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Lost in the Past

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Friday, Oct 2, 2009
How can games be preserved over time?

I’ve never played an MMORPG. I’ve always been fascinated with the genre, but have never felt a desire to enter one of those massive worlds and explore it myself. Until recently. When I heard what the latest expansion for World of Warcraft would do to the game world (that it would completely change it by turning deserts into forests and so on), I felt a sudden urge to play it and see these parts of the world for myself before they were gone. Unlike other games when an MMO changes, it’s changed forever. My experience starting World of Warcraft now would be very different than if I had started it years ago. This past year has seen two MMOs shut down for good, Tabula Rasa and The Matrix Online. It’s strange to think that these games are now completely lost in the past, and it begs the question: how can games be preserved over time?


This issue isn’t unique to games. There were several VHS movies that never got transferred to DVD, and there are several DVD movies that will never get transferred to Blu-Ray. The blockbusters are always preserved, so it’s usually the niche gems that suffer. Re-releasing older games is a popular trend right now what with Games On Demand, PSN, and Virtual Console, but there are inherent flaws in that process. Every game can’t be re-released, so only the chosen few that are deemed important enough will be remembered as time passes. The end result is an incomplete and arbitrary archive. 


Even when an old game is re-released, the traditional console cycle moves so fast that even that update quickly becomes outdated. Square Enix re-released Final Fantasy VI as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology for the original PlayStation, which is now unplayable on PlayStation 3. The highly consumerist attitude within gamer culture only furthers this problem; today’s “day-one-purchase” is tomorrow’s used game sale. It seems painfully inevitable that many great games will be forgotten.


But I believe that the situation is not as doomy and gloomy as it first appears. Games usually become unplayable when a new console is released, and a new console is usually released when increased computing power enables better graphics (of course, there are other factors that go into the creation and launch of a new console, but better graphics are always the biggest selling point because the difference can be seen immediately). But the industry’s quest for better graphics has hit a wall with the latest generation of consoles: Graphics simply can’t get much better. No matter how powerful the PS4 will be, it won’t be able to make the same graphical leap that the PS3 did from the PS2.


Currently, characters in video games are a lot like characters in cartoons. They’re obviously not real, but we can look past their stylized reality and feel for them. Better graphics allow for more emotive characters, and more emotive characters are easier to get attached to. But we’re standing at the precipice of the “uncanny valley,” go any further and we’ll no longer feel empathetic towards these characters, since we’ll only notice how inhuman they are. The computing power and programmer effort required to jump the valley are not worth the investment. As a result, the push for a new console cycle has slowed. Without that push, this generation of games will last longer than previous ones and give any interested parties more time to re-release games for the current crop of consoles. It’s my hope that by now the industry has matured to a point where it doesn’t have to keep reinventing itself every five years.


Sony is actually doing a commendable job releasing original PlayStation games on PSN. I was surprised to see Intelligent Qube, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and Ape Escape for sale along with games that are now sold as new for absurd prices considering their age like Xenogears, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics.


Of course this does nothing to save Tabula Rasa or The Matrix Online. MMOs and other multiplayer-centric games are unique in that once they lose their audience (or when their audience becomes too small to finance the upkeep of the game) the game is gone for good. A while ago, L.B. Jeffries posted a couple  MMO stories from EVE Online and Ultima Online. Reading about other people’s experiences in these worlds is fascinating, and I think recording these experiences for others is one way to keep these social games alive. Even when they’re gone, they won’t be forgotten.

Tagged as: mmorpg | uncanny valley
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