Massively Overthinking: MMOs belong in a museum!

Let’s talk game preservation. We’ve been covering MADE’s attempt to convince the government to tweak its interpretation of the DMCA to basically allow museums, academics, and institutions of learning to bypass laws against reconstituting the tech infrastructure necessary to get old dead online games back into playable (and therefore researchable) format. The law and its collected exemptions already essentially allow the preservation of everything but MMOs, leaving our specific genre screwed. MADE’s proposal was met with what I can characterize only as a melodramatic and inflammatory paper from ESA lobbyists opposing it on copyright grounds and suggesting that MADE is basically a party house planning to profit off throngs of gamers who will show up to play games closed down 15 years ago.

As we wrote yesterday, honest MMO developers roll their eyes at the idea that games which were sunsetted because of insufficient players ages ago are suddenly going to pose a financial threat if resurrected for academic purposes.

I wanted to open the topic up for discussion for the writers and readers. A lot of the MMO playerbase, I know, already supports emulators, whether or not they’re legal, and will gladly hop on board the “it belongs in a museum” train if it helps get us closer to a world where companies can’t sit on game code forever. Do MMORPGs belong in a museum? How far should the law go when it comes to protecting copyrights for shuttered games?

Andrew Ross (@dengarsw): If there’s public interest in the dead games, yes. It’s weird how our genre is the exception when, let’s be frank, we’re niche. We’re super niche. If you ask a non-gamer what an MMO is, they might know World of Warcraft. Heck, I know gamers who don’t even know an MMO from an RTS (not one gamer, a couple!).

The idea of a “flood” of gamers opening their pocketbooks to dish out for a game that died because it wasn’t making enough is beyond dumb, and I don’t use that word lightly. Even worse is the idea that a publisher wouldn’t let someone else run with the ball when they’ve clearly given up playing with it. Look at Darkfall. It was never a huge game, but had developers that let people do just that. Will other people make it a mega-seller? Doubtful. Will everyone who loved the game flock back? Nope. But man, it’s really nice to know the option is there.

This is before we even consider if MMOs belong in museums. Personally, I don’t even think MMOs are good games to demo for most people, including other gaming press. Having them as an installation sounds like a huge gamble, but clearly there’s an audience.

I understand people want to protect what’s theirs. Sausage factory fact: There are websites out there that steal other sites’ content, take off our name, and sometimes even modify the date to make it look like their own. I’ve been paid by the hit for some sites I’ve worked for (not MOP), and that makes me lose pennies on pay that really doesn’t add up to more than maybe a free game, so believe me when I say I understand what it’s like to have someone jack your livelihood.

But here’s what I keep thinking: What if these museums could help show people what MMOs are capable of? Imagine demos that carried info across a story arc. Combat would be very simplified and streamlined to focus less on the fighting and more on the experience. Maybe there’s a UI notification that your demo character is piloting a ship that was worth $1,000 dollars at the time, or was the only character out of a population of 15,000 to have a unique sword. Something that illustrates the effort that went into the moment in MMO history you’re recreating.

It wouldn’t even need to be combat! Think of the jumping puzzles we’ve had that people couldn’t complete on their own, but we couldn’t just walk to their computer and do it for them. Think of the times our towns were taken (by developers or players), and needing to find your friends and a safe location all of a sudden. Giving people a way to experience what makes MMOs unique (at least in the past) would help normal people get an idea of why they’re so interesting for some of us, but also maybe illustrate why they weren’t as popular until a lot of the grinding was masked and punishments lessened.

Not only does it help the genre, but it could even help the IP. As someone who’s recently done some lengthy articles on a dead MMO, I’d love for you all to be able to take a peek at Asheron’s Call in a condensed but interactive way. I’d love to make you a convert, and I’d love for you to generate enough hype that Warner Bros goes, “Oh hey, that IP really could do well. We should try to do something with it!”

But having that IP rotting away won’t make that happen. You can’t milk a dead cow for long. Why not let someone else take care of it and try to bring it back to life for you?

Brendan Drain (@nyphur): Can you imagine if other forms of media and culture could expire in the manner that games allow games to? If suddenly you couldn’t watch the original Total Recall any more because there’s a new remake and they’re worried the two movies might compete, people would be furious. Games have huge cultural significance, and I think we should preserve as much of that culture as we can for future generations just as we do for other forms of art.

