The Importance of Digital Media Preservation
When the conversation of preserving history comes up, rarely are video games brought into the discussion. Despite becoming a major source of entertainment for most people, games often are not perceived to hold the same cultural value other forms of media have. The lack of appreciation for video games has led to them being dismissed as unworthy of being preserved. This attitude towards video games is ultimately what led to the controversy surrounding the PSN store last spring.
On March 29, 2021, Sony announced that it would be closing the PlayStation 3’s, PlayStation Portable’s, and PlayStation Vita’s digital stores. While the PS3, PSP, and Vita stores have obviously not been as popular since the release of new hardware. These consoles are still the most reliable way to play games from that era and serve as a means to play many classic games from the PS1 and PS2 through the digital store and the PS3’s backward compatibility.
The 7th Generation Console wars
Sony’s PlayStation 3 was first released in Japan on November 11, 2006, and in Europe, North America, and Australia on November 17, 2006. It was the successor of the massively popular PlayStation 2. The PS2 to this date is the best-selling game console of all time, selling 155 million units. The only other console to come close to matching this feat was the Nintendo DS, which sold 154.02 million units. However, despite being the successor to arguably the most popular gaming console of all time, the PS3 was met with mixed feelings from the gaming community.
Many factors played a role in the PS3’s infamous entry into the seventh generation console wars. Most notably, its price, late entry, difficulty developing games on it, and lack of console exclusives on release. While it did become the seventh best-selling console of all time, this was understandably a poor showing when compared to its predecessor. It was utterly outpaced by Nintendo’s new consoles, the DS and Wii. The PS3 just barely managed to outsell its other rival, the Xbox 360. Even after the PS4 was released, developers still made games on it until August 2020. The final game to be released on it being Shakedown: Hawaii. Despite its rough entry, the PS3 is home to many unique games currently only playable on it. So, when it was announced that the digital store would be closing (a move Sony has since reversed due to fan backlash), it alarmed video game preservationists.
All good things come to an end
Now, this isn’t the first time a game console has lost support from its developer. Six generations of consoles that came before the PS3 are proof of that. Nor is this the first time an outdated format has been replaced by a more efficient one. In this instance, Nintendo, Microsoft, and PC gaming all serve as good examples of this.
Despite that, Nintendo has almost always made it possible to use old hardware on their newer systems. Their handheld games have very few gaps where it is impossible to play old games. It is possible to play all original game boy games up to the game boy advance. While the Nintendo DS does not support original game boy games or game boy color games. It did support game boy advanced games on the original DS and the slim version DS. They only dropped support of the GBA when they transitioned to the 3DS but kept the support of DS games. Nintendo actually has an evident pattern of how it supports its systems. They typically will support older hardware on the next-generation system and then drop it on the following system. This typically means older games get an additional 6-7 years of extra support. The only time this did not happen was with the Nintendo 64. This is due to Nintendo finally making the switch from cartridges to discs. Sony and Microsoft never had this problem.
While both Sony and Microsoft had the advantage of having their systems operate with disc in mind from the beginning. They often run into problems when it comes to compatibility between future systems. A grossly oversimplified explanation for why this problem happens is because Sony and Microsoft would change the operating systems between generations. What separates these companies though, is that Microsoft eventually developed a way to emulate older Xbox games on new systems. But this is not a perfect system, and some games have still been left behind. Microsoft has made it clear that they intend to try and bring as many games forward as possible.
Since the PS3, Sony has done very little to make past-generation titles playable on new hardware. Modern Vintage Gamer detailed the company’s history with backward compatibility. But to briefly summarize his findings, essentially all Sony consoles have a different operating system. This means every system has to find a way to compensate for the unique design choices of the past consoles or be designed with past-generation equipment. This is made worse on the PS4 and PS5 systems. While it is possible for these systems to emulate older games, it would likely be unstable with some games. This is due to these systems requiring that games have trophies attached to them before they can be played. Adding trophies to older games can take up to two months when developers have the source codes. Unfortunately, some games during the PS2 and PS1 era have lost their source codes. Without that, it becomes a far more complex process. Had this information been preserved at the time in some form of archive or museum, these company’s would not be in this situation.
