My digital attic: About collectability of games

October 26, 2012 in Editorial

I have a teddy bear in the closet that I have had since birth. He’s suffered a bit of wear over the years, but still – it’s a just shy of  40-year-old children’s toy that I still have. There’s a number of things from my childhood I could have kept all these years, like my LEGO sets, my model aircraft or the one Meccano set I had. (taught me how to lose screws like a boss, so I’d be well skilled by the time I started building PCs)

My taste in toys started to shift around the time I was about 10-ish when I got my first computer, a weird little piece of kit called a Sinclair ZX81. Man that was the shit. I spent hours learning how to write little games in which you did things like steer a letter V to avoid an oncoming  flood of letter Os.

I discovered store-bought games when I got upgraded to a ZX Spectrum, much to my parents’ dread. The games on that were sold on cassette tape. Unreliable, prone to stretching, and sometimes the tape player would totally mangle the tape. Thankfully they were easy to copy. A smart gamer would make a copy of a brand new tape, and then just use the copy.

Later I would move on to a Commodore 64, for which I managed to eventually get a used floppy disk drive, and then later an Amiga, which made use of 3.5 inch disks. By then, publishers were already old hats at trying to make games as copy-proof as possible. Amiga games were seldom made that they could be installed on a hard drive. You popped the disk in, rebooted and waited for the game to load. Making backup copies of disks used to involve the use of software that made byte for byte clones of  disks.

I sometimes wish I had kept all those systems, and the games I had for them. But I doubt any of the original tapes and disks I had would have survived this long. It has been almost 20 years since I got my last Amiga, an A1200.

These days my collection seems to be mostly in pure digital form. Sure, I have about 50 to 100 PC games on CD/DVD, but it’s far outweighed by the 200-ish DOS/Windows/Linux games that live on Steam, GOG, Desura and Humble Store. How many of these will I still be be able to play 20 years from now?

Is a collection really a collection if it has an expiry date? How many people collect exotic milk? Yeah, didn’t think so.

There’s value in preserving games. We must! 110 years later and we can still watch Le Voyage dans la lune, or read and be terminally depressed by the works of the Bronte sisters. Games are important enough that we should also preserve their legacy.

It’s not that easy, however. Games have dependencies that must be dealt with before they can become truly immortal. Often this means they need to undergo a slight transformation. A reincarnation. Much like how you’re not likely to be watching Le Voyage dans la lune on film, but rather on an archive web site or YouTube you’ll not be likely to run games in their original form many years down the line. Physical media degrades, and operating systems are a constant moving target. We can’t expect OS makers to keep up backwards compatibility indefinitely.

For game cartridges, disks and tapes, we have emulators and the ROMs/disk images. For DOS games, we have DOSBox. Sometimes games are made using an engine that is separate from the game assets. This allows us to play SCUMM games like old LucasArts titles using the open source SCUMMVM. Similarly, id had the foresight to open source their game engines, allowing people to keep the binaries for DOOM, Quake, etc. up to date for modern systems.

A case could also be made for porting WINE to platforms other than Linux, including Windows itself. It’s a lot of work, for sure, but in future this might be the only way to play older Windows games. Having the longevity of your game rely on open sourced runtime environments gives it a far better chance of a long healthy life.

What will you be digging up to play for old times’ sake 20 years from now? Not Diablo 3, that’s for sure!

It is sad, but some circumstances make the collectibility of a game nearly nothing. Multiplayer games where all the servers are in the hands of the vendor, always online DRM… Heck any form of DRM can make the future of a game  uncertain. Will you be able to activate a game online in 20 years? Probably not. MMOs? Possible, but  for the most part unlikely. There’s also the litigious side of it that I’d rather not get into. Modern publishers would rather have full control over consumer behaviour than to let people just buy a product from them and keep it. “Games as a service” is more than just a buzz phrase, it might well become the norm.

It’s perhaps not something most people think of when buying a game, but ask yourself where your favourite past and present games will be many years from now.