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Selecting Save on the Games We Make, Part 1

What happens to games after they're released into the wild? What about the documents, source code, and other materials? In this follow-up to his Where Games Go to Sleep series, John Andersen speaks to more developers and archivists about preservation.

John Andersen, Blogger

February 23, 2012

19 Min Read

[In his original three part series, John Andersen polled a variety of companies across the globe to find out about exactly how the history of the game industry and its efforts is being preserved. In this latest installment, he dives deeper into the museum issue, and also finds out what some more developers have been doing to preserve their materials. Where Games go to Sleep: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.]

In the previous three-part feature Where Games Go to Sleep, Gamasutra presented troubling stories of discarded video game production material ranging from lost source code to tossed-out production documents.

These stories included anecdotes of video game source code being rediscovered in the most unlikely locations and saved from bit-rot or the landfill. One such anecdote was how the source code of Sega's Sonic Spinball, once thought lost, was discovered in the garage of a former director of technology who had previously worked for the developer.

To save Intellivision game source code, one former programmer had to track down the hardware used to originally program the games -- which, at the time, was stored in an attic and bought at auction. The programmer was finally able to access the source code on its original magnetic floppy disk media, and then ultimately save them by copying it onto new PC-readable storage media.

Many developers and publishers also shared concerns about older video game development hardware breaking down, preventing game production assets from being accessed, and halting the potential re-release of classic games.

In the same previous three-part feature published last year, 14 video game developers and publishers discussed how they preserve their video games for future audiences. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony were among the video game developers and publishers, based in both North America and Japan, which responded with answers.

In this official follow-up, Gamasutra has reached out to the video game industry once again to ask: How important is it to preserve your video games for future audiences? The same four questions asked in the previous feature were sent to video game developers and publishers around the globe in mid-2011. The industry discussion of video game preservation for this article has been expanded to include indie developers, who were also invited to answers the same four questions.

Approximately 82 developers and publishers were emailed questions, a total of 22 responded.

An August 1990 letter from Squaresoft listing release dates and suggested retail prices for King's Knight (NES), Rad Racer II (NES) and Final Fantasy Legend (Game Boy) sent from its Redmond, Washington-based offices.

The developers and publishers that responded for this first follow-up are: D3 Publisher, Disney Interactive (Warren Spector of Junction Point, a Disney game studio subsidiary), Firefly Studios, Kemco, Monkeypaw Games, Natsume, Richard Garriott, Square Enix, Team Ninja of Tecmo Koei, and Treasure. Their answers are presented in the first part of this article.

The indie developers that also responded to the same set of questions are Bigpants, Dejobaan, Hemisphere Games, Kloonigames, Mommy's Best Games, Paradox Interactive, Playdead Games, Metanet Software, Ronimo, Semi Secret Games, Spooky Squid Games and The Behemoth. Their answers will be presented in a second separate part.

Part two of "Where Games Go To Sleep" previously explored how established museums, universities, and historical organization were preserving video games. Throughout 2011 there have been major developments with these organizations.

The ICHEG, (International Center for the History of Electronic Games) based in Rochester, NY received archive donations from Microsoft and a personal collection of material from Ken and Roberta Willams, co-founders of Sierra. The ICHEG also received financial grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and Rochester's Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.

Other video game museums, not previously featured in the former article, are beginning to make headway in either opening up or expanding permanent museums and exhibits. The Videogame History Museum reached its Kickstarter goal and raised over $50,000 to make its collection more mobile for display at various game industry and culture events across the country. The museum is currently digitizing its archives and aims to open an actual physical museum in the Silicon Valley area.

The American Classic Arcade Museum based in Laconia, New Hampshire (also known as FunSpot, and featured in the documentary The King of Kong) is also actively seeking donations via its website to purchase new arcade games to add to its expanding collection. A recent successful online collection drive allowed the museum to acquire Space Dungeon, Solar Fox, Black Widow, Discs of Tron, and Mad Planets arcade cabinets. The same private collector who sold these arcade cabinets to the museum graciously donated an additional three games that include Minefield, Stratovox, and Armored Car.

Another museum that is making progress is Spilmuseet, a privately owned video game museum in Denmark that first opened in 2002, home to over 500 different computers and video game consoles, with a collection of over 7500 video games. It also maintains 750 original arcade machines of both American, Japanese and European games, along with approximately 3500 arcade PCB's (printed circuit boards) in their collection.

