Replay Value

As I write this article, it is still not entirely clear whether or not the new Xbox One will include some kind of Always Online as part of its feature set, or whether the ‘once a day’ connection that has been rumoured is really all that is required. There are lots of arguments both for and against such a system being hurled around the internet by Xbots, Sony Fanbois and that guy who bought a Wii U, but because I’m generally a terribly pessimistic person I’m going to focus on one of the negatives here; no, not the onerous anti-piracy measures, the hamstringing of second-hand sales or the prospect of server downtime rendering the whole device useless, I’m much more concerned about something altogether more worrying, and that’s the end of retro gaming as we know it.

Now some of you will already be yelling impotently at your monitors because of the needlessly sensational statement, but please hear me out; right now anybody can grab an old console, emulator, virtual machine or copy of DOSBox, fire up Streets of Rage 2 or Dungeon Keeper or Super Street Fighter 2 Turbo and happily play for hours without issue. Even when the 360 and PS3 finally drop out of online support you’ll still be able to fire up an Uncharted or Halo and play offline without any major problems, but what happens when all of your games have to check in with a server every 30 seconds? What happens when you can’t install a game without it asking Microsoft for permission first? Then, years down the line, what happens to your ability to pick up a five or ten year old game on a whim and play it on your old machine?

Surely though, nobody really goes back and plays games from ten years ago? Why would you want to play Half Life 2 when you could play Call of Warface: Black Judgement 6? Well because sometimes there are games that come along which are so well made, so much fun to play and so engaging that the lack of Volumetric Lens Explosions is easily compensated for, and because sometimes people come up with things like the remarkable M4-78 Enhancement Project for Star Wars: Knights of The Old Republic 2, which, despite being released almost ten years after the game itself, adds a staggering amount of (sort of) new content to the game, making it well worth playing through again to experience.

Addressing the elephant in the room, namely Steam, I have three points to make that will hopefully serve to eliminate it from this discussion: 1) Valve have committed to disabling the Steam DRM if they ever shut down the platform and, thus far, haven’t given people any reason to distrust them on that. 2) Valve are very unlikely to decide to shut down Steam in five years time and replace it with a Steam 2, which doesn’t feature any backwards compatibility, and 3) PC gamers are notorious for being able to get just about anything to run in just about any environment given enough time and a desire to do so, even if that means emulating whole servers or reimplementing the entire game from scratch á la OpenTTD or FreeCiv.

Outside of all of the arguments about how many people actually go back and play old games on their consoles (or PCs), there is a much more important thing at stake here: our Culture. Now, I am firmly of the belief that games are art, even really bad ones – have you seen some of the crap they exhibit at the Tate Modern? – and therefore are inherently part of our cultural output and will become part of our cultural heritage; something for people to look back on in 50, 100, 500 years time and use to help assess who we were and what we accomplished. This incessant push towards Always Online, subscription-based services and the fundamental idea that we don’t really own any of the content that we purchase means that 50 years from now there will be vast swathes of our culture that simply won’t exist in a usable format (and that’s before you even start looking at the comically long copyright terms that help to contribute to this).

So, if we do find ourselves locked in a futile struggle against Microsoft’s Authentication Servers, what are the options for preserving our games for future playthroughs and, indeed, future generations? Emulation is an obvious choice, it’s how most people experience arcade games and anything pre-PS2 because they simply don’t have access to the original hardware any more; the problem is that even with console architectures getting more and more PC-like, it still generally requires orders of magnitude more processing power than the original hardware in order to run in a playable fashion, let alone a faithful one. In addition, emulation of games that had an Always Online requirement means that they will still have that requirement and that leads us on to the next option, which is faking Always Online.

It’s not going to be easy to do, but people already run their own WoW servers, have worked around the Ubisoft “content-on-a-server” DRM, and thoroughly broken the new Sim City’s supposed online requirements; you can discover an awful lot about the traffic that travels between your device and its servers if you’re patient & know what you’re doing. Still, it’s rarely going to be practical for everyone who wants to play old games to run their own local authentication servers, and once you get into the realms of centrally-hosted systems for people to use I suspect that the platform owners will try to shut you down, because they’re bastards.

There is another possibility, of course, and that is that Microsoft (or whoever else decides to tread this path) follow Valve’s lead and pledge to patch out the Always Online requirements when they shut their old hardware out of their systems, but the problem there is that it’s of no real benefit to them to do so, most people probably wouldn’t trust them to do it anyway and it’s unlikely that they will have secured the rights from all of the publishers using their platform to be able to do it in the first place.

Whatever happens with the next console generation and the prevalence of Always Online in games that have no fundamental need for it just remember to ask yourself: “What will I be left with in five or ten years time?”. Will you have something that you can give to your kids or break out of the cupboard when your friends come around for an old-school Mario Kart Swearfest, or will you be left with an expensive paperweight, some shiny coasters and the fading memory of all the games that you used to be able to play?

Last five articles by Adam B


One Comment

  1. Chris Toffer says:

    Excellent well written article. Raises some important questions.

Leave a Comment