PC gaming has similar issues as Sony and Microsoft. But due to PCs having more customization options, it is typically possible to get older programs running on newer systems. It may take time and effort, but most content can be brought forward. This is one of the luxuries of having a PC.
But video game consoles are typically used by people who may have a causal understanding of electronics. This should not be taken as an insult. Consoles have far fewer features than PCs. This is done to make them more accessible. They require less maintenance while creating a similar experience. Games bought for these unique systems are often optimized for that system.
Part of the reason console gaming is so popular is that companies like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft remove much of the busy work to use them. This comes at the cost of customization options. But with the upside of making games accessible to more people. Essentially when gamers choose to play on consoles, they become locked into whatever decision a company makes. This is why fans of consoles are frustrated. As they have been forced to deal with the possibility of losing access to their content.
In addition, video game preservationists have raised concern for the future of gaming, as the 9th generation of consoles has started to make a push for completely digital systems. This is alarming to preservationist as games going completely digital could make it difficult to legally get a hold of some versions of games. Since games are regularly patched and companies don’t always share source codes with companies, disc are the most reliable way to preserve the 1.00 version of games. While, gamers have questioned why they should trust that their purchases would remain safe when a digital storefront could disappear at the whim of a corporation. This new format will effectively put the fate of games in the hands of these companies, which have shown more concern over finances.
It’s so old
In an infamous 2017 interview, Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Jim Ryan discussed backward compatibility with Time magazine. He stated that,
When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much…That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?
Now ignoring the subjective portions of Ryan’s arguments for why Sony hasn’t invested time into backward compatibility. It is essential to focus on the feature being “much-requested… but not actually used much”. To someone uninformed on the functions of the PS3 backward compatibility, this statement would sound entirely reasonable. If a feature isn’t being utilized, why should a company invest money in it?
The problem, though, is this is a misrepresentation of most people’s experience with the system. The PS3’s backward compatibility was unstable on some models. Only the PS3 CECHA01 model was fully backward compatible. While the CECHE01 model was merely a partial emulation. It should also be noted that the CECHA01 model of the PS3 commonly suffered from hardware failure. While it is possible to fix it, not everyone may have the capacity to do so. IGN listed in detail the many issues the original PS3 had when attempting to run PS2 and PS1 games.
While Sony attempted to get the system running, it only managed to get a few games into a fully functioning state. Most other games, while they did run, suffered performance, graphical, and sound issues. This lead to Sony quietly abandoning this feature. Later versions of the PS3 removed backward compatibility for PS2 games entirely. Sony then invested more resources into emulation. This resulted in a much smaller selection of PS2 and PS1 games while giving a more stable experience.
When that is considered, Ryan’s comments about gamers not using the PS3’s backward compatibility feature comes across as disingenuous since that feature was unreliable. This alone should be enough to explain why PS3 owners didn’t utilize the backward compatibility despite asking for it. But once people realized this, they choose instead to use the PS2. With the release of the PS3, the PS2 became more affordable. People who may have missed out on the system initially could now easily acquire it. But utilizing old hardware has its own problems, as these items will inevitably fail.
No worries I bought the disc version
Now there is a subculture within the gaming community that is pro-disc. This is born out of the idea that publishers and developers can’t be trusted with keeping games available to the public. So, they believe the best way to maintain access to the content without interruption is by buying and maintaining the disc.
When looking at how the events with the PSN store played out, their claims hold some truth. Add to the fact that both Konami and Square-Enix at one point lost the source code for certain games. As well as pulled games from digital stores. With events like this constantly happening, it becomes easy to see why some gamers would prefer having a disc copy over downloading a digital version. This has led to many openly discouraging the purchase of digital games.
However, an aspect overlooked by these individuals is that the games or hardware needed to play them will inevitably fail. No matter how careful one is with these items, natural wear and tear will occur. The most significant danger to disc-based games is disc rot. Now while this can take upwards of twenty to thirty years, depending on storage and handling. Eventually, all disc-based games will fail as oxidation from natural air and sunlight can cause the disc to become unusable. Other factors such as scratches on the disc can occur from handling the item. The threat of scratches is most prevalent for owners of the super slim version of the PS2. This is because some versions of the system actually caused scratches to discs.
