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Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis, Part 3
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Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis, Part 3

March 10, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

[In this, the final installment of Where Games Go To Sleep, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony, and other leading video game companies respond to a video game preservation questionnaire, disclosing how they're saving their video game history. Developers and publishers disclose what assets they've lost, and how, in certain instances, have rescued and preserved the building blocks of their games before it was too late.]

Any video game enthusiast can browse the internet or track down a print magazine or video game book to read quips or unconfirmed rumors about how the game industry has lost the very material it created. Parts one and two of Where Games Go To Sleep: The Game Preservation Crisis provided just a few of these anecdotes from its interview subjects, ranging from Atari Corporation source code being given away in an office equipment sale, to Sega source code being lost, but then found in an ex-staffer's garage.

The decision was made to reach out to the video game industry directly and formally ask: does video game preservation matter? As a developer or publisher, how is your organization preserving its video games for the future?

A special questionnaire made up of four questions was sent to developers and publishers worldwide. The developers and publishers that were sent a questionnaire were also given the option to submit one whole statement that sums up their stance on game preservation in lieu of answering the four questions.

Certain developers and publisher were asked extra questions related to their titles being rereleased on retail compilations and via gaming subscription services.

61 video game developers and publishers worldwide were contacted via postal mail beginning in 2009, and then contacted once again via email throughout 2009-2010. A total of 14 video game developers and publishers responded. In the final part of this article these 14 video game companies reveal just how they're preserving the games they've developed and published, games that have provided immense entertainment over the past three decades.

The final part of this article reveals their answers and statements in a condensed presentation, while their complete answers and statements can be read in their entirety here.

Some video game industry personnel were very enthusiastic to participate, while some declined to participate entirely, citing company policy in disclosing development matters. It's presumed that in some cases, our questionnaire may have ended up being lost in the mail, trashed in the spam folder, or set aside altogether due to time constraints.

As mentioned in part one of this article, this was a very difficult subject for the industry to openly discuss. This became apparent when final answers and statements were submitted for this article, some of which revealed startling realities of what's already been lost in the video game industry. Fascinating stories of what's been saved were also shared.

It was an absolute honor to hear from the companies that responded -- their time and effort providing answers or statements was very much appreciated. For those in the video game industry that missed on our initial game preservation questionnaire, they are invited to send their answers or statements to the author directly. Instructions to submit answers or provide a statement are provided at the end of this article, and any answers or statements received may be used in a potential Gamasutra industry-focused follow-up to this feature.

Console manufacturers Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony were gracious enough to share their views on the subject of game preservation. Capcom, Digital Leisure, Gearbox Software, Intellivision Productions, Irem Software Engineering, Jaleco, Mitchell Corporation, Namco Bandai Games, Sega Corporation, Taito, and Throwback Entertainment (majority owners of the Acclaim Entertainment library) were the video game developers that also submitted answers or statements providing their stance on how they're preserving their arcade and console titles.

An original "Puck Man" (aka Pac-Man) cabinet sits on display in the Tokyo office lobby of Namco Bandai Games. The author wishes to thank Izumi Wada of the Namco Bandai Games corporate communications department for his invaluable assistance and time in capturing these images.

Ken Lobb of Microsoft Game Studios revealed how the company utilizes special departments to store all game software and hardware. Multiple copies of each game published by Microsoft (making up source code and production materials) are stored in humidity- and temperature-controlled environments in both onsite and offsite locations. Microsoft has plans to transfer games published prior to the year 2000, (stored on older media) to a more reliable storage solution.

"The source code and all the materials used to build the products for the games released after 2000 are already stored on highly reliable present-day storage media, in secure, temperature & humidity controlled locations. Retrieving the source code and even rebuilding the games is a part of our comprehensive business continuity and disaster recovery (BCDR) program," says Lobb.

Many of the tools used to preserve Microsoft Game Studio source code were developed within the company. Microsoft is open to provide "general guidance" on its best practices for source code preservation to video game-related industry organizations, while making it clear that it would not be able to share "specific encryption/decryption algorithms".

Marc Franklin, public relations director of Nintendo, highlights in a statement how its legacy has played an important part in its present-day game releases: "Our games reach back decades and star dozens of characters who are still going strong today. Plus some of these older games introduced genres, styles, and technological breakthroughs that are now commonplace.

