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We're steadily losing gaming's heritage (but streaming may save it)

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The other day I was thinking about TimeSplitters 2. This isn’t an unusual occurrence. I’m often thinking about TimeSplitters 2. It was one of my favourite games of the last generation and from a perspective of creativity, narrative, and pure, inventive fun, I think it’s one of the best shooters ever made. But as most of my thinkings about TimeSplitters 2 tend to do, this particular thinking ended with frustration. Because thinking about TimeSplitters 2 always makes me want to play TimeSplitters 2. And I can’t. Not properly. 

Oh yes, I could drag out the old Gamecube, or dig through the dust for my Wii. But all I’d really get there would be a shoddy approximation of the old TS2 experience, awkwardly simulated by a hotchpotch of ill-fitting hardware, each bit out of step with the others in both age and suitability for the job. What I’d get there would be a blurry, stretchy version of a once-beautiful game that was never intended for giant 1080P TVs. I’d get TimeSplitters 2’s malformed, bloated corpse, forced to do a sullen, pale-skinned, Weekend at Bernie’s-style dance for my dubiously-defined amusement. And I’d have to go through a whole load of practical faff with a storage box full of obsolete hardware for the privilege. 

Films would never be treated like this. 

The problem is that games, despite being an entirely digital medium from their offing, still do not exist independently from the hardware upon which they were originally released. A game cannot exist in its own right. It’s still bound to an aged box and a bunch of related cables. And increasing numbers of those boxes just aren’t conveniently available. 

Historical film and TV however, despite originally being analogue media, are readily available with each new hardware generation that comes along. The prints and digital files exist outside of any particular delivery medium, ready to be reformatted, touched up and bashed back out for consumption on any disc, memory stick or streaming service that might come along. But if film and TV were treated like games, you’d still need to pull out the original cine projectors, Betamax players and 1960s TV sets that were originally home to them. 

Things have superficially improved over the course of this current generation, with the wave of HD remakes and re-releases gaining increasing momentum. But even that is far from a perfect solution. Full remakes might look cool and shiny, and bring the fun factor of seeing an old favourite retooled with new tech, but they’re an approximate tribute at best. Like wanting to watch the Star Wars you loved as a kid and having only George Lucas’ increasingly messed-up, CG ‘augmented’ versions available. 

Similarly, straight, upscaled ports are so far of variable quality (I’m looking at you, Silent Hill HD Collection), which is yet another off-shoot of the hardware problem. Games built for one system and then repurposed for another, radically different machine a generation later (often by an outsourced team) are open to all kinds of technical problems. 

Thankfully, next-gen consoles finally look to be heading towards a semi-unified, PC-driven architecture, with Sony in particular vocally advertising the PS4’s off-the-shelf PC parts. That may or may not help the situation with video game archiving, but what really should be a great bonus is the advent of game streaming services for both the PS4 and Xbox One. Both consoles have pledged to make use of the tech to varying degrees, but if used to its full potential in the future, cloud streaming technology could easily save gaming’s increasingly lost history once and for all. 

Remote servers, emulators, ROMs optimised for current screen resolutions. That’s all you’d need. The end-user’s current hardware, finally, would become irrelevant to the running of old games, and the games themselves could finally thrive as entities unrestricted by distribution methods or storage media. As a result of dropping those technical considerations, the costs for publishers to maintain real archives of their back catalogues would be minimal. Server costs and an optimisation update to the ROM every few years. That would be about it. 

It needs to happen. Something needs to happen. Because we can’t keep banging on about how games are an important artistic medium if we don’t respect their history. I can go out and buy a super-remastered, full-HD Blu-ray of Casablanca today and play it on my modern TV tonight with never-better visuals and sound. But an 11-year-old first-person shooter? I’m lucky if I can even find a way to load it up. It’s not just about having a bigger game collection or access to easy nostalgia on tap. It’s about preserving the heritage of a rapidly developing, ever-expanding medium. And we need to get it sorted out before we move too far ahead and forget where it all came from. 

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15 comments

  • Galgomite - July 22, 2013 8:53 a.m.

    You're missing the most obvious part-- how online DRM and patches will make it impossible to play games properly going forward. If/ when the Xbox One scenario occurs, it won't even matter how much old fashioned hardware you keep lying around. PS: if you want old 8-bit, 16-bit and 32-bit games to look like themselves, but also look fantastic on a modern TV, buy a scart/ component cable for the console and connect it to an XRGB Mini Framemeister. Expensive but unbelievable visuals.
  • dcobs123 - July 22, 2013 1:58 p.m.

    I never understood why the companies don't use the same online services across console generations.
  • Cinaclov - July 21, 2013 3:13 a.m.

    That's a good point about availability as a restriction on games being considered an art form. Whilst it's obvious to me that games are art (every separate element, from designing characters, levels and animating them through to music and story are all considered art by themselves) this is the first good point I've heard as to why they aren't considered art by a majority of people. I could go into one of the remaining HMVs today and pick up an unopened copy of the film Braveheart or the album Pinkerton, but not an unopened copy of Mario 64. All three were released in the same year, and all three require technological mediums in order to play them. It's a very good point.
  • dcobs123 - July 20, 2013 9:03 a.m.

    I'll probably come off sounding like a pc elitist jerk for saying this but i think that consoles are really the cause of this problem and as long as games are tied to hardware, compatibility will always be an issue.I give these companies credit for trying to prevent this but it seems like the steps they are taking are basically just making console more like pc's what with standardized hardware and a bigger emphasis on online purchases. I don't want to make this companies out as bad guys, but I feel like it is us gamers that are sacrificing to keep them around and because of that I don't think consoles are relevant anymore.
  • GR HollanderCooper - July 22, 2013 9:28 a.m.

