P.T., Gaming History and the Self-Serving Crusades
DISCLAIMER: This wasn’t an easy article to write, and it’s definitely not a pleasant article to read. But sometimes we must go through unpleasant things, to challenge our convictions, make us reflect upon our actions and hopefully emerge better. This is my sincere intent.
— — — — — — —
In the past weeks we had two events which led to a lot of talk about the preservation of gaming history.
First, Konami pulled P.T. — that famous playable teaser — from the PS4 store. This means no one can download it anymore. Thus, only a small % of PS4 owner now can play this game, and no future PS4 owner — be it a gamer or a historian — will be able to get that game again. Understandably, this sparked a lot of debate on the preservation of digital-only games.
Luckily, at least for the purpose of archiving, pirates already solved that issue.
São Paulo — my hometown — made the news two weeks ago when Uol Jogos reported that you can go downtown, pay $100 and pirates will use a Raspberry Pi to mod your PS4, clone another PS4 ID into yours and then copy its games from a laptop directly to your console.
P.T. is preserved, even if illegally. Thanks to pirates, P.T. (and countless other games) will never be like the Museo Del Cine Metropolis cut.
The second event — the most relevant and sadly the one that got less coverage — was that EFF made a petition to the U.S. Copyright Office, requesting an exemption to allow for games abandoned by their companies — such as MMOs that no longer have servers online — to be legally maintained by the fans. That is a fantastic thing both for consumers and for the preservation of our history — either companies keep their servers up, or they are giving permission for others to do so.
So it doesn’t come as a surprise that the Electronic Software Association also contacted the U.S. Copyright Office, pressuring them to deny EFF’s request, supported by their buddies, the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America — yes, those two also contacted the Copyright Office to pressure against the preservation of video games.
But let’s stop clouding the facts. The ESA is a lobbying group, the punchable face on the curtain which dozens of companies lie behind. When you read “ESA stood against the preservation of gaming history & consumer rights”, replace ESA for all these companies:
These are the 40 companies represented by ESA, and thus the ones who acted against allowing means for better game preservation. They are the ones that said that “no, just because you paid for a game that doesn’t mean you should be able to play it after we discard it”. ESA is just the Mouth of Sauron, delivering the news and intentionally serving as target for any backlash, sheltering its members image.
And thing is, one event is related to the other. An exemption allowing the hacking of abandoned games for preservation & study, for example, could allow us to legally preserve P.T. without relying on those gentlemen a few blocks from my apartment.
So, instead of focusing on P.T. and petitioning Konami to bring it back, it would be much productive to go after these companies and petition them to allow for the preservation of abandoned games. It would make things a lot easier (and legal) for those interested in our history AND it would allow for legal preservation of P.T.
However, I’m not here to talk about that.
The real issues — and a preemptive apology
Allowing us to legally preserve discontinued games is a very important — that goes without saying. But it isn’t the only, nor the most urgent issue we have at hand. And if we are to really debate the preservation of gaming history as it should, I think it’s time to bring a few other things to the table.
And I’m sorry, but I’ll have to point a few fingers and name a few names here to really get this point across. This isn’t a rally for mob justice or spark some witch burning — it’s a call for reflection, because we all have our own share of blame here.
We are losing information
Earlier this month Gamespot released a great video on gaming history. It talks about the whole EFF vs. ESA deal, about the issue with preserving online games and spend a great deal of time talking with Alex Handy, who runs the Oakland Museum of Arts and Digital Entertainment.
I agree 100% with the video, admire Alex Handy’s work and I’m really grateful for GameSpot for doing this kind of content. I especially agree about how future historians will have a hard time accessing digital-only content.
I agree, because that already happens. I’m not from the future nor a de facto historian, but I’m the editor of a crowd-sourced book on CRPG history and thought it would be good idea to add a few quote from developers alongside the reviews. Gamespot itself was the biggest gaming website back in the late 90's / early 00's, so it’s a great source for this kind of thing.