The big problem to overcome as far as I’m concerned is the technical feasibility of archiving MMOs and other primarily online games.

Most singleplayer games are easily preserved, and even the hardware they originally ran on can be reproduced or emulated, but you’ll never get an MMO publisher to voluntarily hand over its server code, and it’ll be a cold day in hell before a court orders a company to turn over proprietary data that may contain trade secrets. Allowing people to archive and maintain emulated servers would help preserve the gameplay enough to be worth it, but MMOs are living products that change over time, so we’d need to choose which versions are most important to preserve. Then there are sandbox games such as EVE Online in which most of the content is the players themselves rather than the game mechanics, games that evolve a rich living history which must be preserved separately. Thankfully, there are few legal roadblocks to that!

Romantic?

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): As somebody whose livelihood literally depends on her ability to stop thieves from stealing my content, I understand the critical importance of copyright. However, megacorps have been running roughshod over the spirit of copyright and lobbying to turn their abuse and greed into law for decades. All you’ve got to do is look at big IPs or the music industry or the freaking birthday song to see that. I’m emphatically unsympathetic to the plights of billion-dollar companies and their billion-dollar industry lobby on this front, particularly when they stoop to character attacks on a charity museum that is literally doing the preservation work that they should be taking upon themselves already.

As to the ESA’s argument: If you’re genuinely afraid that the emulation of a 20-year-old MMORPG will cause people to stop playing your new games, maybe you should first stop churning out regressive, abusively monetized garbage in 2018 and second recognize that nobody else gets to permanently and perpetually discontinue the entire existence of entire genres, books, or songs just because they want you to buy the new thing instead. There are oldies and classic rock and retro ’80s stations for a reason.

So yes, I think dead MMORPGs belong in a museum for future gamers to experience, and as I get older and see the shenanigans play out over time, I’m even more convinced that they also belong in the hands of the emulator players who originally paid for them and not in dusty code warehouses of people who defile the public interest in exchange for their fourth yacht. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to mosey over and see how my SWGemu account is doing.

Eliot Lefebvre (@Eliot_Lefebvre, blog): There’s a lot of thorniness surrounding the question of emulators as a category, but I don’t think there’s any of that when you get to the idea of preserving shutdown online titles. Any thorniness there, honestly, is honestly just in answering questions of scope and how significant a game needs to be before it gets preserved – and that’s not a question of whether or not it should be legal but of exactly where the legal lines get drawn. The question of “should this be allowed” just gets an outright “yes.”

Of course, I can understand why companies might object to it, and I doubt it’s really a matter of worrying over MADE making bank off of these shutdown games; more likely it comes down to interpretations of using the code and making that public or archival knowledge, which might have some interesting legal implications. (Case in point, I’m relatively sure that Final Fantasy XIV uses the same network coding as Final Fantasy XI, which might be taken to mean that if the latter is placed in a museum archive the code therein is legally usable by anyone. Purely a hypothetical scenario there, but I can draw the conceptual line.) Which, of course, cuts right back to the heart of the matter, of whether these games are in fact just a business product or if they are art that deserves to be preserved so future generations can look back if they want to.

I don’t think there’s really much of a question there, honestly. It’s a shame that there’s no archive of games that have shut down for good, and only in the absolute oldest cases are we starting to build a library of proto-MMOs that can, in fact, be shared by everyone. The great part about game history is that it can be interactive, not simply observed. I can’t go back in time and watch people in actual colonial America live, but I can fire up a copy of the original Dragon Quest game and see exactly how that game played. Yes, you’re missing out on some of the context and community, but getting half of the story is far superior to the current state of affairs where you get none of it.

Yeah, you need to preserve your company’s property and all of that. That’s an understandable place to be coming from. But it seems like it’s a much more productive place to start from than fighting to make sure nothing changes when you could instead start from the point of “let’s work to preserve these things with the knowledge that there will have to be some limitations.” There’s merit to art beyond short-sighted corporate interests.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): One detail that popped out at me when reading the soon-to-be-a-movie Ready Player One is how the internet of the future contained all of these virtual planets that housed, among other things, older MMORPGs preserved for current and future generations to experience. As a player who routinely enjoys popping in older console and PC favorites, I love this idea — just as much as I hate seeing any MMO close down and become inaccessible from then on out.

