The Digital Death of Video Game Art

Sixty-four dollars is as much as some people make in an entire day. For them, handing that over to play a video game is not a minor event. All they want in return is to use the product they just fucking paid for. If any other company in the world sold you a product that didn’t work, and then refused to hand over some sort of compensation in return, you wouldn’t even need a lawyer. The judge would tell them straight up, “Give them a working product, or give them their money back, or go to fucking jail.” But for whatever reason, the video game industry gets away with this now? Every time they have a problem with their servers, I can’t play the game I already bought? In an era when people carry their entire music library around with them on their phones, I have less ownership and control of my video games than I had in 1979?

John Cheese, Cracked, “5 Reasons ‘Diablo III’ Represents Gaming’s Annoying Future” (Part 2); published May 17, 2012.*

There remains a cabal of misinformed gamers who defend “always-connected” video games with tired talking points such as “You never played Diablo offline to begin with!”, “They’re doing it to stop hackers!”, and “People are entitled to protect the integrity of their work!”  As with most things on the internet, people are completely missing the point.

Let’s go ahead and explain the video game industry’s “control freak” thing.  It explains why the servers for Diablo III (a single-player game with MMO infrastructure) remained mostly unplayable for two days following its May 15, 2012 launch.*  It explains why the iOS version of Rock Band would “no longer be playable on your device” at the end of May 2012, until Electronic Arts insisted the messages broadcasted by the game were accidental.*  It explains why the “App Stores” for mobile devices (legitimized in-part through video games) allow the developers or publishers of a product to modify licensed purchases as they see fit, where one can revoke the free version of a program and replace it with a paid version.  It explains why fans of the online components for games such as Metal Gear Solid 4 (Metal Gear Online) and Demon’s Souls have to beg companies continue maintaining the game servers.**  It explains why OnLive continues to persist, despite the current lack of interest in streaming game platforms, and it explains why Sony just bought digital streaming company Gaikai for 380 million dollars.*  It explains why Nvidia is touting hardware that would allow low-end consumer devices to stream high-quality game graphics, despite the failure of tablet and smartphone technology to provide tactile input necessary for the game mechanics associated with those graphics.*  This move towards streaming media will be affirmed by high-profile console game designers like David Jaffe, who believes streaming television applications will take over the role of the game consoles.*  And most importantly, these events will explain why people who enjoy video games look at these developments with incredible concern, even as they’re derided as conspiracy theorists and scaremongers and haters or whatever.

Though not everybody seeks the same goals in the video game industry, we’ll refer to the industry as a whole here.  It’s easier and far more inflammatory.  And as I’ve been told, the gigantic video game publishers have a “fiduciary responsibility” and their goal is to “provide a profit to their shareholders”.  As a result, “IF U THINK ORIGIN IS MALWARE THEN DNO’T BUY THE GAME!1!”  In the pursuit of that profit, the video game industry has developed a number of enemies: Software piracy, used video games, modmaking, unruly customers.  Among those problems, there is a percentage of gamers who value the history of the medium and seek to learn from it, sharing their knowledge and educating consumers so they know when Game X or Genre Y has been done better in the past.

At-worst, those “problems” are necessary evils.  Well, the industry kinda disagrees.  Those who control major game development are no longer satisfied with the mere creation of culture and the profit that comes with it.  They seek the right to modify culture at any time, limit access to culture, and eventually revoke all access to this culture when it becomes a burden on the bottom line of the company.  In the pursuit of profit, the video game industry seeks the right to synchronize creation of the games with their distribution model.  And should they get their way, they will destroy video games as an artform.  That doesn’t mean the distribution model will inherently destroy the artistic value of the games they create.  Games are art, whether you accept it or not.  But what good is video game art if it’s programmed to disappear?  That’s what these companies intend to do: They will destroy the ability for consumers and fans of games to preserve or maintain the history of video games.  How fitting.  All this talk about whether video games can be art, and the greatest threat to preservation of the medium…has become the people who create them.

