Selecting Save On The Games We Make, Part 2

Gamasutra has extensively covered the preservation efforts of major studios and publishers, but what about indies? In this article, developers such as Dejobaan, Playdead, and Semi Secret Games share their thoughts on what efforts make sense.

[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 queries indies to find out exactly what they're doing to preserve their history. Where Games go to Sleep: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3. Selecting Save on the Games we Make: Part 1.]

Part one of Selecting Save On The Games We Make brought forth answers from major game developers and publishers that have been established in the industry since the early 1980s. The overall questions asked were: Does video game preservation matter? How are the games you've developed or published protected and maintained from obsolescence?

When it came to posing the same questions concerning game preservation to more recently established indie game developers, many of them were overall concerned about the industry issue of game preservation, but expressed confidence that the methods of storage they currently utilize are adequate.

Some developers feel that digital distribution is a form of preservation itself. Their stance brought up an entirely new question: Has digital distribution and new storage methods made game preservation easier for new developers?

The 12 indie developers that responded to the game preservation questions were: Bigpants, Dejobaan, Hemisphere Games, Kloonigames, Mommy's Best Games, Paradox Interactive, Playdead, Metanet Software, Ronimo, Semi Secret Games, Spooky Squid Games, and The Behemoth.

"In the cloud" came up numerous times as the preferred method of storage, as Dave Burke of Hemisphere Games (Osmos) points out.

"I'll be honest and say that a formal backup process isn't really on our minds. These days we do everything 'in the cloud', as an implicit part of our sharing process -- in other words, we cache copies of our source assets, code, docs, etc. on remote storage. There's enough redundancy happening, and our offsite storage partners are large enough, that we don't expect to lose track of those materials."

Mare Sheppard of Metanet Software also utilizes cloud storage, but recalls an occasion where a fellow indie developer helped to preserve each other's source code:

"For a while we traded backup DVDs with Jon Mak, while he was making Everyday Shooter and we were trying to make Robotology."

Some of those that responded felt that since they have recently established themselves as developers, that transferring and retrieving source code from earlier hardware and software was not applicable to them. None of these companies have had any issues transferring, backing up or retrieving source code from earlier hardware and software, due to the obvious fact that the majority work with modern operating systems and development software.

The Depths to Which I Sink

Jim McGinley points out the specific cloud storage service he'll be using (among many other methods) in preserving the games, such as The Depths to Which I Sink, that his company Bigpants develops:

"All of our digital stuff is backed up on USB drives, and we're migrating current work to Dropbox to protect from big disasters. Our production materials are not stored anywhere special, and likely won't be until we grow larger."

"Thanks to the internet (TCP/IP protocol), USB drives and cloud storage, I believe the greatest threat is not hardware failure or obsolescence. If a new format arrives, it will be connected to the internet, so data can be easily transferred from the old format to the new format. History shows that people are ready and willing to create emulators, so you'll likely be able to use that data.

"Preservation is no longer about the bits, the problem has changed. The three biggest preservation challenges today (unlike 1980/1990) are:

  1. Staying organized. It's easy to create a lot of stuff, but hard to remember where it was put.
  2. Games are increasingly part client, part server (FarmVille, World of Warcraft). Emulating this will be tricky.
  3. Proprietary hardware (Wii controller, Kinect, PS3 motion controller). I'm expecting an avalanche of homemade controllers."

McGinley believes video game preservation is of absolute importance, but pointed out the harsh realities of just what has already been lost in three decades. McGinley recalls his own personal experience of being an avid TRS-80 Model III computer user, an experience which began in 1979 when McGinley's father bought a TRS-80 Model III for their household.

Together, McGinley and his brother learned how to program for the computer and bought games using their allowance. Fast-forward to 2009: McGinley wanted to replay the games he and his brother grew up on, but the TRS-80 Model III had been thrown out long ago.

McGinley emphasizes that he is not a TRS-80 emulation expert nor has he preserved any TRS-80 heritage, he credits Ira Goldklang, Matthew Reed, and George Phillips with helping preserve the TRS-80 legacy.