"By law, games should have been collected and preserved as cultural heritage in Denmark since 1998, but today only a few hundred games exist in the public collections, compared to millions of preserved books, movies and music recordings. As such Spilmuseet has been working for several years with members of the Danish parliament and government to be designated as an official cultural institution with the notion that video games should be treated equally as cultural media. If an official cultural designation is given then the entire collection of Spilmuseet will be secured for the future and publicly available as originally intended by the law," says Rune Keller, owner of Spilmuseet.

Warren Spector, of Disney Interactive Studios subsidiary Junction Point, was one of the developers that responded to the questions for this article. Spector explains in detail just how important it is to preserve video games:

"It's important for all publishers and developers (and even some gamers) to preserve our history for future generations. Unlike earlier media, like film and television, which were born at a time when historians and academics tended to focus on an established canon of 'important' works and 'great men', video games were born at a time when the cultural gatekeepers were more open to new ideas, new thinking and new media."

"Where the early history of film and television has been largely lost thanks to industry indifference and academic ignorance, we have a chance to preserve our history, before our pioneers pass away, our design documents, marketing materials and beta builds disintegrate or get trashed, and our hardware deteriorates to the point of inoperability. The fact is, over the last 40 years or so, we've seen the rise of the first new medium of expression and communication since the rise of television and not to preserve our history would be a crime."

Spector previously wrote his Masters Thesis in film history, discovering that many movie studios had trashed their paperwork, development materials, contracts, etc., from the film era he was studying. He points out that Disney has preserved a significant amount of its film history and legacy, but that challenges lie ahead when it comes to interactive entertainment.

"Disney, in particular, has been better than most studios when it comes to preserving its own history and making that history available to scholars (and, thankfully, crazy game developers like me!) But it would be a stretch to say the urge to preserve has translated to the interactive side of things. I guarantee you we're saving everything at Junction Point but I can't speak for every division of Disney's game business. And in discussions with folks from the Disney Archives, it's clear that they'd like to add game preservation to their list of priorities, but it's still so unclear how we preserve the artifacts of game development."

When asked about the challenges of maintaining, transferring or retrieving source code, Spector immediately points out that the hurdles are not technical, but personal.

"The biggest threat is indifference. Most people making games see what they do as ephemeral, as not worthy of preservation. Who cares about an early design doc for any one of the thousands of games released each year? Why bother saving a T-shirt given out at E3 to promote the release of a game? Will anyone ever care about the September 1st draft of the schedule for a Mickey Mouse game?

"It's tough for people, in the heat of development, to answer 'yes' to questions like that. Getting people to care is the real issue. Then, it's getting people to devote time, space and money to store and preserve documentation and, yes, code and hardware."

Though Spector is clear on the fact that the industry should work to preserve its history, he realizes another realistic issue is at hand: the financial hardship that museums, universities, and historical organizations face to preserve games.

"The issue is money. These institutions are fighting for survival in a down economy and an age of cuts to academia. They need support. If they get it, our past is secure. If they don't, our history will be lost like that of so many media that came before us."

A Dragon Warrior II NES flyer from Enix America Corporation sent from its then-Redmond, Washington based offices. Note: Ironically, it was during this 1990s time period that Square and Enix, which later merged, each maintained offices three miles apart from one another -- based in Redmond, near Nintendo of America.

Game designer Richard Garriott also shares the same opinion as Spector, pointing out just how much of an educational impact video game preservation has while adding a comparison to cinema.

"Now that our industry has some age to it, I am regularly amazed at how many important lessons are being passed over by developers and gamers alike. Just as early cinema is important to preserve for viewers and creators alike, so is early gaming".

The UT Videogame Archive at the University of Texas recently chronicled how a student from its own School of Information helped with its efforts to preserve Richard Garriott's Ultima II: Revenge of the Enchantress. Garriott has donated an enormous amount of his own development material to the UT Videogame Archive. Garriott discloses that some of his very early material is completely gone forever:

"Most of the digital code has already migrated to more modern platforms. It's my original games on paper tape which are already a complete loss," says Garriott.

"Our industry should work with the network of museums that have begun to archive our history to be sure we do a better job than the film industry did of its early work."

