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Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis, Part 2
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Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis, Part 2

February 10, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

[Part 2 of Where Games Go To Sleep examines how video games can be protected by natural disasters and elements. Video game museums and preservationists worldwide reveal their goals and ask for artifacts from those in the industry. Meanwhile, Japan struggles to open its own video game museum amidst political controversy. Part 1, which looks into the surprising fates of historical Atari and Sega material, and more, can be found here.]

In August of 1986 Konami opened the Konami Software Development building in the Minatojima area of Kobe, Japan. 1986 was the same year in which Hideo Kojima, creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, would join the company. The Kobe building would house development divisions that were responsible for the production of Konami's most popular series. Development Division 5 was one of those divisions housed in this very building. It consisted of ten people -- one of whom was Hideo Kojima himself.

On the morning of January 17th, 1995 the Great Hanshin Earthquake struck the city of Kobe. It was the worst earthquake ever to hit Japan. 6,434 lives were lost, and the earthquake caused approximately $102.5 billion dollars in damage.

The Konami Software Development building was among many structures in Kobe that suffered damage. Kojima discussed how the impact of the earthquake personally affected him and his Development Division 5 colleagues in a Kojima Productions Report blog entry.

A retrospective video that played in July of 2007 during a Metal Gear Anniversary party told of how Kojima and his team were experimenting with early Sony PlayStation technology during the winter 1995 time period in which the Kobe earthquake occurred.

The same video would also reveal that Konami's Development Division 5 team lost an enormous amount of data and hard work in the Kobe earthquake. The quake eventually led them to relocate their offices to the Ebisu area of Tokyo, starting over, using Lego pieces to lay out preliminary designs of levels for what would become Metal Gear Solid for the Sony PlayStation.

Happily, it seems that some of Kojima's early Metal Gear design documents have survived, according to recent tweets he made, compiled by blogs Kotaku and Hachimaki.

According to IGN, Konami also lost much of the original artwork from the Castlevania series created up to the time of the earthquake.

The Konami Software Development building damage is listed within Konami's official corporate history. Konami Digital Entertainment in Tokyo was contacted and asked to clarify the extent of what development materials it lost in the Kobe earthquake. Konami's public relations division politely declined to comment, citing company policy not to discuss any information regarding the development of its games.

In the video game preservation questionnaire sent out to industry developers and publishers for this article, Sony Computer Entertainment of America was one of the respondents that did express the need for development kits and hardware tools to be kept in secure disaster-proof locations along with game data.

Many different industries such as medical, legal, entertainment, and manufacturing utilize one unique method to prevent loss from harmful elements or natural disasters: underground storage in a salt mine. Underground Vaults & Storage is a specialized storage company that provides six different locations for international clients. One of their locations based in Hutchinson, Kansas, has been in use for over fifty years; it is buried 650 feet below the surface of the earth and accessible only by secured elevators.

It is reported that major Hollywood film studios store their film negatives in this facility, and the master negatives for such films as Star Wars, Ben Hur, Gone With The Wind, and Journey To The Center of The Earth are secured at the Hutchinson facility. 20th Century Fox reportedly shipped twenty-two truckloads of film masters within a two-month period to Underground Vaults & Storage.

"The natural environment underground is perfect for storage -- a constant 68-70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50 percent humidity," says Jeff Ollenburger, business development and sales manager of Underground Vaults & Storage.

"Many of our clients recognize that they can safely and, just as important, economically, store their archives with us for decades and not take up valuable space in their own facilities. In the event that in 20 years there might be a need for that piece of information, it would still be available," says Ollenburger.

Underground Vaults and Storage also offers consulting services and unique data transmission services to its clients. Such services include certified records management and business impact analysis. "Using today's communication technology paired with on-site visits when appropriate, our team of experts can help any company develop a comprehensive records and information management strategy. While the decisions on what to retain and for how long are decisions to be made by each company and their legal or financial advisers, UV&S can offer 'best practice' strategies applicable across broad industries," Ollenburger says.

Ollenburger could not reveal if any of their clients include video game developers and publishers, but the welcome mat has been laid out for them, "Any organization, including those in the video game industry, interested in storing their information and archival material in one of the most secure locations on the planet would be welcome at Underground Vaults & Storage."

One secure establishment that video game developers and publishers could check for old material thought lost is the U.S. Copyright Office. Over the past few decades many developers and publishers deposited source code printouts, while others deposited "Identifying material deposited in lieu of game", such as a videocassette or a written description of gameplay.

