Nearly 90% of classic video games are ‘critically endangered’ and the situation is only getting worse, preservation study warns

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A recent study on the availability of classic video games seems to confirm what we all suspected: the vast majority of video games more than ten years old are almost impossible to find in their original form, due to a mixture of technical challenges, licensing and commercial factors.

The Game Availability Study published in partnership by the Video Game History Foundation and the Software Preservation Network found that 87% of video games released in the United States before 2010 – the report’s benchmark for “classic”, which just made me crumble – are simply no longer in print.

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The study goes into great detail about what it considers “printed”, noting that remakes and remasters with “substantial” differences – like Yakuza Kiwami, versus the original Yakuza – are not the same as playing the original games. The study also clarifies that games had to be “as simple as possible for an average user to play” to be classified as available – meaning that raw source code doesn’t count, nor less, uh, legitimate methods, with the researchers admitting that “it’s true that pirating is often the easiest way – or the only way! – to play many classic games”.

“We’re lucky these games haven’t been entirely lost to time yet, but we have to do better than that,” they added. “We shouldn’t accept that we have to relinquish video game history entirely to the realm of legally obscure websites and secret torrents known only to the most diehard fans.”

The result is summarized by the study’s authors: “That’s bad, folks. That’s really bad.” Of over 4,000 games reviewed, 9 out of 10 are considered “critically endangered”. That’s the average from 1960 to 2009, with the period from 2005 to 2009 seeing not even a fifth of games survive until today. It really wasn’t that long ago!

As you’d expect, things get more and more dire the further you go, with games released before 1985 seeing a noticeable drop in availability well below 10%, and the 1960s and 70s barely above zero. The worst platform surveyed was the Commodore 64, with only 4.5% of games still available (and most of them via a single platform, Antstream Arcade – without which the result would have been 0.75%), while even the PlayStation 2 console juggernaut struggled at just 12%.

The researchers compared the dismal state of preservation of the games to that of pre-World War II audio recordings and American silent films, which have relatively low preservation rates – despite dating roughly half a century before video games.

“The era before the video game industry crash of 1983-1984 is like the silent movie era for video games, a time when the rules and vocabulary of games were first established,” they explained of the importance of preserving early games. “The problem is, there’s more to video game history than bestsellers. If we’re going to understand and appreciate video game history, we need more than a curated list of games that publishers believe have commercial value.

Unfortunately, while the study indicates that business is booming around some classic game re-releases – the big names like Mario and Final Fantasy – the news is only bad for everyone, with research suggesting things will only get worse as stores and digital services are shut down, taking more games into the digital abyss. The study gave the example of the 3DS and Wii U eShops, which saw the loss of approximately 1,000 games.

The study ends with a call for the games industry to work with libraries and archivists to take on the task of preserving video game history, insisting that publishers and developers cannot do the job alone – especially when some game companies are actively working to frustrate the efforts of curators.

“Now is a wake-up call for both the video game industry and the preservation world,” said Kelsey Lewin, co-director of the Video Game History Foundation. “The study proves it’s worse than it looks – for every Mario game available, there are hundreds of less popular games that are critically endangered.

“Our goal is that by exposing how dire the state of game availability is, we can make changes to our copyright laws that will strengthen video game preservation and meet the challenges of the future.”

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