Live-service is killing video game conservation

Video games used to be forever - now seasons come and go, with entire chunks of even the most popular games gone without trace.


One of the most worn out topics of discourse in the gaming community is the problems that gamers have with the terminally online and monetized nature of the hobby in its contemporary form, where all kinds of servers, accounts, microtransactions and subscription fees tailor the hobby into something that keeps the audience controlled and paying - but there is another angle to the live service phenomenon: history.

Live-service business models are killing game conservation as we know it, and entire chunks of video game history - the history of some of the biggest, most popular and most influential games, too - is already lost, likely forever. Meanwhile, the conservation of old games is also being hampered by companies, all because remaster culture has conditioned them into expecting to be able to sell that old game to you again.

Where does this leave modern gaming conservation efforts, and how does the legitimate interest in maintaining the hobby's history intersect with illegitimate piracy? How are some companies helping, while others fight tooth and claw to commoditize that history? What will be the fate of so-called lost media in the information age where nothing is really lost, but instead kept under a legal bog?

Seasonal

Live service games, by their nature, are in a near-constant state of flux. Updates, expansions, seasons bring not only new content as additions on top of what already exists in the game, but also fundamental and in some cases drastic changes to that base content, with no apparent way to access old versions after their time has passed - unless the company decides to bring back said version with the intention of selling them to you yet again.

So much of Destiny and Destiny 2 is gone - or just not popular enough to experience, and not soloable.

Such live service games, as a rule are tied to constant connectivity and authentication, running on tightly controlled publisher-side servers. You cannot log-in without having updated to the most recent version of the client, and you cannot play without logging in. For games where things like private servers are not an option, this means that there is a unilaterally one sided control of what content can be experienced by who and when - with removal being permanent and absolute.

With many of the biggest games being so clearly geared towards multiplayer experiences, combined with this live service format, the FOMO is real. Key eras or events in the most influential titles of the modern gaming era are flash-in-the-pan moments compared to the unchanging classic monoliths of the medium that to this day can easily be enjoyed in their original form, as they were enjoyed decades ago.

Just think about what it would be like to jump into Destiny 2 right now. Destiny, being the previous and now unsupported title, has a significantly lower population, posing a great challenge if you want to play through the preceding game - and even it has had content removed, changed, or added over the course of its life. Destiny 2 is even worse in that regard, having had many one-time "live events" that were key moments in the storyline.

Being a multiplayer live-service game, the story is happening almost real-time, and it stops for nobody - you are not playing your story, but participating in events happening whether you're there or not, and if you are only jumping on the bandwagon now, there are massive chunks of the game that you will never experience in any shape or form. Not just events, but gameplay systems, mechanics and content has been removed from the game that very likely will never be seen again, by anyone.

Regardless of what one might think of, say, Fortnite, personally, it is undeniably one of the biggest, most influential and most significant games in the modern era - and almost all of it is irrevocably gone. Consider, just academically, the importance of Fortnite for the industry, how it shaped markets and audiences and how it spawned a sea of copycats.

Yet, despite being a seminal title which will leave a massive, unmistakable mark on video games as a whole for decades to come, years' forth of Fortnite's content, gameplay mechanics, events - slices of its identity as a piece of media - are gone from the interactive plane and remain observable only passively through whatever recordings exist.

Fortnite has gone through many major changes since it hit the big leagues.

Which admittedly are plentiful - in the content creator era, where YouTube, Twitch and other video hosting or streaming platforms have risen to the forefront of gaming, documentation is at a previously unprecedented level. Sheer size and momentum in this space ensures that even the smallest titles get some attention from content creators, leaving behind records and first hand accounts of the media in question.

Another good example in the same vein would be Call of Duty: Warzone, which went as far as dropping a nuke on its launch map, Verdansk. The location itself features in Modern Warfare, but the large, open battle royale map that many fans adored is gone forever.

However, passively observing even primary sources of history is entirely different from living it. Games which were self contained, independent experiences or products - we do not mean detached from broader IP, but in a technical sense; the game product is not dependent on servers or services - can still be played in the exact same way as when they were released. Sure, you need the relevant hardware, but nothing is stopping you from hooking up an old console to an old TV and loading up an old game cartridge.

You cannot, however, log into a past-season of Fortnite, to stick to the previous example; but this phenomenon is hardly exclusive, or ever new. MMOs have been grappling with change for decades, even if in the past expansions usually meant new stuff being heaped on top of what we already had. Increasingly, iteration in the longest-running games meant reaching back into the past and permanently altering older content in order to yank it up to modern standards.

With many MMOs, private servers tailored to specific niches existed, many sticking to older versions, providing interactive snapshots into a game's past - though with questionable legality. This, unfortunately, has become an overarching theme of video game conservation, especially with the rise of digitally distributed ports, remasters and re-releases. While these make immortalizing media easier in a technical sense, they also bring with them unique challenges.