Even though Irem disclosed in this article's questionnaire that they maintain no source code for any of their games from the 1980s in Japan, a search of U.S. Copyright Office records did uncover what appears to be Irem game source code. "Printouts" of what is assumed to be source code could be found for several Irem games including 10-Yard Fight, Red Alert, and Super R-Type.

It's unclear however if this is complete source code, as the U.S. Copyright Office currently requires the first 25 and last 25 pages of source code in filing for copyright of a computer program, or the entire code if less than 50 pages long. Source code printouts containing trade secrets can also be blocked out in certain filing circumstances.

Regardless, it should be noted that these copyright deposits are secure, and can only accessed if a written authorization is received from the copyright claimant, an authorized agent of the claimant, or an owner of any of the exclusive rights in the copyright.

There has been one increasingly important area of video game preservation; one could call it a safe haven for video game artifacts. This particular safe haven has been rapidly expanding over the past several years. It became apparent when one company, Fairchild Semiconductor, mentioned a particular museum while research was conducted for this article.

Fairchild Semiconductor was once a former video game console manufacturer that developed the first ROM cartridge-based video game system, known as the Fairchild Channel F, in 1976. The company, founded in 1957, was acquired numerous times and disappeared completely in 1987. Ten years later, Fairchild Semiconductor began operations once again, but this time in Portland, Maine.

"Most of the historical information was not retained over the years. I do have a few pictures and company newsletters, but nothing on the video game," commented Patti Olson, of Fairchild Semiconductor Corporate Communications. Olson referred us to the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. An online search of its catalogued archives uncovered photographed artifacts entries for both the Fairchild Channel F and the Channel F II game consoles.

Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Wyatt Epp
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I'm still reading over PVW's report, so sorry if some of this is covered in there, but I think it's important to make this clear: simply preserving games isn't enough. For books, preservation means the ability to read the work is retained; so should it be with games. The preservation of the experience is critical. That is, people need to be able to play it. Playing a game _is_ the experience.

Now, consider what that means for preserving an MMORPG.

Really, let that sink in a little.

Preserving the code and its executable isn't enough, of course. That should be obvious to anyone who has been using a computer more than a couple years. Preserving (or, more likely, reviving) the original hardware may be impossible and I don't see how a library would be capable lending out a PDP-11 anyway (assuming someone had the power supply ability necessary to run one). Emulation is possible, and can even be done 100% accurately if you throw enough processor time at it (bsnes is a good proof of concept).

But if we cannot use the software in a manner that resembles playing the game, there's little point. So you want to play Ultima Online before it was ruined by the addition of discrete levels? You're going to have to tolerate a server reconstructed from memory by independent developers; a server that could be shut down at any time by an overzealous legal team.

You want to see what Auto Assault was about, or even what World of Warcraft was like before Cataclysm? You want to compare APB with its upcoming free version? Tabula Rasa, Shadowbane, Motor City Online, and Earth and Beyond ring any bells?

Add to this the propensity for companies to somehow manage to _lose_ source code and assets, and we're in really awful territory.

Sting Newman
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"Add to this the propensity for companies to somehow manage to _lose_ source code and assets, and we're in really awful territory"

The game "industry" doesn't seem like much of an industry, rather it seems like a giant mess if this is true.

Jamie Mann
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@Sting: the problem is that the production assets are often viewed as being of limited worth when the game is completed, especially in the early days. There's parallels in all industries, from tv (BBC recording over old Dr Who episodes), movies (Metropolis: it's taken nearly a century to piece together something approximating to the original film), music (a lot of folk music has vanished forever) and more besides - old recipes, architectural plans, etc - there was a documentary recently on the Empire State building, and how engineers were having to reverse-engineer all of the comms equipment at the top: thanks to a century of changes, additions and hacks, there wasn't a single coherent document describing them.

In many ways, the games industry has an advantage: you can reverse engineer a great deal out of a game, especially the older ones: graphics, audio, programming logic, etc. And we've managed to go from punched card to heavily redundant backup systems (SAN storage, offsite disaster recovery, tape backups, etc) in just thirty years.

And the games industry also benefits from a heavy dose of childhood nostalgia, so there's no shortage of volunteers ready to help preserve stuff.

What we have is far from perfect - but by the same token, it's also a lot better than it could have been...