ESA here isn’t seeking to protect the consumer or to preserve anything other than the deep pockets of publishers, and I most definitely hope that the DMCA extends to MMOs in the near future. It’s actually thrilling to think of what could happen if this did, as it could open up (more legal) doors for older games to become resurrected. Abandonware should be given over to the public, especially if it’s not being used for commercial or profit purposes any longer.

Just because an MMO is dead doesn’t mean it is useless, undesirable, or worthless for the future. So heck yeah, let’s get those MMOs into museums that will preserve them — and better yet, allow communities to continue enjoying them.

Sort of?

MJ Guthrie (@MJ_Guthrie, blog): Do MMOs belong in a museum? I say yes! They are just as much an art form as painting and sculpture — the medium is just different. And come on, games that couldn’t sustain themselves when they closed are not about to start generating tons of revenue for someone who resurrects them. I do understand if there is some tech and coding form a game that is still integral to a studio’s current games or projects that the company might want to keep control of and not turn public, but they should then be able to show that is the case, no? Otherwise, bring back the old, dead games and let people see the history and learn from it.

Tina Lauro Pollock (@purpletinabeans): I’m a (very novice) programmer: My main hope when coding is if I create something useful that others can benefit from my work. Code that is past being readily monetisable does not equate to code that is no longer beneficial, and this absolutely applies to MMOs that have had their sunset just as much as it does to anything else we produce. Speak to game developers and ask them if they experimented with modding and expanding existing game code bases, and I guarantee that most will have done so as a learning exercise. Even seasoned game developers use work created by their peers to further their own projects where possible: Sharing neat little tricks with each other prevents us all from having to reinvent the wheel and makes it much easier for developers to advance and innovate on our favourite genres, not least of which being MMOs.

From a broader perspective, allowing games to die means that a little piece of culture and art dies too: Games aren’t just disposable fads and we should always do our part to preserve them. It’s all very well reading about old games, industry standards, and public reactions to new developments, but getting hands-on with historic titles will always be the best way to experience any interactive media. No publisher or developer should have the right to decide whether or not we get to have that experience, provided our motivation for reinvigorating sunset MMOs isn’t financial. I don’t see how an MMO media library in a museum would cross that line.

Your turn!

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27 Comments on "Massively Overthinking: MMOs belong in a museum!"

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Daedalus Machina

We need a Netflix for gaming, especially for MMOs.
One sub, all the games, play what you want when you want how you want. Easy peasy.

Pingly
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Kickstarter Donor
Pingly

I think there would be value in a company that just took old multiplayer games and made them available to play.

I’d bet the license holders might be interested in licensing their old games just to sit on another service’s servers.

And then that service can advertise the “collection” of old games as a subscription.

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Sray

Decided to chime in on this one.

I agree with the idea that multiplayer games that have their had server support discontinued should be allowed to be archived in a publicly accessible museum. However, that’s a far cry from forcing companies into allowing unrestricted emulators of shut down games. Preservation of an artifact is entirely different from allowing people to scotch tape together a broken down game that they are unwilling to part with: one is absolutely a rational matter; and the other one is entirely emotional.

Being able to log into the website of a non-profit organization, pay a fee and have access for a few hours a day to various games that have been shut down is something that few publishers would likely have an actual problem with. I honestly can’t think of any type of art form that doesn’t have publicly accessible non-profit museums dedicated to it: and most of these art forms began as for profit ventures in some fashion. You can walk into a museum for film and watch a classic movie to get an impression of the experience, but you don’t get to take the movie home with you. Nor is that impression meant to be exactly the experience it once was because the time of this piece of art has past: it’s now an artifact to be remembered and studied, not a continuous piece of contemporary life. It’s the idea of unfettered, continuous “as if it never went away” access to these games that is the issue: that’s not preservation, that’s the exploitation someone else’s property and work.