Well, back in 2001 a young Geoff Keighley made a great 10-page interview with the team behind Vampire: The Masquerade — Redemption, talking about the current (at the time) state of 3D engines and interfaces, the World of Darkness setting and many other interesting things about game development. Here’s the start of the article:
And here’s how it looks like today:
It’s not only the URL that have gone bad — the interview has vanished. There’s a page for the game that supposedly shows all the related articles, but I found no sign of the interview anywhere. It’s only thanks to the Wayback Machine (seriously, god bless you guys) that I can read this interview again.
I guarantee you that this isn’t the only missing article there (good luck watching any of Richard Garriott old video interviews) and that Gamespot isn’t the only website that has such issues with older material. Just try finding this interview IGN did with the Drakensang developers anywhere besides the Wayback Machine, for another example.
I’m not saying that there are inhuman executives in expensive suits deleting old stuff because they hate games, babies and kittens — it’s probably an issue when updating servers. But the end result is the same.
I fully agree that we need a serious talk about archiving games better, but archiving news, articles, interviews should also be on the table. Especially since the issue with online-only content there is even worst. It’s illegal, but thanks to private servers, I could play Warhammer Online anytime I want. I could also read scans of old magazines, thanks to websites such as the CGW Museum, or eBay old physical copies.
But how can I, legally or not, access the thousand of pages of a dead website, such as the late Gamespy’s Planet Elder Scrolls? IGN took over and re-launched the site, but all the interviews and articles are missing.
Once again, the Wayback Machine is the only way to find missing content, such as this Todd Howard interview, where he lists Stuart Smith’s Adventure Construction Set as inspiration for the Elder Scrolls Construction Set (hence the name).
So, aren’t we transferring too much responsibility to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine?
We are losing content
A game is much more expressive than an interview, I agree. So here’s a near-catastrophe that affected thousands of games but didn’t get even 1/100th of the attention P.T. got in the past weeks.
Do you recall Neverwinter Nights? No, not the 1991 MMO — that one very few recall despite being such a historical landmark. I’m talking about the 2002 RPG by the same name, from BioWare, that came with the Aurora Toolset, allowing players to create their own adventures. It was extremely popular at the time, and where many developers and modders cut their teeth at game design.
The toolset was more acessible than that of Skyrim and other modern mod tools, so it had a huge, varied and friendly community gathered at the official community website, the IGN-hosted NWN Vault. There they hosted thousands of modules, art assets, pre-made characters, maps, comics, fan-fiction, contests and even interview with module creators.
People created some really high-quality adventures that rivaled with retail games. The Shadow Hearts campaign, for example, won multiple awards and is now being developed into a full game, currently on Steam Greenlight. And things got even bigger when Neverwinter Nights 2 was released, bringing even more content & fans to the vault.
Well, here’s all the content of the NWN Vault today:
Think losing one demo is bad? How many modules do you think the NWN Vault hosted?
Luckily for us, a few noble souls had already began to worry about server instability and weird hiccups in the NWN Vault, and so a saint by the name of Rolo Kipp decided to start a backup website in 2012. Things got tense once Atari filled for bankruptcy in January 2013, but the Vault was hosted by IGN and so was kept open… until July, when it went down without any warning, with Rolo and other fans rushing to save all they could, as he tells:
I first knew we were in trouble when Maximus [the NWN Vault admin] accepted my offer to help with what sounded almost like relief. Couldn’t be. I just have a vivid imagination. Then we started having probs with email. And with the Hall of Fame. And…Well. I floated the idea of a vault backup, well, a long time ago. Fire extinguisher, sprinklers. Maybe even a safe place to put the files. Last October I was seriously frightened by the things I saw and didn’t see, the things everyone heard and the things only I heard. A few other people started talking to me and helping out. And the vault got worse. I’m starting to pontificate. Not my intention. Pain & Tarot, Werelynx & Henesua. Others. A lot of people have been working hard over the last two months saving stuff.
