Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Video Game Preservation

Source
I have written fairly often about the problems of preserving video games, most recently last year in in Video Game History. It was based upon Phil Salvador's Survey of the Video Game Reissue Market in the United States. Salvador's main focus was on classic console games but he noted a specific problem with more recent releases:
The largest major platform shutdown in recent memory is the closure of the digital stores for the Nintendo 3DS and Wii U platforms. Nintendo shut down the 3DS and Wii U eShops on March 27, 2023, resulting in the removal of 2,413 digital titles. Although many of these are likely available on other platforms, Video Games Chronicle estimates that over 1,000 of those games were exclusive to those platforms’ digital stores and are no longer available in any form, including first-party Nintendo titles like Dr. Luigi, Dillon’s Rolling Western, Mario & Donkey Kong: Minis on the Move, and Pok√©mon Rumble U. The closures also affected around 500 historical games reissued by Nintendo through their Virtual Console storefronts, over 300 of which are believed not available on any other platform or service.
Below the fold I discuss recent developments in this area.

Salvador writes:
Games released during the digital game distribution era may have content or features tied to online services, which may be (and regularly are) deactivated. According to researcher James Newman, this is sometimes employed by game publishers as a deliberate strategy to devalue used games, shorten their distribution window, and encourage sales of new titles, which has ominous implications for preservation.
This post started with Timothy Geigner's One YouTuber’s Quest For Political Action To Preserve Old Video Games. He lays out the problem:
it’s probably long past time that there be some sort of political action to address the real or potential disappearance of cultural output that is occurring. The way this works far too often is that a publisher releases a game that is either an entirely online game, or an offline game that requires backend server calls or connections to make it work. People by those games. Then, some time down the road, the publisher decides supporting the game is no longer profitable and shuts the servers down on its end, disappearing the purchased game either completely, or else limiting what was previously available. Those that bought or subscribed to the game are left with no options.
The trigger for renewed attention to this problem was Ubisoft's April 1st(!) delisting of The Crew:
With The Crew, millions of copies of the game were played around the world. When Ubisoft delisted the game late last year, the game became unplayable. On top of that, because of copyright law, it would be illegal for fans to keep the game alive themselves by running their own servers, even assuming they had the source code necessary to do so. So fans of the game who still want to play it are stuck.
Kenneth Shephard reported in A Ubisoft Game Is At The Center Of A Fight To Stop Online Game Shutdowns that this triggered an effort to respond:
Ross Scott, who runs Accursed Farms, posted a 31-minute video on the channel, which outlines the problem and how he believes drawing attention to The Crew’s April 1 shutdown could cause governments to enact greater consumer protections for people who purchase online games. As laid out in the video, consumer rights for these situations vary in different countries. France, however, has some pretty robust consumer laws, and Ubisoft is based there.
Here is Scott's video:
Scott surveyed countries around the world looking for the prospects of two possible actions:
  • Lobbying the country's consumer protection agency to take action on the grounds that the company purported to sell the game but failed to make it clear that the game could be rendered useless at any time without warning or compensation.
  • Petitioning the government to take legal or legislative action against this practice.
These actions would be aimed at ensuring that after a vendor's support for a game it sold ended:
  • Games sold must be left in a functional state.
  • Games sold must require no further connection to the publisher or affiliated parties to function.
  • The above also applies to games that have sold microtransactions to customers.
  • The above cannot be superseded by end user license agreements.
These appear to match Scott's goal of a minimal set of consumer rights that is hard to argue against. If the game publishers can't live with them they can always explicitly rent the game instead of selling it. Renting makes it clear that the purchaser's rights are time-limited.

More details of the campaign can be found at Scott's Stop Killing Games website. Scott has so far posted three update videos to his Accursed Farms YouTube channel:
The idea that purchasers are entitled to be told at least the minimum lifetime of the gane is interesting. Ubisoft's excuse for delisting The Crew was that their licenses to music and other content featured in the game had expired. But that implies that, at launch, they knew that they would delist the game at the date when their licenses were due to expire. To make an informed purchase decision customers needed to know that date. Not providing it on the box was clearly deceptive.

Publishers would hate a requirement to put a "playable until" date on the box; it would clearly reduce purchases. They might find Scott's requirements less onerous.

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