, every single game will require a monthly fee to play, forever. Once you stop paying, your game is lost. The concept of modding will become pure fantasy, forbidden in a world in which all content, no matter how miniscule, will cost money. There will not be a single aspect of any game that is not rigidly controlled by the publishers. Gamers will beg for a return to the good old days of online passes and overpriced avatar costumes.

This is the inevitable future of the industry, unless the people with the power and influence to prevent it start taking action (I'm talking to you, independent developers).

Kyle Redd
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I've been waiting for nearly half a decade for someone in the games industry to write an article that actually takes this issue seriously. So thank you for that.

Now, how long will we have to wait until someone in the industry asks these very important questions to the people who actually make the decisions? Instead of just typing up a thoughtful editorial, when is someone going to pick up the phone and ask Microsoft, Nintendo, EA, and all the rest of the publishers why they are now permanently deleting content that their customers have paid for, and that their developers have worked hard to create and would like to see preserved?

This is even more infuriating to me. Because now, as the glowing reviews for Diablo III start rolling in, everyone here knows that the likelihood of any of the major gaming sites even *mentioning* this issue in any of their reviews is virtually zero, let alone that they will take it into account before dishing out a 5-star rating with an editor's choice award. And then some day 10, 20, or 30 years from now, Blizzard will shut down the servers for the game and it will be gone forever. Of course, they'll give the standard excuse of how the costs are too burdensome and that "only one percent of our customers are playing the game" or some such crap.

And since it won't be the hottest game on the market anymore, no one will care, least of all the totally unbiased "journalists" whose job it is to actually take these sorts of problems seriously. No, I imagine GameSpot will simply parrot the official statement from Blizzard PR and leave it at that. Over at IGN, Colin Moriarty will write a full-throated defense of Blizzard and tear into anyone who complains as just a bunch of whiny gamers with an inflated sense of entitlement (that's the prevailing wisdom in the industry right now isn't it? All of us bitchy consumers with entitlement issues?).

Yeah, I think we all know how this is going to play out. Just as always-online DRM has become an accepted, "necessary" component, so will games with expiration dates attached. People will complain but no one will listen, because all the publishers care about is the first week, first month, maybe even a couple of years of good sales for long-tail games. But once sequel time rolls around, the game fades from the popular conscience and it's time to pull the plug. Wouldn't want any thrifty folks out there to think they can take a pass on the latest and greatest $100 flagship experience, would we?

Eric Feliu
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Good article. This has been a problem since the beginnings of video games. Sure you can play Space Invaders on an emulator or one of the many ports, but how many people own a dedicated Space Invaders cabinet? Only the hardcore fans of the game or collectors will be playing Space Invaders as it was in it's glory days.

The people that want to play these online games in the future will need to find a way to host the servers themselves so they can still play these games when they are officially no longer supported. Don't get me wrong, I am for preservation of games too. I just don't see this as a new problem and it will never really be solved for everyone. It's not the game companies who are dropping the ball it is the fans in my opinion. If fans care enough they will work on preserving the games they love in the future. Saying the industry needs to do more is a little silly when the fans are too lazy to work towards preservation themselves. I think the game companies will help out if the fans take some initiative and stop expecting others to do all the heavy lifting.

Paul Shirley
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How exactly do you propose fans do that without the cooperation of rights holders? They can't even reverse engineer protocols without risking prosecution under the DMCA, can't strip DRM to enable locally held copies, can't run server based games without copies of the server software.

Fans basically cant legally do a damn thing without the rights holders moving first.

Hakim Boukellif
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The problem that there often is no way to host a server yourself short of making a server emulator (which is a lot of work, requires specialized skills and is possibly illegal), despite that it doesn't have to be that way.

Think about this for a moment: why is it that Netrek, a game from 1988(!), can still be played online, yet in a few months it will no longer be possible to play Metal Gear Online, a game that came out in 2008? Can the fans really be blamed for that?

Jeffrey DiOrio
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This is a vitally important topic for all gaming stakeholders (from developers and publishers straight through to consumers) and I applaud Brandon and Gamasutra for trying to raise awareness.

Please note that there is "someone" who is picking up that phone to dial Microsoft, Nintendo, EA and all the others and not asking why are they permanently deleting gaming heritage, but instead assisting them to preserve it. In an ironic example of timeliness, the following article just ran last week over at GamesBeat:

http://venturebeat.com/2012/05/04/museum-presses-save-button-on-g
aming-history-interview/

Full disclosure, I authored the article. Having said that, I cannot speak highly enough of this organization. They are truly doing the entire industry a great service. In the end however, as much as someone can help facilitate things, some impetus has to come from within. It always helps to have a gatekeeper however.

Eric Feliu
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@Paul Shirley

Have you personally contacted a publisher about preserving a game? It might take more effort than sending an email or two and being ignored.

