Nothing Lasts Forever: Confronting the Problem of Video Game Preservation

Nothing Lasts Forever: Confronting the Problem of Video Game Preservation

How game historians are working to ensure the future of archiving as the medium shifts to an all-digital format.

Nintendo's Satellaview (or BS-X, if you want to be fancy, 1995-style) was an incompetent but good-intentioned slice of the future. Like the Internet-connected gaming machines of today, the Super Nintendo's bulky, Japan-only satellite modem add-on let intrepid souls download video games out of the aether and play them at home without ever having to hand over cash at a store.

It used a bulky cartridge with painfully limited storage space that could only save one game at a time, but the principal presaged the simplicity of firing up iTunes, clicking a button, and having a brand new game in a (relative) instant. Nintendo's experiment yielded up some true oddball classics, like Chrono Trigger sequel Radical Dreamers. By their very nature, though, Satellaview games became almost impossible to legally preserve. Unless you saved Radical Dreamers on your BS-X cart and never played anything else, it would be lost for good.

Now, 20 years later, the Satellaview's vision of game distribution has become the standard for all video games, yet few game makers have learned from its chief failing. Ephemeral works like Radical Dreamers aren't rarities in the age of digital distribution; on the contrary, they're going to become even more common. Coveted library pieces like a BS-X cartridge with Radical Dreamers intact go for around $800 today, but tomorrow the most sought-after, rarest-of-the-rare gaming items may be PlayStation 3 hard drives with the version 2.61 patch for Burnout Paradise; Xbox 360 drives with intact updates for Crackdown; or a Nintendo 3DS with the 4.5 firmware on it. The video game industry, in its constant pursuit of newer, more technologically advanced hardware, has never been good at making sure future generations will be able to play the games of the past. In this awkward period, which frequently sees video games still distributed physically on discs but regularly augmented with digitally distributed add-ons, sometimes in the form of patches that are necessary to even play the game, preservation is becoming problematic.

Do we really want to live in a world where the most refined version of Crackdown is no longer available to all who seek it?

"In a lot of ways, more games are made that are actually sustainable, relatively speaking," says Steve Gaynor, co-founder of the Fullbright Company. "If you still have a Nintendo and a Nintendo cartridge, and none of the hardware has failed through the laws of nature, you can still play those games. That said, you bring up games that are exclusive to download services that are proprietary and can be taken offline, those have the greatest danger of being lost to the ages."

Gaynor is still enjoying the success of his studio's very first game, Gone Home, a digital-only release whose availability on multiple operating systems free of pesky digital rights management code should help it survive down the ages. His first major work, though, was in danger of disappearing because of those proprietary digital services like Sony's PlayStation Network and Microsoft's duo Xbox Live and Games For Windows Live.

"I threw a good chunk of my life into making [BioShock 2 DLC] Minerva's Den. It's something I was proud of and that people liked and for a long time it was something that was only available on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Then it was released on PC but only through Games For Windows Live. This thing I made won't be accessible, legally or easily. It's worrisome when you've made something and it relies on these corporations maintaining a very specific download service," says Gaynor. The problem is that these services controlled by Sony and Microsoft, like Nintendo's Satellaview, simply won't stay around forever once the companies and their audiences have move on to new hardware. Even more problematic is the way large publishers, like BioShock 2's 2K Games as well as others like Electronic Arts, inevitably take down the servers and other support for games on proprietary platforms once they're no longer a source of significant income.

"I was really happy first when the BioShock Ultimate Rapture Edition, which had all of BioShock 1 and 2 on a disc with all the DLC. Minerva's Den was then preserved like those old Nintendo games." The luxury of physical media saved the day, but Gaynor's luck extended a bit further. "When Microsoft said they were going to shut down Games For Windows Live, 2K Games took the extraordinary step of going back and patching BioShock 2 and all the DLC, and now there's a Steam page. If a game can be on physical media or on a more accessible digital PC format, than you can avoid something being lost to the ages."

"If a game can be on physical media or on a more accessible digital PC format, than you can avoid something being lost to the ages." — Steve Gaynor

Minerva's Den is a rarity, though. As Gaynor said, that 2K Games took the time and resources to go back and patch the game was extraordinary. Burnout Paradise, for example, was re-released with an "Ultimate Edition" box like BioShock that included the many patches released over the game's first year out and much of the downloadable content, but the enormous Big Surf Island expansion was left out. One day, even if the PC version remains accessible, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of that complete game may simply disappear.

Why does this happen? Publishers and game makers have been regularly selling games digitally for over a decade. Why not take the extra step to prepare your catalog for the future, so it can be easily re-released at the drop of a hat?