Ideally, games should be preserved digitally. This is due to threats with digital preservation being slightly more manageable. When storing a game digitally, the main issue that can occur is the misplacement of digital files or files becoming corrupted. Both of which have occurred in recent history. This is why ideally, the information is stored in multiple locations, and those areas are disaster-proof. Many developers and preservationist say their main concern when preserving the games is making sure they “are safe from fire, natural disasters, dangerous climates, and other security threats.” Also, despite moving towards a digital format, that doesn’t mean the hardware isn’t critical. Developer kits and other physical items such as arcade cabinets can and should be preserved too. This is because they can act as blueprints for reverse engineering these systems and software should the information be misplaced. Despite that fact, this is done less frequently due to the amount of space these items take up. It should also be noted that preserving games doesn’t necessarily mean people will ever get to play them again. The first reason is because the primary intent of preservationism is obviously to preserve the game. But the biggest roadblock is the legal rights forbidding the distribution of these games. This id even worse for licensed games based off of movies or television shows. Companies that make these games usually don’t have the right to reproduce them beyond their contract with the rights holder. But if these games do not get persevered, they will definitely be lost. Meaning all chances of them ever being played again goes away.
The purpose of preservation
Persevering the past is possibly one of the most critical tasks anyone in the present can take to help the future generation. Many modern innovations are often built on the foundation of the ideas of those who came before us. Without a good collection of historical information, many technical skills and solutions to problems could be lost forever. It is for this very reason that libraries, museums, and digital archives exist.
Archives act as a resource to keep information that isn’t used commonly anymore persevered and can save time for researchers. When considering how many modern games are remakes, rereleases, and remasters, game companies should be far more invested in preserving their past.
Remaster’s Rereleases and Remakes
When it comes to remasters rereleases and remakes, many gamers have conflicting opinions. Some see them as entirely unnecessary. If companies made their systems fully backward compatible or connected the storefronts between all their systems, there would be no reason for them. This way, the original games would be available to everyone no matter which system they’re playing on. But, due to Sony and Nintendo not bringing their games forward, many of these games are left behind. This means gamers that want to preserve their games also have to maintain older consoles.
For this reason, many often have soured opinions on these types of games even before they come out. As many gamers see them as senseless cash grabs. These negative opinions are made even worse because marketing for these games typically uses nostalgia as a motivation for buying them. This may cause annoyance to people who previously owned these games years earlier. These comments mainly apply to rereleases and remasters, as remakes can sometimes be completely different from the original version.
Now many gamers merely believe remasters are simply graphical and performance updates. In some cases, this can be true. But often, there are subtle changes between the original release of the game and remaster. Proof of this can be seen with the Final Fantasy X HD remaster on the PS3. In this version of the game, the music was completely redone. And while some fans had no problem with the change, others did. Now, this could be seen as a minor issue. Problems like this are based purely on a person’s preference and have very little value in objective arguments. But discussions on this topic could still be interesting from a subjective standpoint. Unfortunately, not all complaints about remasters stop there.
Some remastered games, despite being an update of an old game, can actually be inferior. Games like Final Fantasy X HD might offend people because of changes made to the music. While other games like Konami’s Silent Hill HD remaster are actually inferior to the original release. This is partly due to Konami losing the original source code for the completed versions of Silent Hill 2 and 3. This meant that the studio (Hijinx Studio’s) that Konami had contracted to update the game had to work with the incomplete code of these games. Now while they successfully brought the graphics more in line with modern games of that era. The games were released with bugs that the original development team had fixed or had new ones added in. While complaints about visuals may be entirely subjective, the problems of glitches in these games are not.
What makes the events surrounding Silent Hill more tragic is these events could have been prevented. If game companies put more effort into supporting archival groups like the Video Game History Foundation, they could become powerful allies. No longer would companies have to worry about preserving the source code of games themselves. They could instead rely on these archival groups. Not only that but because games are digital, this information could easily be shared with others. So next time a company wants to do some form of remastering, they wouldn’t have to worry about looking for the source code.
These archival groups also collect items like magazines, developer’s notes, and promotional material. Besides the potential benefits this could provide to companies, this could also act as a boon to students. Having an open-source of information makes developing the skills necessary to surpass previous milestones possible. Some would say this is the purpose of remakes in gaming. To use the advancements in gaming over the years to provide a better experience than the previous version.
