Good Idea: As Video Game Preservation Often Falls To Fan Groups, Release Every Game's Source Code

from the pirate-preservation dept

When it comes to the video game industry, there has been some recent recognition that copyright laws and the ways that publishers utilize them have hampered the ability to preserve this sort of art. In the olden days of a decade or so ago, the challenges around preserving video games centered around both the publisher’s unwillingness to allow a group access to source code to preserve a game and the deterioration of physical game media. But in these modern times, this has changed. Now, the challenges are the publisher copyright question… and that same publisher’s ability to simply stop supporting the online resources modern games and platforms require to run. Given the ongoing war on emulators by the likes of Nintendo and a rather insane industry stance that preservation is trumped by copyright concerns, there is a very real risk of losing the ability to preserve video game history at all.

Recent rumors that Sony is going to shut down online stores for a bunch of old hardware, has thrown the question of what happens to digital purchases in sharp relief.

Yesterday, TheGamer reported that Sony has plans to shut down the online PS3, PS Vita, and PSP stores that service those older consoles. While this has yet to be confirmed, and Sony has not responded to Kotaku’s request for comment, the internet discourse around this potentially troubling news immediately began to swirl.

If these stores go away, PS3, PS Vita, and PSP players will be unable to purchase new digital games. While there aren’t yet concrete details about what, if anything, is happening, the rumors have many PlayStation gamers understandably worried about the continued viability of their digital purchases.

Add to all of that the question of game preservation. With purchases being digital and potentially just going away at Sony’s whim, and with source code locked up by developers and publishers… what happens to antiquated PlayStation games when the cord is pulled? How would a museum or interest group preserve these games? How will future generations be able to enjoy and participate in this art?

The answer, of course, is piracy.

This kind of real preservation is rarely done by corporations. Instead, communities form around games and keep them alive for years beyond their normal commercial lifespans. These people are doing some impressive things. Look at the continued work on the unofficial but fantastic PC port of Super Mario 64. Or just a few days ago, The Hidden Palace uploaded over 700 PlayStation 2 game prototypes and dev builds, uncovering and preserving a huge bit of game history in one fell swoop.

Meanwhile, publishers like Nintendo use lawyers to crack down on the availability of emulator-playable ROMs for games that are no longer sold. Nintendo even explicitly limits how long it will sell certain games. None of this helps preserve these works. In fact, it actively hurts efforts to do so.

And so the public’s interest in video game preservation sits on a single train track, with the copyright enforcement train hurtling towards it from one direction and publishers’ decisions to stop supporting the online resources needed for digital purchases from the other. The result, if left alone, will be a train wreck, at least as far as the public interest is concerned.

So, what’s the fix? Well, as per usual, the fix would be for game developers and publishers to give up just a bit of control over their products in a way that would allow preservation to occur.

Release all games on PC, preferably alongside their source code. Having PC game releases with source code would make certain aspects of game preservation much easier, and could allow even the oldest games to survive for decades to come. It frees games from being tied to one single platform or the whims of whatever capitalist entity published it.

This isn’t a wild, unproven theory. One of the most-ported and played classic games is the original Doom. id Software released its source code back in 1997, only four years after Doom’s launch. Since then fans have created numerous “source ports” of the game, to the point that Doom’s now playable on almost any device with a screen.

As a result, Doom has also stayed relevant. That’s important, because while the source ports have made it extremely easy to play Doom without buying it (all it takes is a quick search to find the necessary content files) that hasn’t hurt the IP. I’d argue the opposite! One possible reason Doom is still around—and we just got a big DLC expansion for the series’ latest game, Doom Eternal—is people still give a shit about Doom in 2021. And people still give a shit because it’s incredibly easy to play Doom. It’s only a few clicks away and its enthusiastic community has taken its source code in directions id never imagined.

This doesn’t directly solve the PlayStation problem, of course, though there are avenues to explore there as well. But it’s at least a start towards giving the public the tools to do the game preservation themselves, since developers and publishers often are incapable or unwilling to do it. And, as the Kotaku post notes, this should be seen not as some threat to the gaming industry, but a boon. Doom is the perfect example as to why.

But, regardless, it is well past time that we do something about this. It is not tenable that we lose what is now a couple decades worth of art preservation just because it’s being sacrificed at the copyright altar.

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Companies: sony

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Comments on “Good Idea: As Video Game Preservation Often Falls To Fan Groups, Release Every Game's Source Code”

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32 Comments
This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
radix (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Even updating and continuing to monetize older titles is hurt by the lack of preservation options.

Famously, Baldur’s Gate and a number of related titles in the same engine have been enhanced and revitalized by Beamdog and resold decades after their original release, but no such luck for Icewind Dale II. The source code is gone, and without it, no further updates can be made. Sure, the original binaries still work, but short of a complete rewrite, anything else is off the table.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

In the real world, it’s been proven time and time again that presenting an old game in a new format will attract people to that new format, even if they can still access their previous purchases of the same game. Also, archiving a game does not place it in the public domain, and copyright restrictions would still apply to anyone attempting to benefit from the game outside of the archive itself.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

How will they be able to redownload their games if the online stores for those systems get shut down?

