The recent report about game preservation from the Videogame History Foundation paints a very bleak picture of the state of our industry. It is one where even the best games of each year are inevitably treated as trash and meant to be thrown out. In a recent chat I had with Digital Eclipse, we spoke about the hurdles of making people care about these games and I wanted to talk more about how these games should be presented to a modern audience.
Selling the Development
Speaking with Chris Koeler from Digital Eclipse, we discussed some of the challenges of making classic games “palatable” to a modern audience. And one of the things that DE came up with is that it’s not necessarily all about playing these games. As we’ve spoken about before, a lot of games that were considered “classic” don’t hold up that well for today’s audience.
Just re-releasing the game as-is will attract people who played the original, and this was the strategy that GOG.com employed, but this is an ever-shrinking market. There are two ways to give life to these preserved games: improving the remaster (which I’ll talk about next), and selling the story around the game.
Game development continues to be a mysterious subject for a lot of people. One reason why I love talking to developers is to demystify this, and it's also why I don’t care about doing simply PR stuff for games. I want to know the decision-making behind something; how did this work or what didn’t work with a game? Digital Eclipse’s strategy with their Making of Karateka documentary and future Gold Master Series offerings is to not only sell the game but weave it into the greater story of its history and development.
That way you’re not just getting a port of a classic game, but learning about all the work, all the PR, and all the story that went into making this product. To me, this is a museum-quality restoration of a video game. Is everyone going to be interested in hours of archival footage, interviews, and early design docs? Definitely not, but this is the information that adds more value to preserving games rather than just slapping a ROM on an emulator and charging $9.99 for it.
The Ultimate Remaster
To that point, making people care about these games is also about making sure that they can play them as well. Many classic and not-so-classic games are borderline unplayable in today’s market, by today's standards. While it is important to preserve the original game that people experienced, if you want more people to be interested in older games, that means making it so that they can enjoy it today.
This is where a lot of work must be done on the remaster side, which is what Digital Eclipse is hoping will help make their collections successful. You’re not just getting the game and all the history around it, but you’re getting the best possible version of that game, not just a well-executed emulation. This is where having the option to skip through stages and rewind levels, among other quality-of-life changes, improves the playability and UI/UX of a game. Even going as far as changing the UI of a game to match modern platforms and peripherals can help. There will of course be people who will want to play as close to the original as possible, complete with the screen flickering, slowdown, and archaic controls recognizable in the original release. However, that market is not the focus of these remasters — they are for people who want the playable history of these games.
Piracy is Not the Answer
One of the points we talked about, as two people who know about game preservation and the emulation space, is how piracy has become intertwined with it. People who don’t care about the work and its history will just say “pirate the ROM”, and there are plenty of sites and emulators out there for someone who wants to do all that work.
But just like with copy protection in general, its intended use is not to stop the hardcore person from pirating these games – it's to make it harder for the general consumer. And the same can be said about emulators and why they are not a long-term solution to game preservation. The goal of preservation isn’t to make the act of preserving and playing games this kind of “back-alley deal”, but rather to make it as commonplace and easy to do as going to a library and reading a classic book or visiting a museum to learn about a well-preserved topic.
Fighting the Collector’s Market
I’ve said this before, but I am not a huge fan of the video game collector market and how it has removed the act of playing video games in favor of just something to hang on a wall or display case. One of the reasons why I appreciate GOG.com is that they offer a way for people to experience these games without having to spend hundreds of dollars on a title.
A GOG.com equivalent for console and handheld games is what I would like to see happen at a minimum. I remember the time when games like Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri and Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne were going for hundreds of dollars thanks to rare copies and scalpers. I’m still very much annoyed that people ruined the whole “Mini console” trend by scalping and now asking triple the price for an NES classic.
The point of classic games is to not treat them as something you never touch again, or something to earn a quick buck from, but to let more people be able to play them and learn from them.
What Needs to Happen?
Everything about game preservation must begin with legislation, full stop. There needs to be a law that establishes an “end of life” for games to enter the public domain, or at least be allowed to be preserved by a third party. We can’t just keep hamstringing this along, and it’s been proven that just trusting the original rights holders or platforms to do this is not going to work.
To put this in perspective, in five years games like The Last of Us Part 2, Elden Ring, Smash Brothers Ultimate, and Death Stranding will be viewed as nothing but garbage meant to be thrown out. And in another five years, outside of PC (or emulated) versions, it will be next to impossible to play them…unless you want to spend $80 every few console cycles for a new version of it. And if the thought of your favorite game being treated as trash makes you angry or annoyed, don’t take it out on me, start pushing for the industry to do better when it comes to preserving its history.
My interview with Digital Eclipse will be going up in a few weeks, and you can watch it on the Game-Wisdom YouTube channel.
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