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Mobile Mavens: Can we preserve classic mobile games forever?

Classics games all too easily become lost forever in updates and sequels. And in the all-digital world of mobile that's especially true. Our experts give their take on what can be done
Mobile Mavens: Can we preserve classic mobile games forever?
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Games preservation presents a challenge across the entire gaming industry. Technology moves fast, and games come and go. Over the years, we have seen incredible mobile games that have become certified classics, yet as a fully digital space, mobile game preservation and policy is practically non-existent.

Players too often see games taken from online stores, through rights changing hands, OS changes requiring updates or publishers and developers simply pulling the plug on 'last year's game' in favour of something new. Too often games are being lost, unavailable to players who not only hold them dear, but may have invested precious time and actual money into them.

We reached out to our panel of industry professionals for their take on saving games. How on the hook are developers and publishers to deliver persistent service and if mobile games preservation is simply a pipedream that can never come true.

Ivan Pervoy

Ivan Pervoy

CPO at Zibra AI

When I was 14, I played one online MMORPG game for three years daily. It was part of my life, and when this game was closed, I felt devastated, like part of myself was stolen. Unfortunately, for niche games where DAUs are measured in the thousands of players, there is only a tiny chance that publishers will keep them alive. For big titles, it’s natural to keep a game in the LiveOps phase for an extended period. Therefore, the team focuses on adding more and more content for players who can’t imagine themselves without it.

But at some point, each game finds its plateau and then faces a stagnation phase, when operation costs are still high, but revenue steadily goes lower. It’s a natural process, but what about the game’s heritage, fan base and cultural phenomena? Hence, it’s crucial to find a way to preserve games, and mobile games in particular, for new generations.

One of my mobile games hasn’t been updated for the last two years, but it can still be downloaded despite its non-compliant SDK and deprecated APKs. Nobody can guarantee that it will last, but one thing that app stores could do to help is have backward compatibility. But it’s a challenging task because publishers are not interested and sometimes don’t have the resources to keep games up to date.

Google and Apple should be involved in mobile game preservation. At the very least, they could store all players’ items inside the game and things that were really valuable to them. It might seem like an emotional gesture, but it’s about preserving game dev heritage and being respectful to players. They take a 30% revenue cut from games, so surely they can create something like a Games Archive, where players can download titles with restricted game functionality, whether for future research, nostalgia or just to show the kids.

We use cloud storage for saving files and data. For game preservation, I envision this would be like shared storage, where players can export their in-game items to create Game Galleries. Coming back to my online MMORPG game, I still can’t access my hero inventory that I collected 20 years ago. If I could save it, I’d be ready to pay for it.

Stuart    De Ville

Stuart De Ville

Director at Fribbly Games

It’s easy to feel preserving mobile games stands as a vital pursuit, given their profound cultural and historical significance. However, amidst the challenges posed by diverse hardware, evolving technologies, and poorly curated mobile game stores, a thought-provoking question arises: Do we need to worry about saving them at all?

While new technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) may usher in transformative changes, it's essential to consider the implications for mobile game developers and the landscape they inhabit. The dynamic interplay between preservation efforts and technological advancements can impact developers' livelihoods and their studios' future.

As we delve into the realm of AR and VR, the traditional concept of preservation might expand to encompass not only the games themselves but also the innovative development processes, design philosophies, and cultural influences that shape the mobile gaming landscape. By preserving these facets, we honour the past and equip future developers with a wealth of knowledge and inspiration.

The process of preserving mobile games, whether in physical terms or as historical resources, lays the foundation for a continuous cycle of inspiration, fostering an environment where developers draw from the past to forge new pathways of creative exploration.

In the end, the evolution of the gaming landscape is both an ode to the past and a gateway to the future. As the industry navigates change, guided by the preservation of its rich heritage, it embarks on a journey of perpetual reinvention, ultimately driving innovation, sparking creativity, and propelling the gaming ecosystem to new horizons.

Sophie Brügmann

Sophie Brügmann

Head of Operations at Lessmore

The preservation of mobile games and their progress has always been interesting to me, although it seems often overlooked as a topic. There haven’t necessarily been options for a save game in the first place for physical arcade games. If anything, maybe a list of high scores with a three-letter indication of who had set this record. Or limited savings possibilities on a memory card. And the beauty this brought with it was that you’d be more inclined to remember the game and consciously choose what to save. For the preservation of the game itself, it would mean looking after the machine and ensuring it’s treated well.

In the digital world, things move so quickly that we tend to forget about these moments. We live in a world where everyone is in a rush, where it’s all about being faster, higher, further ahead, efficient, and successful. People lose their phones, and all pictures, contacts and passwords are gone. It’s usually only after an incident like this that we start thinking about how to preserve our information.

This thought can be transferred to mobile gaming as well. For our own game, Eatventure, we initially had a local save game. If players were to lose their mobile or delete the app, their progress would be gone. We then introduced a Cloud Save feature, allowing users to transfer their progress onto other devices.

However, to permanently save and preserve a game for the future world, we will always be dependent on technology. If our server host has an issue, the game will suddenly be unavailable. One can set up backup systems, of course. Yet, it’s also worth creating memories and knowing the games will live on in our imagination.