"As we highlight in our Iwata Asks [interview] series, Nintendo keeps a wealth of materials related to its past games, up to and including even original design sketches and documents. Preserving these games lets us reintroduce them to new players while giving older gamers a chance to relive their glory days."

Sony Computer Entertainment of America disclosed how both its IT and QA groups each play a role in archiving game source code and assets developed internally, continually transferring data to current storage media. Sony's storage management and methods vary per region. Archiving externally developed game titles also varies depending on contracts.

Sony Computer Entertainment did outline three specific challenges of archiving completed products, challenges it will face as hardware and production software changes stating:

  • We need to find a way to archive PC hardware and software products that have hardware keys. BIOS expiry can cause problems with long-term storage of PC hardware and by inference development tools. We need to assess how we can maintain or reflash BIOS revisions for older chipsets. EPROMs often expire within 10 years or so.
  • Legacy music and video source materials may be in file versions that require specific hardware (cards or other peripherals) which are no longer available. We need to identify how media companies that manage archives deal with this.
  • Devkits and hardware tools need to be stored alongside game data in a secure disaster-proof physical location.

Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

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Aaron Murray
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The UT Video Game Archive has a large and growing collection of all things related to game development. The Fat Man is a large contributor. We've contributed source code and uncommon game hardware. It'd be nice if other folks could post up related endeavors.


Jamie Mann
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The preservation of source code raises an interesting question: are people preserving the tool-chain needed to use that source code? Both in terms of software (C compilers, internal libraries, internal level/graphic editors, etc) and hardware - back in the 8-bit days, it wasn't uncommon for a game to be written on some form of "big iron" and squirted across to the target machine via a serial cable. For instance, Jet Set Willy (possibly the ZX Spectrum's most famous game) was written on a Tandy machine and quite a few software houses at the time used a VAX or IBM server.

In some ways, older games aren't as much of a problem, as the game code is small enough to be reverse-engineerable (though quite a few games used self-modifying code - code which rewrote itself during gameplay to minimise the memory footprint - and/or took advantage of machine-specific quirks and features). But still, there's not much point in having a script if you don't have a Rosetta stone to decode it...

Banksy One
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Now that i've seen the original puck man cabinet with my own eyes i truly understand why they were scared of the vandalism (its so obvious). Great add Mr Anderson.

Jeremy Alessi
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The timing of this article is uncanny. With so much devastation games may seem like a small concern but they are as much a part of our culture as anything else. I hope nothing was lost.

John Andersen
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Jeremy, I am also stunned at the timing of my article, the fact that this part went up a day before the events in Japan occurred. This is combined with the fact that part two of this article (posted last month) chronicled how the Kobe earthquake damaged many of Konami's gaming artifacts. It's all very eerie.

I had just sent an email to the Japan-based developer/publisher participants of this article to notify them that this part was up online here at Gamasutra - my email went out around the same time the events in Japan began unfolding. After sending that email, I then turned on my TV to CNN in the very early morning hours as I was packing for PAX East, and learned of the earthquake and tsunami that had just struck Japan.

I did have a conversation with a few of the panel speakers of the Digital Game Canon preservation panel at PAX East on Sunday after it had ended. We all agreed that natural disasters (like the one in Japan) are a constant threat to not only humanity, but like you mentioned, everything that makes up our culture as well.

On a final note, my thoughts and prayers are with the people of Japan.

Sting Newman
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The problem is with the people themselves and our laws favoring corporations and shareholders. There are no laws mandating that all tools, source-code, art, etc for a game must be kept for historical purposes under lock in key in some archive/library until x years later after the profit window and then released. The problem is game companies want to hold onto old games and milk them if they can, Square has released umpteen hundred re-releases of final fantasy 1 only really changing the graphics.

Developers really need to speak up or start subverting and releasing game source from the inside encrypted onto the internet and torrents, because there is no way you can wait for a legal solution to these problems because other industries which are not the game industry will lobby against such laws making it impossible to preserve gaming history. The problem is that "gaming intellectual property" is not the same as it is in other industries and lets be frank... other industries would make sure no laws get passed. We are at the point where we have to resist corporate abuse of law by just subversive acts like releasing game assets onto torrent sites encyrpted then releasing the decryption key 5 or so years after the game was released... If I was a developer that is what I would be doing we can't count on companies to do it, it will have to happen by developers going rogue or threatening publishers with revolt.

The problem is too many developers side with their territorial instincts and "intellectual property" instead of siding with history, academic research into how games are made and the public domain.