He does highlight that the current emulators don't come with the operating system, making them unusable.

"If you do get the operating system, running the emulator is not simple. It requires arcane TRS-80 knowledge that few people remember (like DIP switches in MAME). The TRS-80 had two major models (Model I and Model III), with two seperate operating systems (cassette and disk).

"Games only support one variation, and there's no way to tell which one aside from trial and error. In some cases, I have nine versions of a game and I need to try each model and operating system combination to figure out which is best."

Then, of course, there are the copyright issues at hand that legally prevent the games from being played. McGinley also discovered that playthroughs of many TRS-80 games have not been recorded and are non-existent for viewing on YouTube.

Why is this relevant to today's indies? He thinks that his experience digging through piles of hard-to-play ROMs for the TRS-80 (he found over 3,000) will also be experienced by the kids of day when they're ready to look back.

"Nostalgia will eventually drive today's generation to seek out old games. While the most famous games have been emulated/captured/documented, some great games will be lost. Specifically, a generation was raised on crappy cell phone games... but some were great. Trying to find and play those games presents all the same problems as the TRS-80. i.e. need an emulator for the old cell phones, need to remember the names of the games, copyright issues prevent them from being preserved."

Petri Purho of Kloonigames (Crayon Physics) also agrees that some companies are too protective of source code, or could potentially lose source code altogether if they shut down operations:

"The source code is 'film' of the games. If you lose the source code, you're screwed. You can get by with binaries and emulators, but if the source code is gone, the game is always going to be limited to some degree to the hardware it was published on.

"Emulators do help, but you still need someone to do the ROM dump. And hardware has an expiration date. The problem is that companies cling to the source code. They don't want to open source it, because that would 'allow' anyone to take advantage of their IP. And that's going to be biggest problem in preserving video games. The companies will go down and the source code will be lost."

AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity

McGinley expressed the importance of staying organized. When indie developer Dejobaan Games (AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! - A Reckless Disregard for Gravity) was asked how it preserves its work, founder and president Ichiro Lambe had coincidentally just completed a cleanup of his office space, and had to make some tough choices:

"Your question comes about a week after I went through all of our old papers to figure out what to keep and what to toss. Awards? Keep. Magazine articles about us? Keep. Artwork? Keep. How about obsolete devices we developed for, for companies that have long since passed? The tricky thing is that we don't have much room to keep everything. Toss.

"Source code? Keep, and occasionally move off-site in case my office burns to the ground. I still have a CD with the tongue-in-cheek title 'Killgame Alpha,' which became Inago Rage, the first of our 'modern' games. When I'm done with our current round of games, I'm going to unearth it and see what it's like. I'm sure it'll bring me back to 2003 -- I'll laugh at it for its simplicity, yet I'm sure there'll be something delightful and elegant there."

Indie developers see the digital online marketplace as a method of preservation itself.

Some indie developers feel that since their games were developed on current-generation hardware and are available for purchase via numerous online services, that the threat of losing these games is reduced.

Independent strategy and RPG publisher and developer Paradox Interactive has set a goal to get its back catalogue on over 25 digital download portals the company works with. Paradox also strives to continuously extend the lifespan of its games by providing continuous patches and updates, according to executive vice president Susana Meza Graham:

"You need only to go to our product portfolio to see games released more than five years ago still get patches, updates, and a lot of developer and gamer love. We also support a lot of schools (like UCLA) with copies of our older titles, as we have a network of teachers who use our strategy/history titles in their education programs.

"Of course we hope that our work will be relevant for many years to come, but we also strive to continuously innovate and improve the way we develop games rather than think that they should last for many generations to come."

While Paradox Interactive also stores its gold masters in a safe that protects them from natural disasters and harmful elements, the company has also significantly cut down on print assets for its games by making its game manuals digital.

