Video Game Heritage and Preservation
The preservation of videogames is legally and technically complex; it is an ongoing topic for discussion in technological and sociological circles, and has been an important part of what the Centre for Computing History has been doing over the past 12 years.
Videogames are a snapshot of the popular culture of their time. They are often designed to take their hardware platform to the limits and as such are an excellent demonstration of the computer or console. Similarly the games that appear on these systems often mirror what is happening culturally at the time. The Space Race, Cold War, Invasions of Iraq, awareness of mental health issues, and more have contributed to trends in gaming.
In the last fifty years we have witnessed the birth of the videogames industry; something that will never happen again. A new, globally adopted media which fuels industry and economy. It must be documented from a heritage perspective and supported by properly preserved examples. Let's not forget, in 2018 the global video games market was valued at $137.9 billion, and growing according to UKIE. The best-selling entertainment product of all time is Grand Theft Auto V; a single videogame made more money than the new Star Wars trilogy combined.
There are many aspects to consider when discussing and undertaking the task of preserving videogames. We will attempt to cover some of the key points here …
What constitutes the preservation of a videogame?
A very good question. Is a binary image of the game code enough? In our opinion no, although obviously it's a great start. To preserve the game you need to preserve the ephemera that surrounds it: the manual, the packaging, and so on. A good example is the seminal space trading game 'Elite' from Acornsoft in 1984. The game was originally shipped with a novella by Robert Holdstock that set the scene for the game and is a vital component to how the player perceives the game in their mind’s eye, as computer graphics at the time were very limited.
So if we preserve the original game with packaging and ephemera, how do we experience the game in the future? The original hardware has a finite lifespan, and sourcing replacement parts is no longer viable. Preserving the physical copy of the game itself and a binary executable of the game would at least allow people in the future to experience the game using emulation in whatever form that may be... assuming emulators continue to be updated as new platforms develop.
So perhaps the idea of preservation in context is an option? Maybe we should film player’s experiences as they play through the game and make these videos part of the preserved collection too. Fortunately, and largely by accident, online services such as Twitch and YouTube have preserved thousands of hours of people playing and their reactions. Everyone from seasoned videogame journalists to casual enthusiasts are contributing their responses to these platforms. But who would take responsibility for these videos should YouTube one day decide to take them down?
The experience someone has today playing a modern videogame for the first time will be very different to someone experiencing the same videogame for the first time in the future. Their expectations will be so different in the future as they will be used to much more advanced computing and therefore more detail. Or so we would assume. Take for instance, someone playing an 80s game today. Some people remember the games being fantastic in terms of graphics but are very much underwhelmed when they play them today. A significant part of a video game back then was played in our mind’s eye. We cannot deny the feeling of nostalgia when discussing the games we played. It is interesting to think that someday Fortnite will be viewed in the same light as Donkey Kong is now: a quaint little game limited by the machinery and code of its day.
Furthermore, should we be seeking to interview the people involved with the game to get behind the scenes information and gain an understanding of why the game was developed in the first place? These people have a far deeper understanding of the hows and whys of game development. And again, they can provide insight into was happening in their world at the time that contributed to the final product.
This may seem extreme lengths to go to right now, but 100 or 200 years in the future there will be very little relative context for people to be able to understand how and why these games were played back in this era.
The proliferation of high-speed broadband internet has made preservation even harder. Many console games bought today are just the base code for the game and to actually play the game requires the user to download the remaining content. So preserving the physical copy of the purchased game really isn't preserving the game at all. These are known as Day 1 patches and cause huge issues when considering how to preserve modern games.
We have already seen examples of online games becoming impossible to play now the servers have been taken down. The online arcade editions of Outrun 2 for the Xbox 360 and PS3 have already disappeared as they can no longer be downloaded at all. So to preserve these games do we need to consider 'hacking' the code from consoles that have already downloaded it?
An interesting side question ...
So whilst we would never condone software piracy, we have to acknowledge that it happens. The reality is that many people back in the 80s and 90s only experienced the pirated version of game. The staggering amount of games available and limited pocket money fuelled piracy. Furthermore, tape-to-tape recording equipment had become readily available in the consumer market; it was very easy to copy a game and swap it for another copied game. Playgrounds became rife with such behaviour, and it continued well into the 90s with PC, Atari and Amiga disk-based games.
To counter piracy, in a few instances the industry employed copy protection methods that altered the gameplay experience: a non-genuine copy of Serious Sam 3 was still playable as normal to an extent - until an invincible non-playable character appears and repeatedly kills the player. This is important as it may be somebody's only memory of the game.
In 2013, the 'Game Dev Tycoon' developers intentionally released a different/pirate version of their game themselves onto torrent sites. This version had an extra mechanic that introduces game piracy at increasing levels until the player's own virtual game company just couldn't survive and must declare bankruptcy. This worked well as both marketing ploy for the game and as a demonstrable lesson to those using pirated software.