Why is this the least bit surprising?  Have you been paying attention to the ongoing narratives in video game development?  This is an industry that wants the consumer to trust them on digital rights management because, as they’ve put it, the consumer cannot be trusted to do the right thing!  This is an industry whose traditional distribution model (physical retail) is in the process of falling apart and will be supplanted by the digital distribution models that these companies (and others) author.  But why focus on this debate now, eight years removed from the launch of Steam, five years removed from the launch of Spore?  Well, as it stands right now, Steam is still a platform that can be beaten.  (And we sure as hell saw what happened to Spore.)  Steam’s value lies primarily in its convenience, or at least that it’s as convenient as the illegitimate download route.  At the end of the day, people know that if Valve fucks up or pisses off their fans, people have recourse against the company.  That arrangement creates a healthy bond between the consumer and the developer, who work together to respect the wishes of each other.  As it turns out, a lot of companies don’t like that, and they wish to change it.

With help from improving internet, companies have finally figured out how to front-load systemic failure into their software.  Based on the social chatter and controversy surrounding these systems, it’s clear that these ideas are not universally accepted.  Unfortunately, the ongoing discussion fails to grasp the scope of the situation.  Most journalists and writers are failing to see the long-term ramifications, and online discussions usually devolve into a pissing match where “You just want to pirate the game!”  But since enough people are buying games that use this variant of the digital model, the blueprint to the future is partially unfolding.  Now, sure, developers are still making great single-player games that can be purchased on a disc and played without any interaction on the internet.  Companies are still making games that seek to be lasting pieces of art rather than a mere game engine for “episodic” content updates.  So let’s call this unfolding scenario the “ideal” business model in the current video game sector.

The first goal has been accomplished, which was to take back control of multiplayer game servers from their player base, because “software piracy”.  During the early-to-mid-nineties, companies allowed third-parties to provide hosting for multiplayer computer games, because the alternative (company hosts the servers themselves) was expensive.  Players subsidized the costs.  After some improvements in internet technology, the commercial rise of the MMORPG, and the whole “Xbox Live” thing, companies realized how absurdly valuable it was to funnel all players into one ecosystem controlled by the developer.  In this ecosystem, you can charge people for things that previously had no value, things that could be enabled and/or created by the community.  And in cases where dedicated servers are still necessary to maintain good latency for online games, companies like Electronic Arts now use “authorized third-party resellers” to sell server space to their communities.  With help from a string of pointless boycotts and dubious methods for conducting those boycotts (i.e. “pirate the game”), consumers laughed at those who correctly recognized the pratfalls of a service like IWNet.  In-turn, companies made their move and have won that fight.

The second stage is well underway.  The goal is to create “always-connected” video games, regardless of whether the genre or game model require this infrastructure.  These games have little in common with the previous generation of “always-connected” video games (PC versions of Assassin’s Creed II and Driver: San Francisco, the single-player component in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, and games as used with the Origin digital distribution service).  Originally, this technology required one to defeat the “handshake” that created the connection.  For the most part, this only works if one has control of the platform.  For example, the way Apple controls their mobile phones through proprietary hardware and constant updates.  (Yes, the phones can be jailbroken, but it’s a more difficult process than downloading software for your desktop computer and executing a crack.)  Those games helped create a silly presumption that Diablo III would be immediately and effortlessly cracked.  (Two months after that game’s release, the “crack” is a half-functional version of the game.  Developer mission accomplished.)  As people will soon learn, as they should have already learned with the League of Legends that has few options for private servers, this is not going to be the case.  This new class of games provides the player with little more than a client that manipulates the content as it is relayed from a server to your computer.  Think of your computer like a gun in a shooting gallery.  All you’re paying for is the right to shoot the weapon.

