Thoughts on Backward Compatibility and Archiving

They’re issues that deeply affect the “retro” and “retro-ish” sub-sects of the hobby.  There are legal problems, technical ease-of-use problems, and more surrounding older video games and backward compatibility and archiving.  Over at The Escapist, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw has an article up that brings up some of these issues, though takes them in a different direction than we’re going to explore today.

One big issue retro and retro-ish gamers come across is trying to tell friends, acquaintances, and random e-strangers about some really nifty but not-terribly-popular game of yesteryear.  When the consoles’ various e-stores don’t offer them, when publishers don’t republish them, when used game stores don’t carry them—what are we supposed to do?

Sure, every now and then some publisher or another publishes the Super Fantastic Collection of Neat-o Keen Games, but those aren’t exactly common, nor do they usually offer much aside from the more popular titles.  Even the Namco Museum series, especially as of late, only offer one or two titles that few would remember per Museum title.

Again, what are we supposed to do?

Emulation is an obvious solution, though for one thing there’s the legality of it, which is rather murky at best and something still argued about in the courts.  Legality aside (and that’s not a trifling issue), you also have the software needed for emulation.  It’s not easy to write the software necessary.  For one thing, the coder has to get around the numerous roadblocks the companies have set up just so emulators would be difficult to create in the first place, and then you have the difficulty in making something—the game software—think it’s being played by something it isn’t.

All of that makes it more resource-intensive as well as ensuring that bugs are rarely completely eradicated for years.  As such, even some gaming computers are unable to effectively run emulators that have not been released for very long.  Then you have the bugs—how frustrating would it be to hunt around the Internet for the game and emulator files, only to be unable to actually play the game because the program crashes to the desktop, or replaces the game’s normal physics with random variable values, or whatever else?

And those are just some issues with emulation.

Let’s look at “backward compatibility”.  For a short time in the early-to-mid ‘Aughts, backward compatibility was The Thing.  When the PlayStation 2 debuted, Sony spokespeople declared, much to the rejoicing of PlayStation gamers, that it would support PlayStation 1 games and game saves.  What about gamers who want to play PlayStation 1 or PlayStation 2 games on the PlayStation 3?  Well—the best answer is “maybe“, and it depends on the title“.  There’s a definite “no” when it comes to older regional titles, too.

Then there’re the problems surrounding the X-Box 360’s backward compatibility.  You can play “some” games if you upgrade and update your console’s hardware and software.

Another problem with emulation, backward compatibility, and other forms of “archiving” is what’s known as Moore’s Law, though can more accurately be termed Moore’s Observation.  For varying reasons, technology increases efficiency and capabilities, and this continues to happen.  The side-effect is old technology is quickly incompatible.

Consider early games like Legacy of the Ancients, for really early computers.  Try playing that game now and see how far you get.  Try playing any DOS/Apple/Commodore 64 game now and you—can’t.  Current generation computer operating systems can’t even interface with such old software in the first place, much less know what to do with it.  You can try to emulate, but to date that’s kind of sketchy and you run into the aforementioned problems with emulation in general.

Consider nearly any early—or at least earlier—software or hardware.  Sure, one can, after a lot of tinkering, maybe get it to work, but there are never any guarantees, and just because one user gets it to work, that doesn’t mean the next one will.

There are so many problems with trying to play old games now.  Sometimes it makes retro and retro-ish gamers feel a bit set-apart, and that’s not really in a good way.  We might have an old copy of some game and its hardware laying around, but, seriously, how common would that be?  For those of us really “into” older gaming, it might be less than rare, but one of the best parts of gaming is sharing the experience.  One of the things that make the hobby fun is enjoying it with others.

Whether it be competitive or co-operative, games offer and promote the ability to play with others, and have for years.  Gaming blogs are as common on the Internet as fleas on a dog’s tuchus.  Then there are gaming web-comics, which are penny-a-dozen.  There’s a reason there is so much gaming-related content available—it’s a fun hobby, and, being naturally social creatures anyway, we want to share our fun.

Yet—we can’t, at least not easily, these days.  We can come pretty darn close and do it legally with watching Let’s Plays or game play videos, but watching someone else play isn’t the same as playing, yourself.  It’s not supposed to be.  Video games are meant to be played, not watched.  We can and should discuss them, share thoughts on them, review them, and whatever else, but nothing, at all, is a substitute for actually playing them.

The growing inability to say “This old game is great and you should play it” with any hope of someone else actually picking an old title up to play is increasingly frustrating.  Sometimes it feels like there’s a double-standard; with the proliferation of multi-player content, there’s a feeling that the publishers want gamers to play together—but only when and how they say.  It is, again, increasingly difficult to share the fun we find in our hobby.

What’s the solution?  Ben Croshaw argues for one grand archive of games, but the problem with that is that it will become more and more difficult to keep up with the varying and quickly-rising technology to play games on.  Consoles aside, computers can be reconfigured; Windows-based systems especially lend themselves to end-user tweaking.  One user’s “rig” won’t necessarily be enough like another’s to support that archive’s software.

Unfortunately, no other solution immediately presents itself.  Everything butts up against the problems we’ve already discussed, and there will doubtless be more problems to overcome as this issue continues to be thought about and explored.  At this point, it’s sadly almost nothing more than wishing for things to be different, but wishing without action doesn’t accomplish anything.

We can, however, continue to ponder the issues, test the waters of legal and physical possibilities, continue to try.  That’s the best we can do, and with enough poking and prodding, we might just see a viable solution before PlayStation 3 and X-Box 360 games become “retro”.


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