The NWN Vault went back up after a while, then went down for good in 2014. And it’s still down.
Thanks to the effort of dedicated fans, about everything up to July 2013 was saved. But some stuff was lost. There’s even a forum there exclusively for people still searching for lost mods, modules and assets — such as this recreation of Baldur’s Gate iconic Gnoll Fortress, apparently lost forever:
Konami did something dumb by pulling out the P.T. demo, but at least they warned people about it. You read about it on websites, you had weeks to download it. Atari was bankrupt at the time, but where was IGN and BioWare while all of this was happening? And where was the public outrage? The angry pointing of fingers? The articles on the loss of gaming history?
Truth is, it’s yet another case of business as usual — the NWN Vault served its purpose and the company(ies) involved no longer cared enough to keep it open. They have new games to make & promote, and an RPG fan playing A Dance with Rogues (a NWN module so popular it has its own wiki) is an RPG fan that could be playing the new Dragon Age instead.
And they could pull this because the % of people that will be upset was within acceptable margins for them. The general audience doesn’t care about such an old game like NWN, the press doesn’t pick up the story and any damage to the company’s image is kept to a few angry individuals — the damage to our history isn’t a factor. The Product Life Cycle doesn’t include legacy preservation.
Google it, try to find a journalist talking about this. You won’t. All the news, all the warnings, all the discussion stayed inside a handful of forums. If today we have access to over 10.000 Neverwinter Nights files — to the history of one of the most popular RPGs in the early 00's — it’s only thanks to the hard work of a small group of fans.
And this is what I, as an RPG fan from one of those forums, know about. How many other stories like this there might be? Do you have any idea of what happened with all those houses, mods, skins and assets that people made for the original The Sims back in the 00's and were hosted by EA, for example? Do you care?
We are losing people
See this rather casual & amateurish video here?
That’s Carey Martell, the RPG Fanatic, recording a 40-minute interview with Gary Whisenhunt and Ray Wood, the guys who created dnd, one of the world’s first electronic RPGs, over 40 years ago.
They talk about the PLATO terminals they used, about how they created the game, about taking the idea from Pinball machines to add a leaderboard into the game and many dilemmas that they had at the time — such as having to decide what would consist a win state on a CRPG, and how they chose to signal it by adding a boss battle at the end of the dungeon. It’s gaming history in motion, and a great, lighthearted video to watch.
As far as I’m aware (and I really hope I’m wrong), it’s THE ONLY interview in existence with these guys. Not a single journalist ever interviewed them. It’s only thanks to this guy — a teenager owner of a small (and apparently now dead) YouTube channel with 13k subscriptions — that we have this video.
It’s only thanks to him that we have a glimpse of an absolutely irreplaceable and often overlooked aspect of any game’s history: the people behind the games. We can see how the first RPG developers were, what they thought, their challenges. We can learn from them.
Sorry to be so blunt, but these guys were in university back in the 70's. They are probably in their late 60's, early 70's. People die. How much more time do we have to talk to them? To thank them? Ralph Baer already left us last year. He was 92 years old. Most people don’t live that much, and accidents can happen at any time.
Are you confident that we already learned all that we can from our pioneers? That future historians will be pleased with the content we are leaving them?
I know I’m not.
One may say that PLATO RPGs are too obscure, the very beginnings of our history, barely remembered today. Yeah. I mean, who gave a damn when those games completed 40 years just two months ago? Who even care about keeping the first computer games ever made all functional, accessible and free, besides those loonies at Cyber1?
Let’s talk about something more popular then, I’m sure we’re doing great there. Remember Stuart Smith’s Adventure Creation Set, that best-selling 1985 game which inspired hundreds of future game developers, from the aforementioned Todd Howard & the Elder Scrolls series to John Romero?
Stuart Smith created not only the ACS, but also a few innovative RPGs, including Fracas, a game that kind of pioneered Shadows of Middle-Earth’s Nemesis system 35 years ago. In Fracas every single character in the game — including the monsters — has an unique name, acts individually, can loot treasures, attack other characters and even level up.