@Hakim Boukellif

I am thinking if the game is no longer supported and you get permission from the publisher you can get around the legal issues you mention. We are talking about games that are no longer supported correct? Netrek looks like an open source project that has been fan supported from the very beginning so it is no surprise it is still around. I think a lot of the burden for preservation of games rests with the fans. You know the people who really care about the games? Publishers are always looking at the bottom line and developers are too busy working on the next game to pay the bills.

Hakim Boukellif
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Even if Netrek only had a single, commercial release, it would still be possible to play it online today. Actually, I used Netrek because of its age, but I could've used pretty much any 20th century online multiplayer game instead, commercial or not.

Anyway, if you start working on a server emulator once support has ended, it's already too late. There's no longer an official server to read network traffic from, so you can't reverse engineer the protocol any more.

Also, this isn't just a problem for existing games, but also for games that are in development right now, or will be in the future. Currently, many games are made in a way that's not "preservable", even if doing it this way isn't necessary for the functioning of the game. This is a trend I think should stop.

Jason Wilson
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A similar worry I have is with games being hosted online how easy it is for IP owners to change the game. While fixing bugs and making a game more stable is great, updates to content in essence completely change the game and the original game can virtually no longer be played. I can no longer play World of Warcraft as it was originally released.

This isn't simply a problem with MMOs. When Portal 2 was announced, Valve released a patch to Portal that modified the ending so that the games were better connected to one another. A somewhat minor change, sure, but the possibility is there for the game to be drastically changed from it's original state.

There is so much hatred toward George Lucas for his changes to the original Star Wars trilogy, but at least if you have a VHS copy he can't touch that. However, with games hosted online, if the IP owner decides to make a change, the original will be forever lost.

Bill Dugan
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Because of hardware and media failure, the only solution is probably the way that Apple II games survive today: an emulator, along with a lot of pirated content that someone did copy from their floppies up to the Internet, where it gets mirrored.

Vicente Cartas Espinel
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XNA games will continue working on the PC fine. Windows 8 Metro does not support XNA, but Windows 8 Desktop supports it perfectly. VB6 programs continue to run under Windows 7 (and will probably work on Windows 8 Desktop), so I don't see why XNA won't.

E Zachary Knight
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This is why I have made the commitment to open source all my games after a certain period of time. I have not determined what that time will be as I am still working on my first release. However, It will probably be close to 5 years or so depending on how popular the game is. It may come sooner, but probably not much later than that.

If you open source your code, the community behind the game will preserve and improve upon it.

Taure Anthony
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I agree with this.

Benjamin Quintero
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http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BenjaminQuintero/20120319/166434/W
hat_Killed_Vide
ogame_Preservation.php

I wrote about this a while ago, but unfortunately preservation is not a priority for games. Games are only perceived as art by a minority. Most game enthusiast see video games as entertainment, not a work of art. Video games are no more artful to the mass consumer than a monopoly board or a college text book.

The fact that games are digital and can be duplicated, unlike Van Gogh, devalues their worth and viewed as an easily renewable product, something to enjoy then toss aside for the next thrill. The media is just as guilty as any gamer as well. There has been rumors and discussions, articles and editorials, all floating around, talking about what's next, next, next. New consoles, new games, we need clicks for our site so let's post a rumor about Xbox 1080 now. That's just how this business works, it thrives on sensationalism and that doesn't often mingle well with the artistic crowd.

The PS2/Gamecube generation was the last generation where you'll be able to put a disk into your console and play it without DRM servers, activation codes, DLC codes to get the other half of the game, creating cloud profiles to weakly justify the big brother tactics, and so on. Since the beginning of this generation of consoles, games have been genetically altered for monetization. There was a conscious thought process to ensure that large investments could see a return, which is why indie games have gotten the attention they have this generation. Indie games focus on game mechanics, not monetization, and even those indie titles may have to resort to monetization tactics to survive.

Enjoy this generation of games now, this will probably be the last time you can play them. Eventually everything will be going to subscription-based cloud streaming services where you have as many rights to your games as you do the movies you watch on Netflix. Like Netflix, games will come and go from the service and you have no power or ownership of the content you want to enjoy. Welcome to the future of digital entertainment; please insert your credit card now if you'd like to learn more!

Chuck Bartholomew
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Several years back, Virgin Interactive shut down their servers for the game then known as Subspace. The fans responded by pooling their resources, purchasing the rights to the game code, and launching the game now known as Continuum. The community made the server and client code available to everyone.

Jeff Aldrich
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This is the realm of needing a serious, concerted effort to set up a non-profit organization. Not only to preserve games but maintain history and educate. If this became a reality, game companies would be foolish not to donate funds, retired games and even the hardware to preserve them. What a great way to not only preserve games themselves, but also the history and lore of the companies and people themselves. What a great future resource for game companies themselves to do research, get ideas and just plain smile when they get nostalgic about the good ol' days when designer X threw a hissy fit at producer Y during the creation of a game. So many details could be preserved.