Classic Retro Definitive Collection - Remastered: Director's Cut Game of the Year Edition

Over the years, though mostly recently, we have begun seeing the ways in which the commodification of video game history has negatively impacted conservation even where it should technically help. Game companies reaching back into their pasts to draw upon old classics to re-release in ways that make these titles more accessible for a modern audience sounds absolutely peachy.

In practice, like all things, it isn't as clear cut. There are several elephants in the room, though the biggest may be this - these aren't the games whose conservation is at risk. Monolithic plug-and-play classics which live on regardless of servers, or seasons, or patches; complete experiences without having to buy additional expansions or DLC; cartridge or local installation based media delivery giving unrestricted access to owners; these are the hallmarks of older video games.

While many are hard to access at this point - they came out on very old hardware that isn't readily available or compatible with, say, modern screens and TVs; the games themselves may be rare, etc - they still are available in an unaltered format. The 'problem-children' are the modern, fleeting and ever changing titles. At the end of the day, this isn't really solving conservation problems.

Take-Two Interactive removed GTA 3, Vice City and San Andreas from sale and went after mod-makers leading up to the release of The Definitive Edition. Conservation this is not.

However, it creates new ones; as companies come to perceive their old back catalogue of games as something that can be sold again, conservation becomes and outright enemy. In order to make a re-release more marketable, access to the original is hampered as much as the publisher can manage. We've seen this specific case occur with the 3D era GTA games recently, even though they're not even particularly old in the grand scheme of things.

More relevantly, the practice of wheeling out an old classic and selling it again has cropped up in the live-service/MMO sphere as well. World of Warcraft has been a staple of the MMO world since 2004, and through its early years stuck to the 'additive' approach with expansions. Sure, patches and new content would minimally alter the vanilla content, but the stuff available at launch was mostly left untouched, with new content being relegated to entirely new areas and landmasses in-game.

Then Cataclysm came and brought with it a complete rework of Kalimdor and the Eastern Kingdoms, replacing the world and gameplay of these vanilla areas that fans have been adventuring through since launch with something entirely new. Private servers running vanilla, The Burning Crusade or Wrath of the Lich King versions still existed, showing that in many cases grassroots video game conservation walked hand in hand with piracy, as the official live servers moved forward.

Fast forward to 2019, and Blizzard would launch WoW Classic, an official legacy server running the launch version of the MMO. This would later be joined by The Burning Crusade Classic, setting the precedent of a longer trip down memory lane. However, the cracks were showing here in publisher intent - while purporting to offer the original experience of these eras in the game's history, the official Classic servers were infected by newfangled monetization schemes that didn't exist back in 2004.

World-of-Warcraft-Burning-Crusade-Classic-Outland-Battle
Not the TBC you know and love.

Even when modern companies bring back older games - whether they are 'endangered' in terms of conservation or not - they don't do the original experience justice from a historical or academic point of view (arguably they don't do them justice subjectively either from the perspective of fans, but that is not the topic today).

DRM - the old enemy

Issues with retaining interactive access to older games, or older content in extant games, is not something that cropped up with live-service experiences - even though right now, these kinds of games are the worst offenders. The roots of the struggle with keeping games accessible through time, and maintaining them for future generations, lies in Digital Rights Management.

A blanket term for all kinds of practices and technologies employed by publishers to prevent game sharing and piracy, DRM has been the ugliest wart on "modern" gaming as it were ever since installation limits were introduced. At the end of the day DRM never effectively managed to combat piracy except when constant, active connections to servers locked down tight were required.

Not to "old man yells at cloud" too hard, but back in the old days anti-piracy measures were lax and, in some cases, even sort of charming. The go-to method was the inclusion of a puzzle section in a game that instead of having an intuitive solution, required the player to look into the pack-in printed manual (remember when we got those with games?) for a code or other instructions on how to proceed. If you pirated the game, you probably didn't have a manual, and would get stuck.

Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy was one of the games affected by a Denuvo outage recently.

Every subsequent step along the evolutionary path of DRM has been a thoroughly evil one. Companies set limits to how many times you could install a game from the official disc - so even if you bought the title completely legitimately, there would come a time where it simply wouldn't allow you to reinstall, likely as a way to discourage sharing the disc among friends. Then, you started getting CD keys - some single use, even - that often meant an extra rodeo with customer service if they didn't work.

Denuvo has become a sort of household name in gaming circles as the lowest dregs of DRM, offering rights management 'solutions' to many AAA publishers that often would outright not work. Denuvo integration frequently brought its own crop of issues for games, preventing legitimate customers from authenticating their purchases and playing their games. It also always got cracked pretty much instantly, so instead of stopping pirates it only ever managed to inconvenience customers.

Live service games as we understand them currently have DRM baked right into their very DNA, requiring constant uninterrupted server connections with an account tied to the player that at all times authenticates that they are in fact a paying customer. In some cases, under the aegis of preventing cheaters from making new accounts each time they are banned, even phone number verification is needed.

