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Talking Point: Nintendo And The Industry Needs To Get Serious About Game Preservation

Video Game Wall© Nintendo Life

For those following the general chat around video games, one topic that has generated debate recently has been Sony’s announcement of the upcoming closures of digital stores on PlayStation 3, PS Vita and PSP. As news, it wasn’t necessarily surprising, for reasons we’ll expand upon, but it did bring the whole subject into sharp focus.

It’s hard to find anyone that approves of the move, and though existing purchases on those storefronts will remain accessible to redownload, this is only “for the foreseeable future”, which is ominously vague. In addition, many have pointed out various iconic digital-only games that, in theory, will no longer be available to purchase and play legally. That has been the crux of much debate, not only around Sony’s decision but the nature of gaming media itself.

Nintendo, of course, is in the middle of this topic, through its past actions and questions over the future. It’s a good time, then, to consider some of the issues raised.

Switch Online© Nintendo

What are the technical and business challenges of digital preservation and access?

One issue that doesn’t often get addressed in the undeniably passionate debate is logistics — are there challenges that actually make it unfeasible to maintain digital stores and their content long term?

In terms of nuts and bolts, the general opinion of our technically-minded staff members is that though there are costs and logistics to bear in mind, they’re not necessarily significant enough to justify withdrawing financial support. Maintaining servers on low-use stores, for enormous billion-dollar corporations, shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Old servers and databases, such as Wii Shop for example, may be operating on end-of-life services, in which case the data would need to be migrated to more modern alternatives. In general though, this shouldn’t be a particularly tough undertaking considering the resources of Nintendo / Sony / Microsoft, but of course it nonetheless needs to be sanctioned and approved.

So, in terms of servers and data, the technicalities need not be too much of a factor. However, it’s far more complicated than this once you consider areas such as licensing and copyright; these are truly the defining issues with preserving certain games, at least in their original forms.

Put simply, copyright concerns around video games are significant because of the medium’s unique nature, and its comparative youth.

Put simply, copyright concerns around video games are significant because of the medium’s unique nature, and its comparative youth. For example the copyright laws around books, or more specifically authors of printed works, are established and clear. A specific number of years after an author’s death their work can be distributed and preserved for free (though you can’t just sell a copy of a Shakespeare play, for example, unless you own the rights). Until that time, the legal owner of the copyright controls all means of distribution.

However, printed works have been an industry for hundreds of years, and the video game industry is a baby by comparison. In addition, games get complicated because they feature so many pieces from different sources, in some cases each with their own rights issues. Music is the classic example, especially in modern games, where they’ll license music but then, eventually, that agreement expires. You only need to see the exasperated eye-rolls of all concerned when it comes to GoldenEye 007, too, as attempts to re-release it fell foul of so many rights holders being involved.

Apply these issues to specific older games, and regardless of platform holders closing stores they eventually get removed from sale. The idea of reviving them falls foul of the same problems, as the effort and expense of catering to all licenses and rights holders is significant. This article on why you’ll never get to play your favourite retro game on Switch delves into this in detail.

So, we fall into unofficial preservation via ROMs and the enthusiast space, which is where things get messy.

Assorted carts© Nintendo Life

Game preservation isn’t the same as game piracy

This area of debate has done the rounds here on Nintendo Life for many, many years. We know Nintendo’s policy, which is typically to shut down ROM sites or projects that it considers to be infringing its copyright. Perhaps a problem in the debate, and indeed at times Nintendo’s policy towards it, is a focus on ROMs = piracy, which is a simplistic argument.

It’s worth remembering that, for reasons only known in Nintendo’s HQ, the Wii Virtual Console version of Super Mario Bros. was believed to be derived, either entirely or in part, from a ROM online. The video below from Eurogamer sums it up nicely.

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