And one last thought on this subject: some pieces of art are meant by design to exist solely for a set time frame and nothing more: the idea of video games being time limited event is beginning to emerge as an artistic expression to be explored; and allowing players to resurrect these games after their shutdown is a violation of the artist’s intent. We’re already starting to see games that a being designed specifically with set end points in mind: The Flock from 2015 had set end point after a certain number of player deaths (the game failed to hit the player numbers to make that viable, but because it apparently was terrible, not because people weren’t intrigued); and Saga of Lucimia (might have spelled that wrong) is planning on having a definitive end to its story, at which point it might simply be shut down. If these games did/do succeed at that goal of having definitive ends, is allowing players to run emulators after the fact not completely contrary to the game’s design intent? Would actually forcing these companies to allow it not discourage artistic exploration within video games?

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Jon Wax

“something that few publishers would likely have an actual problem with”

ehhh

you ever publish anything?

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Sray

There’s a difference between what is considered an “active property” and an “inactive property”. Once a property is considered inactive (ie. has made pretty much everything that it’s likely to), that’s when publishers have no real problems with libraries/museums: that’s why it often takes public libraries as long as two or three years before they’re able to bring in the latest bestsellers or hit movies on DVD/BluRay. Allowing controlled public display of a shuttered video game by a non-profit organization is something that few publishers would likely have no problem with, after the property has cooled down, and there’s little to no significant interest in.

Of course no one is going to allow their MMO to be accessible through some museum website two or three weeks after they close it down; but two or three years later is a different story, provided you keep in mind that controlled access is the key (things like players limited to a couple hours a day, and no saved progress). That is what archival for video games should be, and few publishers would likely have issues with it as would not stop them from pursuing future endeavors with the property.

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Bryan Correll

If suddenly you couldn’t watch the original Total Recall any more because there’s a new remake and they’re worried the two movies might compete, people would be furious.

I can’t watch the original ‘non-special’ versions of the first Star Wars trilogy in high-definition. I’m not exactly furious about it (just sorely vexed), but some people aren’t as forgiving as I.

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eboe

You can’t, “legally”. But you sure as hell can find the “de-specialized” editions through torrents, that have been painstakingly and lovingly re-edited to their full, original glory using a multitude of sources. They might only be 720p but it’s honestly worth it. There are even mini documentaries on YouTube about how they were created if you want to search for them before downloading the torrents themselves.

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Alex Malone

I don’t like the museum idea to be honest. First, I wouldn’t expect a museum to have the technical expertise to be able to host proper versions of old MMOs, second I expect that finding the actual server tech for old MMOs would be a big challenge, and finally the code and content is only half the equation, the players themselves are what make MMOs special, and you can’t preserve them.

What I’d rather see is a commercial endeavour similar to Spotify.

A new company is formed, “The MMO Archive”. They have commercial agreements and more importantly, NDA type agreements with original developers / publishers. They gain access to all the code and specialise in hosting old MMOs.

We, as players, pay a monthly subscription to The MMO Archive, say £10. That then gives us access to every single old MMO that the company supports. The MMO Archive keep whatever money they need to maintain the hardware and run the business, then portion out the remaining money to the rights holders based on playtime.

In this way, the developers / publishers can remain confident that their code secrets will remain secret. The developers / publishers also keep getting money from their old games without the hassle of actually maintaining them. We, the consumers, get a good deal in having access to a lot of older games and so there is a real chance that proper communities will form in the older games. The MMO Archive also gets a steady income and so are actually able to maintain these old games and keep the servers running without relying on donations.

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rafael12104

Hmm. Ok, before I start, please remove all sharp or throwable objects from the vicinity of your monitor. You may not love what I’m going to say. Lol.

So first, what exactly do you need to put something in a museum? Ah, you see? You don’t need a fully functional working copy. You need an artifact. A slice, if you will. A demo, video, or screen shot would suffice with a nice description of what was. :) Those are available and they do not expire. But you would like a fully functional and funded version. I understand why, but I would argue that you want a little more than a museum version. Lol!

Ok. Put down the stapler… because there is more.

As a cultural artifact, MMORPGs are very different than anything else you find in print, audio or video. There is no comparison. You see no other art form is interactive. No other art form requires an active and ongoing relationship between author and audience. MMOs are alive, and that is what makes them unique and special. And that is why they can’t all be preserved in a public way. MMOs aren’t patents, right?

Unlike other mediums, authors have to be part of the deal for preservation and some authors don’t care for it or even think about it. While there are some that absolutely will. But it is not our decision to make alone.

