Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Transience of Games: An Archival Problem

     I was on Amazon the other day, and on a whim I decided to see how much a SNES cost. As I expected, it was ridiculously expensive, clocking in at somewhere around $800 (as the lowest price for one in "new" condition). If you factor in the amount you'd have to pay to buy a few games for the system (and by that I mean good games in reasonable condition), then you have to spend probably somewhere close to $2000, if not more, just to get a few glimpses of what the SNES was like. That's about as much as you might spend on your first car. The same thing is true of other consoles from the time. For all intents and purposes, they are gone. They aren't coming back, either, these consoles. See, this entire era of video games is effectively dead. Let that just sink in for a second. For a lot of gamers, these machines' heydays were one of the formative elements of their childhood, but now? They're just relics of the past. Those who have them will probably keep them until they break, and those who don't will never own, or possibly never even play, these games.

Say hello to 90's console games.
     That's something relatively unique to games. Old movies can be found on places like Netflix and are printed, reprinted, and reprinted again. Lord knows music from the 60's, 50's, and even well before is still going strong, especially with digital conversions. Art, certainly, is experiencing no lack of preservation. The same could easily be said of books. But when a video game is gone, it stays gone. Up until a few years ago there wasn't even an attempt to preserve them, and today there is almost no infrastructure in terms of how we retain games. They're a transient media, and that's what I'd like to discuss here.

     In part, of course, this has to do with the nature of the video game industry. See, rather than a large, singular entity that oversees the industry (think Hollywood), the game industry is more a collection of independent city-states. There are no standards for retaining the games of a given era. If Sony wants to make a set of rules about storing and saving games/consoles for future generations, Microsoft doesn't have to follow in suit. Similarly, just because Nintendo usually makes its consoles backwards compatible with earlier consoles' games (which slows the death of a game generation, even if it doesn't prevent it) doesn't mean anyone else has to. There are no rules for preservation, and there are no institutions for archiving games (again, like the movie industry has).

     This is a bad, bad thing. Now, being an American child from a time before parents bought their 5 year-olds iPhones, I never really had the money or the authority to determine what gaming machines came into my house, and as such I was console-less for my entire childhood. We had a PC and a Gameboy Advance, and that was it until we bought a Wii, which remains our only console. So, I speak as someone who never had and, as things currently stand, never will have, any console from the 90's. And what I'm speaking is strong, strong discontent. There were a plethora of awesome games from that period; they are quite literally the reason gaming is mainstream today. Believe me, the fact that I haven't played them springs from anything disinterest. I want to experience them, but I can't. Why? Because my parents never bought me one when I was five or whenever. In my opinion, that's a pretty terrible reason.

Bad industry! Bad! Why haven't you re-released this every 5 years?
     It's not like there haven't been any initiatives to make older games available, however. To use Nintendo as an example again, they've gone beyond mere backwards compatibility to make things like the Wii, Wii U, DS, and 3DS eShops, which have taken a huge step forward in making older games available to newer gamers. Even more accessible and certainly more wide-reaching (though also much more morally ambiguous) are emulators, which to the best of my understanding are usually for the PC. Actually, going on a quick tangent here, I never pirate games, and I strongly disapprove of those who do. The subject of this post is pretty much the only situation in which I do approve of emulators and "piracy" - when they're used to acquire a game otherwise unobtainable (and by unobtainable I mean "costing as much as a large motor vehicle"). Anyway, with my pet peeve out of the way, back to archival initiatives. Quite similar - though in my opinion superior - to Nintendo's (and other console manufacturers') eShops are online digital game distributors like GOG or Steam. They aren't perfect, nor can we be sure how different they are than emulators that just cost money (that is, we don't know how much goes to the developers), but they are professional businesses that essentially deal in keeping eras alive. There's no such thing as running out of copies when you're dealing in software virtually, so when something gets released, chances are it's going to stay there until the service gets taken down (which at this point in time seems unlikely for any of the outlets I've used) - that is, across many, many generations.

     All that said, these are really more band-aids covering the problem than actual solutions. The issue, again, lies with the nature of the industry. There's no single piece of technology you use to play games. You can't just buy a DVD (or I guess Blu-Ray is the thing nowadays) or MP3 player and be done with it; you have to get each and every console you want to play games for, and if the new ones aren't backwards compatible, well, you better get them too. The sheer amount of unique hardware required to play certain games means that you'd need some kind of super-console just to emulate them. See, this is why emulators and digital distributors are only a temporary fix - do you think they'll be able to emulate DS games? Well, ignoring the fantastic things the emulator would have to do, you'd still be sunk without a touch screen that accept multiple inputs at a time (that is, something you could use two or more(?) hands on simultaneously), as well as a mic and a function to read when the screen has been closed (and yes, I can point to games where all of these properties are needed). Want to emulate that Kinect game? Well, unless your PC also happens to have the hardware to read your body movements (and you feel comfortable flailing around in front of your computer desk), then too bad. See, games are constantly evolving. Sure, we can find ways to work with around the death of a generation of games, but how will people do it when the consoles we have now get phased out, and the ones after that, and the ones after that, short of inheriting them from us?

     There are two answers to that question. The first is that they can't; they'll just have to take it and shut up. If you weren't born at the right time or didn't have enough money, you're just going to have to accept that you can't experience that era and move on. That, more or less, is the situation we are in now. The second is to set up some kind of means to make games playable in the future. Whether it's unprecedented backwards compatibility, some kind of digital distribution/emulator that is universally applicable, or just a bunker full of old consoles and games, as long as there's something to make them available to gamers, then we can make our era's games - and by extension a piece of ourselves - immortal, or close enough that they may as well be. I know which I like better; do you?