"Profit margins go away after a game's been available for a year, at least in terms of what a corporation feels is relevant," explains Gaynor, "If you're an individual creator, you're not going to be unhappy if people are still buying your game five years after it came out on Steam. Microsoft doesn't really care about that revenue stream. That's the biggest part of it. That's why it's important for developers and players to get those games into forms where they can be preserved more easily. That's why I'm happy Steam has gained such a great place in the market. They're very close to being open source. Yes, there's Steam verification, but frankly it's very easy to crack that. SteamOS, as a branch of Linux, has fewer and fewer barriers to playing it on some arbitrary platform made in the future. It's the opposite of how you can only play a Super Nintendo cartridge on a Super Nintendo because the slot is the right shape."

Of course, you don't need the Super Nintendo cartridge to necessarily play the old Super Nintendo game. Radical Dreamers may not be legally available on something like Nintendo's Virtual Console, but the game itself has been easily downloadable on the Internet since it came out in the late-'90s. Pirates, ROM dumpers, private and passionate curators of the past; whatever you call them, players have been doing the hard work of making sure that games are preserved in some playable form even while publishers and designers haven't. The work of players even sometimes leads to the legal and commercial preservation of games. When System Shock 2, unavailable for years except as a boxed copy notoriously difficult to get running on modern PCs, was re-released on Good Old Games in 2013, user-made modifications to help the game's stability on current operating systems helped make it possible.

Even the most scrupulous fan work still raises the old curatorial conundrum, though. If Radical Dreamers is played as a fan-translated ROM running on an emulator, is it the same game preserved, or is it something else? What makes a version of a game definitive? Authenticity, that impossible, noisome ideal, becomes difficult to quantify when discussing how games will be collected and saved going into the future.

One of preservationism's conundrums in a nutshell: If you're playing the Japanese-only Satellaview adventure Radical Dreamers on a PC emulator with a fan-made English-language patch, are you really playing Radical Dreamers?

"The definitive version of an older game like Fallout is the version patched up by the developers running on Windows 95 on hardware from 1998," says Gaynor. "What version would I put in a museum? It would be a good gaming PC with a Pentium 3, whatever early Nvidia graphics card existed from '99, with a patched up version of the original game."

Kate Carmody is one of the people working with game designers to help make sure that, no matter the definition of authenticity, that game makers' work is preserved as authentically as possible. She works as a curatorial assistant in the Architecture and Design department of the Museum of Modern Art. Along with Paola Antonelli, MoMA Senior Curator, Carmody helped assemble the MoMA's first collection of video games in 2012 and assemble the museum's first two game-centric exhibitions, Applied Design and the upcoming A Collection of Ideas. Carmody and Antonelli ask for very specific things of game makers when they go to add something to the museum's collection to save the game for posterity. They go a bit farther than just saving the cartridge to make sure a game's preserved.

"When we first approached the video game designers and companies, we would ask for six different things," says Carmody. "We would ask for the original hardware if it still existed, the original software if it still existed, the code (which we didn't always get), commentary or notes on that code, an interview with the designer/programmer, and then we asked for what would be displayed. So with each game we had to consider what hardware still existed, if we could get it, and what software existed and if it was stable and worth preserving. If it wasn't, we considered working with the designers to create a sort of display or emulation to actually show in the museum to go along with what we kept in the collection."

BioShock 2's Minerva's Den expansion eventually made its way onto physical media, but not every piece of digital content enjoys that luxury.

MoMA lays the ground work in its collecting for doing much more than just the sort of emulation you find on the average Android phone running Super NES ROMs. By collecting code and input from the designers themselves, the MoMA is guaranteeing they can rebuild a game from scratch if they have to. "For things like Katamari Damacy, we can keep a PlayStation 2 and the disc, but we also want the code and as much information as possible so that in the future, when inevitably you can't plug that PlayStation in anymore and the disc degrades, we can still recreate it in 100 years. That's why we ask for the interviews and notes."

In one case, MoMA has a game rebuilt from the ground up at the start to ensure they preserved what they decided was that definitive version of the game. Tetris was one of the initial 14 games MoMA decided would be added to its permanent collection. Initially, they wanted the Nintendo-published Game Boy version of the game. Carmody explained that this was the version MoMA's assembled symposium helping curate the collection decided had the most significant cultural impact. Once they got in touch with Alexei Pajitnov and The Tetris Company, their minds were changed about what version of the game to save.

"We were saying the definitive version for us is the 1989 Game Boy version because that's the one that made it so popular," recalls Carmody. "People were buying the Game Boy to play the game, not just buying the game so they had something to play on Game Boy. It was just this groundbreaking game that applied to everyone, every gender, every age. The Tetris Company explained that that was a special licensing deal with Nintendo, and that is still owns the rights to the game but they can license. They asked, though, have we seen the one Alexei programmed in 1984 on a Soviet Electronica 60 computer? We said no, never! So they made an emulation for us because it's so difficult to find Electronica 60 computers from the former USSR."

