Good Idea: As Video Game Preservation Often Falls To Fan Groups, Release Every Game’s Source Code

When it comes to the video game industry, there has been some recent recognition that copyright laws and the ways that publishers utilize them have hampered the ability to preserve this sort of art. In the olden days of a decade or so ago, the challenges around preserving video games centered around both the publisher’s unwillingness to allow a group access to source code to preserve a game and the deterioration of physical game media. But in these modern times, this has changed. Now, the challenges are the publisher copyright question… and that same publisher’s ability to simply stop supporting the online resources modern games and platforms require to run. Given the ongoing war on emulators by the likes of Nintendo and a rather insane industry stance that preservation is trumped by copyright concerns, there is a very real risk of losing the ability to preserve video game history at all.

Recent rumors that Sony is going to shut down online stores for a bunch of old hardware, has thrown the question of what happens to digital purchases in sharp relief.

Yesterday, TheGamer reported that Sony has plans to shut down the online PS3, PS Vita, and PSP stores that service those older consoles. While this has yet to be confirmed, and Sony has not responded to Kotaku’s request for comment, the internet discourse around this potentially troubling news immediately began to swirl.

If these stores go away, PS3, PS Vita, and PSP players will be unable to purchase new digital games. While there aren’t yet concrete details about what, if anything, is happening, the rumors have many PlayStation gamers understandably worried about the continued viability of their digital purchases.

Add to all of that the question of game preservation. With purchases being digital and potentially just going away at Sony’s whim, and with source code locked up by developers and publishers… what happens to antiquated PlayStation games when the cord is pulled? How would a museum or interest group preserve these games? How will future generations be able to enjoy and participate in this art?

The answer, of course, is piracy.

This kind of real preservation is rarely done by corporations. Instead, communities form around games and keep them alive for years beyond their normal commercial lifespans. These people are doing some impressive things. Look at the continued work on the unofficial but fantastic PC port of Super Mario 64. Or just a few days ago, The Hidden Palace uploaded over 700 PlayStation 2 game prototypes and dev builds, uncovering and preserving a huge bit of game history in one fell swoop.

Meanwhile, publishers like Nintendo use lawyers to crack down on the availability of emulator-playable ROMs for games that are no longer sold. Nintendo even explicitly limits how long it will sell certain games. None of this helps preserve these works. In fact, it actively hurts efforts to do so.

And so the public’s interest in video game preservation sits on a single train track, with the copyright enforcement train hurtling towards it from one direction and publishers’ decisions to stop supporting the online resources needed for digital purchases from the other. The result, if left alone, will be a train wreck, at least as far as the public interest is concerned.

So, what’s the fix? Well, as per usual, the fix would be for game developers and publishers to give up just a bit of control over their products in a way that would allow preservation to occur.

Release all games on PC, preferably alongside their source code. Having PC game releases with source code would make certain aspects of game preservation much easier, and could allow even the oldest games to survive for decades to come. It frees games from being tied to one single platform or the whims of whatever capitalist entity published it.

This isn’t a wild, unproven theory. One of the most-ported and played classic games is the original Doom. id Software released its source code back in 1997, only four years after Doom’s launch. Since then fans have created numerous “source ports” of the game, to the point that Doom’s now playable on almost any device with a screen.

As a result, Doom has also stayed relevant. That’s important, because while the source ports have made it extremely easy to play Doom without buying it (all it takes is a quick search to find the necessary content files) that hasn’t hurt the IP. I’d argue the opposite! One possible reason Doom is still around—and we just got a big DLC expansion for the series’ latest game, Doom Eternal—is people still give a shit about Doom in 2021. And people still give a shit because it’s incredibly easy to play Doom. It’s only a few clicks away and its enthusiastic community has taken its source code in directions id never imagined.

This doesn’t directly solve the PlayStation problem, of course, though there are avenues to explore there as well. But it’s at least a start towards giving the public the tools to do the game preservation themselves, since developers and publishers often are incapable or unwilling to do it. And, as the Kotaku post notes, this should be seen not as some threat to the gaming industry, but a boon. Doom is the perfect example as to why.

But, regardless, it is well past time that we do something about this. It is not tenable that we lose what is now a couple decades worth of art preservation just because it’s being sacrificed at the copyright altar.