Understanding the role that museums play in our lives is Firefly Studios of London, the creators of the Stronghold game franchise. Firefly co-founder Simon Bradbury recalls visiting the Science Museum in London, seeing how valuable everyday household items from decades ago were, and how fascinating they seem now. Understanding this history, Firefly places the preservation of its own legacy as a top priority, but points out the industry as a whole faces one obstacle:

"As a medium, video games have the mammoth advantage of being digital, the result being that the only barrier to resurrecting forgotten gems is often a legal one (if the contract is still live). It's important to us, but equally the main reason we do it is because it's vital that we back-up core game content anyway!"

Firefly was the first of many respondents that brought up one method of game preservation that is becoming the norm: cloud storage.

"Firefly is actually pretty comprehensive when it comes to game preservation. We store core game content for all our titles -- so source code, art assets, audio, design documents and marketing material are all safely backed-up, both locally and remotely via cloud storage. In addition, we keep peripherals like patch files, scripts, and localization kits on file. The thought of throwing away or deleting content that people spent days, weeks or months on is too much to bear!"

Bradbury has backed up his own game source with each new computer he's owned, optimistic that perhaps this code could someday be used within an updated graphics engine for a new OS. However, he is realistic about the difficulties of preserving the new online worlds that Firefly has since created.

"Looking forward, people tend to take a rather relaxed view of game preservation because they trust the big companies to store the necessary data and hobbyist console and operating system emulators to allow people to play them, albeit illegally. MMOs like our own Stronghold Kingdoms could potentially be worse off, because so much of the gameplay revolves around hundreds of thousands of players interacting with each other. Even then, who's to say that one day people won't endeavor to recreate these communities in some kind of virtual re-enactment? As I said before, the main obstacles are probably going to be legal ones."

Exhibiting a retro game that has never been previously published outside its native country has its own obstacles. Utilizing emulation can work to simply showcase the game in its original form, but having access to original game source code would allow for a new translated release, according to John Greiner, president of Monkeypaw Games:

"Games are an asset and should be treated with care and respect. Many game companies are complacent about saving their assets in safe places. The most important asset is the source code. It is very hard to find original source code for most games."

"Our business model imports games from Japan to the West. We rarely have the luxury of original source. In our case, Sony emulates the games from the original packaged good. So we can still deliver games from 15 or 20 years ago. But having original source code would allow us to do full translations and localizations."

On the other hand, he's also bullish on the cloud. "Cloud storage allows an even more stable condition so we should see source code loss become less of a problem as we move forward. That's good for the retro business."

When asked if the video game industry should work together on researching solutions on how to properly preserve source code and production material, Greiner suggests that the realities of the industry will make it tough:

"The fact is, most companies are too busy to think about if a title will become a reusable asset in the far future. They are most concerned with getting the game out to market. Of course, best practices should dictate proper preservation and storage. But reality operates on a lower level."

Volume One of the "Kemco Seika VIP Nooz" publication originally sent out to Kemco's mailing list members in the Spring of 1990, showcasing Kemco's NES lineup for that time period.

The reality for Japanese game developer and publisher Kemco -- which has strong roots in the 1980s arcade and NES eras -- is that it's been out of the game console business for seven years, but it's still developing games for mobile platforms. Kemco manager Masaomi Kurokawa states that although the industry should work together to preserve video games, Kemco simply cannot afford to do it.

Kurokawa states that although Kemco does care about preserving its legacy and allowing players to rediscovers its older games, Kemco does not utilize any special storage methods or locations to preserve its material:

"We just keep all materials in our office storage closet. We keep game contracts, game documents, packaging, source code, the other data (graphics, movies), and the other materials from the Famicom. Kemco USA's materials were transferred to Japan and are now in our storage."

Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun) president Masato Maegawa believes that each game developer and publisher should be solely responsible for the storage and preservation of its own game data, adding that it has its own preservation methods in place:

"We have been transferring data from old media to reliable present media. Particularly as for the source code written in C, it is much more important to transfer because, we can make effective use of it. I am quite skeptical that the source code written in assembler of the 8-bit era can be used in the future."

The American branches of D3 Publisher and Natsume declined to answer each individual question, but instead offered brief statements regarding their game preservation stance.

D3 believes game preservation is important but declined to reveal the overall process of how it archives its content.

Graham Markay of Natsume -- publishers of Harvest Moon -- states that each developer it works with is responsible for archiving its source code, adding that it does archive its marketing material and packaging of the titles it publishes:

"Most of our titles are licensed, therefore the source codes belongs to the original publisher/developer. Those titles that we do develop or co-develop (Cheer We Go, Princess Debut, etc.), usually the development team responsible for the coding holds onto the engine.