Different, not better
This is why remakes have a unique place in gaming. They often exist to celebrate how far games have come. Or, in some instances, act as an alternate version of a game. This does not mean they are worse or better, just different. However, the problem with remakes is that despite not trying to replace their original version, they sometimes do. This is in part due to there being no way to play the old games, either because the hardware is no longer available or the game itself is missing. Since games, preservationism isn’t prioritized like other artistic works; older games are often forgotten about.
This can best be seen with Nintendo’s Pokémon series. Some games like the original Game boy versions of Pokémon Red and Blue have been brought forward due to Nintendo making it available in its digital store. But games like Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire have effectively been replaced by their remakes Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire. Most probably will not complain about these older versions being replaced by these remakes. As, Pokémon Omega Ruby and Alpha Spapphire brought almost all content from the original forward, with the inclusion of new content. The main complaint launched at the remakes of the Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire games has been that some players preferred the original sprite work and original mix of certain songs. While this isn’t a perfect situation for fans of the initial release. At least all the original games content was brought forward. Unfortunately, not all games get this treatment.
This is best seen with Yakuza 2 and its remake Yakuza 2 Kiwami. While Yakuza 2 Kiwami was met with critical praise for its enhanced graphics and relatively faithful recreation of its original release. Kiwami 2 cut some content from its original release, such as certain songs, mini-games, quest lines, and removed the entirety of the Shinseicho district. When considering all these factors, it becomes hard to say if remasters, remakes, and rereleases are better than the original version. It would be far more accurate to say they are simply different and leave the debate of quality to individual games. Since these changes will be perceived differently depending on the person playing the game. This is also why specific versions of games can become highly desired and leads to scalpers buying them up to resell at a marked-up price.
A scalper is a term used for individuals who go out of their way to buy up rare and highly sought-after products with the intent of reselling them later. This practice has been seen multiple times when new consoles or collector editions of certain games come out. More recently, they have been using bots to buy up PS5’s as they get restocked.
When it was announced the PS3’s digital store would be closing, many famous and cult classic games were bought up and sold at higher prices. This is only possible because the games are not being brought forward to newer hardware or preserved. Some have speculated that game companies do not do anything about this to help drive the sales of remakes, rereleases, and remasters. This problem will only get worse as game consoles and discs fail. Considering how Sony has designed its newer consoles, this is going to start happening more often. As the PS3, PS4, and PS5 all have a similar design flaw called the C-Bomb.
First discovered by, Lance McDonald the C-Bomb is a design oversight in PlayStation 3; that occurs when the C-MOS, aka the P-RAM battery, dies. The C-MOS battery acted as a means for electronic devices to maintain an internal time. Besides making sure the digital clock on the PlayStation stayed in sync, it also served as a DRM (digital rights management) system check. This DRM prevented the system from pirating games, downloading games early, and ensuring the account tied to purchases was the correct one.
That’s why when this battery dies, it effectively locks PS3 owners out of their digital games until they reconnect to the PlayStation network. Now, this is problematic as simply replacing the battery will not fix the problem. Unfortunately, that means many digital-only games on the PS3 will soon be lost permanently. Also, as of April 16, 2021, this feature is confirmed in both the PS4 and PS5. The only difference is the C-Bomb on these consoles will render the physical disc unplayable as well. Currently, the only way to get around this bug is to install third-party software on the systems to remove the DRM check. Ironically despite the DRM check being put in place to act as means to disincentives pirating and hacking games, soon, the only way to keep playing legally purchased games will be to hack the system. This essentially acts as a punishment for those who do not know how to use these methods. While pirates and hackers continue to have free reign over their consoles. The only other option outside of hacking would be to emulate the games on PC.
Now emulation is a subject matter that inhabits a legal grey area, as having emulation software is not illegal. This is because emulation software is often created by independent software developers. They can then share it with whomever they want. Also, emulating a game does not actually require pirating games, as it is entirely possible to use legally purchased games with the software. Finally, it should be noted that all three major game console manufacturers have used emulation to bring forward games from the previous generations.