  1. Hm, guess I need to save my SNES for twenty more years or so and I can become a millionaire. I wouldn't worry too much about the lack of SNES's for the ability to play the games though. That's what emulators are for :)

    1. Yeah, someday I'll stop being lazy, find a good emulator, and check out some games. I mean, I *would* spend the thousands of dollars, but I still have to get that car. ;)

      Also, do it! I can see the headlines now! "Starfish sells 40 year old game system, becomes millionaire"

  2. "See, this is why emulators and digital distributors are only a temporary fix - do you think they'll be able to emulate DS games?"

    They already can! No idea how well it behaves with multiple touchings going on at once, but there most certainly are emulators for 'em. Hell, I think there are 3DS ones, too ('cept without the 3D), and a buddy told me about some Wii ones.

    We're not quite at emulate ALL the things! levels yet, but we can emulate a fair few of the things.

    Also, regarding SNES emulation: Let me know what games you want and I'll send them your way.

    1. Well, that's interesting, to say the least. I can't imagine how they'd make that work with the ones that make full use of the system. . .well, I stand at least partially corrected, then, though I think the main point still stands. Thanks for making me aware of that.

      Also, will do.

    2. Confirming this.

      "...a touch screen that accept multiple inputs at a time [...] a mic and a function to read when the screen has been closed..."

      Current DS ems work with the microphone and can simulate the closing of the screen. They can also emulate a touchscreen. I don't know if there's support for multi-touch input yet, but it's not actually a desired feature in most DS ems, despite the fact that some games require it. This is because there are two or three potential ways to implement multi-touch input, and all of them have critical problems.

      The least practical method is to write the em for an OS that allows multiple cursors. If the OS does that, designing multiple-input support on the em is easy (if weird). The hard part is getting an OS that allows multiple cursors--but this has actually been done. Older versions of Linux, Mac, and Windows all support software packages that permit various types of multiple-cursor control. As far as I know, these projects haven't been updated in years due to lack of demand, but they've proven the (overwhelmingly non-standard) concept. A related solution involves devices with multi-touch touchscreens (I believe there is an Android DS em that works passably well), but I'm assuming ordinary desktops.

      The median method--not impractical, just annoying--steals a touchpad. That is, the em requires a touchpad with multi-touch support in the hardware (which is common, nowadays), and when a game is running, all input on the touchpad is treated as input in the game screen. This is hugely disorienting for players, since the touchpad won't display the lower screen and any pretense of accuracy is forfeit, but it greatly simplifies multi-touch support. The thing that makes this annoying is the fact that it steals all input to the touchpad, leaving the user without a cursor until the game is no longer active.

      The easiest method is similar to that last: get an external, USB touchpad with multi-touch support and design the em to handle all input from that device. You still have to deal with the user's brain correlating points on the touchpad with points on the screen, but with the right drivers, coding this is easier than either of the other options (especially because it only has to steal an external device, not the global cursor).

      Wii ems also exist, at least in theory. Haven't touched them, don't know enough about them to be helpful.

      -Chris T

    3. Hi Chris!

      Thanks for adding in, I'm quite impressed that they've got stuff to do that. Though I'm still hesitant to suggest emulators will be able to keep up with consoles, I have at least been forced to reassess their capabilities. Certainly, something is lost in the transition to PC no matter what, but if that something can be cut down to a negligible level, then we may just have our solution. . .assuming, of course, that the necessary hardware add-ons don't outweigh the cost/convenience of just getting the console at some point in the future.

  3. I can totally relate to your childhood. My parents never really like my gaming hobbies, or even my anime hobbies when I was a child. I was limited to the TV for my anime and cartoon hobbies and as for my gaming, the only thing I could remember is playing Worms 2 or NBA 9X the antique CRT computer. I don't even have a Gameboy nor a Digimon Pocket (which every friends of mine obviously had). It's a good thing that my sister was also trying to convince my parents in the gaming side too, and from both of our efforts, we one way or the other, managed to get our hands on the old PS1, and it still remains in our home till now :)

    About the emulators, as said, there are already quite a number of emulators. From the more obvious ones like gameboys, N64 emulators to the more newer ones like DS emulators, or even more hardcore ones like PS2 or even Wii emulators. Quite obviously, they of cause, doesn't feel like their original counterparts.

    Most of these functions which are only unique in their respective consoles work in PC too. Not sure about the multiple touch screen inputs myself since I never needed that but the touch screen in DS is quite simply replaced by mouse clicks. A mic is already doable with a DS emulator, I tried using a mic for one of the game that needs it and it actually works. As for the motion sensor thing, I tried the Wii emulator, and from what I know (not sure since I never played the real Wii), the motion is replaced by WASD keys on the keyboard, if the motion sensor is supposed to go up, just press "W" on the key and so on. Indeed as mentioned, this doesn't feel like their original counterparts, in fact, it might get quite awkward for first-timers. In the end, these functions "work", but just an alternative way from how the original consoles operates.

    1. I like the other point of emulators you touch on here, Kai. Even if they can run the games, they can't necessarily replicate the experience (and not always the controls, either). Like I said above in response to Chris, some things are lost in the translation to PC; perhaps console "feel" (this is what I'm getting from your comment) is among them?