When Paradox was asked if the industry should work together to help preserve, archive and store games, the company maintains a stance that going into digital distribution provides an adequate amount of preservation:

"With everything moving onto the digital space, I'm not really sure a more coordinated approach is needed, to be honest. These days a lot of old games are making it onto the digital space and thus resurrecting their player base and interest without a massive amount of efforts from the creators," says Graham.

Jasper Koning of Ronimo (Swords & Soldiers) adds, "It would be a shame if we couldn't show our kids what games we grew up with, so I'd say yes. Though I have no idea how. But my hope is that platforms such as Steam will make it easier to keep large amounts of games safe for a long time. Let's hope they keep proper backups."


Adam Saltsman of Semi Secret Software (Canabalt) agrees that the industry should work together and that preservation goes beyond preserving source code, but preserving hardware as well:

"I think preservation of hardware is just as important as preserving the source code, too. Especially for games made before the mid-'90s, all of the artwork was specifically designed for display and consumption on CRTs, which drastically altered the appearance of the pixels. The greatest works from that era knew that they would be displayed on CRTs and were designed to take advantage of the blurring, actual color cell arrangements, and overall brightness.

"For another example, take the sound chip in the Sega Mega Drive (or Genesis, if you're in North America). The Mega Drive used a hardware frequency modulation chip to create the distinctive music and sound effects for that system that is almost impossible to perfectly recreate in software. For yet another example, the original NES didn't even output RGB! While an RGB palette could be guesstimated with the use of an oscilloscope and some other laboratory equipment, it still won't be the same as the crazy like chroma-intensity bit system that the hardware actually employed."

With regards to preserving its own games, Saltsman discloses that Semi Secret has its source code "backed up and versioned in multiple locations around the U.S., and those hard drives are backed up as well."

One concern that Saltsman expressed is in regards to its own iOS games and if proprietary compiler and libraries are altered in the future:

"I would be surprised if we had trouble converting or transferring data in the future. The only obstacle I can imagine running into is that even if we maintain our source code, the proprietary Apple compiler and libraries we use are constantly updated and changed. So even if the source code is transferred and preserved perfectly, there's actually not much to be done with it if the correct compiler can't be found. This isn't a terrible worry at the moment, but in as little as five years I think it could become a greater challenge."

Nathan Fouts, president of Mommy's Best Games (Shoot 1UP), utilizes a number of different safeguards in preserving the games his company develops. Fouts compares video game design documents to a camera snapshot from ones personal life experience:

"For a small, independent company such as ours, creation of each game is as much a life experience as it is work project. As time passes, being able to look back on original production materials such as code but especially art, and design drawings is very important. It's almost like looking back at photos of a family trip you've taken years ago... it can be heart-warming and life enriching. I hope all smaller studios everywhere are careful to preserve their life's work."

Christine Hoang of The Behemoth (Castle Crashers) says that while game preservation is not its top priority, it takes pride in the games it develops. The Behemoth does maintain backups of its games at various offsite facilities. Hoang provided the following answer about the industry working closely together in preservation efforts:

"Preservation of video games should be important to anyone who's ever worked on a video game, or loves to play them. How else would future generations understand the history and revolution of video games to truly appreciate them?"

Even though game preservation is important to the indie developers that responded, Jim McGinley of Bigpants suggests that indies face a bigger challenge: "Our main problem is expanding our audience."

Miguel Sternberg of Spooky Squid Games (They Bleed Pixels) feels the same. "Like many indies right now we're most concerned with our future... while it would be great to carefully preserve our games and the materials that went into their creation, obscurity poses a bigger threat than bit-rot."

Sternberg adds that Spooky Squid has no special preservation procedures in place:

"Most of the material is either on the hardware we currently use, or in sketches and notes stored haphazardly around the office."

Ichiro Lambe of Dejobaan wants the industry to work together, but suspects it won't, for these three reasons:

  • "Doom's always at our doorstep! (The concept of doom, not the game.) Game developers rarely have the luxury of anything but a focus on developing new stuff.
  • "Technology moves ahead; old source isn't useful, and often isn't even readable with what we have now. What do I do with a cassette tape for a TI 99/4A?
  • "Sometimes old code's just embarrassing."

