Vague Patch Notes: The complexity of classic preservation for MMOs

Oh, right, you.

Here’s a fun question to kick things off. Should old black-and-white films be colorized? The key word there is “old,” because there are a lot of films made in black-and-white not because of an artistic decision but because that was the only way to make films. Between budget concerns and limitations of filming, for various projects, black-and-white was the only viable choice for making a motion picture or television film. In some ways, these projects were never meant to be black-and-white.

Of course, at the same time, the question is worth asking because what they were meant to be isn’t really up for discussion. You could say that things like the Twilight Zone didn’t need to be monochrome, but you can also watch through the run of the series and see the many episodes in which directors wisely shot around these limitations to make shadows and darkness into active characters within the story. Would color rob these scenes of their potency? Should you change the nature of these projects after the fact?

It’s not a huge question, really; it just asks us to understand what preserving our shared cultural heritage looks like. No biggie.

The actual answer to this question – to the extent that there really is an actual answer – is that it depends on a lot of factors. Ted Turner was a proponent of colorizing every single film, going so far as to colorizing some of Citizen Kane over Orson Welles’ posthumous protests; other people are proponents of colorizing nothing, even serials and programs that can be made to look good and natural after colorizing without any particular tricks celebrating the black-and-white nature of their origins. But it cuts to a deeper question about preservation and keeping things intact.

Maybe you don’t care about that, though. Do you care about whether or not Han shot first? Do you care about which version of the original Star Wars films you can buy right now?

For that matter, do you care about the Evade bug in Final Fantasy VI? You know, the bug that isn’t even actually a proper bug, it’s just programming that wasn’t done quite right.

FFXI's approach of never letting you know what was or was not supposed to happen worked to avoid this problem, at least.

For those of you who don’t know, in the original Japanese and English releases of FFVI, there was an error in calculations using Evade. Specifically, there weren’t any. Even physical attacks checked Magical Evade by accident, meaning that the Evade stat was completely useless and someone with maximized M. Evade would dodge everything. This had the net result of making some characters a bit better and some a bit worse, and it wasn’t fixed until the game’s port to the Gameboy Advance many years later.

Except… people played the bugged version of FFVI for years. Played it to death, even. People knew the game inside and out, backwards and forward, and it turns out that even with that minor bug the game is excellent. In fact, there’s not even that much change in which characters are better or worse between the original and the “fixed” version; most of the characters who could max out M. Evade are equally hard to affect, and magical attacks are generally more dangerous anyway!

So which version of the game is better? Which version is worth preserving? Is the re-release that fixes the bug (while adding a lot of new content and changing other important elements) closer to the “spirit” of the original programming team? Or does it not matter what the programmers wanted to build compared to what they did build?

Having fun chewing on all of this? Good. Because we’re nearly 600 words in and we haven’t yet tied this into MMOs at all, but with the advent of projects like World of Warcraft Classic you can see where this is relevant. Because there’s a lot of space for debate over the “right” version of FFVI to preserve, and that’s looking at one major “patch” in this form. MMOs, on the other hand…

Let’s take an obvious example in the form of Star Wars Galaxies, a game that prompted a whole lot of people to regard “NGE” as a sort of swear word. You would think that would result in a world wherein no one could possibly argue that the post-NGE game deserved preservation… but there are fans, including our own Bree, who would argue that several of the game’s best overhauls and additions post-date the NGE, regardless of whether the state of the game in the first year after the NGE was trash.

No, saying that you don't care is not actually an answer.

So which version of the game do you preserve if you can only preserve one of them? The last version before the shutdown? The last pre-NGE patch? The immediate aftermath of the NGE? Probably not that last one, but the point remains that there are a lot of versions with good stuff worth preserving, even after the update that I think absolutely no one who played it will argue was actually good.

And remember, we’re talking about preservation here. You want to produce something as genuine as you can.

Let’s look at Final Fantasy XIV. There are always a few rumbles of people who want a 1.0 server to try out, but the reality is that 1.0 changed a lot before the Calamity rewrote the world. Do you want the version with randomized and unreliable experience gains and no centralized market feature? With levels split by class but before jobs? Jobs and all? Where do you draw the line between what is the “true” classic experience?

The obvious counter is to just keep an archive of every change, but that’s ultimately just as impossible. There are always minor patches that change things that are important but not vital, often fixing bugs that were there at launch. Should you have a launch-bug-version and a five-hours-after-launch-with-a-patch-version? I don’t think there are enough servers to run all of this properly.

It’s not a question of whether or not MMOs should be preserved, mind you. That seems like a given. The question is about which version you want to preserve, because as it turns out there are lots of versions to potentially preserve. And it’s not actually easy to draw the lines between different versions to say which ones actually “count” or not; a lot of changes are ones that you could argue either way.

You might think it's easier when the only version of the game that exists is one with unrealized potential, but it's not.

This is something that has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and it’s something that we all need to start doing as time moves forward. As we increasingly realize that video games are an art form to be preserved just like movies and literature, we need to figure out which versions of the game are worth preserving when the option exists, and whether or not known problems should be “fixed” in the process of preservation.

And MMOs, in addition to all of their legal issues, compound the problem by being ever-changing entities with a continual rolling set of updates. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be asking the question or that it doesn’t matter; exactly the opposite! The sheer volume of grey areas and complex questions make it more important that we ask these questions instead of relying on knee-jerk answers, that we do our best to pick apart which versions are worth preserving and which ones aren’t.

Or we could just go for the Ted Turner approach and try to colorize everything, with that as our watchword. Which actually raises other questions, since you’ll have to go back to MUDs and MUSHes for monochrome MMOs.

Sometimes you know exactly what’s going on with the MMO genre, and sometimes all you have are Vague Patch Notes informing you that something, somewhere, has probably been changed. Senior Reporter Eliot Lefebvre enjoys analyzing these sorts of notes and also vague elements of the genre as a whole. The potency of this analysis may be adjusted under certain circumstances.
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