The Surprising Reasons for Troubles with Old School Video Game Preservation

Photo by Boast/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Boast/iStock / Getty Images

If you had grown up in the 80s and/or 90s, chances are you love to harken back to those days with your game choices sometimes. For an entire generation of indie developers, we need to revisit what we played throughout childhood and remember what inspired us to pursue careers in game-making to begin with. And retro gaming is a full-force subculture in the games world whether you're talking about using various devices to load up old Nintendo ROMs or feverishly browsing abandonware sites trying to find some obscure title you got from a Ziplock full of floppy disks back in 1993.

But whether you call them vintage, classic, retro, old school: older video games have something of a preservation problem.

You're good if you want to play a super popular game everyone remembers and I still universally revered like the Mario classics. But you're shit out of luck if you want to load up a title that only a totally dedicated gaming geek would remember from an era when you just didn't talk about this stuff for fear of getting beat up. It's not like say, being able to see a lesser-known movie made over 70 years ago without a hitch or finding a book with a cult following at your local library, if not running the title or author's name on Amazon. 

One of the arcades at National Videogame Museum in Frisco, TX

One of the arcades at National Videogame Museum in Frisco, TX

There are noted game preservation efforts by highly-respected institutions such as Museum of the Moving Image in NYC and several public and private universities across the nation. Video game museums are becoming a fairly new phenomenon with the International Museum of Play in Rochester, NY and National Videogame Museum in Frisco, TX, with smaller museums dedicated to games springing up around the world. Online, there are (or were) concentrated efforts by archive.org plus Classic Reload and the numerous abandonware websites like Abandonia, the DOS Memories Project, Home of the Underdogs, and several others that scratched retro gamers' itches for several years before video game preservation became a common discussion point.

But let's examine some of the issues behind game preservation, as it becomes more prevalent among interactive entertainment professionals.

The Technology Wasn't Meant to Last, and Constantly Evolves

It goes without saying that technology evolves faster than we can blink nowadays. While processors, consoles, and other hardware took longer to become obsolete back when video games were still being pioneered, they weren't as ubiquitous as they are today where it's not just common but expected to own multiple devices. Computing in and of itself was fast-growing and the languages and engines created as a result built upon themselves as technology marched on: it sounds hard to believe now as the game seems so simple and flawed compared to the innovative indie games out now and shiny AAA blockbusters, but King's Quest V was serious bragware at one time. It was THE game to show off if your computer had a SoundBlaster card.

Devices weren't built to last, although many people enjoy native retro gaming experiences on actual old Apple II machines, NES consoles, and laptops still running Windows 95. However, DOS games were the easiest to preserve because DOS still ran natively in later versions of Windows. Starting up DOSBox with the D-Fend front-end would easily get a majority of classic DOS games running, then fans dedicated to specific genres and developers put together specific emulators like ScummVM.

But for systems that were killed on impact like OS Classic prior to when Apple unleashed OS X and never looked back...good luck getting those games to ever run again even if all the assets were magically still intact. Despite the best efforts of emulators like Executor, SheepShaver, and Basilisk which can be cumbersome and reminiscent of having to manually boot up DOS in the old days (to think that System 7 was plug and play back then!), technology has just refused to let these games see the light of day again.

Archivists and persistent retro gamers keep finding new ways to fix this though, and we should support their efforts.

Unearthing Some Old Games Also Can Unearth a Legal Minefield

Video games, like any other creative or derivative work, are subject to their nation's copyright and trademark laws. With the buyouts and shutdowns of countless game developers and publishers throughout the early days to the present era, the fate of game intellectual properties (IPs) can often be hanging on a ledge. It's common to find that huge publishers that bought out smaller developers who later went under or got lost in the sea of mergers and acquisitions, such as Sierra Online and Cendant which later got bought by Vivendi Universal then Activision, now own hundreds of different game IPs but have made no moves to re-release the original versions or develop new iterations.

The Entertainment Software Association (ESA) put a stop to several abandonware sites' work if various IPs were still in the organization's purview. For many old school game enthusiasts, this proved to be a major thorn in their sides because clearly, no one was buying these games in a store or online since there was no other way to get them. It's not like they were encouraging piracy, or people to just download them for free for the hell of it: but this was before the days of GOG expressly forming a slick business model on the repackaging of old school games for modern systems which led to many developers and publishers themselves taking their vintage gems to Steam to interested audiences.

Even without ESA intervention, big publishers would also put a stop to preservation efforts. This is primarily because they were not profiting off of a retro game enthusiast uploading ancient .rar files of games that were no longer available for sale, despite not re-releasing those titles or commissioning the development of new ones based on the same IPs. Getting a takedown notice from a publisher with $1,000/hour attorneys is definitely not something the average retro game archivist wants to deal with, so unless you want an expensive lawsuit then you just halt your preservation efforts.

Fortunately, the rise of video game museums and the notion of video game archivists (we were just called "retro game nerds with hosting accounts" back then) has solved many of the legal problems when publishers and other IP owners willingly allowed these organizations to archive the games for public purposes.

Video Games Were Not Seen as Something Worth Preserving for a LONG Time

This is probably the most pernicious and persistent point of the triforce that is The Problems With Video Game Preservation.

Games have something of a PR problem, let's be honest. But while we can debate all day long whether games exist solely to make profit, or are an art form (spoiler alert: the answer is "it's ambiguous, they can be both or just one of those things"), the fact of the matter is that all the technological and legal issues in game preservation aside, games just were not seen as something worth saving by too many people.

Games are still slowly gaining respectability and legitimacy as a medium. After all, we have our young video game museums as well as professional archivists who specialize in retro video game preservation that would've been totally inconceivable back in the day. But because that legitimacy still hasn't quite arrived after a couple decades of innovation and entertainment, it's only relatively recently that video games have been seen as something to make a concentrated effort to save for future generations.

Much of this attitude stems from video games still being seen as meant for children, despite the ESA finding that the average age of gamers is 35 for men and 44 for women, with 63% of American households having at least one dedicated gamer.

But even if we give the naysayers benefit of the doubt, why should something not be preserved just because it's meant for kids? Children's books and toys are preserved with several websites and even museums dedicated to them. You can head to eBay late at night and let your id spiral out of control finding all those toys you couldn't buy in the 80s, which sometimes bid for a shitload of money. I see tons of promoted tweets in my feed about old cartoons and kids' shows dating back to the 60s that I can watch on different sites, in addition to whatever I get on Hulu. It begs the question: why are these things worth preserving but old games aren't?

Going back to the "are games art" debate that is a sore talking point for many, it certainly plays a role in game preservation where the legal and technical difficulties aside it comes down to "What game was made purely for business, then for art, and what is worth saving?" Many people are still undecided as to recent games, but also if it rules true historically. That definitely bears pondering given how it took serious bucks to get the tools needed to make a game back in the day while the unsung shareware heroes cobbled together labors of love in System 7 and native DOS. Starting up a game studio with just one or a few people wasn't the seamless and location-independent venture that it can be today.

But because many people don't take games seriously as a medium despite all the cold hard cash and eyesocket-grinding labor that goes into making one? That lack of respect has definitely played a role in the lack of preservation, and having the dedicated resources to preserving games as well as convincing the developers and publishers themselves that this work was worth saving.

 

We know that not every game is going to be archived for future generations to play and form their own opinions on, just like how every book and poem in the world won't be read, or every painting be seen. But in examining video game preservation more closely, and why it's been difficult, we can address how to preserve more recent games for future generations and determine what we need to do to maintain and improve archiving efforts.