I only know of this because the CRPG Addict — a devoted RPG fan who’s playing & analyzing every RPG ever — made a post talking about Fracas back in 2013. There he mentions how no one seems to know what happened to Stuart Smith. In fact, there are no interviews or articles about this man.
So you can imagine the shock when, suddenly, Smith himself appears and posted a comment on CRPG Addict’s blog. In fact, he posted there three times. Here’s him posting about the legendary Adventure Construction Set:
[… ]The idea of making a construction set came primarily from my own past. I had written Ali Baba and Return of Heracles, and thought I could design a tool to write similar adventures.
Before doing games, I wrote accounting software. As that got repetitive, I decided to “replace myself”. I wrote and sold a product called “Quick and Clean” that would use a file definition and a brief description of a report to generate a COBOL program that would produce the report. The generated program no longer required “Quick and Clean” to run, and could be modified as desired by the company’s programmers. I tried to make the generated program clear and well-documented. So, making a game that wrote games (sort of) came from those previous ideas. […]
This is, to the extend of my knowledge, not only the most interesting “interview” Stuart Smith gave about Adventure Construction Set, but also THE ONLY “interview” about this game (again, hope I’m wrong). Clearly not because he was dead or an isolated hermit, it’s just no one cared before. As he says, “It’s fun reading comments about this game after so many years”.
I agree that it’s a shame that due to Konami the only way to acquire the P.T. demo nowadays is on eBay or resorting to illegal console mods.
But I hope you agree that it’s an abomination — a mockery of any concept of history preservation — that the only behind-the-scenes info on one of the most important games of the 80's comes from three comments in a blog. That a teenager with a small YouTube channel is the only one who cared about interviewing the guys who created dnd — arguably gaming’s equivalent to A Trip to the Moon.
So, which evil mega-corporation are we blaming for this sorrowful state?
The audience isn’t listening
Finding someone to blame for the lack of historical content isn’t as easy as in the other events I reported. Can’t really blame any publisher for the dnd thing, and demanding EA to promote Stuart Smith 30 years later seems a bit unreasonable — I mean, they even put his name on the cover of the game already.
Well, blaming the press seems like a good idea. They are the ones who conduct interviews, right?
It would be very easy to do so, and as a bonus it would make me feel righteous. But alas, I can’t — at least not just them. You see, I hold a marketing degree, thus I have no soul I’m well aware of how ad-driven content works.
Alex Handy’s Oakland Museum of Arts and Digital Entertainment is a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of gaming history. Journalism is a business, it must turn profit.
Back in the magazine days, making elaborate articles was mandatory, it was a selling point — can’t put out a gaming magazine where the cover story is about watermelons that look like butts. But now, in this click-driven economy, quantity trumps over quality.
And before you burst into rage, do you think the press asked for this? That magazines like Computer Gaming World were happy about closing down? That journalists enjoy spending their lives writing about Geralt’s non-existing penis? This change was imposed by economic, cultural and technological changes… in the audience.
Yes, websites like Kotaku could definitely squeeze in more historical stuff, they could help to educate the audience. But the the audience could read more of those educative articles as well. Or they could put their money where their mouth is and pay for content once again.
It’s a two-way road, and none of the sides is in a position to point fingers.
Take this wonderful Street Fighter II article for example. I’m quite sure that I never saw something of this quality even back in the magazine days. And it’s freely available! Yet chances are that Polygon got less revenue from it than Kotaku got from that goddamn watermelon post.
So what’s the incentive they have to do more of those?
“Oh Felipe, but if we had someone regularly producing high quality historical content, surely people would see the light and support it! Lead by example! Build and they will come!” says a hopeful yet naive observant.
Ha! But we have those!
