This week during the Game Developers Conference, Frank Cifaldi, head of restoration at developer Digital Eclipse, hosted an hour-long talk on game preservation. Frank’s company is frequently hired to get older games working on modern systems; one of Digital Eclipse’s most recent projects was transferring the original 8-bit Mega Man game into a format that would play on today’s consoles and phones.
Polygon was there and wrote down the most interesting points. What got Frank interested in game preservation was what happened to films when there was no preservation effort for media of any kind.
“According to the Film Foundation, over half the films made before 1950 are gone,” Cifaldi said. “I don’t mean that you can’t buy these on DVD. I mean they’re gone. They don’t exist anymore.” Cifaldi went on to say the figure prior to 1920 is even worse at an 80 percent loss.
“That terrified me. I wasn’t particularly a film buff, but the idea of these works just disappearing forever and never being recoverable scared the crap out of me. So I started wondering is anyone doing this for games. Is anyone making sure that video games aren’t doing the same stupid **** that film did to make their heritage disappear? And yeah, there were people doing this. We didn’t call them archivists. We didn’t call them digital archeologists or anything. We called them software pirates.”
Frank mentioned Nintendo specifically as being most strict about this. In Nintendo’s case, however, it’s rather moot since the odds of the Mario library disappearing from history are extremely low. They’ve been rather good at keeping their history available, purchasable and playable.
But as games have become more sophisticated, complicated and dependent on servers, they’ve become harder to preserve, and Frank could be correct — we could be facing a loss of game history as wide as the 80% that movies created in the 1920’s experienced. Unlike film, today’s digital games can’t be simply found in a basement or a junkyard years later. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. They’re literally deleted out of existence.
Cifaldi makes a good point and I wish his speech was available online (if it turns up, we’ll update the page). Right now it might be a legal gray area, but in 35,000 years, no one will care who owned what. They’ll care about how much of it is still accessible.