What happens to someone who buys one of those consoles in the future with the intention of playing all the games they’ve missed out on up till now and none of their games can connect to download the needed patches, or obtain the myriad of DLC that was available for it.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Where is the originalism now?

Theoretically, yes. But if trends in copyright are anything to go by, I’d say forget relying on copyright holders to keep any records intact beyond what they think is necessary. Don’t forget, until the issue came up in a Malibu Media case, copyright holders were perfectly fine with not having proper registration for their copyrights (and Jhon Smith absolutely lost his shit when this was pointed out). It’s also much easier for corporations to charge money for orphan works if there’s no need to find the original author. Why would they need or want to when the law has made it clear that it’ll fight in their favor regardless?

Archiving is useful so long as it makes sure only the people at the top get paid, the actual grunt workers can go fuck themselves otherwise. That’s how modern copyright works.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

they now want it to last longer than the media the game was released on.

More like out live the generation, and possibly the next two after them, that it was made for. While being able to squeeze as many pennies as they can out of it 70+ years after publication. (Or in the event of a single dev who self publishes +70 years after their death.)

Copyright in-general is far too long, but the length is even worse for video games because they rely on compatible computer systems to exist to be able to use them. Case in point, Ubuntu wanted to deprecate 32bit support, and was immediately given a swift backhanding by gamers due to WINE compatibility. Many tried to claim that virtual machines was a viable solution, but many 32-bit games need 3D acceleration that most virtual machines cannot provide. Worse PCI-passthough of a real video card to a VM doesn’t work well enough to use as a workaround. (Manufacturers love preventing consumer video cards from doing that. In addition to requiring a second monitor to use. As most legacy OSes don’t support having a second video card for rendering only and copying the output to another for display.)

If the copyright on these things would expire people could port the games more quickly and these deprecations wouldn’t be as much of an issue, but no video game in existence has ever had it’s copyright expire and the first chances for that to occur are still decades away.

Also, just the source code isn’t good enough. The asset data is required as well. The source code just tells the computer what to do with the assets. Anyone who’s ever played a source-port (ioquake3, devolution, CorsixTH, etc.) or anyone who’s run a WoW private server can tell you that much. You need assets or someone has to recreate all of them. Such as what was done for OpenTTD.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

"This is the ultimate fix, really."

…and one in the same class of "solutions" as "If everyone was nice, the world would be so much better."

Copyright was limited to initially seven years. But since it existed as a concept, vested interests just kept buying extensions of it – extensions which weren’t meaningfully opposed until long after they passed ridiculous terms. Shorten it down for a brief span of time and i guarantee you there’ll be millions invested in lobbying to have it extended again, while common sense goes unheard in the deliberations. And the next time around there’s no guarantee that "forever less a day" won’t be the end result.

The right to restrict other people from making copies of their own media, using their own hardware, is as fundamental a violation of rights as trying to selectively abolish the right to a fair trial or Burden Of Proof. Once applied the only debate remaining is where to place the border – and that border will be pushed ever further in the direction desired by whoever pays the most.

I still maintain that the best we can do concerning copyright is to give up completely on the restrictions of copying.
The right to claim proportional levy on every commercial transaction and the right to stand as author, possibly by adding that aspect to trademark law, is about the best and fairest we can sustainably do, I think.

Rekrul says:

Re: Re:

None of this would be an issue if copyright was limited to a reasonable length of time.

Not necessarily. What about games that were only available digitally and which can’t be truly backed up from the consoles that they were downloaded to?

As far as I know, there’s literally no way to obtain the short game P.T. any more, not even through piracy. The only copies that still exist are locked to the consoles that they were downloaded on.

Oop says:

One possibility for a sustainable solution that would be still better than the current situation and might get on board those companies that are too paranoid to release anything (mind that providing access to a source code does not, per se, release its copyright) would be for the gaming companies to create an industry-wide foundation for a museum or archive, that would not release source codes to the public but would still guarantee their preservation, and might offer the old games for free or for a small cost to finance itself. That way, it wouldn’t depend on one single company going under or being sold, it would have the same legal protections that archives usually get (not much, but its something), and the cultural legacy would be preserved (perhaps to be released at least at the time copyright expires, if the paranoid owners won’t go berserk at that suggestion). Not an optimal solution, but a possibly achievable compromise and better than nothing. (It wouldn’t inhibit piracy.)

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

gaming companies to create an industry-wide foundation for a museum or archive, that would not release source codes to the public but would still guarantee their preservation, and might offer the old games for free or for a small cost to finance itself.

