"People in the game business don't think that what they do is of importance or of lasting value," legendary game designer and avid collector of everything Warren Spector said at a panel during the ACMI Game Masters Forum on June 30. The panel was called The Collectors, and it also featured academics and archivists concerned with the issue of game preservation.
This tragic short-sightedness is nothing unusual. The panel and a select few audience members regaled us with stories of one man's trash turning out to be a historian's treasure. When working on a history of Disney, Spector discovered that a huge amount of archived material had been thrown out because at some point there was insufficient space to keep it. He literally had to fill in the blanks strung between a handful of facts.
Game preservation has an extra problem that film doesn't, however, and that is the rapidity with which technology advances. Many early games were made for and distributed on hardware that no longer exists—in any form. And the clock is ticking on everything that remains.
The lifespan of a floppy disk or magnetic tape is estimated to be around 30 years, if it's well cared for and you're lucky. Once bit rot sets in, it can be nearly impossible to recover the data. Jordan Mechner's recent discovery of the original Prince of Persia source code (from 1989) serves as a chilling reminder of how easy it can be to lose critical parts of our history. The code had been thought lost forever—even though Mechner obsessively hoarded all of his development materials—until his dad found a box of old stuff in the closet. It was only through a bit of luck and the expertise of two professional archivists that his disks, found in that very box, were able to be read and preserved. Just having the disks is not enough.
Winfried Bergmeyer, Collections Manager at the Berlin Computerspielemuseum, hammered this point home: "We have tested one hundred Amiga games—3.5-inch floppy disk—and only 40% is working now. It will be less and less [over time]." Think about that number for a moment. Forty per cent. If a video-game museum can only get two-fifths of its collection of old games to work on their original media, what hope do we have of saving our history?
It gets worse.
Get Your Hands Off My IP
Publishers are notoriously over-protective of the products and intellectual properties in their back-catalog. Square Enix, Nintendo, EA, and Activision, among others, have all forced fan projects to close. This is usually because of blatant infringement of an active IP, but sometimes they come down on harmless—arguably beneficial (that's another discussion entirely)—efforts to either make unofficial sequels or allow free downloads of long-abandoned titles released on obsolete platforms.
Unofficial King's Quest sequel The Silver Lining went through years of legal issues before its eventual release in 2010. Fan efforts to remake Chrono Trigger in 3D as Chrono Resurrection were shutdown in 2004 after Square Enix filed for trademark and copyright infringement (while fans still clamor for a sequel). The war between abandonware sites and institutions such as the Interactive Digital Software Association has been long and well-documented. The crux of the problem is that we—the game-playing public—want to play old games that aren't commercially available anymore, and their rights holders have no intention of re-releasing (or, in some cases, no ability to re-release) them. This attitude stifles efforts to preserve the work.
Spector was visibly frustrated and disturbed by the trend of publishers thinking "I own it, therefore it has value—even if I'm not doing anything with it." He said they don't care about a 20-year-old game; they think "maybe someday I might want to do something with it. And if I preserve it in this form or I let a private collector or a gamer build an emulator that lets you play it...my ownership of that IP is going to be compromised."
Fan archival efforts are often not only on shaky (at best) legal grounds, but also vulnerable to hosting costs. A 2005 exhibition at ACMI dedicated to Sonic the Hedgehog used a comprehensive fan site as a prominent source. That site has since disappeared from the Internet, said Helen Stuckey, a game historian/researcher and former ACMI Games Lab curator.
A decade ago, Home of the Underdogs hosted thousands of obscure, barely known abandonware computer games (along with manuals and game information). These are games that have been out of print and unsupported by their copyright owners for a number of years—some places put the figure at five years, others at ten, but neither definition is legally sound. They are distributed by such sites in order to keep them alive. Home of the Underdogs was shutdown in 2009 after years of hosting problems and a few domain changes. Numerous revival projects sprang up almost immediately, and HotU.org came back, but it's never been the same.
Stuckey showed a few of the fan projects she's used in her research. Hall of Light and World of Spectrum were described as especially brilliant archives because of their depth, attention to detail, and adherence to academic guidelines about preservation. My own research into video-game history has brought up many similar sites, such as Planet Virtual Boy—which includes detailed technical and general information about the console and its games.
One of the great fears brought up during the panel was that these sites could disappear at any moment—a victim of hosting issues, extreme server failure, neglect, or legal action—and the information they contain could be lost forever. We can't just preserve the games and their documentation and media online, expecting it to be there for good.
