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Are We About to Live Through a ‘Lost Age’ of Video Gaming?

With many games distributed digitally, not stored on a shareable physical medium, and publishers patching and deleting code as they go, favourites are being lost forever.

by Jake Tucker
07 September 2015, 10:38am

'P.T.' is gone, forever (screenshot via Gamespot)

Sorting through a box of ancient junk, I found my bounty: Donkey Kong Country, Super Mario World and Ecks vs Sever on Game Boy cartridges.

I don't have the hardware to bring them to life anymore, but it's comforting to think that if I had the right Game Boy (Advance) I could still play these games that I'd enjoyed so much as a teenager. It made me think: as video games come to rely more on digital distribution, online servers and rolling patches, will I be able to play the games I enjoy now in another 15 years?

Every one of the 604 games I own on Steam is incorporeal. Steam does allow offline backups, but I don't have the storage capacity to download and archive each of my games and, unless Steam went under, I'd still need their permission to access most of them anyway. It's a similar situation with my other consoles. Very few disks are likely to tumble out of that box in the coming years.

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain recently caused a fuss when it was discovered that the boxed PC version is merely a Steam key for the game, with Steam's 8MB installer on a disk. It's useful for nothing more than a coaster once it's been in the once, from gateway to adventure to sideboard accoutrement on launch day.

This causes problems. With an increasing number of games now solely available as a digital product, this means they can and will vanish, eventually – and when that happens, it can be forever. We've seen this happened to Konami's P.T., the free playable teaser for the Silent Hill reboot we'll never see, which was purged from the PlayStation store. Not only can you can no longer acquire it through the store, for the first time, but also those who previously downloaded the title only to later free up hard drive space by deleting it can't re-download it. And this is merely the most recent example of a high-profile game being lost to the ages.

We're already starting to see countless MMOs blink out of existence, quietly shutting down and taking years of work with them. Writing for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Alec Meer manages to perfectly encapsulate the feeling when a game you've invested so much time in has its plug pulled, relating a tale of loss following the deletion of his character as part of the death of superhero RPG City of Heroes. There's no way to preserve a world that vast with so many players contributions – regardless of best intentions, these characters and stories will never be visible again.

A screenshot from 'APB: All Points Bulletin'

My own story of woe is tied to APB: All Points Bulletin, a doomed MMO take on the Grand Theft Auto formula, which launched amid great hype in July 2010 with a review embargo of one week after launch. Perhaps unsurprisingly it wasn't all that good, and its developers Realtime Worlds collapsed into administration in August, barely a month on from the game's release. The servers went offline in November, rendering the game unplayable. While APB: Reloaded brought the game back to life as a free-to-play title in 2011, it just wasn't the same. The core mechanics had changed to accommodate the microtransactions that'd been shoved in by new developers Reloaded Productions, and there wasn't any going back.

Nicoll Hunt worked on the avatar and customisation options within APB and is concerned about the future of the medium as the market starts to shift towards games as a service. "What worries me is that we will lose the ability to replay games in the future," he tells me, "and older games will start to degrade as publishers lose the rights to music and other aspects."

"It would be nice if publishers voluntarily released the source code to server-based games when they decommission them," Nicoll continues. "It's a big ask, but a game becoming impossible to play just because it's not financially profitable seems somewhat short sighted."

The revisionist history of video gaming means that even if you have the disk or game data stowed somewhere, you might not be able to play the same game you remember. Patches rebalance and alter games after release, and this means the experience that you wanted to recapture, the one in your head, now only exists between your ears.

Article continues after the video below

Competitive online games, those powering eSports leagues, can issue a major patch once or twice a year. The version of Dota 2 played at this year's International is an entirely different game to the one played in 2013. The strategies, heroes and even the flow of the game have been changed.

Sometimes these changes are viewed positively – like World of Warcraft's total reinvention of its world with the Cataclysm update – and sometimes it angers the fans, as was the case when the powers behind Star Wars Galaxies made the strange decision to tear out everything interesting about their game and replace it with a tale of bounty hunters versus Jedi. I was a Star Wars Galaxies player. I'm not bitter. But if I wanted to play Dota 2 from 2013 or Star Wars Galaxies before its retooling, I can't. Those games don't exist anymore.

Even games dependent on their single-player experience aren't immune. Assassin's Creed: Unity released on consoles with a host of problems that required patches to fix. If the service to distribute these patches was to go down, and you didn't already have the patches on your console, then you're stuck with the buggy launch version. And the really sad part is that in most of these cases there's nothing you can do about it. You can't stop progress.

'Assassin's Creed: Unity' required post-release patching to prevent characters bugging out, like this

Video game archiving and preservation is becoming increasingly popular as we wake up to the fact that our games and their history risk being lost. As the medium gets older, the big designers that made many of the industry's classics are starting to pass away, and the stories behind the games are being lost too, something emphasised by the tragic passing of Nintendo president Satoru Iwata in July 2015. It's a movement I firmly support: we have a chance to avoid the mistakes of literature, television and film by remembering the history of video games, by properly documenting it, and we should take it.

Yet with games moving to an internet-enabled digital realm, this is becoming increasingly difficult. GameSpy's collapse last year took a swathe of games offline when the servers were switched off, and while many publishers stepped in to try to keep their products functioning, many were left stranded, likewise their players. With the recent surge in multiplayer-only games, these decisions are ultimately at the whims of publishers: you can preserve as much or as little data as you want, but when those who own the game in question decide its multiplayer is over, it's over.

As games move further towards a regular walled-garden infrastructure, and we see more cases of always-online or games requiring central servers to even work at all, it's going to get harder to maintain final, functional copies of games. With Kickstarter and similar crowd-funding sites giving supporters previews of what they've pledged for, and early access growing in popularity across the industry, it's becoming increasingly difficult to determine where development ends and the final game, ready for preservation, begins. Games are now fleeting, their experiences relative.

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A screenshot from 'Droplitz', via Blitz Games

James Parker was the designer behind Blitz Arcade's puzzler Droplitz. When Blitz Arcade and publisher Atlus went "tits up", to use his own words, the game was pulled from online stores in 2013. While James is now working on his own titles, he still misses Droplitz: "I feel sad that one of the games that I'm genuinely most proud of in my career is no longer available."

"More than ever, we live with all these transient digital things," he continues. "I have a room at home full of games that I've bought over the last 30 years which I can still play. I doubt that kids today are going to be in the same position 30 years from now."

Video gaming is at an important juncture. It's important to catalogue the strides forwards that are being made in development right now, but as the results become harder to archive we're also seeing more releases than ever before. Hundreds of games are fired out to the public, only to vanish without a trace after just a few months. But unless something is done to counter this saturation and the subsequent disappearing of so much software, "retro gaming" from this era, in the future, will be impossible. We could be looking at a lost age of video games.

@_JakeTucker

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