That exists and it’s called GOG. Not a museum, per-se, but they do sell, and sometimes giveaway, old games. They were even created by the industry. It’s about as close to creating a museum as you can get without forcing the issue. (And probably scaring the publishers off even more than they already are with GOG around.)

The issue is that not every rightsholder can be tracked down for every game to get permission, and even when they can be tracked down, all it takes is one asshole rightsholder saying no to kill the effort dead. No matter how little of a part they own of the composition.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

free the relics!

if a game, software, device, hardware is NO longer supported and there is no plans to update, preserve, or make parts for, copyright/ right to repair become fair use (archive) so others can modify, preserve, create 3rd party hacks to prolong the life of equipment/ software.

if the games company’s where smart. they would create there own archive and charge a small fee…. or better yet make it free!
but we already know that they just want to make $$$$$ on the new crap and throw the old out. after all we can’t have the old shit to occupy peoples time when there’s a new shinny to SELL them!

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
PaulT (profile) says:

Re: free the relics!

The problem is they do keep interest in some works, which is why you see the same retro games released generation after generation. So, it’s hard to retain the works that don’t sell in such a way, because Nintendo want to sell you your 8th copy of the original Super Mario Bros and they think your attempt to salvage a game that it outsold 30 years ago might interfere with that.

Samuel Abram (profile) says:

Re: Re: free the relics!

So, it’s hard to retain the works that don’t sell in such a way, because Nintendo want to sell you your 8th copy of the original Super Mario Bros and they think your attempt to salvage a game that it outsold 30 years ago might interfere with that.

That’s 35 years ago (which actually makes your argument stronger).

Anonymous Coward says:

Another consequence of modern access to culture.

It’s been pointed out many times how disclaimers at the start of classic WB cartoons and suchlike are a consequence of our unique situation of the breadth of the history of media being available as an ocean of content, where previously this century, the products of a given age by and large remained in that era, as the gatekeepers of that media had little to no incentive to continue reprinting it and so as society moved on it became irrelevant.

However, another consequence is that this same short-sightedness which has to a great extent continued among copyright holders, means that they are much more interested where they can in finding new ways to resell the same media we already bought, which is hampered by the originals being still accessible. As a result, they continue to be averse to allowing such archiving where it would provide a means of continued access to the original media, favouring instead remakes they can sell at the full new price. Until this is overcome, they’ll continue to avoid doing what is best for preservation.

David says:

Oh come on.

Add to all of that the question of game preservation. With purchases being digital and potentially just going away at Sony’s whim, and with source code locked up by developers and publishers… what happens to antiquated PlayStation games when the cord is pulled? How would a museum or interest group preserve these games? How will future generations be able to enjoy and participate in this art?

That’s like asking how future generations would get to bite a crunchy femur if cannibalism were outruled.

Consumers have a limited time in the day that they can play video games. Since the distribution of video games (like with other copyrightable media) is cheap, the potential revenue tends to lie with how far it gets distributed and consumed. With a lot of competition, the "shelf life" where a game or other media are worth advertising and campaigning for tends to be limited, and newer games are designed to occupy consumers for a time long enough that they consider having received adequate value but short enough that they will move on to the next expensive game.

Old games and media just don’t have the same mixture of occupying limited attention span and producing shortlived satisfaction at an artificially stoked value of sensation that they are worth engaging the full machinery for, and at the same time they distract customers from fully engaging their budget for the ongoing industry of game production.

Like yesteryear’s trousers, they may still formally cover your ass, but if you continue being happy about what they provide you with, the industry is doing something wrong and will be paying the price for it.

There is no sadder sight than a landfill out of business because of people satisfied with the same things they were happy about last year.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Oh come on.

"Old games and media just don’t have the same mixture of occupying limited attention span and producing shortlived satisfaction at an artificially stoked value of sensation that they are worth engaging the full machinery for, and at the same time they distract customers from fully engaging their budget for the ongoing industry of game production."

This, right there. We’re unlikely to see many new games like Planescape:Torment or Fallout 2. If the game in question offers too much replay value it’ll compete against newer offers, and if you can’t meet the overheads using merch and new DLC’s, the game, no matter how popular, becomes a drag on the company’s ability to invest in new offers.

Bethesda has received a steadfast following over their fallout and oblivion franchise, but it has to be said that the ability to mod the games has been both a boon and a bane for them. Yeah, their fans buy every title, no questions asked, but the casuals still spend their free time firing up Oblivion, Skyrim and Fallout 4 since there are mods out there which keep rebuilding the entire game world. Those old games are now stiff competition for the gamer’s time.

Anonymous Coward says:

An issue a step up the ladder from this is companies preserving their own source code at all. Given the control freaks they tend to be, i cannot understand why they don’t preserve the stuff for themselves, let alone for the public. I means seriously, like you didn’t have a spare hard drive to store the code, assets, and build tools.

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