And so it falls to museums and academic archives to pick up the slack. But herein lies some of the biggest problems. "There's no one preserving Disney's video-game history at all. And it all boils down to money and time and resources," Spector commented. Disney would love to preserve its proprietary materials, "but they don't have any way to do it and because of the way that corporations work they can't just let somebody else do it."
Now let's step back for a minute and forget the complication that corporate archives add to the picture. We want to publicly, legally archive and preserve video games. What's holding us back?
Copyright Law is Broken
Susan Corbett from the Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, spoke about copyright law and game collection. Corbett went into detail explaining why the hands of archivists are so often tied.
In the United States and Australia, copyright exists for the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. Improperly preserved video games may not last 20 years, however, so there's an imperative to do it now. Problem is, many of the copyright holders cannot be found. Ownership of an IP often changes hands when a company is sold or goes bankrupt. Tracing the current owner when it's been through multiple sales, mergers, bankruptcies, and closures can prove impossible. But it's necessary to get permission before a game can be preserved.
If no permission is given, or if the copyright owner can't be found, the legislation for orphaned works or "public good" uses kicks in. Orphaned works are those works for whom the copyright owner can't be traced. "Public good" uses prove helpful because of a stipulation that allows cultural heritage institutions to make a copy if there's danger of deterioration.
The problem then is a limit of just one digital copy. "Digitization isn't as easy as it sounds," Corbett said, "in that you make many copies before you get a perfect one. If you make many copies, why would you then want to destroy the ones you've made?" Yet this is what the law requires. That copy is also vulnerable to deterioration (through bit rot or data corruption), so a new copy must be made at regular intervals. Most museums and institutions do not have the resources to cope with this.
Lobbyists are trying to get the law changed, but rights holders oppose new legislation because they fear use of fake orphans or cursory search—which is where you do not make sufficient efforts to track down the owner. Governments, meanwhile, sit on their hands waiting for better, more complete data that shows the necessity of new legislation.
Corbett showed a slide that quoted a Guardian story about the BBC—"it would take 800 people three years of full-time work to clear the rights to its archive [for online use]." Meaningful, worthwhile preservation of video games requires that at some point the material be published online. If the BBC's calculations are anything to go by, that won't happen on any real scale with legal archives under current legislation.
Where to Now?
Only a handful of museums are currently working on software preservation, and it's just a tiny piece of the puzzle. "We don't even know how to preserve the physical media, let alone digital or experience," Spector admitted. There are projects focused on other areas, such as Preserving Virtual Worlds and How They Got Game, but the difficulties compound when you look beyond software.
(On the topic of virtual worlds, Bergmeyer had this to say: "What we can't preserve are the millions of players which are playing World of Warcraft... What we are more focusing on are documentation...and maybe to get one of the servers, and to make guided tours in some way like how you go to have guided tours to the old Rome.)
Spector worried about the oral history of the medium. "We are starting to lose developers," he said, "and we've got to get that oral history—that may even be the most important thing to me, personally; record people's memories before they're gone." A recent book by Morgan Ramsay called Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play did this for some of the better known industry luminaries. But there's plenty more to do here, and the early developers are getting old.
Corbett urged everyone to "keep paper records and metadata safe, and lobby for changes to the law." If copyright laws were updated to better reflect the Internet age, many of these problems would go away. In the meantime, archives will continue to rely on people doing illegal preservation.
Emulation is vital to the ability of people to play old games in the future. As spare parts dwindle in number and the original hardware dies, we will increasingly rely upon emulation to simulate the experience. The Berlin Computerspielemuseum already uses emulators in its exhibits, and the European Union financed the KEEP (Keep Emulation Environments Portable) Project to help ensure emulators remain usable as the systems they were built on become obsolete.
Perhaps the biggest issue going forward appears to be figuring out how to preserve the games emerging today and in the years to come. Digital rights management is getting more interwoven into the code of some games. We're transitioning into a world where everything—the game binaries and your save data included—is in the cloud. How do you preserve that? How do you negotiate around the legal issues that then arise with the copyright holders, service providers, and the players themselves? As Spector said, "That's a huge task."
In the meantime, we need to do the best we can to preserve everything—the software, hardware, culture, criticism, development documentation, and stories of this wonderful digital medium called video games. The clock is ticking; every day we risk losing another priceless artifact of our history. I think that's terrifying.
We'll be revisiting this topic and many others relating to professional and amateur game preservation and collection in future articles. If you're involved in any relevant projects, I'd love to hear from you. Email me at richard at archive.vg.