An interesting result of piracy and the need for pirates to advertise their skills was the development of increasingly complex ‘cracktros’ (crack intros). To remove the copy protection from a game is called "cracking”, and once the protection had been cracked, the cracker would often post a small demo to prove their skills. These could replace the logos of the actual companies that created the game. Some of these these also had menus within which you could activate cheats before actually beginning the game, also changing the experience. These cracktros also often featured the cracker's pseudonym. This also raises ethical concerns in preservation - would these people or their descendants wish for their names to be forever associated with this illegal activity?
In time these cracktros would develop into a whole new sub-genre of videogames. The "Demo Scene” took the idea of creating a dynamic screen, animations and music within incredibly small file sizes. To this day there are international competitions where programmers compare their creations and exchange code.
It’s a tricky subject, but it is worth discussing the role that ethical hacking has played, and continues to play in videogame preservation.
And let's be clear here, the Centre for Computing History does not condone any sort of piracy and the images it holds are for preservation purposes only.
The rights to a videogame are held by the publisher and/or the programmer, and for older games tracking down the copyright holder can be time consuming and sometimes provide no definite outcome. What happens if the publishing company no longer exists? Does the copyright return to the programmer? What if there is more than one programmer? For more recent games, it is not simply about the programmer, but the graphic artists, musicians, animators and so on. What if the company is bought by another company? Did the purchase of the company include the rights to previous games, or just the company brand? It's a minefield.
To add to this there are legal issues surround how the game would be preserved. Sometimes, as we saw above, in order to preserve the game it has to be 'hacked' to remove copy protection. That in itself violates copyright legally and morally. It also brings into question, whether preserving the game without its copy protection is actually preserving the game properly.
There are ways to make flux images of floppy disks which preserve the protection methods but not all games are on floppy disk and copy protection comes in many shapes and forms: from physical methods like codes in manuals and Lenslok
to software-based methods like intentionally bad disk sectors and protective code. Sometimes both.
There is a great deal of technical skill required to overcome these challenges in preservation. There are also clearly legal questions to be answered, but unfortunately these questions rarely have a straight forward answer.
So there are some very interesting social stories to be told about player’s experiences, the relative cost of video games at the time, corporate decisions regarding copy protection, the technical methods employed and so on...
To tell these stories using preserved the examples and supporting materials is hugely valuable.
But what about online?
Games that exist solely online are another area of complexity. These games use the web browser to render the graphics and sometimes rely on plug-ins such as Flash. These games have no physical media to preserve! A community-led web game preservation project called Flashpoint is an offline resource aiming to archive as many Flash games as possible before they are rendered completely defunct by Adobe at the end of 2020.
But then there are online games that require access to specific server to operate. Whist it is possible to preserve the front end game code it is only with the agreement and co-operation of the game publisher could the server code and environment be preserved. Many games have become orphaned and unplayable as the servers are decommissioned. Games such as Star Wars Galaxies, which have had their official servers deactivated, have seen new life with fan-run servers. Not all online games are so lucky, as Warhammer and Marvel Heroes Online fans will attest.
So what does The Centre for Computing History do?
The Centre for Computing History is an accredited museum and as such works to nationally agreed standards in
the preservation of its collection.
When deciding how to preserve an item we take into consideration the materials present in the item. For instance an 80s video game may be presented in a cardboard sleeve or box with polycarbonate cassette case inside along with a paper manual. Inside the cassette case will of course be the cassette made up of a polystyrene shell containing the metallised Mylar tape.
So in this relatively simple example we have multiple materials to deal with. Plastics are one of the most problematic. Plastics 'off-gas' as they age and degrade. This gas can adversely affect the other materials close by. Bonding materials are often the first to degrade. The metallised layer bonded to the Mylar tape is in some cases degrading to the point that attempting to play the tape physically destroys it as the metal oxide comes into contact with the tape read head. This is even more of a problem when attempting to read 1/2" data tapes from the 60s. This demonstrates that time is very much of the essence.
Then there are cartridge based games. Cartridges use 'Read Only Memory' or ROM chips to store the game code. They were used predominantly in the game console market, but home computers of the 80s also used them. Games released on cartridge were often considered much harder to copy at the time because of the technical requirements in hardware and knowledge. However, today it is often easier to create a ROM image than a disc image. You would be forgiven to think that data stored in a 'chip' is more hardy and whilst it generally is, it is in no way immune to 'bit rot' and requires preservation in the same way.
To make things far more complex, some cartridges also had extra hardware to add features to a game. Perhaps some memory to store game data, or even hardware that enhances the performance of the game console. There are cartridges with extra game ports built in and games like StarFox on the SNES added extra 3D graphics hardware.
For these cartridges to be preserved we need the original cartridge or in some cases the additional features can be built into the emulation software.
The huge task of digitising and imaging early videogames has been very much undertaken by the community, who have already digitised more games than 100 museums could have hoped to have achieved in this time. So we work in partnership with the community.