Functionally speaking, it’s the model used for MMORPGs.  And in that community, this issue has been ignored because the games associated with the birth of the genre and its financial success (Meridian 59, Ultima Online, Asheron’s Call, Lineage, Everquest, World of Warcraft, Rift) are still chugging along.  That’s because very few people have played the text-based MUDs which provided inspiration for those games or the succesors that provided the closest blueprint, games such as 1986’s Habitat or 1991’s Neverwinter Nights, games which no longer exist in their original form.  Hell, nobody even seems to care that Asheron’s Call 2, The Matrix Online, Earth and Beyond, and Tabula Rasa cease to exist in any shape or form, with the emulation projects for these recent games going unnoticed.

That is the model which League of Legends and Tribes: Ascend now use, the model that Hawken will likely use, where developers continuously inject new content into their games as designed for server-side use.  This allows the company to maintain a lucrative business model, where die-hards constantly gobble up new content for prices totaling far beyond the cost of a sixty-dollar game disc.  It also assures that any emulated version of the game will not be “authentic”, a game that is not “up-to-date”.  Even games with private servers, games such as World of Warcraft, vary wildly in quality and design depending on the server you are playing on.  Which is not to dismiss the smattering of successful projects (AlterIWNet as used with Modern Warfare 2, SWGEmu for use with Star Wars Galaxies), but they’re hardly the norm, and the reasons for their success vary wildly.  Even fewer of these amateur projects use original and uncopyrighted game code.  As a result, people usually have to reverse-engineer the game code.  As each team of amateurs gets closer to emulating a game, it will be difficult to propagate the jailbreak method into the wild without receiving a cease-and-desist order from its copyright holder.  There will likely be some success in emulating the more popular games, but the risk of less prominent games disappearing from the timeline becomes very real.

For the time being, this “always-connected” approach will be the course of action preferred by game makers.  This is because bandwidth doesn’t come easy in this North America, the most lucrative video game market on the planet.  (It seems fitting that the largest impediment to a gigantic entertainment cabal gaining absolute authority over distribution is a telecommunications cabal that seeks to turn bandwidth into a commodity before people decide it is a right.)  For now, the 2.0 model will be used to redefine the perception of what a video game is: You have no right to the game, you’re simply licensing it, you’re simply getting in line to use Company X’s theme park.  The idea that people were lined up on queues to play Diablo III in a “single-player” capacity should make that concept clear.  (This is also the reason that Blizzard Entertainment has categorically denied any server-side issues concerning Diablo III, whether players claim they are getting banned for using Linux* or having their accounts hacked by the thousands.*  The second that any Blizzard employee admits the 2.0 gaming service is flawed, it will de-legitimize the company’s billion-dollar business model.)  For the most part, companies have succeeded in the always-connected approach.  More high-profile releases will become content engines (Saints Row The Third and its “forty weeks of downloadable content”, “Day One DLC”, “premium content”, etc.), regardless of whether these content engines are sold as sixty-dollar console video games or “free-to-play” computer games.

As the technology gets better, companies will make their move.  Then the real fun begins.  They will push for the OnLive model, where the developer or publisher (in conjunction with a distributor) streams the game through a game client, or the television, or your computer, or whatever.  This is the future that OnLive, Gaikai, and Nvidia envision.  It is the dream development model for every large publisher except those who are interested in continuing to develop video game hardware.  (Certainly, Sony’s decision to purchase Gaikai should cast some doubt in the future of the PlayStation as we know it.)  The player will have zero access to the game code because it’s located on a server somewhere else in the country.  There will be no disc and the only downloads will be those necessary to use the distribution client.  With this model, you eliminate unauthorized modmaking, software piracy, and further affirm the elimination of video game resale.  I suppose that the game code could always be leaked, but that won’t instantly make it playable.  In this model, the publisher effectively becomes the lord and master of the work.  If the game sucks, if the game is controversial, if the game must cede way to a sequel, or if the game simply doesn’t sell, then the distributor can simply make the game disappear.

