So-Called Pirates Are Doing The Work When Publishers Fail To Preserve Their Games

Image for article titled So-Called Pirates Are Doing The Work When Publishers Fail To Preserve Their Games
Image: Sony / Kotaku / 3Dsculptor (Shutterstock)

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.

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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.

One of the knee-jerk reactions I often see when this type of stuff happens is folks touting the superiority of physical media. The idea is that Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo can’t take away your discs or cartridges, even after a digital version of a game is delisted or otherwise rendered unavailable. But physical media isn’t the savior so many think it is.

Flip that disc around!
Flip that disc around!
Photo: YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP (Getty Images)

For starters, physical games are often expensive and hard to access. Many games become scarce. Over time, game carts and discs can become valuable collector’s items, making it harder for many folks to track down a copy, let alone afford it. And that’s assuming one has the necessary classic hardware on hand, and in working order. You also have to hope the game in question even got a physical release.

The rise of smaller, digital-only games has been amazing. Smaller teams have brought us some truly incredible experiences, some of which could only work as cheaper, download-only titles. But if that digital game is only found on a single store—like, say, the Wii Shop—then all it takes to effectively remove that game from the world is one company going “Eh…shut it down.”

And even if the store stays up, there’s no guarantee that the company running it will let you play your old digital games on your latest hardware. Such is the case with the PS5, which has a small list of PS4 games that don’t work and which doesn’t play PS3 games at all (a small number are playable on PS Now, which isn’t the most enticing prospect). The Switch doesn’t support old digital Wii games, either. This lack of backward compatibility leaves digital collections stranded on their original platforms.

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What you might be noticing is that the true villain of video game preservation isn’t expensive physical media, digital stores, or ailing old consoles: It’s game publishers that only concern themselves with generating profits, and do little to nothing to help preserve their creations for future generations.

The thing is, it would often benefit them to do so.

Cate Archer deserves better.
Cate Archer deserves better.
Image: WB Games / Monolith
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Take the case of No One Lives Forever, a classic shooter published in 2000. At the time it was a critically acclaimed hit. But years later, after physical copies dried up and with no digital release to be found, it became impossible to (legally) obtain and play NOLF on modern PCs.

In 2014 Night Dive Studios, a publisher / developer dedicated to reviving old games, looked into bringing NOLF to modern storefronts. It discovered a complicated web of corporate ownership, with companies like Activision not even sure if they owned the rights. Finally, months of investigating, negotiating, and talking to lawyers revealed that Warner Bros. (probably) held them. When Night Dive proposed a licensing deal to Warner to bring the game back, one which would have cost Warner Bros. very little, the answer was no. WB had no interest in publishing NOLF or working on the IP with anyone else. That was that. A beloved classic PC game was left dead in a ditch as a big company sat around guarding its corpse. Nobody could play it.

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Well, not quite. See, you can play No One Lives Forever right now, but not because of WB or Activision. Instead, you’ll have to break the law. The fan-released version Rock Paper Shotgun reported on looks great and is fully patched up, all thanks to the real heroes: preservationists willing to break intellectual property laws to allow games to live on even after contracts end, storefronts go dark, and official servers shut down.

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.

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So many shiny DVDs...
So many shiny DVDs...
Image: Sony / Kotaku

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.

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I find this situation frustrating and sad. It’s unfortunate that the best way to play a huge swath of old games in 2021 is by (illegally) downloading a ROM and playing it on an enthusiast-built emulation app. What’s more frustrating to me is that there exists a legal option that would benefit publishers and players alike and could help old games retain their relevance, or sometimes even grow their fanbase.

It is this: 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.

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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.

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Granted, most games aren’t as great as Doom, but when good source code is available you might be surprised how many games suddenly get ported to any number of oddball platforms. Heck, the dead-as-a-doornail (at least commercially) PS Vita just got a great port of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas thanks to fans reverse-engineering that game’s code. Imagine the goodwill Rockstar might have garnered had it actually officially released the source itself.

Doomguy hanging with friends.
Doomguy hanging with friends.
Image: id / Bethesda
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If you happen to be a bigwig at some giant publisher, that’s a key takeaway: Make it easy for fans to play your game years later and it will pay off in the long run. Release it on PC to start with, and release the source code later. Consider it an investment. The community will spend years and years improving your game, porting it to new platforms and keeping it relevant. Then, when the time comes and you want to make a new game in the franchise, you have an audience waiting.

As for smaller companies and devs, I understand releasing the source code isn’t always feasible. But if you want your games to be around in 20 years, being played on old phones and smart fridges, at least try to get a PC port out. (And to be fair most smaller devs and publishers do this already! So thanks for that.)

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Sony’s possible shuttering of its older PSN storefronts is a reminder that all of our digital goods and libraries will, most likely, disappear one day. More needs to be done to keep games alive long into the future. The occasional Limited Run releases, remakes, and remasters aren’t enough. Big publishers especially need to step up and do more, in particular for games they’re no longer selling. If they don’t want the community of pirates and modders to jump in and preserve their games for them, they should at least make an effort to sell their games on PC. Or better yet, release the source code and let fans keep these games playable long into the future.

It might be easy to focus on today and forget about the future. But the so-called pirates won’t, and thank god for that.

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DISCUSSION

By
asmallcat

If we just had reasonable copyright law, none of this would be an issue, but here we are.