The main problem is that both emulation software and the games intended to run on them are easily shared amongst others. Nintendo, in particular, has filed lawsuits against sites that freely distribute the ROMs of their games. Many have criticized Nintendo for going after these sites. While they do enable piracy, they sometimes are the only way to attain lost media. The prominent argument people have brought against Nintendo is that these sites help preserve video games. Since some companies lose the source code of games or never bring the original versions of games forward to newer hardware. That means older games that are forgotten about are often preserved by these sites alone. The problem here is a failure to compromise. Fans, on multiple occasions, have shown a desire to continue playing their older games. When companies fail to meet those desires, the fans take matters into their own hands. This is what has led to the creation of emulation software in the first place.
Companies claim that the cost of investment for setting up backward compatibility or carrying games forward is typically unprofitable for them. Several factors could play a role in this conclusion. For starters, companies will likely see no profit on game sales. In addition, individuals who use backward compatibility won’t have to pay for the games as they already legally have them in their possession. This would be a similar situation should companies bring digital games previously purchased forward to future consoles.
These issues could possibly be alleviated by keeping these games available indefinitely in a digital form. While companies would undoubtedly see losses initially, they could see a return on their investment later through future sales to individuals who don’t own these older games. Also, if companies get a proper emulation system working, they could possibly carry that forward in the future. While they would need to maintain it. This would be preferable to having to come up with a new way to emulate every new console generation. Whatever decision is made, someone is going to see a loss somewhere. The ideal situation would see both groups work towards a fair compromise.
Piracy “It is a service problem.”
In a 2011 interview at the University of Cambridge, Gabe Newell said: “that the way to end piracy is to provide a service that’s more complete than cracked software, and that restrictive DRM only encourages more piracy.” He said this in response to the criticism that Steam should not make games available in Russia. Developers believed that games would just end up being pirated within that country. This did not end up happening, and Russia quickly became one of the largest users of Steams services. Gabe believes this is because,
Our success comes from making sure that both customers and partners (e.g. Activision, Take 2, Ubisoft…) feel like they get a lot of value from those services and that they can trust us not to take advantage of the relationship that we have with them.
Some have criticized this opinion stating that much of Steam’s success is due to games on the platform being sold at lower prices than other digital stores and cheaper than physical copies of games. Steam made getting games convenient, and this ultimately made people stick with them despite some flaws.
As of April 19, 2021, Sony walked back the decision to close down the PSN for the PS3 and Vita. In a statement by Jim Ryan, he claimed that the company
made the wrong decision here… We see now that many of you are incredibly passionate about being able to continue purchasing classic games on PS3 and PS Vita for the foreseeable future, so I’m glad we were able to find a solution to continue operations.
While this was the outcome that critics wanted, many are understandably concerned about the future of their games. Many feel that the comments made by Sony were simply to placate the dissenting opinions. Despite the company saying they are interested in preserving their games. Many do not trust Sony as its history does not align with what they are currently saying.
This is made worse by the fact that Sony even denies the existence of the “C-bomb.” Youtuber Hikikomori Media discussed how individuals reached out to Sony about their concerns over the C-MOS battery. Unfortunately, Sony’s tech support has effectively stated that the problem does not exist in the systems. They say this despite individuals such as Lance McDonald, Hikikomori Media, Does it Play, and Some Ordinary Gamers all proving the problem does, in fact, exist.
Currently, the future of game preservation is uncertain. While this article primarily focuses on Sony, this does not mean Microsoft or Nintendo are not worthy of criticism. As both companies have similar problems. In fact, Modern Vintage Gamer recently discovered the Xbox series X has a similar DRM problem. And when looking at Nintendo, much of its content is lost due to lack of availability. This is best seen with exclusive content only accessible through Nintendo’s Amiibos. With certain Nintendo Amiibos being rare due to having a limited run or now being out of production.
While there are groups out there trying to preserve this content, the state of game preservation is questionable. Due to hardware design and legal reasons, some video games and their features may eventually be lost forever. Game companies could step in and help. Preserving this content could work to their benefit. But, if they choose not to, that is their business. Since ultimately, most game companies are not in the business of preservation. What should be seen as unacceptable is halting the progress of those who would preserve these games. As they have no business (metaphorically) stopping those who would preserve them.
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