Betsy Abendroth

Betsy Abendroth

Director of PR at DevSisters USA

During my time at Pixar, we discussed the challenge of art influencing technology or technology influencing art. There is a significant parallel between animated films and video games. At the core, technology and art have to find a balance to tell the story.

Like animation, video games rely on past technological advances to carve a path to the future. Without access to that history, filmmakers won’t have a foundation to move forward. Though film preservation didn’t begin until the 1930s, we still have a century of history we can access. Video game preservation is still in its infancy. Though pioneers are leading the cause, like Limited Run Games, the Video Game History Foundation, and “Brewcades,” we are still losing invaluable experiences with every game lost.

Many early films were lost due to decay, fire, or neglect, leaving an irreparable gap in our understanding of cinematic history. Preserving video games presents a new set of challenges due to their digital nature. Video games are built on a complex software and hardware systems, whereas film reels are physical. Once the game is gone, it becomes impossible to reacquire legally with no chance of recovery when digital storefronts close their digital doors. The advancement of technology and digital distribution makes video game preservation efforts all the more urgent.

I hope publishers look to film preservation as a roadmap to archive video games, as they are just as vital a medium to preserve our cultural history.

Christian Moss

Christian Moss

Co-founder and head of Gaming R&D at ZBD

While arcade classics like Pong and Asteroids usually evoke the most nostalgia from gamers, mobile games are the most accessible way for everyone to access gaming content. Since the rise of smartphones, we have seen a completely different demographic able to enjoy gaming that simply couldn’t when it was limited to PC and console. So, I feel it is very important to preserve seminal mobile games despite mobile gaming’s relatively short history, and I expect we’ll see more consumers demanding this as time passes and nostalgia grows.

As well as issues such as technology and licensing, appetite is probably the single biggest challenge. The time and expense required to preserve mobile games could be affected by their perception problem. Unfortunately, it is most prevalent in groups that hold the purse strings to make something like preservation a reality!

I believe this perception problem will gradually soften as the quality of mobile games continues to grow and developers innovate with new technologies such as native advertising, payments and web3. Essentially, the value exchange many players already appreciate with ad formats like rewarded video can be improved to offer fairer rewards for players’ time and data, which in ZBD’s case is, of course, real Bitcoin. This creates a more mutual relationship between the player and the developer, which has an overall net benefit for both parties and, topically for game preservation, can extend the life cycle of games considerably!

Unlike early PC and console games, mobile games are of course digitally native, which makes some form of preservation more straightforward. However, I’d like to see more cross-industry exploration of how new technologies such as Bitcoin can create an indelible record and history of mobile games that anyone can access. After all, that’s what mobile gaming is all about.

Miikka  Lindgren

Miikka Lindgren

VP Publishing at Sandsoft

I’d love to go back in time and see what mobile games were popular at certain times and, even better, play those games again. This would help people understand how much mobile gaming has evolved from those early days.

Some games are so powerful that they’re naturally preserved. For example, I believe Nokia's first ever mobile game, Snake, was published in 1997 on their monochrome 6110 mobile device. Now we see new games, like Habby’s SSSnaker and Kooapps’, taking a lot of inspiration from those old games. Many of today’s game themes, settings and even core game mechanics come from those early days of gaming and still thrive in the current market. Due to better devices and network performance, we can also experience a new wave of console/PC style titles like MiHoYo’s Gensin Impact.

The main challenge is the evolution of technology. Mobile device platforms are in constant change. Hardware configurations are changing, like input methods (keypad vs touch screen), display resolutions and screen size, and whole operating systems are changing from feature phone platforms to smartphone platforms with changes in programming languages from Java to native etc. ]

That means that playing classic games can require additional tech, such as emulators or cloud technology. This is a good partial solution, but if you want an authentic experience, you should run the game on the device it was targeted for.

The other main challenge are the IPR rights for those old games. Creating a central hub where many classic games could be played, and experiences would require an army of lawyers to draft licensing agreements for all those games with their current IP holders. Platforms like Antstream Arcade have managed to offer considerable catalogues of retro games, although, of course, this is done using cloud tech and is the preservation of the game in another form that’s not its original format.

Solving that technical problem where you could play all games on current devices would require substantial work and would be very expensive. Porting or adapting old games for current mobile devices would require access to actual game files and their source codes. That would require significant detective work to find who currently owns those IPRs and if they even have those files available anymore. The bigger question is what games should be considered worthy of preservation. Who would make that ultimate decision about who is worth it and who is not?

One way of overcoming this issue is to set up non-profit organisations like trade bodies and museums to make this selection, and game licensing would work pro bono. The games industry and government need to work together to fund this, such as with The Finnish Museum of Games in Finland.

As mentioned above, true games preservation would require collaborative effort across the mobile gaming industry, from securing funding to making game licences available to ensure the games are replicated as authentically as possible in a format that people globally can enjoy on their own devices. Maybe this is something that a metaverse or virtual world can provide in the future, where you can go back in time and experience games that were popular at a certain time.

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