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What Killed Videogame Preservation?

In short, we all did. Games are following the open source strategy of being a highly profitable service instead of a product, but without the "open" part...

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Every now and then we come across an article about why it is so important to document and catalog our history in videogames.  Some go as far as to urge the preservation of the source content for the sake of prosperity for future generations of developers and gamers to understand and enjoy.  As much as I'd like to believe in the process, I find it difficult to support when games are slowing becoming monetized services.  The game's existence as a product is only to facilitate the need for the service and the slew of fees and micro-transactions that follow.  But what happens when the service is inevitably shutdown?

Publishers Killed Videogame Preservation

Can videogames truly be preserved, and if so, which games are entitled to be archived for future generations?  More importantly, what might be the nail in the coffin for videogame archive movements?

It seems like at least once a month I stumble across some publisher who is giving the last call to a group of gamers who paid substantial subscription fees over the years or simply invested an immeasurable amount of their lives in a game.  Their time is eventually rewarded with an announcement that they have 30 days to pack their crap and make sure the door doesn't hit them on the way out.

If publishers were asked today to bring back some of the classic games from a little as 20 years ago, it's likely that many of those games do not exist in their original form.  Many of them would need to be reverse engineered through decompilers or simply interpreted through emulation software.  These days, publishers are getting much smarter about archiving their personal works, but that information is still kept behind a lock and key.  Let's hope they are keeping backups of those backups, because we've all been there before.

The Internet Killed Videogame Preservation

The idea of an open and free internet is wonderful but it also gave rise to this idea of software as a service.  This novel concept can be very profitable in some instances, but it also serves to devalue the product that you have created.  What becomes more important than the product is the promise that it will get better with time, provided you pay for it.

Software as a service cultivates an ecosystem of a small group of zealot (paying) fans next to a larger mass of people who are fine with using what is freely accessible.  The general idea that people have about the internet is that, since the web is free and the browser used to access the web is free, the content we find should be free as well.  This vicious cycle is one that can breed apathy on the part of casual gamers; more on this later.

We'd all like to think that the internet somehow consumes the data we give it and that simple action is enough to preserve our information.  Most of us as developers know that the magical cloud of endless terabytes boils down to a bunch of servers spread across the globe; nothing magical about it.  Data can be lost, even if it's still there, and all it takes is for Google to forget you and your product existed.

To further the argument against the internet, Multi-player cannot be preserved without dedicated servers.  Many publishers are shying away from releasing dedicated servers these days and its not sitting well with PC gamers.  Perhaps it is out of fear that pirated games can create their own servers, or maybe it is is out of fear that another method of pinching a few more pennies out of rabid fans could not be exploited.  Whatever the reason, it is also a major part in reducing the relevance of archiving something that amounts to thousands of lines of unusable code.

Gamers Killed Videogame Preservation

I get a strong feeling that most gamers, especially the larger market of casual gamers could care less about preserving games.  Sure, they'd be sad to see their favorite game disappear but probably about as sad as losing the last slice of layered cake to a mischievous family pet.  They'll just go out and buy a different cake and put it on a higher counter next time.  How upset would your average casual player be if Angry Birds suddenly was lost and the source content was lost as well?  They would be disappointed just enough to go buy another $1 App to ease their suffering.

So the question remains, if publishers killed preservation, and the internet killed preservation, and gamers killed preservation, who are we fighting to protect?  What purpose does preservation hold if there seems to be a larger concern over the next great hype than what stepping stones led to that great new idea.

Two Kinds of Preservation

If you haven't noticed yet, I am referring to two distinct kinds of preservation. 

One is the preservation of the source content, the ability to reproduce the product if the need arises.  This is the difficult one, the effort that may take time and frankly may never happen.  With the lack of transparency from larger publishers and a diminished presence of a single trusted voice, the thought of an archive consortium feels very much out of reach.

The second form that I am referring to is the preservation of the experience.  Yes, this was all a thinly veiled plot to urge developers to keep a quality single-player experience in mind.  Games that are exclusively multi-player, or games that rely heavily on private servers for the sake of DRM or account validation are not good for videogame preservation.  The simplest way to keep games in the minds of those who play them is to allow them to continue playing those games.  Long after publishers have forgotten that they even own said IP, fans of the game will continue to congregate on the web and share their hopes for a sequel or expansion to that unforgettable experience.  The web can still be a powerful tool to facilitate the community as a service rather than limiting the product itself out of fear of pirates.

Software as a service has its place, but when it is at the sacrifice of my experience I look to those developers who trust me as a buyer of lifelong goods, not short-lived services.

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