The Soapbox: Are modern games more disposable than ever?

    
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Atlas Rogues went out not with a bang but a whimper. I forgot it even existed. And after it closes July 5th, it’s gone. Of course there’s always hope that a dedicated fan will do the legwork to get this game back online, but that’s quite a bit of effort for any game, let alone for a spinoff for game almost no one actually played. My point is, it’s going to be difficult to play this game after the servers shut down for good. And that’s what got me thinking about how we’re blessed with new games releasing on a daily basis, but it’s a double edged sword since many of them won’t get preserved.

I want to explore this idea. Are today’s games more disposable than any other period in gaming history?

What do Quake, Diablo 1, Shogo: Mobile Armor Division, Vampire: The Masquerade, and Dungeon Keeper have in common? I’m pretty sure they have a lot in common, but the answer I’m looking for is that they’re all playable today. And even if some of them (Shogo) need a little elbow grease to run on a modern day system, the point is that the average gamer can still obtain these files relatively easily. All the games I mentioned can be obtained legally through either Steam or GOG. And since many of those games don’t contain any sort of DRM, preserving the game for posterity is a simple matter of getting the files into a USB drive and storing it somewhere safe. So even if I don’t have the physical media anymore, it’s nice to know that I have easy access to these files if the need or desire to play them ever arises.

But what about today’s games – and MMOs? While there are plenty of single-player games that’ll be playable for decades, there are many titles that are at the mercy of a server staying on. It’s such a precarious situation, as any MMO player who’s ever witnessed a sunset knows. At any moment, a game can just shut down. A single flick of the wrist or an edit of a financial spreadsheet column can spell the end for many an online.

Hard to maintain, ever harder to preserve

And that’s the thing about those online-only games: They’re demanding. Games shut down for a variety of reasons, and one of the main reason a game stays online is its profitability. A subpar game can sometimes stay online today as long as it’s making money. But what happens after profits start going a downward trend and it’s time to call it quits? Those things are far more difficult to preserve and there’s going to be some kind of red tape that’s going to make just simply obtaining the files difficult for gamers. It reminds me of why cars no longer have pop-up headlights: It’s just another thing that can break.

Games like Quake and Nox do not need much to get working, and their longevity comes from their relative simplicity; they just need a few interested gamers and a computer that runs it. The files are easily accessible too since someone who has the CD can dump the files somewhere on the internet. And at the time of their release, what mattered were sales numbers. Westwood Studios and ID-of-old weren’t concerned about how many players were playing the game on a monthly basis. They just wanted to make sure the game was fun enough that people would buy it.

That’s not the case for Atlas Rogues and its online-only contemporaries. You might think you own the game and a copy of its component parts, but usually you just have an installer that downloads from servers. And even if the server files are available, the barrier of entry to make a running rogue server is much higher for you than for someone who wants to fire up a game of Clive Barker’s Undying. And that means the chances of this game being remembered into the next generation are pretty low.

I hate being a huge bummer about it, but I’m beginning to suspect that no matter how much we might want otherwise, we probably can’t preserve every game, especially the super-niche online-only games. And that’s without noting that not all games are even worth preserving. A game being worthy of preservation goes as far back as the initial inception of the game itself; a game created for the sole purpose of making money won’t always be worth preserving. It needs something else that transcends the money it made.

Fingerblasting, I guess.

What makes a game worth preserving?

Final Fantasy XIV, World of Warcraft, Asheron’s Call are worth saving and preserving because they did something great and novel for the genre and made a profit. They all did something special and made a major contribution to the genre and gaming culture. In that same vein, Genshin Impact would also be worth preserving because even though it was probably designed with monetization at the top of its agenda, it’s a solid game that many people love and set a standard for making a solid gacha game. It brought the genre to forefront and easily digestible for a greater crowd.

But what about games like the market-killing E.T. game for the Atari 2600? The game was so disposable it literally ended up in the trash. Well, even that game is worth preserving because not only was it part of early video game history, it’s got this mythos attached to too. And it was super easy to preserve too – so why not, right?

And even though every gaming generation has games worth preserving, I’ve begin to suspect our particular era of gaming has far more games that won’t get preserved simply because companies treat them as a short-term money maker rather than building a game that can have a dedicated and lasting fanbase that can look back fondly on the game and still play it.

I’m not saying Atlas Rogues isn’t worth preserving, but demand for TERA rogue servers and emulators is far louder than an Atlas Rogues private server. In fact, there’s a pretty large effort to secure as many of TERA’s source files as possible to make it happen (the current emulator is based on an older version of the game). I doubt that’s the case for Atlas Rogues. But hey, I’d love to be wrong about that!

Here’s the sad reality: Just opening up your favorite app store will put on display a ton of games that we know won’t ever be preserved or recognized in a video game museum or even get a Wikipedia entry because they’re just pure unadulterated cash grabs. A lot of them won’t be noticed or remembered in their lifetimes, and once they’re no longer popular, they won’t be around. And now that I think about it, maybe that’s not so bad. Do we really need a complete record of every clone mobile MMO?

But I’m worried that the industry’s new attitude toward disposability will mean just as many good games from this era won’t be remembered or playable in any format either. The saying “more games than you can shake a stick at” has never been more true, and in today’s landscape, games are more ephemeral than ever before.

Either way, enjoy them while they’re here. Today is the best time to play your favorite games.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively OP writers as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews (and not necessarily shared across the staff). Think we’re spot on — or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
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