This is not theory, and this is not a “look fifty years down the road” scenario.  All one has to do is look at a list of games which have already been pulled from the Xbox Arcade game service,* the popularity of FIFA Online in South Korea (a persistent online sports video game normally associated with traditional retail models), the shutdown of Star Wars Galaxies in favor of Star Wars: The Old Republic,* and the inevitable shutdown of retail Xbox and Xbox 360 games as designed for use with Xbox Live.  Even Halo 2, the best-selling video game for the original Xbox, an eight-year-old video game, no longer works with Microsoft’s online console-gaming service.  With every subsequent year of digital distribution as an inevitable future, with more imposing rules for using software, with more games directly programmed for this digital future, with more games connected to “the cloud”, with more companies going out of business, the more content that will become vulnerable.

It’s probably difficult for people to envision such a conundrum because, without even putting a conscious thought towards “preservation” of the medium, the medium as we know it in 2012 is largely preserved.  Yes, a couple of significant works are lost for good, such as pioneering amateur projects of the mid-seventies (m199h), a growing body of MUDs that will soon include a growing body of MMORPGs, and numerous finished and unfinished games that never got their commercial releases.  Yes, there will be difficulty finding storage space for large arcade games, a fate that parallels the pinball games which predeced this medium.  Yes, it will be difficult to recreate game experiences that rely heavily on peripherals, particularly the specialized rhythm games.  (It’s been a little over a year since Activision canceled development on the Guitar Hero franchise and the peripherals are already going for premium prices, regardless of the game it was released with.)  And a decade from now, it’s possible that the majority of current-generation hardware (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Nintendo Wii) will cease to function.  And while that sucks, there aren’t many surviving copies of first-print classic literature, either.  The important question is: Can the game code be placed into a digital format, emulated, and then have its controller input replicated with some degree of proficiency?  For the vast majority of games, the answer is “yes”.  And as a community and a whole, nearly every current-generation video game exists on a hard drive somewhere.  Once people find a way to network their holdings and make the content from those game discs function on a computer, then that generation of games will be emulated.

Libraries have burned down, the vast majority of silent films no longer exist, decades of famous television episodes have been lost, and the history of video games is “preserved” because the medium has been commercial for most of its existence, and because people wanted to get these games playing on newer machines.  (“Preserved” obviously assumes that society remains stable.  The search for a long-lasting digital format which can endure decades of calamity remains elusive.)  Nobody compensated the people who emulated these games, they did it for the challenge and the goal of getting to play those games on a home computer.  (Which is funny, because it seems when a company pays somebody to get older games working on newer consoles, the result is usually lousy.)  1962’s Spacewar!, a game programmed for a PDP-1 that took up the size of a kitchen, can now be played in your internet browser.*  There’s a good chance you never even gave any of this a thought.  You just thought it was cool that you could play Mega Man on your computer, so long as you deleted the ROM after twenty-four hours.  (Lol.)

What people have to understand is that this widespread emulation, this preservation of video games, exists in spite of copyright law.  It is illegal.  There are some exceptions in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act made for library archival, but they don’t apply to the wide-spread game downloading that we associate with emulation.  In spite of this, most game developers understand they have no recourse.  They can lash out against sites like Snesorama and events can even lead to their closure,* only for that site to be replaced by two or three others.  As a result, companies are choosing a different direction.  In conjunction with End User License Agreements, these companies are creating a system where they determine what copyright is.  Not merely what the law says about copyright, but how copyright is programmed and how it functions.  So, they will create games that will never enter the public domain, because a functional copy of the game will not appear out of thin air when its copyright expires.  They will create games which skirt existing laws, they will create games whose systems mandate the collection of personal information.  There will be no more “buy the console and play the damn game”.  And to get an idea of what happens if the video game industry gets its way, simply pretend that emulators and the gigantic libraries of games cease to exist.  Pretend that a limited number of coveted games exist in the form of buggy, unappealing doppelgangers.  And only if the copyright holder decides that it is profitable to continue distributing that game for newer devices (where they potentially pervert the vision of the original developers in porting that game to new hardware) will they continue letting you play it.

