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When digital dies, where does that leave game preservation?

When online games shut down, they could be lost forever. Game Developer magazine editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield argues that the industry seems determined to lose its history.

Brandon Sheffield, Contributor

May 15, 2012

6 Min Read

[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?

About the Author(s)

Brandon Sheffield


Brandon Sheffield is creative director of Necrosoft Games, former editor of Game Developer magazine and gamasutra.com, and advisor for GDC, DICE, and other conferences. He frequently participates in game charity bundles and events.

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