Take Blizz for example. They are now embarking on their own WoW museum of sorts with Legacy servers. They finally heard the call. And that is how it should be. Because they are owners and part of the equation. You can’t suddenly divest authorship for the sake of our greater good. Would you take Huck Finn from Mark Twain?

So yes, some MMOS belong in a museum in some form. Most won’t make it fully functional. These games that we love can and do die. But we still have mementos as artifacts that will serve. And on occasion, we may have fully functional versions when devs like Blizz or Richard Garriot are involved.

Great MMOs may die. But they are not forgotten.

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Sally Bowls

BD: Can you imagine if other forms of media and culture could expire in the manner that games allow games to?
BR: perpetually discontinue the entire existence of entire genres, books, or songs just because they want you to buy the new thing instead.

While sympathetic to the sentiment, IMO you are overlooking the declines in the non-gaming world.

Say you spend $40 a month on books, music, and movies in your adult life. Above average but not extreme, especially considering modern prices. That is perhaps $20K in your lifetime. A century ago, some fine leather-bound books would go to friends, family, libraries and used book stores. Today, those would tend to be digital licenses. I don’t think anyone inherits your Amazon/Apple/Google/Microsoft library; it will be as dead as you are.

In the short-term, there are no worries. But no King rules forever; for young people in their lifetime, one of Amazon/Apple/Google/Microsoft may go away or radically change. Or corporate politics means you can’t access the media on the OS/Device you want.
I don’t think anyone makes VCRs (VHS or Beta), or HD players, or videodisc or S_cassette or … devices any more. I think companies have been happy to sell you a copy of your favorites on a progression of LP, 8-track, cassette, CD, MP3, MP4 … or VHS->LD->DVD->BluRay->UBR

So as a practical manner, I think companies can discontinue the effective existence of things I kind of thought I “owned.” IMO, that is a bigger – and more troubling – issue than the MMO part of the equation.

semugh
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semugh

two words: Mickey Mouse.

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Thomas Zervogiannis

This is just a matter of increasing consumer awareness that the convenience of such services comes with a price: when more consumers are aware that they do not really own what they pay for with these content licensing schemes (I would say they are more like “long-time renting” – one just needs to be burned by this once even if they do not realize it now) , they will simply move away from these and to alternatives. There is a digital equivalent to cassettes, discs, books etc that can be owned and passed on: Files.

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Utakata

Sometimes I look in the mirror and think I belong in a museum. :(

…but this is not what this conversation is about I gather. o.O

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Bruno Brito

You belong here with us.

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Fluffy Magical Unicorn

Just your pigtails.

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Utakata

>:

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rafael12104

Yes it is. Because I doubt that people that look in the mirror and sometimes say, I belong in a truck stop, would even care.

It is only those of us that belong in a museum that care. ;)

Stkmks Returns
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Stkmks Returns

/overthinking Wouldn’t the question be more if you legally “own” any of the digital assets you have bought or subscribed to over the life. If you purchase does grant you some sort of right (instead of random best effort money chucking?) then maybe.

Probably not much of an argument, but it does make it a poor equation to spend hundreds or thousands on a game to have it all taken away against you will. The only other option is to look at all the costs as a function of time, but that’s not cool either, as mmo developers deliberately keep you there longer so you end up paying more.

Take screenshots.

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Jon Wax

“Wouldn’t the question be more if you legally “own” any of the digital assets you have bought or subscribed to over the life. ”

you don’t.

the publishers do.

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Suicide King

So, what about the MMO’s that got shutdown for reasons other than failing numbers, like MassivelyOP’s favorite SWG? Where does that sit in the debate?

Also, what form are these MMO’s going to take? Some of them (like SWG) went through major changes over their life… which version gets to be preserved?

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Sally Bowls

MMO’s that got shutdown for reasons other than failing numbers, like MassivelyOP’s favorite SWG

Outside the filter bubble here, I don’t think many autopsies attribute SWG’s shutdown to anything other than failing numbers. If SWG had been performing then it was LucasArts for God’s sake; they would have done a deal; they liked money. SWTOR was not the cause of SWG shutting down; SWTOR was a symptom of the failing numbers. (Not saying who was at fault (SOE launch too soon? underinvest? LA overmeddled? LA unrealistic expectations? …) or that there were not a lot of great ideas in SWG. Just the numbers were not up to expectation.