"Dejobaan's been going strong since 1999, but I've been working on games for most of my life. I'd like to go back through everything I created during the '80s, but I suspect all the Atari 800 floppies are all mush by now. I co-wrote a BBS door game in the late '80s, and was later able to unearth some of its documentation and source code online -- you look back, and realize how fun this all was."

He shared with Gamasutra some developer notes and script for a MUD that are now useless. You can find them in the full version of his response here.

"That's a script that'll run on no system that exists today", says Lambe, "And even if it did, how can you replicate an experience that required dozens of people to play? It'd be like walking through a ghost town. Outside of a text capture, how can we even retain that experience?"

Lambe does emphasize how much older games have provided an inspiration to modern games, one that allows many indie developers to maintain a reasonable budget without spending millions:

"I'd love for the industry to make this standard practice (working together to preserve games) -- there's life in old concepts, old approaches to development, and old mechanics. Hell, consider the whole retro 'pixel art' aesthetic -- it's important, because it allows small studios to create something aesthetically wonderful without spending $20M on art. If we just focused on what was fresh and new, we wouldn't have that."

There are also the very personal stories that developers receive from gamers. When asked if preservation is overall important to Dejobaan Games, Lambe recalls an email from a game player that brought to light the importance his work had for one individual:

"For example, years ago, we received an email about our first game, a puzzle title called MarbleZone. Your goal there was to flip paths around to allow colored marbles to reach a destination. Logic game. A woman who had previously suffered neurological damage wrote us to mention that she was using it to 'wake up the parts of her brain that were sleeping.' This sticks with me.

"When it's 3 AM, and you've been through what seems like an infinite period of crunch, it's easy to forget that there are actual people who are going to be playing our games. These experiences help us remember."

There are those who believe that preservation is unnecessary for developers, because the fan community will take care of it.

"Regarding obsolescence, again this is something we don't specifically consider. Our games will likely continue to run on future generations of hardware as the hardcore folks in the community emulate behavior of existing hardware, etc. And in the collective memory of the internet, there will likely always be videos or playable downloads available on someone's machine somewhere," says Dave Burke of Hemisphere Games.

Crayon Physics Deluxe

Petri Purho of Kloonigames has an even bolder approach in that he would allow his games to go open source in the future:

"We'll use source control that will hopefully last for a decade at least. The real solution to preservation in my opinion is open sourcing it. That's the only way to make sure a game lasts beyond the lifetime of a company. The good thing about video games is that most of the assets are digital. But that's also the biggest problem in preserving them. It's far easier to wipe out a hard drive than it is to throw away a mobunch of film cans.

"My plan is to open source my games after a certain amount of time has passed. That way I'm crowd sourcing the preservation of the work I've done, because I know I'm going to be too lazy to properly preserve the games I've created."

Combined with natural disasters, environmental dangers, technical issues, legal matters, and recreating online worlds that once existed on servers shut down long ago -- among so many other issues -- in the end there is another threat that will always exist, one that has been in existence for years: People actually caring about video game preservation, and taking the steps to save what they make.

Even though there is the safe haven of cloud storage and the option to create multiple backups, the act of not selecting save and not placing important game development artifacts in safe storage is still a threat. As Warren Spector of developer Junction Point previously emphasized in part one, it will be the human element of indifference that poses the biggest threat to video game preservation.

"Most people making games see what they do as ephemeral, as not worthy of preservation," Spector stated in part one of this feature.

Finally, Denmark indie developer Playdead, creator of Limbo, initially presented its game preservation stance in a single, terse statement, saying:

"We don't have anything clever to contribute, except a) we don't actively do anything to preserve anything and b) we hope someone does."

Shortly after the release of this statement, Dino Patti, the CEO of Playdead, clarified the studio's position on preservation. He revealed that Playdead is now talking with the Danish Royal Library about officially preserving Limbo.

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

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