This end-stage evolution of DRM is inherently linked with the constant change and addition of content in live-service products, even though a large chunk of them is free-to-play.

One of the great agents of not just the fight against DRM, but for the cause of conservation is (or was?) GOG, the digital marketplace that got its name initially from the acronym "good old games". While they recently pivoted towards more modern offerings, the main profile of the site used to be the digital release of old games, made compatible with modern operating systems, entirely free of DRM.

Emulation and piracy

As a result of all the challenges that video game conservation is facing, in order to achieve its goals the toolbox by necessity has to include things that generally would be considered software piracy - however when done for the sake of conservation, there is a lot more going on than just wanting to play a game without paying for it.

Emulation has been one of the most important elements of conservation ever since its dawn - digitizing old cartridge-based video games and optimizing them to run via emulation shell software on PCs ensures that even once no working native hardware exists, be it the cartridges or the consoles they work with, the game will still be accessible and playable for future generations, immortalized and forever retrievable as a piece of gaming history that enthusiasts can experience for themselves.

The new Steam Deck has already proven to be a strong emulation tool.

However, emulation has a tricky relationship with legality. Circumstances aside, you are essentially playing a game without having paid for it - even if in many cases all of the companies involved ceased existing years or decades ago. The way the industry works means that owning a game on one platform does not mean you own it on others; though with the digitization of old, unported games things get murky.

When we speak of - or report on - emulation, more often than not the story will involve Nintendo in some shape or form. The Japanese video game titan is notoriously allergic to any kind of piracy or use of its IP, even in the case of non-commercial fan works, restorations or ports, and emulation has been a frequent target of their legal teams.

Nintendo, specifically, has a colossal back catalogue of old games that have had formative roles in the evolution of the medium. At the same time, Nintendo very often re-releases these old games on modern systems - though their ports suffer from many of the same terminally capitalist issues as we've mentioned earlier.

Even so, their library includes dozens of utterly obscure games that are barely known or remembered, which would never warrant the expense of a remaster or a port - yet, simply because of their legal status, their emulation is hunted just as any other. The fan community's dedication to not allowing video game history to be forgotten has led to them picking up the work where companies - often willingly - fail, but it's only made all the harder when those same companies turn to make the process even harder.

Emulation and conservation in general raises some interesting ethical questions surrounding piracy, Nintendo notwithstanding. If the game isn't being sold anywhere, meaning piracy isn't an alternative to a legitimate acquisition but rather your only choice, how wrong is it really? Do the ends of conservation justify means? Where does one draw a line between "stealing" and preserving video game history?

If nobody holds distribution rights to a game not being sold anywhere, essentially making it abandonware, then simply downloading ought to be a valid choice - it's not like you can always bank on it being available second-hand. Plus, we know what companies think of gamers re-selling their games in a used state...

Might of the pen

The idea for this feature was spawned back when we were working on our post about the games with the most microtransactions - during our research the fleeting and ever changing nature of live service games became a major obstacle. Since they are not static, finished products that exist as they are upon launch, either all of these changes get specifically documented in detail online by fans or journalists... or they don't, and are lost forever.

As the industry pivots ever more towards live service dominance, and an ever larger portion of contemporary content across all current games becomes fleeting and fragile in its longevity, increasingly the burden of conservation rests on the shoulders of content creators, fans and journalists. Any small detail that goes undocumented will be gone by the next patch, or the next season, or the next expansion, and not every game out there will come back for a "classic" encore a decade down the line.

Gaming history already has a bunch of gaps that might never be filled.

Already there are huge gaps of information - potentially useful information for research - regarding current games that might only be filled by the publishers themselves, if even, and they do not have any interest in doing so - there is no profit in it.

Every screenshot, video, tabulated data, guide or even verbal description of these elements of current games that get wiped out by updates are extremely valuable - but the true beauty of video games always lay in it being an interactive medium, and passive observation just doesn't cut it. This is why conservation is so essential to the medium, and why the damage being done by live service titles is so tragic.

Aron Gerencser
Gaming at least as long as he's been walking, Aron is a fan of all things sci-fi and lover of RPGs. Having written about games for years, he's right at home reporting most of the breaking news in the industry and covering the happenings of the e-sports world. Graduating summa cum laude from Università degli Studi Guglielmo Marconi with a BA in Media Production, Aron has been a game journalist since 2014. When not writing, editing or playing, Aron is building models which you can find on Instagram.
Comparison List (0)
Final Fantasy 16 earns "M" rating in Brazil Portal writers have "pretty awesome starting point" for Portal 3 Sony teases Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse trailer release date Bandai Namco confirms Tekken 8 for The Game Awards Nvidia announces system requirements for Portal’s RTX version Wordle 533 for today - December 4: hints and answers Diablo 4 release date reveal at The Game Awards becomes more likely Hideo Kojima fans could see Death Stranding 2 at The Game Awards Ed Boon and NetherRealm Studios will not be at The Game Awards 2022 Xbox removes Hot Wheels Unleashed from Game Pass lineup