Monday, June 3, 2013

Culture sacrificed on the altar of DRMs

The video games of our youth are now part of our culture and for decades to come, they will influence the future of video games. Though nothing has been formally planned to preserve these old masterpieces (or pieces of junk), some initiatives and some individuals have made copies that will allow the safeguard of those creations... either on their personal hard drives or on websites dedicated to "Abandonware". So even after decades, after Windows disappears, after smartphones will have been replaced by whatever... we will still be able to get our hands on those oldies and play them.

...like we can play the "golden oldies", the music that was edited on vinyl discs on modern supports like CD's or even in digital format by streaming or by playing an mp3 file.

But something has been broken in the world of video games. Something that dooms some games to oblivion. That something is a form of anti-piracy protection called the always-online-connection. This system forces buyers of a video game to constantly be connected to the Internet. Even for a solo game, the source code has been structured so that a remote server retains vital information that your computer will obtain by regularly shaking hands with the server. Such a server costs money to maintain and it is necessary that someday, in 1 year, in 5 years, maybe in 10 years... or just in a few weeks if sales are disastrous, the server will be shutdown for good. This might also happen because video game studios are struggling to survive and many of them disappear.

So what happens when a server is shutdown? A deafening silence happens. The game you bought, the whole game that you paid for, sometimes as expensively as $50 or $60, stops working. Because truth be told, you did not buy a game. You bought only the client part of a game and you implicitly agreed that your game would be unusable after the server is stopped.

So, these games are doomed to disappear unless the editors release the servers' source code at shutdown time... which, let me reassure you, never happens. These games will be lost forever. Imagine if the same was true of music! Imagine that a label would insert devices into vinyl discs that would destroy those discs upon bankruptcy of the label! Imagine that we burn paintings upon the death of a painter, if he didn't achieve fame by that time. What a disaster! What a waste!

The same principle goes also for Massively Multiplayer Online Games (MMOs) but in their case, we understand the technical need for the server-client architecture. But unless they release their source code at shutdown, the game is lost. Games like "Ultima Online" or "The 4th Prophecy" have been major milestones that paved the way towards World of Warcraft. So, alright... there might still be a handful of obscure companies still operating shards (servers) of these games but they'll stop someday. Then these games are lost.

Conclusion

Our modern societies are advanced enough to understand the need for documenting history and documenting culture. We're having enough of a hard time trying to understand the Zeitgeist of times not so distant. We should think about the preservation of our cultural patrimony and set rules for this. We could vote laws that compel the owners of these games' Intellectual Property to archive their source code for future release as the rights expire or as the company disappears. Even if we don't write it into law, it would be good to see companies doing it. Well, in a way, ID Software did it by releasing the source code of older games (e.g. Quake 3) under a free open source license. But this is the exception, not the rule. The future is coming, no matter what. So how about we prepare for it?

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