    Except PC games run into this same problem. Try playing TIE FIGHTER or Grim Fandango without jumping through hoops.
  • dcobs123 - July 22, 2013 1:46 p.m.

    I think I meant to say accessibility not compatibility. Getting old games to work on pc can be tricky but for the most part you can make anything run with enough effort. The thing I like about pc gaming is that basically every post cd era game is available somewhere to download. But the point I was trying to make was that people should just have access to any game as long as their hardware can handle it. I get that exclusivity is totally the developers choice but if asked then I'm sure that any developer would want there game to meet as wide of an audience as possible, so why can't they? Exclusives are just exclusive in order to make a console look more desirable to the consumer. Think of it like this, say I buy the ps4 to get The Last Guardian. I'm buying a piece of hardware to play a game that any other piece of hardware could handle well assuming it was made for it. If that's the case then why are there so many different pieces of hardware that do the exact same thing and what is the value in owning that piece of hardware of the others? We are basically buying these consoles out of necessity not because they have appealing features and that is what bothers me.
  • larkan - July 29, 2013 1:37 p.m.

    At least there are hoops to jump through, unlike on a PS4, where you won't be able to play your old PS3 disc games period. I'd rather spend 5 minutes learning how to get a game to run on my PC than having to have 3 different consoles hooked up to play my library of games.
  • Rhymenocerous - July 20, 2013 2 a.m.

    Here's a quote from one of my super-awesome comments from April: "Games are always driven by technology, and it's one of the reasons they still aren't seen as culturally important as films by mainstream media - the console changes make old titles seem obsolete, as they often are not supported on the new platform due to lack of BC. Only the big new thing is celebrated. You can't go into a shop and buy the original, unopened Metal Gear Solid that's not pre-owned, yet you could still get a dvd (or Blu-ray) of a film that was released in 1972 - because the film industry always supports their entire back catalogue and releases them on the new format, whereas only games released today are supported by the current platform." I should also point out, however, that I'm one of the dinosaurs that refuses to embrace digital distribution.
  • ombranox - July 19, 2013 3:46 p.m.

    I agree. I would love to stream classic games. It doesn't help that rentals are no longer really a thing. Up until 2008, I could drive down to a crappy blockbuster, and half an hour later I'd be catching some goddamn polygonal monkeys. I miss that.
  • shawksta - July 19, 2013 11:34 a.m.

    God damn licensing. I mean for f*cks sake it took Nintendo till 2013 to finally find a way to get Earthbound in the states on the virtual console and who knows if they were just lazy or actually having licensing issues, its already confirmed Earthbound had to be stripped of some stuff.
  • IHateYouTheGhostOfAnwarSadat - July 19, 2013 11:21 a.m.

    Glad I'm not the only one who misses Timesplitters. EA's Black was also a great shooter from last generation
  • communinja - July 19, 2013 10:57 a.m.

    If Nintendo had every classic NES and SNES game available through the marketplace, I would go out and buy a 3DS and/or Wii U immediately. If they then followed a Steam type set up, with event sales, bundles, etc, they would have a license to print money.
  • BladedFalcon - July 19, 2013 10:25 a.m.

    I think the problems that hold back the potential awesomeness and vastness of a universal streaming collection are pretty much two: 1.- Licensing Bullshit: This is by far the biggest one methinks. There's a ton of games that aren't available digitally yet because of legal fees or because they no longer even fucking know who owns the game and who could sue them if they sell it digitally. Not just that, but then we might always have the problem of never having a truly unified game catalog because of first party competition. No way Nintendo is ever gonna let their games, no matter how old, ever be available in other consoles, and viceversa. And it's just annoying in that sense. 2.- Laziness, lack of resources or just not giving a fuck. I mean, even though we've come a decent way, in digital stores there's still a shitton of games that aren't available yet for no other reason because no one has deemed it worth it to work even the bare minimum to make it happen. Nintendo for example, probably would have been able to make ALL of it's gaming heritage at least from the N64 and back available in both Wii, Wii U, and 3DS if they wanted, but for whatever reason, they keep holding shit back. Even if streaming makes things much easier, I still see a ton of games getting left out and never getting the treatment because well, companies are fucking stupid?
  • Aquasol - July 23, 2013 midnight

    "Nintendo for example, probably would have been able to make ALL of it's gaming heritage at least from the N64 and back available in both Wii, Wii U, and 3DS if they wanted, but for whatever reason, they keep holding shit back." That, as it is for others like Sony, is due to both rights issues and emulation concerns. Sony mostly uses the same emulator so while plenty of games run fine, others end up with massive errors or end up completely unplayable(Wild ARMs for massive errors, and FF V for unplayable come to mind). Nintendo tries to get 100% emulation, which is why the titles take longer than normal. It's kind of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't situation.
  • gumbyx84 - July 19, 2013 9:50 a.m.

    This is a great idea. We are starting to see this with Nintendo's Virtual Console and Sony's PS and PS2 classics. Sadly they don't always release games fans want and there are limitations. Here is what I'm hoping for: I put in a PSX/PS2 game into my PS4. Sony verifies that I have said game by checking the disk, and then streams the game from their servers using a backup on their end or stream the game data off the disk and running the emulator on the server. I don't see this happening right away, but I think its the best way to do this. Yes it will cost a good chunk of money to setup and maintain, but we are paying a subscription fee for PSN on the PS4 so those costs should be covered.

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