The fast-moving world of video games thrives on progress. Classic games come and go but unlike other mediums such as music or film, there's very little being done to preserve these gems forever.
With other mediums it's possible to physically own a copy and - on paper at least - be able to transfer it from technology to technology as they develop through time. Record your vinyl digitally for example (or at least look after it and the physical player that plays it) and - in theory - you and everyone who follows later can own and enjoy the music that it contains forever.
In the world of video games however - and specifically mobile - it's all too easy for games purchased and loved to be no longer updated or even removed from stores and services. And as for moving a game you own from one console, device or OS to another? Forget it.
The perception may be that no-one will notice, or care, but be under no illusion, when these games are pulled from stores or no longer maintained for the latest systems, they're either trapped in their native homes or gone forever. Thus the question as to how we can preserve video games and where and how this should be done is being asked with increasing urgency.
The issue of preserving games long-term has always run into problems of access and of feasibility from a business point of view. For mobile games specifically, it seems that often the question is simply pushed to the side, despite their importance culturally and historically.
We’ve been reaching out to game makers and academics who study games to find out more of what they think about game preservation and how to keep these titles playable beyond their shelf-life and the application of such a system for mobile.
Professor James Newman is a part of the Bath Spa university School of Art, Film and Media, who specialises in video game preservation and research. He also serves as one of the senior curators at the National Videogame museum in Sheffield, and has written numerous books about the subject. We spoke to him about the status of video game preservation, what’s being done and what specific challenges preservation on mobile faces.
PocketGamer.biz: Most people would probably agree preservation is good…but difficult. So what’s the main problem that faces video game preservation for mobile titles?
James Newman: Where to start? If we think about mobile games from a technological standpoint, there are so many different handsets with different display types, resolutions and aspect ratios so the picture is quite fragmented. There are also various software layers like operating systems, APIs and middleware that need to be preserved either by keeping specific hardware devices with the necessary configurations or through emulation and simulation, even if we set aside the legal issues in emulating what are often proprietary systems, this is still a huge challenge.
Of course, there are plenty of other issues, too, some of which are common to other game preservation endeavours and others that are particularly characteristic for mobile. Most mobile titles are “born digital” so there is no physical medium to work with. In these cases, acquiring code means working with rights holders and then deciding which versions of games should be preserved. With so many contemporary titles being patched, updated, expanded upon over the course of their lifetimes, or having optional DLC components, even defining the extent of ‘the game’ can be tricky.
Even if we set aside the legal issues in emulating what are often proprietary systems, this is still a huge challenge.
But, games aren’t just code, the tactility and physical feel of those different mobile interfaces is such a crucial part of the experience of the game and so recreating that is not a trivial undertaking whether its touchscreens or physical buttons or some other proprietary controller.
And, while recreating the game or gameplay is the most obvious task, preservation is just as interested in the development process and the cultural impact of games. So, design documents, merchandising, player blogs, reviews, walkthroughs and gameplay videos are also potentially within scope. It’s a big project!
What is currently being done (or could be done) to help preserve these titles?
There are a growing number of projects around the world that are dedicated to game preservation and, it goes without saying, that given the importance of mobile and handheld, these are within the scope of many of those efforts. Different projects approach the issue in different ways so some are more focused on technology, others on design. There is also a huge amount of work taking place outside of formal heritage and cultural institutions that has seen important developments in recreating Flash environments, for example, which are such a crucial part of early web and mobile games.
In terms of what could be done, the key is collaboration as these problems are far too wide-ranging for any organisation, institution or group to tackle alone. So, that means working across museums, archives, developers, publishers, players and so on. And, this also means collaborating internationally to reflect the global nature of production and consumption as well as ensuring that we are able to tell a wide range of stories and not just repeat the dominant narratives.
Why do you think that it is important to preserve video game titles?
I would argue that, whether we like them or not , whether we play them or not, video games have made, and continue to make, an extraordinarily important contribution to our world. If we want to tell the story of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, it is essential that we tell the story of video games.
How can business and academia better cooperate to preserve video games?
Collaboration is key. We need to work together to develop new partnerships and through research and development, create new ways of preserving and making available games for future generations .
Are there any activities you’re currently working on to help this?
I’m working on a number of projects with colleagues across the world. In the UK, I work with the National Videogame Museum and have just come back from Japan where I have been working with colleagues in Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto for over a decade. One of the things I’m really focused on is finding new ways of accessing and interpreting video
games. Because video games take skill and time to work through and may be made up of complex, branching structures where certain sections are only available under specific circumstances - or perhaps even happen at random - Ian’s because many games require the presence of another player or perhaps even hundreds or thousands of other players all playing simultaneously, it is not easy for researchers, developers or museum-goers to access specific sequences.
I’m working with colleagues at Bath Spa University and across the world to develop new methods for accessing those moments of gameplay without having to play through 150 hours or have superhuman skill or luck. Working with the National Videogame Museum, we’ve begun experimenting with putting some of these ideas into practice on the gallery floor and I also regularly set my Game Development students here at Bath Spa the challenge of designing new ways of preserving and interpreting gameplay - as well as archiving their own creations. After all, they are the next generation of developers so making sure that preservation is seen as an integral part of the development process is absolutely key.