Given the current trends in game distribution, I am concerned that sometime in the next 10 years or so, we will encounter an archival crisis, where older games simply become unavailable and are lost to time. For anyone interested in the history of this medium, its evolution, or just plain enjoys playing older games, this would be a disaster with profoundly negative consequences, and our culture would be poorer as a result.
Up until recently, games have been primarily distributed on physical media. This has the advantage of producing a permanent record of a game’s existence, and makes it to some degree permanently available. Once a game has been sold, a publisher cannot simply take it back. A court order forced Tengen to withdraw Tetris from the market, yet the 100,000 copies of the game made prior to that decision still circulate. Furthermore, because a cartridge or disc is a physical object, it is transferable. It can be sold on the second hand market, and as such, it is possible for someone to obtain it long after its production has ceased. True, a game may become rare or prohibitively expensive, but it does not simply disappear should it be withdrawn from the market. The same cannot be said for downloadable games, especially those sold within closed ecosystems.
The fact is, in a closed digital ecosystem games will not be around forever. At some point, they will disappear and it will no longer be possible to obtain them. There are several reasons for this.
Firstly, the servers that sell and distribute these games will not be around indefinitely. The companies that operate them may not survive. Atari collapsed in spectacular fashion; Sega left the hardware business in 2001; and Nintendo has gone from owning nearly the entire North American console market to a distant third place. All of these companies were once giants, yet giants fall. Even Sony has had trouble as of late, thanks to the PSN hacking fiasco. The fact is, one cannot count on the platform holders to be around forever.
But even if the keepers of the marketplace do survive, one still cannot count on digitally distributed content to remain available indefinitely. If one thing is certain, technological advances will result in companies pursuing new platforms. There will be a new iPhone, a new Xbox, a PlayStation 4, a new version of Windows, so on and so forth. And as companies produce new platforms, they draw their attention and resources away from older ones. Servers cost money to operate, and once the cost of operating an older platform’s marketplace exceed its revenue, you can expect it to be discontinued. Microsoft discontinued Xbox Live for the original Xbox, and once the Xbox 360’s successor establishes itself, Xbox Live for the 360 will eventually be discontinued as well. This would not be a problem if not for the fact that many of the Xbox 360’s best games are only available through XBLA. Should the servers go down, it will not be possible to obtain these games (and due to DRM, even play them). While Microsoft may hold off as long as possible before discontinuing legacy support, some companies such as Apple are notorious for discontinuing products well before their market viability has dried up. Although it may still be possible to obtain games distributed physically or in open systems, in closed systems they will be gone.
Of course, some games disappear regardless if the download service remains available or not, usually for licensing reasons. For example, after Bethesda Softworks purchased id Software, Ultimate Doom was pulled from Xbox Live Arcade marketplace, as it had been published by Activision who no longer had rights to it. Downloadable content for Marvel Ultimate Alliance is no longer available on Xbox Live, again due to licensing. It is likely that the reason WipeOut XL has not appeared on PlayStation Network is due to complications over music rights. That is not a problem if one has the original PlayStation disc, but if the game was not on disc, then it would be lost to time.
While some people may not worry about discontinued systems due to backwards compatibility, manufacturers are under no obligation to keep their hardware backwards compatible. Sony no longer makes a single SKU of PS3 that plays PS2 games. Microsoft has ceased adding support for original Xbox games on the Xbox 360. Windows Vista and 7 significantly curtailed compatibility with legacy software, and Apple has removed Rosetta from Mac OS X. Although Windows and Mac OS X are open platforms, their developer’s attitudes towards backwards compatibility on their open platforms are likely to mirror those of their closed platforms.
Furthermore, one cannot rely on later ports or remakes for later systems to negate this problem either. Besides the fact that these would not be the original versions (and thus are subject to distortion and later context), many games (even significant ones) would inevitably be lost. First of all, the original developer or publisher may be around to port the games. Second, ports are only likely to occur if they are commercially viable. Many historically significant games were unprofitable such as E.T. or Daikatana (and they don’t just have to be bad games, either). Shenmue is still lauded as revolutionary, yet Sega lost millions on it.
If a game is in a genre that is no longer popular, developers will see little reason to expend resources porting it. Finally, without copies of the game circulating amongst the public, many developers simply would not be able to port their older work. Many developers and publishers, unfortunately, are quite poor about archiving their work, and the source code and original artwork is often lost. Sega no longer has the source code or raw render data from Panzer Dragoon Saga, which is why they have never re-released it despite it selling for in excess of $200 on the secondary market. It would be too expensive to completely reconstruct. Treasure had to completely reconstruct Radiant Silvergun and Guardian Heroes from the finished Saturn versions when porting them to XBLA, as they had lost their original source code. Also, when Capcom released Mega Man 9 in 2008, developer Inti Creates had to develop the engine completely from scratch as Capcom no longer had the source code from the NES Mega Man games to reference. As such, had it not been possible to access the games on their original platforms, even their original developers would not have been able to port their own work for lack of reference.
Therein lies the problem with digital distribution. Within a closed system games will eventually be lost. This will cause several things to occur: Fans of old games will be unable to obtain additional games for their older hardware. For retro gaming aficionados, that would be a complete disaster, but its impact would not end there. Because manufacturers discontinuing a system means effectively reducing existing machines to a brick, the resale value of older hardware would basically become zero. Many people consider the resale value when buying products (e.g. houses or cars), so this will have effects far outside just retro gamers. Also, because buying a game means investing in a platform, people will be more wary of buying something they cannot sell and can lose at any time (i.e. sales deterrent). Furthermore, because decentralized, open platforms are not subject to the same access limitations, you will likely see increased attempts to crack open otherwise closed systems. That means an increase in piracy, as piracy will gain legitimacy as the sole method of obtaining games. And as mentioned earlier, the lack of earlier published versions will effect developers, who may not be able to bring their earlier work to new platforms.
In addition to the economic damage, there will be cultural damage as well. If gaming is as important of a medium as we claim, then it is important to preserve its history for future generations. Without access to older games, people will be unable to put the games of the present (our future) into context. Historians will know about important games of the past, but may not know what it is like to actually play them. Future developers will not be able to study the classics, and learn from past successes and failures. As such, as much as digital distribution is enriching gaming now, without safeguards for future preservation, it may leave us poorer in the long run.