No More Continues

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Here’s one way to preserve videogames.

Let’s play a game: You’re a graduate student 300 years from now, studying videogame history at, say, the University of Mars, and the object of the game is to write a holopaper on the PlayStation Era and the God of War series in particular. How do you do this?

Sure, you could download the games into your eyeballs for 1,254,493 omnibucks and play them to your heart’s content, but what does that tell you about the people who made the games, or the people that played them back in the day? For that information, you’re out of luck. You can’t pop in the original disc because the data on CD-ROMs has rotted away. You can’t read a FAQ because GameFAQs had their servers shut down in 2065, or read any online reviews since Google closed its doors during the Great Browser Wars. You can’t read any design documents or email exchanges because every time a developer left the company, his hard drive was wiped. You can’t play any early builds of the game, since they were burned on CD-Rs, which rot faster than CD-ROMs, and anyway all the builds were kept in a supply closet that flooded after a particularly rainy day. In short, you’re screwed. No more lives. No more continues.

Okay, maybe that bit was a little silly, but I wrote it to emphasize a point: There is a very real danger that the videogame industry will lose much of its essential history if steps aren’t taken soon.


Preserving a videogame might seem, at first glance, an easy task: Simply store your Pitfall Atari 2600 cartridge in a cool, dry place, and pop it into your system whenever you want to play it. Plenty of collectors do that very act for thousands of games. But what do you do when the electronics in the cartridge start to break down, or when your brand-new TV doesn’t have the proper inputs? You could extract the ROM and emulate the system on your computer. But that’s not exactly legal, and, if you’re a library or a museum, you run a serious risk of being sued. Besides, what happens when a new operating system doesn’t support the old emulation software?

Beyond the game, there’s the material that surrounds it, that arguably gives the game meaning. That includes design documents, concept art, emails, alpha and beta builds, focus group results, marketing materials, sales data, box art designs, press releases, previews, reviews, cover features, and so much more. How does a library even collect this stuff, let alone deal with the legal implications of it? Suddenly preserving a game becomes a Sisyphean task, with no end in sight.

This blog aims to examine these issues in detail. But for the moment, what’s my wish list for the industry regarding preservation? I wish that developers and publishers would begin to treat their work with a thought toward posterity, making sure essential documents are saved. I wish that lawyers would start to untangle the messy issues of DRM and copyright law, so that museums and libraries can act without feeling like both hands are tied behind their backs. And I wish — I hope — that you, the gamer, read up on game preservation issues, starting with Robert Ashley’s excellent interview with Henry Lowood, who runs the How They Got Game project at Stanford University, and the wiki for the Game Preservation special interest group of the IGDA. With luck, we’ll someday be able to beat the game and save game history.

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