Do you remember not so long ago when you’d rush out to the store, excitedly hand over your pennies to some dude, and hurry home to open up your shiny new game? I’d be willing to bet that most of you reading this will have very fond memories of doing just that. Those memories are probably still sat on a shelf or disc rack somewhere, in physical form. Perhaps you’re turning your head to look at them right now. You’ve got access to all of your games, but for future generations of gamers I fear this will be a thing of the past.
Last October, Daybreak Games shut down the servers for H1Z1’s Just Survive mode. Given that Just Survive is an online only game, that means it’s effectively dead. This piece of software originally cost $20, never even made it out of early access, and now it looks like it never will. You might argue that if the game isn’t profitable it would be unreasonable to expect the studio to continue hosting it. That’s a fair point, but what’s stopping them from releasing server support so that the fans can maintain and run their own servers? Is it too complicated? Perhaps it’s too time-consuming.
Let’s take a look at a different example, Lawbreakers. This game lasted just over a year, from August 2017 to September 2018, before it shut down for good. The story of Lawbreakers and Boss Key Productions is truly a sad tale, with the game garnering positive reviews from critics and still having a small but passionate fan base right up until it was killed. I use the word ‘killed’ because anyone who tries to claim it’s impossible for a 5 v 5 first person shooter to be hostable on the player’s machine is simply lying. Plain, flat-out, undeniably bullshitting.
Now you might be wondering why any of this matters. Most of the games that get shut down are bad, right? Perhaps you think they deserved to die because they weren’t marketed or maintained properly. After all, it’s a competitive industry where survival of the fittest ought to reign supreme. I can understand that perspective, in a way it’s kinda necessary to maintain a degree of quality control, but you’re totally missing the point. None of these games had to die. The conservation of our cultural history, of the games that have come and gone, is an end that justifies itself. These projects were worked on by talented, passionate individuals who put a part of themselves into them. To simply let them slip into non-existence when they could so easily be preserved is an act of absolute moral bankruptcy.
Ultimately that’s the real point here. This issue is one of morality, not legality. Studios and publishers are able to do the right thing in 99% of situations, yet they only seem to choose to in a fraction of them. Battleforge, an RTS game with a huge single-player campaign – Dead. Nosgoth, a small-scale third-person shooter set in the Legacy of Kain universe – Dead. Scott Pilgrim vs The World: The Game, an awesome retro-style beat ‘em up – Dead. None of these games need to be unavailable and none of these games should be unavailable. Two of them are basically single-player experiences with optional multiplayer. There’s certainly no mechanical reason for those ones to require continued support from their publishers. Yet here we are, in 2018, without access to them because they basically had a ticking bomb strapped to their chest in the form of DRM from the moment they came out.
What this all amounts to is an industry where you’re no longer purchasing a product, but a window of opportunity. An ever-dwindling, never certain, dangling sword of Damocles that could fall at any moment, rendering the product that you paid for, the thing that you expect to be able to play, suddenly inert. In any other industry this would be considered totally unacceptable. If you pay for anything else, be it a microwave oven, a magazine subscription, or a haircut, there’s no way you’d accept it suddenly ceasing to work, no longer being delivered, or your hair getting forcibly glued back on. Why do video games exist in this weird bubble where we just accept the fact that publishers can take our product round the back of the proverbial barn and blast it in the head with a shotgun?
As if this dystopian tale isn’t bad enough, it looks as though this is only the tip of the iceberg. At this year’s E3, Yves Guillemot AKA the face of Ubisoft stated that he believes the future of gaming will be entirely streamed, with the next console generation being the last. For myself as well as many other older gamers, this spells the end of any control over our library of titles. The idea that a platform or company can simply decide to stop providing access to a game and there’s literally nothing we can do about it, frankly makes me not want to buy new games. And you’d better believe that they will. Streaming is complex, requires constant resources and manpower to maintain, and comes with its own set of issues, latency being a huge one. Does anyone seriously believe that these guys will keep the lights on once it stops selling?
All this amounts to me regularly finding myself in a situation where I’m left with no other option than to turn to piracy if I want to play the games I paid for. Warhammer Online is a game that I owned once upon a time. If I want to play it now, I have to participate in the breaking of a law and join a private server. While I don’t advocate piracy, if it’s a choice between getting to play the game I paid for via piracy and simply accepting that it’s dead, I choose piracy. Similar situations apply to digital-only games that are no longer available on their respective stores, such as the aforementioned Scott Pilgrim game.
This creates a situation where we have guys dedicating years of their lives to backwards-engineering emulated servers or cracking out DRM, just so they can play their favourite game that they legally own. In some cases this is easy, like with Battle for Middle Earth 1 and 2, where EA provided modding tools from the moment the game came out, allowing the fans to take over. Now the game is no longer available for purchase, but those most dedicated fans still patch things up and even released a HD texture set recently. This is an example of a studio thinking ahead and planning for a time when their game is no longer supported, but it’s the exception rather than the rule.
Many people have stated that these studios don’t owe us anything. In fact, a recent Reddit thread about the aforementioned death of H1Z1 Just Survive contained approximately a billion people arguing that expecting a studio to provide support for private servers is entitled and selfish. Yeah, fair enough, the studio isn’t legally obliged to do anything. I’d even wager a guess that their EULA says somewhere that they can kill their game whenever it takes their fancy. Similarly, if a terrified, crying toddler approaches me in the street and asks me to help him find his mommy, I’m legally within my rights to shove my middle finger in his face and tell him to piss off. However, being legally able to do something doesn’t exonerate me from the fact that doing it makes me an insufferable asshole. Similarly, the fact that you can kill your game doesn’t mean that you should.
I suppose it ultimately comes down to a question of importance, intertwined with good old fashioned business models. It doesn’t help that there is so much misinformation floating around about the issue. The U.S Copyright Office even issued a statement back in 2014 that they would not support a proposed class action that would allow abandoned online games to be legally administered by the fans, after the publishers had shut down the servers. Their reasoning involved such ludicrous statements as “video game publishers routinely re-introduce video games that otherwise would be deemed abandoned”. Now, feel free to disagree with me, but Nintendo wanting to re-release Dig Dug on the virtual console and a group of die hard MMO fans desperately trying to revive their favourite dead RPG are not really the same thing. Unfortunately, when you’ve got a bunch of suits who have never played a game in their life determining what should and shouldn’t happen with your hobby, you’re in trouble.
I suppose in the end we’ll just have to accept that money and licensing laws will always trump any desire to preserve and maintain online communities and quirky indie games. Yet I’ll never really be able to get past the idea that every single day, works of art are being lobbed into the digital dumpster like leftover food at a supermarket. What a terrible waste.