Matt Coohill
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Am am very optimistic that the next Xbox will get this right for the next rev.

For consoles, backward compatibility from generation to generation has always been a problem. I think some of the technical issues of backward compatibility with discs will no longer plague backward-compatibility and that emulation and patching will allow people to keep their old purchases.

I am optimistic that the major players (Nintendo, SONY and MicroSoft) will follow the lead of the App marketplaces (Amazon, Apple, etc) for smartphones and tablets. Those consoles will be either download-only or a majority download with physical (jump-drive?) media as a more pricey option. I would hardly be surprised to see them adopt a WiFi-only box or a more expensive WiFi+mobile option like the Kindle. A pay once fee upfront but all DLC downloads are all free.

It's true that our fate is in their hands. If we assume they want people to move to a DLC-only world, they'll have to make sure that we trust it. The very first step is keeping our old libraries as we move forward. Without that, consumers will have much less incentive to invest in next gen DLC as it will seem like it will have an expiration date every console cycle.

Benjamin Gifford
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One game that I think did get it right when it comes to preservation of a community's passion and desire to play a game that is no longer supported is Dynamix with Tribes 2 and the entire player community that currently supports it over at www.tribesnext.com.

Buck Hammerstein
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tech research has proven that it is not the "storage device or format the data is on" that dies or is corrupted but the death of the "player" otherwise known as the playback machine.

8 tracks still will work, the problem is having a working 8 track player. the data for your xbox live game is still on the machine is fine order, it's the player not being able to log online that "kills" the game.

anyone want to lend me a laser disc player?

Duong Nguyen
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Most modern games have a multiplayer element maybe multiplayer only.. that can't be archived since u can't get a hold of the servers (custom technology and configuration). Future game historians will have to make due to videos of these games and hopefully the technology in the future is good enough they can re-create the games with little effort..

Robb Lewis
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Interesting question. All we are "buying" with online gameplay is a rental to use the service for as long as the IP owner wishes to offer it. Heck, even with shrinkwrap software games all we got was a license to use, never ownership. And if the game developer wanted to stop publishing patches that kept games up with current hardware then the user would need to have the older hardware to play. So "digital" is truly digital and even when delivered on a physical piece of plastic had a similar problem with preservation.

IMO if the market demand is there then there will be a company that will emulate these games in virtualization environment and take donations or small subscriptions. Since the user base would likely be smaller they wouldn't have as much infrastructure needs.

Matt Cratty
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I love this article even though it will come to nothing.

The owners of these IPs would essentially sell our internal organs if it were legal, they are not about to pay for storing anything.

This is one of the reasons I buy hard copies of things I want to own forever.

Glenn McMath
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Sadly these days even that isn't enough, as many modern pc games won't even allow you to install them from a disk without access to an authentication server that won't be around forever.

I can't help but look over my shoulder at a pile of Super Nintendo games and think we headed in the wrong direction at some point...

Dave Endresak
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As some have pointed out, this is nothing new, and it is not unique to gaming, but rather endemic with all industries. Just for media, consider how many novels, plays, and other forms of written storytelling have been lost. Now think of music, TV, movies, etc. Now go beyond media and consider other areas such as automobiles, paintings, sculptures, or even items that no one thinks about such as barber and health care items.

Also, this has nothing to do with the idea that games are art. They are, of course, but that's merely one viewpoint to adopt in order to argue for preservation. The more general issue is that games of all kinds are part of culture. Just like other cultural artifacts, they wind up being lost through time, at least until and if some archeologist uncovers them and places them in a museum for preservation.

However, just like the lack of support for supplying basic needs such as food, drinking water, and shelter to everyone, there is no profit to be had in preservation (unless you can charge admission, and that requires sufficient demand, of course, as well as sufficient resources... and it's still profit-driven, not driven by the importance of such preservation for intellectual and social benefit).

John Evans
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I miss Earth & Beyond.

Matthew Mather
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"But can I play Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast?"

Funny you should mention that. Back when I was trying to get a copy of PSO in some format before they all disappeared, I was informed that Gamestop did not sell Gamecube PSO used because it was online-only. I don't know about Gamecube PSO, other than it's over $200 if you try to get it new, and I don't know about Dreamcast PSO. But I was able to get a copy of Xbox PSO, which does have a single-player campaign.

So even if you're not interested in pirate servers (if they even exist for PSO), you can still at least play the Xbox version if you're curious about the offline option.

Josh Fairhurst
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You definitely can still play Phantasy Star Online for Dreamcast - http://www.schtserv.com/

You can even download code to run your own server that people can connect to. They've even added cross platform support for the game, so Dreamcast players can play with PC players and vice versa. Also, I think they added some cross platform stuff for Blue Burst and Gamecube - not sure, though.

In any case, yes, you can very much still play it. It's totally beside the point of this article, though. I'm someone who is wary of digital downloads, and very much feel that people are going to be very upset when they start losing access to a lot of the content they paid for.


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