"Preserving source code and older titles is something that Natsume Inc. really does not have to do. We do backup (digitally) everything that is important to us... marketing material, video game packaging, etc."

Aware of their enormous fan base and the impact its games has on audiences worldwide, Square Enix believes preservation of its intellectual property is important, as a corporate communications spokesperson for the company explains:

"The sum of our works is more than a 'catalogue' -- it's a history of our evolution as a creative organization. Our heritage plays a large part in defining our identity -- we're proud of the journey we have made with our fans -- it's one way we appeal to new audiences as well."

"Today, a person's first experience with a Square Enix game may be on any one of a number of new platforms. In this context, we are proud of our library which draws upon well over two decades of rich game creation heritage."

Square Enix notes that it keeps source code, technical documentation and other production materials "safely and properly managed in multiple secure locations". It has also been copying its source code of developed and published titles from their original formats to updated storage media.

Square Enix did express concern about the industry working together and with other organizations to research solutions on how to properly preserve game data, citing confidentiality issues, while still recognizing that it remains an issue for the entire industry as a whole.

A "Coming Soon" flyer from Tecmo showing Ninja Gaiden, Tecmo Bowl and Tecmo Baseball for the NES.

Yosuke Hayashi, leader of Tecmo Koei's Team Ninja, supports game preservation from a technical and historical point of view (citing the importance and recognition Sega's Virtua Fighter has received from the Smithsonian Institution). Hayashi does, however, share the same concerns in regards to the security of its game data, concerns that are similar to those of Square Enix.

"Source files are the heart and soul of every idea. As these are all in digital format, there is always a possibility of these being copied. As well as storing these carefully, I think that we need to also think as to how we can protect these with high-level security measures. In order to also be able to establish the origin of each source code, I think that we should also start thinking about embedding a cryptography key into the source code as well."

Team Ninja and other departments within the company utilize different methods to back up their own data, along with other materials, as Hayashi explains:

"Some of the methods for back up that we take are that we back up files, tools, etc. -- everything that is digital format. And all digital data is stored in a server room, and we frequently back this up onto different media storages just in case."

"For marketing and design assets, our other departments store that separately on their own devices to make sure that this data is also safe and sound."

Hayashi speaks here about how perservation has been implemented at Team Ninja, and how the lack of preservation practiced in the NES era directly impacted the team:

"All these problems that have to deal with legacy devices are threats that really make some bad days over at the office. At Team Ninja, we have been aware of this problem since the mid '90s when we released the first Dead or Alive in 1996. At that time we decided to give up using floppy disks to back up data and instead relied on servers to back up information. Since servers are fairly standard nowadays, thinking ahead like this really helped us to prevent unnecessary data loss over the years."

"One of the challenges that we faced here was when we had to port the original NES version of Ninja Gaiden to the Xbox Ninja Gaiden. The problem is that we couldn't pull out the program data for the ROM because, at the time, the team wasn't really concerned about data backup. The source data ended up being the assembler, and the whole source was inside the EPROM."

ROM refers to the read only memory of the completed cartridge; EPROM refers to an early development version of the data on a special cartridge.

When the same questions regarding game preservation were presented to indie developers, cloud storage and storing game data in multiple locations were mentioned repeatedly. Developers maintained confidence that "on the cloud" storage and multiple backups take care of any preservation concerns they have.

There were some indie developers that were overall not very concerned with game preservation, but more concerned about surviving in a competitive market, confident that digital distribution services are a type of preservation itself. One indie developer bluntly stated it does not preserve its games and hopes others will, while another indie developer hopes to open source his games in the future. The answers of these indie developers will be presented in the second and final part of Selecting Save on the Games We Make.

Author's note: The four questions posed to the developers and publishers in this part and their complete answers are available as a downloadable document here.

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About the Author(s)

John Andersen


John Andersen has provided an array of product consulting services to video game developers including: Mitchell Corporation, G-Mode, and Coolnet Entertainment. He has also provided anti-piracy assistance to a number of different game publishers. Along with Gamasutra, Andersen has contributed to TeamXbox, Gamespot, Retro Gamer Magazine and Serious Game Source. An avid fan of the indie arts, he indulges himself in animation from Russia, alternative comedy, bad movies, and musicians that deserve more recognition. Andersen graduated from Syracuse University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Information Management & Technology.

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