Historical game preservation is ‘dire’

Colin Campbell, Wednesday, July 12th, 2023 8:11 am

While gaming claims a central place in modern popular culture and entertainment, its most powerful custodians are badly neglecting the form’s heritage, according to a new report issued this week.

The Video Game History Foundation’s ‘Survey of the Video Game Reissue Market in the United States’ found that only 13 percent of classic video games published in the United States are currently in release. The reissue rate drops below 3 percent for games released prior to 1985.

The study looked into more than 4,000 historical video games released in the United
States before 2010 “to determine whether they have been reissued or are otherwise still available through their rights owners”. These included games previously released on now commercially defunct platforms like Commodore 64, Game Boy, and PlayStation 2.

Phil Salvador is the report’s author and Library Director at the Video Game History Foundation, which is dedicated to chronicling and preserving gaming’s rich heritage and diversity. He wrote: “Our results question whether the commercial market alone can adequately preserve the medium of video games.”

Commercial realities

The errors of today’s game companies mirror the neglect of early purveyors of movies and audio recordings; a cause of much frustration among modern historians. Only around 10 percent of pre-World War II audio recordings still survive, while 86 percent of silent movies are now believed to be lost forever. However, in gaming’s case, the artifacts usually still exist in some form – their future is endangered by corporate neglect and short-term thinking.

Much of the problem is down to the commercial realities of game distribution. Game companies are rarely interested in preserving the past – even their own particular past. When Nintendo – the most historically significant gaming company ever – offered old Game Boy games on its digital storefronts for Wii U and 3DS, it was making just 6.5 percent of the classic handheld’s library available. But even that proved too burdensome. Since the closure of those storefronts earlier this year – resulting in the loss of 2,413 digital titles – Game Boy game availability dropped to almost zero.

Most companies – and corporate organizations like the Entertainment Software Association – are hostile to independent attempts to preserve their own artifacts, such as emulators, even while doing little themselves to honor the past.

Salvador’s report notes that the market is also limited by “technical constraints, complicated rights issues, rightsholder disinterest, and the long term volatility of digital distribution platforms”.

Resorting to piracy

Salvador noted ruefully that that “the interests of the marketplace do not align with the needs of video game researchers” adding that the reality for researchers or retro fans is that they must acquire “vintage games and hardware from the expensive secondhand market, visiting library collections in person due to restrictions imposed by Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or resorting to piracy”.

However, collectors of original games are facing escalating prices – as interest grows, and supplies dwindle. Salvador notes that “while used games were once affordable, functional, and plentifully available, it has now become unreasonable to expect researchers to acquire rare out of release titles on the secondhand market as a way to access them”. Digital distribution is clearly the most effective solution to this problem.

The point was reiterated in a lively discussion on Twitter, in the wake of the report’s release. Kelsey Lewin, Co-Director at the Game History Foundation wrote: “Game preservation has been so neglected that of course people consider piracy to be the only option — it basically is! But what if it didn’t HAVE to be? No, I’m not asking game companies to simply release more games. I’m asking the industry to allow libraries to do their jobs!”

Indie game developer David Amador added: “Companies want emulation to be synonymous with piracy, but their lack of commitment to game preservation will make emulation be just the only way for game preservation”.

Even when companies want to preserve their back catalogs, they are often hampered by loss of original source code, or by rights problems. But it remains true that game companies are more often interested in current needs, than in preservation. Famously, in 2010 Sega withdrew ten lesser Sonic titles from digital marketplaces to “increase the value of the brand”.

Welcome return

The report acknowledges that game companies do attempt to revive older games, when it is in their commercial interests. It points to reissues like ’90s classic shooter GoldenEye 007 earlier this year. The game was warmly welcomed and commercially successful, justifying the effort that various rights holders went to, in order to resolve legal obstacles. But such success stories are rare.

Occasionally, company leaders make the right noises about the importance of legacy games. Back in 2017, Xbox chief Phil Spencer said: “Console games can get lost when hardware generations go away. It can become more challenging to play the games of our past. There’s good business there for the content owners, but as players, it’s nice to be able to understand how our artform has progressed.”

But commercial realities do not reflect these noble words. Even as GoldenEye came out, Microsoft was busy removing 46 games from its Xbox 360 online marketplace.

The report – which you can read here – offers a stark conclusion. “This is a systemic
problem and a crisis for the entire medium of video games,” it stated, while calling for game companies to allow researchers better access to old games.

“It may seem hard to reconcile the interests of the marketplace with the needs of researchers [but] the first step towards solving this crisis is for the game industry to acknowledge that the commercial market on its own cannot meet those needs or close the preservation gap. With greater tools and support, libraries and archives can help improve access to the overwhelming majority of games that fall outside the commercial interests of the game industry.”

Colin Campbell
Editor-in-Chief

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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