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!


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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