Jamie Mann
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@Wyatt: I touched on the problem with MMORPGs in my ramblings on the original article: given the way MMORPGs evolve over time, I suspect it would be very difficult to go back to a given snapshot, even for the company which owns the IP.

However, there's a secondary and possibly more crucial point: the "soul" of an MMORPG (for want of a better term) is the multiplayer aspects - entering a PvP battle, joining a clan or carrying out a pre-planned raid. Unless you can find some way of emulating the human interactions, what you reproduce may be as technically accurate as possible, but it won't be able to offer the same experience.

Wyatt Epp
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That would be preservations of the experience. :)

I think my bigger point, even, is we can't even get to the point where we have to _worry_ about emulating a community because we first need to have some method of actually _logging in_. That's the absolute and insurmountable first barrier. Until these companies start loosening their death grip on even just the server binaries for these dead game worlds... well, if we can't set up a server, we can't even start.

That's sort of the still-beating heart of my blathering.

Even just one server, enough that a few-hundred or a couple thousand people could play; could get to know, in some limited sense, these previously-unreachable places. These are abandoned ghost towns, places where no one lives anymore, left to rot in the wake of the digital gold rush-- I know they'll never be the same again. I think the visitors know this as well.

Realistically speaking, we're historians. I think we're all well aware of the caveats of this kind of situation; the dilution of the "original" and the sort of "fake" authenticity it creates. But frankly, that's why we exist: taking fragments of long lost arcana and divining their story so it can be passed on to the present day is what we do. As long as there's enough that we can "get it", well, it's highly suboptimal, but I think we're in a decent position compared to some areas.

Or, we would be, if we didn't have to waste so much effort reverse-engineering encrypted packets, maddeningly complex network topologies, and the internals of servers that we can't actually examine in any real way.

Jamie Mann
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I know where you're coming from, but the sort of information you need to emulate an MMORPG is commercially sensitive (e.g. attribute balancing, database schemas, etc). As such, the companies won't release anything until it's no longer commercially sensitive, even though at that point, it's liable to be completely useless.

However, I think MMORPGs are a bit like live music gigs. Sure, you can get an audio/video recording of a gig, but you lose the soul of the experience - the feeling of being in the middle of several hundred (or thousand) people singing, dancing and responding to the music and words coming from the band. There's no way you can go back and capture the ambience of a gig once it's finished, and I don't think there's any way to truly archive the experience of an MMORPG.

Which isn't to say it's not worth trying - if nothing else, it's valuable from a purely academic viewpoint! But the reproduction will always be missing the very thing which made the MMORPG worth playing.

keith burgun
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Wonderful piece. Save the video games!

Billy Joe Cain
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I have personally donated material to the Origin Museum (thanks to Joe Garrity for making that live), the Wing Commander CIC (thanks to Bandit and LOAF) and the University of Texas Videogame Archive (thanks Bill and Zach). These donations were games, game systems, peripherials, handhelds, game documents, collectibles, and much more.

For what I had as far as source code or materials, I gave those up too. There's no need to have that all in my house just in case the unimaginable happens.

The question for me is: where IS the best place? I was fortunate enough to have met Ralph Baer as he worked with the UT Videogame Archive last year and he was concerned (as am I) that people should get to experience this art form rather than see it on a shelf.

I have no answers, but I have put my irreplaceable treasures where my mouth is. Where are you putting YOURS?

- bjc

Greg Wilcox
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I've over 2000 games in my collection (down from about 3300 - I needed the space) and I think preservation is a huge key to keeping this medium alive and kicking in this age of too many disposable download only games. Since I also review games, I've a few alpha or beta codes that I keep just for historical reasons (and to show friends one or two canceled titles they might not have heard of). I don't have any archival storage methods other than a mostly dark room and some shelves.

I've also kept many of the press documents I've received since about 1998 (and a bunch of stuff from before I started writing "professionally" such as letters from Sega customer service and such), so there's a big bin or two with stuff packed into them that I need to go through and re-organize one day.

The manner in which old documents and such are discarded over time reminds me of hearing stories about how comic art used to be burned, tossed out or otherwise destroyed on a regular basis. Now, if I had a working time machine...

Ujn Hunter
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When Microsoft killed Xbox Live on the original Xbox... we lost a lot of game content, not to mention the ability to play online games. We lost the ability to patch games that had fixes as well.