The Lament of the Vanishing Game
Not every article of media gets properly preserved. There are all sorts of movies, TV shows, and books thought to be gone forever. If we are fortunate, they may be rediscovered, but it’s unlikely. But what about video game preservation?
One can copy electronic data infinitely, which should make storage and distribution of video games an easy thing, especially for older games whose file sizes are tiny by modern standards. Yet a game can have proprietary hardware that makes it difficult or impossible to emulate, or it may have had an extremely limited run, or it may have an online-only component that will cease to exist in the future. This last point is my main area of concern.
Many games require an internet connection to play, with many of those eschewing even a basic offline mode. PC games, with the frequent assumption that the user is always online, are most guilty of this. MMOs are still gigantically popular, even in the shadow of World of Warcraft. But what happens to the online games whose numbers wane? They can disappear. Permanently.
This has already happened. The Satellaview for the Super Famicom required players to be online at specific times in order to play the games for it. After 2000, the servers that ran these games ceased to operate, meaning that it is no longer possible for anyone to play these games, which include several official Legend of Zelda ROM hacks. People have dumped ROMs of the Satellaview games only to end up with empty shells. The servers containing the majority of the game’s content are gone forever.
And a similar fate awaits many MMOs. Granted, if an MMO is popular, there will probably be fan-run servers kept up for decades. There are still Phantasy Star Online servers out there, and Final Fantasy XI and World of Warcraft will probably remain preserved for eternity. But do you see anyone trying to run their own servers for the likes of Age of Conan or Tabula Rasa? Those games simply no longer exist. Not even the companies who own those properties have access any longer.
At least BBS door games of the early to mid 1990s are still small self-contained files that one can rehost as multiplayer games if given enough work. Here’s an adaptation of the most famous one. But the modern MMO? They’re going to disappear eventually. Even low graphics MMOs like Kingdom of Loathing.
This didn’t bother me in the past, since I didn’t care much for MMOs. Selfish, but true. But now DLC and DRM are more popular than ever, despite the grumblings of old codgers who would rather have expansion packs instead of DLC, and nothing instead of DRM. This means that there are now online aspects to games of all genres, and when those games stop being supported, that material will vanish unless its creators are kind enough to release it as free offline extras.
So maybe Squeenix will eventually sell a version of Dragon Quest IX for the DS that comes with all the DLC stuff so they don’t have to keep the servers running forever. But less popular games aren’t so lucky. I doubt the extra puzzles for the Professor Layton games are a top priority for any kind of preservation.
If a video game company is magnanimous, they may give away their old games for free, either as a promotion for a newer game or simply out of kindness. For example, Sierra gave away their 1993 game Betrayal at Krondor as publicity for their upcoming 1997 game Betrayal in Antara. (I tried Googling for a mention of this, but couldn’t find it anywhere but my own memories. If anyone has a source, please let me know in the comments.) If they are exceptionally kind, they might even release the source code. As much as fans appreciate it, no one has any legal or moral obligation to do this.
It’s also possible for a company to sell their unprofitable properties to a smaller company that wants to take on responsibility for them. For example, the MMO Hellgate London had its servers shut down in 2009, but the license was sold to a Korean MMO company in 2011. You can still play it online today thanks to their efforts.
Fortunately, there are those who wish to preserve video games in their original state. The ZapCon convention is one of these. But, failing that, a DRM-free digital version would be nice. The Internet Archive, famous for retaining old versions of websites, has also made great efforts to preserve old games, software, drivers, etc. In some cases they even offer multiple versions of the same game for further posterity.
There is another method of preserving games: Piracy. “Abandonware” and other types of dodgy sites distribute games for free and without permission. These are usually old games, and are often games whose developers and publishers no longer exist. Illegal, yes, but morally justifiable and rarely punished. Sometimes pirates care about games long after their creators have forgotten them.
Still think I’m paranoid? P.T., a game in the Silent Hill series, disappeared from the Playstation 4’s online store on April 29, 2015. Fans speculate that it may be because Konami recently fired Hideo Kojima and he was the director for that game. Regardless of the reason, P.T. can no longer be downloaded. If you don’t have it already, you can only experience it by buying a Playstation 4 from someone who has. Or through Youtube. Even if you had downloaded it in the past, as soon as you delete it, it’s gone forever and cannot be replaced. This is the future of DRM-laden digital distribution.
DRM, DLC, and apathy are all factors that cause games or portions of games to disappear from history. My advice to the creators of games that are out of production and becoming endangered is to release them for free to the public without any strings attached. This isn’t always feasible financially and legally, but it is always merciful.