Will tomorrow's gamers experience today's games?

Carter Dotson says no game left behind

Will tomorrow's gamers experience today's games?

I fear this era of mobile gaming could someday be lost to history as games become unplayable for future generations.

Thanks to a general lack of understanding of how ephemeral digitally distributed games are, and because Apple in particular has created a system where preserving the history of iOS gaming is a real challenge, mobile gaming's impact on gaming and culture at large could someday be diminished or even disappear.

Closing doors?

I feel like the App Store is already diminished as an important part in the history of indie gaming.

Without the App Store, I don't think later developments in the indie gaming scene, such as Steam Greenlight or PlayStation becoming "indie-friendly", would have happened.

More importantly, I think we could forget the dream of indie development as being a business that creators could live off of and which fueled many of the great games of this era - something that happened because of the App Store opening the ecosystem in a way that, at the time, Steam and the consoles didn't allow for.

We need the history of iOS and mobile gaming to be archived.

And this is why I think we need the history of iOS and mobile gaming to be archived; to keep an accurate record of the times, and to ensure that the milestone games of this generation can be enjoyed and studied by future generations.

Active obsolescence

A huge obstacle to this goal is that Apple is not a gaming company.

It's hard to archive games on iOS because they are laden with DRM, and while game DRM has often been broken, what happens if Apple someday makes for a practically-impenetrable OS, and suddenly games' DRM can't be broken?

We thankfully have access to iOS games' IPA files, but it may be difficult to truly preserve them in a third-party way.

Of course, the ultimate question is, even if we can preserve the code, how will we play such games?

Even if iOS continues for decades, every new iOS update breaks games. For example, iOS 8 broke a lot of old games, and many will never be fixed.

Part of this is because Apple is not a gaming company, but neither is Google and they at least have a system where games can be backed up.

This may just be a side effect of using a Linux base, but having support for installing one's own software, and hardware customization options makes it possible that someday we'll have a better archive of Android games than iOS games.

The present has passed

This is why I think developers should ensure they aren't making games that are unarchivable; for example by releasing them at some point in DRM-free form on a system that provides some degree of futureproofing

I'd also love to see pressure on Apple, Google, and the console manufacturers to support archiving efforts to ensure that a game can't be lost forever, and not just for the cultural value but because users should be able to buy something once and own it for as long as possible.

As part of this, we may have to accept that games are a unique art form which sometimes only exists as a temporary experience - you had to be there, man!

I'd love to see pressure on Apple, Google, and the console manufacturers to support archiving efforts to ensure that a game can't be lost forever.

Indeed, this is a fundamental part of the move to games-as-a-service because for such games, there is no 'fixed experience' to be archived. The game changes from day-to-day.

Adhoc salvation

Perhaps then we should be looking more laterally for a solution.

One argument is that thanks to software piracy, it's possible to get any notable game that was ever made in some form. They're rough, messy, and incomplete, but impromptu archives have been created. Thanks, pirates!

And as for those temporary experiences, players have been documenting them on YouTube and social media.

Someday, Clash of Clans will shut down and be unplayable, but we'll have hours of video on YouTube (which may die someday but I think it's such a cultural institution of such prominence that it's safe for a long time) to document it.

The internet is a weird and fickle beast - it encourages ephemerality, but in a bizarre way it also has done a better job at preserving the culture than formal efforts could do - although we'll only be judges those efforts decades from now.

So, while I still would like for formal archiving efforts to exist - because many of these games could be lost as hosting services die and general internet ephemerality takes over - I think there will always be ways of informally preserving the most relevant gaming works for future generations to explore.

Emulation and piracy have ethical and legal issues, but the benefit might be that we someday have the ability to remember gaming history.

Seed of an idea

And beyond archivist's need to archive for the sake of it, what's really important about the rise of the App Store is the way it's sown the seeds for the renaissance in pixel art and retro games.

I would love to hear of some enterprising developer rediscovering an App Store classic in 2035 and use it as a springboard to inspire another great wave of games.

But if we're not preserving them now, if developers aren't putting in the effort now to preserve them, and if Apple and the gaming industry at large is resistant to it, will that ever happen?

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!