And for what?  “Because it’s more convenient than driving to the store”?  You know what was the last time I heard “convenience” invoked in the video game industry?  Angry Birds, because “it’s convenient to play on-the-go”.  Well, fuck Angry Birds and fuck “convenience”.  Every time I hear that word tossed around, I think of a three-hundred-pound woman commanding the U.S.S. Hoveround in the pursuit of low, low prices.  Sometimes, to earn satisfaction, it has to be inconvenient.  You have to struggle for it, you have to learn it, you have to strive to understand it.  (Note that a lot of great games work the same way.)  And yes, this server-side future may save you a ten-minute trip to the store or a two-hour game download, but quite frankly, I don’t see anything convenient about a future where I have to indefinitely bend to the whim of the copyright holder to use his product.  I don’t see anything convenient about a future which relies on an expectation of permanent internet, a future where my purchase can’t be played on the first day due to intense demand.  I don’t see anything convenient about a future where the games I played when I was younger simply disappear when businesses suck each other up and then “restructure operations”.

All the while, I’ve seen derisive suggestions that this issue (in the context of server outages for console and computer video games) is a “first-world problem”, the idea that you have a house over your head and some kid in Africa is starving, so you’re not entitled to complain about anything.  Well, no shit, buddy.  Science and ethics is a first-world problem.  The mechanisms for dealing with global warming are a first-world problem.  Oh, but I suppose since video games are an entertainment medium, that makes it okay? Well, that will be a great lesson to pass on to future generations: That it was okay to destroy our culture and ideas, i.e. “our legacy”, when a businessman with no connection to the artwork could save a couple of bucks by eliminating it from the timeline.  First-world problems, indeed.  Third-world dictators would kill for this kind of system.

Let’s make this clear: This is not merely the endgame of the video game industry.  This is a societal issue.  It’s the goal desired by all entities that wish to commercialize and control the internet.  Smartphone creators are popularizing an interface that transforms the internet into a strip mall, with neat clickable buttons that ensure you’ll never have to harm your worldview by going to a web site like this one.  As mentioned earlier, television companies will soon position their hardware to perform many of the same tasks seen on those smartphones, programs also downloaded from “App Stores”.  Naturally, the functions for these devices will be stored server-side.  People don’t seem to understand that when you say “They’re a business and they’re trying to make money!”, well…this is how the video game industry and other entities intend to do it.  If they can’t create a better product or provide more value, they’ll take over the distribution model for their product. Then, they will invoke the power of the free market in order to create and personalize their own command economies, artificially inflating the value of goods and services designed for use in their own ecosystem.

Fortunately, the governments in a number of other major markets (most notably those in Asia and Europe) are pushing back, particularly against the failure of these companies to assure that the games are “always-connected”.  In particular, South Korea and Japan (for various reasons) are going after the item trading which will drive the always-connected game economies of the future.**  I don’t have much faith that America will take those same steps.  We don’t really have laws against anything here anymore.  So, at least in my country, the most lucrative video game market on the planet, these businesses are going to do what the Robber Barons did in the late-nineteenth century: Vertical monopoly ahoy.  They create the product, they control the railroads that ship the product.  What makes this predicament interesting is that books, movies, and television could no doubt persevere in such an environment.  They can be copied with relative ease.  Video games are interactive mediums featuring exceptionally complex mechanisms.  You can’t take photos of games and capture what makes them great pieces of art.  So if somebody decides that these pieces of technology are going to disappear, and they can spend vast resources on such complex fail-safe mechanisms, then they can probably do it.

So hopefully, I’m making the stakes very, very obvious.  Just make sure that when the “cloud revolution” comes to video games, the narrative of convenience and the narrative of intellectual property rights, you may want to try and make it a little inconvenient for them.

Just a little.

Correction: I originally wrote that pedit5 has been lost to history, not recognizing that the game’s status as a “lost work” referred to the very original game code.  The game is in the wild, and the article now reflects that.

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