Take Matt Barton, for example. The guy runs a YouTube channel about gaming history, currently with 292 videos — most of those are long, detailed interviews with developers of classic games. Industry personalities such as John Romero, Brian Fargo and Richard Garriott, as well as legends now forgotten, like Joel Billings — founder of SSI, one of the largest game publishers in the 80's.
There’s no other source for all the information his channel holds, for all the exclusive interviews — and it’s all licensed under Creative Commons. Matt will undoublty be a hero to future historians. Currently, however, his channel has 12,988 subscribers, and each video averages on about 5–6k views. Since 2009 he got 1,973,887 views over 292 videos.
There are days-old Garry’s Mod videos with more views than that. The average PewDiePie video gets that in a couple of hours. I won’t even mention Minecraft videos.
So, kill me what can we do?
We, the people
It’s very easy to rally against a evil Mega-Tokyo corporation that removed that hyped, shinny, next gen AAA demo we all wanted to play.
In fact, fighting the villain-of-the-week feel great — the internet mobs against them, we all send some outraged tweets, write a few articles, make those funny memes and then watch an angry guy rant on YouTube. We are fighting the good fight — we are heroes, aren’t we?
Then we return home (we never left it, but you know), pat ourselves in the back and bathe in glorious triumph: “I tweeted in the Great 2015 Battle Against Paid Mods, I did my part!”
And that’s the problem.
Why do we pressure Valve not to ALLOW Skyrim modders to sell their work, but we ignore when IGN, BioWare & Atari effectively DELETE all Neverwinter Nights mods?
Because nowadays Skyrim is the popular game, not Neverwinter Nights.
We fight self-centered, self-serving crusades. Sometimes goals will align, such as the desire to see P.T. preserved. It’s a popular, fresh new game — historians and players alike want to see it preserved, reason why this subject is getting so much talk & coverage.
However, most of the time they don’t. Very few people care about decade-old mods, about dnd, about old interviews, about Stuard Smith. About gaming history.
They, the heroes
When it comes to defending gaming history, we are not heroes.
We are those mindless background NPCs, repeating the same scripts over and over again. Occasionally an event triggers and we do some clunky animations and scripted interactions — posing with torches and pitchforks for the camera, then returning to the basic loop when the cutscene ends.
The real heroes are out there, facing incredible odds, facing real risks, sacrificing part of their lives to safe-guard our history for future, more deserving generations.
They are the ones battling against giant, powerful foes to secure the legal right to protect games.
They are the ones spending their own money to backup our history into somewhere safe.
They are the ones searching for our elders and trying to learn from them.
They are the ones risking jail by preserving our abandoned games.
For decades they have been fighting, alone and unappreciated. We owe them more than we can imagine. We can’t let all their effort come to the spotlight only when it aligns with our own interests.
We can’t allow gaming history to only matter when we want to play P.T. again.
There’s a lot more at stake, and a lot more that each of us could be doing.
— — — — — — —
I will end this exceedingly long rant here (seriously, sorry for the length and thanks for reading).
Originally I went on, listing ways to do more. I would talk about things like showing more respect towards our history, about little things like using screenshots in the correct aspect ratio, about not diminishing old games to promote new ones, about the value of our history. But I already wrote about that. And honestly, those are nothing but the consequence of caring.
Apathy is death. Is what allow us to abandon our history. But passion is what’s preserving it.
It was passion that led people to save the NWN mods, to find the dnd creators, to stand up for what they love. I know, it was passion for RPGs that motivated me to start a book dedicated to the history of CRPGs (passion and a lot of anger — I’ll admit I’m not a nice person). If you care, if you are passionate about games, I’m sure that you can think of a few ways to help, no matter how big or small. That’s really all there is to it.
And please, whenever possible, show your support for people like the EFF, Rolo Kipp, Carey Martell, the CRPG Addcit, Matt Barton and countless other heroes out there. And especially to Brewster Kahle and the folks at the Internet Archive. We can’t even comprehend how important their work is.
Originally published at gamasutra.com on June 1, 2015.