The original Electronica 60 version of Tetris. [Image source]

The Electronica 60 defined the original Tetris as much as Pajitnov's ideas did. The computer had no graphical interface, so the now iconic Tetriminos were made out of exclamation points, quotation marks, and other punctuation. To preserve the game, this version is essential, but the Electronica 60 is both rare and fragile. How to save it? "The Tetris company recreated a complete emulation for OS X," says Carmody. "It's a much more interesting and riveting design experiment, because he was able to make this game which is pretty much the same as it is now using the very, very limited technology. That's what we're interested in; the dialogue between constraints and creativity."

The MoMA is even working to save games that are technically impossible to save. Collecting MMOs, for example, is a more difficult conundrum than making sure a cartridge is saved or that a publisher maintains a digital version of the code for everyone. Eventually people stop playing an MMO, and the game ceases to be. It's an empty vessel with nothing to fill it up. These games can be preserved by fans as well, but an empty private server is still an empty server. In adding EVE Online to its permanent collection, MoMA came up with a novel solution for keeping the game intact.

"The code is an empty world. The only thing that makes it a game is the participants. We're figuring that out," says Carmody with a great deal of confidence. She's proud of their solution. "We worked with the company. In order to present it in the gallery, they told their entire fan base that on December 20th, 2012, we're going to record everything that happens in the game from 8a.m. to 12p.m., and everything that happens is going to become a part of this record. Then they made this animated film. That's what we show in the gallery, running on a custom computer. It's beautiful. That recorded date is in the collection."

"The Tetris company recreated a complete Electronica 60 Tetris emulation for OS X. It's a riveting design experiment, because Alexei Pajitnov was able to make this familiar game using very, very limited technology. That's what we're interested in; the dialogue between constraints and creativity." — Kate Carmody

Curators and collectors can only do so much, ultimately. While they're beholden at times to publishers distributing their games and the gatekeepers of closed digital storefronts like Xbox Live, developers can do a great deal when making a game to help future-proof it as much as possible. Gaynor has laid out a few rules for making it easier to make sure a game can be saved. For starters, it's important to remember that just because today's monitors only display at a certain resolution, that won't always be true. Same goes for operating systems.

"There were a lot of games made in the '90s and '00s where the highest resolution capped out at 640x480," says Gaynor about the pre-HD era. "Sometimes that looks fine, sometimes it looks junky on your screen, but sometimes it makes the game hard to navigate or it introduces bugs if you try to run at a higher resolution. [For Gone Home] we have friends with Apple monitors that are like 2056x1440, and we tested the game on them, found some bugs, and fixed them. Making sure when someone is playing on a 4000x3600 pixel monitor in the future that your game won't completely break.

"Having the game run reliably on as many operating systems as possible is a good thing, especially if it's an open source operating system like Linux — not that that's going to have the highest adoption rate when you release your game, but it will mean that people will have the most options when trying to get it to run on new versions in the future. Similarly, supporting as many rendering devices as possible, having a more hardware agnostic rendering code. That's what happens a lot of the time with 3D games. Everybody now is using graphics drivers that didn't exist when the game was made so that's something that causes problems."

Old-school DRM in action.

Finally, it's important to remember that there's only so much you can do to protect your game as a moneymaker. Even if you do as much as possible to make sure that people will be able to pay for and play your game for 50 or 100 years, there are some who will decide to steal it. That being the case, instituting problematic digital rights management measures like code, the need too constantly be connected to an online service, or even shipping your game on weirdly shaped cartridges should be avoided.

"Just stay away from DRM," warns Gaynor. "We have Gone Home on Steam that has some kind of checking but we also have it available on Humble DRM free. That's just going to behoove you all over. Frankly, anyone that wants to break your DRM is going to. If you just recognize that, in essence, paying for games is voluntary, and you make a game that's DRM free it'll be that much easier for people to play on newer hardware and new operating systems."

Nothing lasts forever. Even games like Gone Home, built to endure the years, is still vulnerable. Think crazy: maybe somewhere down the road, human beings will simply stop harnessing electricity and every video game ever made will be just so much code trapped in weird boxes. For now, though, players and game makers alike need to continue to rethink how we save and keep our games. An $800 Satellaview cartridge in 2014 or an $800 PlayStation 3 hard drive with Big Surf Island on it isn't a good solution.

In truth, there's no ideal solution, but we can at least follow the MoMA's ideal. "Our tactic now is that we don't really know [how to preserve games], so we collect as much as possible so that in the future when they do have some kind of standard, we can say we already have this," says Carmody. "We try to be faithful."

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