As of January 2020, the museum has a collection of over 12,000 physical games, and this is added to on a weekly basis. More importantly our collection is completely searchable via our website. The minute a game is added to our collection, the online catalogue is updated and can be searched by researchers around the world making our collection a truly international resource.
Games are often re-released a year or so after their original launch as a budget title. These games had different cover art, less supporting documentation and occasionally simpler and cheaper methods of copy protection. It's possible that some budget releases had bug fixes or even other features not available in the original game. So the Centre for Computing History physically collects all releases of a game; original, budget and even compilations and even cover disk versions. Let's not forget the differing platforms too! We collect the same game on different platforms as the hardware governs how the game plays.
We go to considerable lengths when it comes to the physical storage of games in our collection. All sunlight has been blocked from our storage area to prevent fading of artwork. UV light will also accelerate the breakdown of ABS plastics causing the 'yellowing' effect that plagues vintage computer and game console collectors!
Temperature also affects the rate at which chemical reactions happen; the higher the temperature the faster materials react with each other and therefore the faster items degrade. So a cool storage area is desirable.
In addition dehumidifiers remove as much moisture from the air as possible to prevent potential mould growth and materials like cardboard and paper absorbing the moisture.
Where possible materials that can be negatively affected by other materials coming into direct contact with them are separated using preservation quality bags. Damage caused by PVC cables in direct contact with ABS cases are a very good example of this. But any bags used have a hole punched in them to allow air movement. Games are put into acid free boxes or boxes lined with acid free paper.
For early games, ensuring that the digital asset is preserved is well underway, thanks mostly to the community. The physical games are preserved in an internationally recognised repository at The Centre for Computing History – a fully accredited museum. But there is much more to do.
The hardware required to play the games is also preserved at The Centre for Computing History, but whilst much of the hardware is still functional today, we are acutely aware that even with the best preservation practices we apply, this hardware will not function forever. One solution to this would be emulation, a means by which one machine can act similarly to another. With fully functioning original hardware, the museum has been able to help verify the accuracy of emulators whilst these comparisons are still possible.
The exhibits at the museum currently use original hardware and CRT displays, but in the future it will have to embrace emulation, so helping ensure its accuracy now is very important to us.
But while we can, we will always favour using original hardware in our exhibitions. For this reason we always accept gaming consoles and other associated items into our handling collection regardless of whether we already have one already. This will keep our exhibition alive and authentic for the foreseeable future.
Talking directly with developer and discussing the game development process obviously has to be a vital addition to the story where possible. There's much more to discuss though than just the technicalities ... why the game was developed, what inspired them, how they got into the games industry and what it means to them today are just a few examples. All of the video interviews we create are available on our website and via our YouTube Channel
Then there is the ephemera, the marketing materials, the source code, the development diaries, artwork, music, play through videos and so on... These are all items that the Centre for Computing History considers vitally important and actively collects to help create the best chance that future generations can interpret our collection accurately.
One of the most important parts of our process is the documentation. We work to 'spectrum' standards (nothing to do with the ZX Spectrum
computer - just a happy coincidence) and record condition information, donor, physical attributes and many other fields about each item. This allows us to compare the condition of new donations against existing ones and build the best quality collection possible. This is all done through our website and is instantly available to view worldwide.
Of great interest to the museum are those unique items that add a new level of detail to the collection that could not be obtained from anyone other than the original developer. Those items could consist of the development notes, graphic sketches, source code, business documentation and so on...
These items are invaluable in helping future generations understand the development process of a video game in its time. For example, the methods used back in the 80s are very different from those employed today.
We are proud to have many items of this nature in our collection, but we are always very keen to add more. We apply best practice the to the preservation of these items and ensure that the developers legacy lives on as an example of videogame development for researchers and game developers in the future. They are a key and unique element to our unique collection.
At the Centre for Computing History, we adopt a practical approach to the ongoing issue of preservation. We rely on the knowledge and skills of our staff and volunteers to ensure that there are good examples of past videogames available for future generations. All this work comes at a significant cost and requires the support of those who share our beliefs including the enthusiast community and the games industry itself.
This media needs to be preserved. We have seen the effect of the slovenly archival of television, film and radio programming; thousands of hours of quality content has been lost to poor storage or re-use of the recording media. These days were are far more aware of the impermanence of media and we are better equipped to limit potential losses.
The hardware also needs preserving. From the game consoles themselves to the multitude of different controllers and peripherals that change the way a game is experienced. We ensure that this hardware is looked after and made available to those who want to research it in the future.
But we are in need of support. We have achieved so much through volunteer support but we need to do more. It’s a worthy cause and with the support of external organisations we can make a real difference. We need an army of volunteers to help us preserve, document and contextualise each item we have in the collection, and financial support from the corporate sector would enable us to do more and quicker... and let's be honest, we need to get this done before it's too late.
Author: Jason Fitzpatrick
Contributors: Katrina Bowen, Adrian Page-Mitchell, Dan Wilkin
Editor: No-one (which is why it is so long)
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