Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Why There Is No Future For Old Games

Shamus Young | 17 Mar 2015 19:00
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Windows XP logo

2. You think the operating system is complex? Take a look at the driver-level sorcery.

If you're in 2025 and you want to get Borderlands running on a modern machine, figuring out how Windows XP worked is only part of the problem. The easy part. The real madness is lurking under the hood in the driver layers.

If you're a PC gamer, then you know what graphics drivers are. That's the thing you have to install to enable your games to use that fancy new graphics card in your PC. There are two big companies in this game: NVIDIA and AMD. Each company has unique hardware with unique drivers. What you probably don't know is what sort of shenanigans those drivers might be up to.

How it works is this: A developer makes a game that is fundamentally broken. Say "Shoot Guy IV" comes out on the PC and its rendering code doesn't work according to how the specs are written. The game is slow or broken or looks glitchy. If you're an engineer at NVIDIA, you could just send a little note to the developer and tell them, "Dear idiot, that's not how rendering works on the PC. You need to do such-and-such." That would be the right thing to do, especially if you can avoid calling them an idiot.

But you have another option. You can change the latest version of the NVIDIA drivers to detect if the user is running Shoot Guy IV, and then "fix" their render for them while the game is running. Then the buzz on the internet will be, "The game is glitchy on AMD cards? Well, it works fine on my NVIDIA card! Get a real graphics card, loser!" Thus you turn this broken PC game into a selling point for NVIDIA graphics cards by hiding the brokenness from the end user.

This has been going on for years, and it's terrifying. It means a lot of our PC games are fundamentally broken and we don't even know it. It means anyone trying to emulate today's games on other hardware would need to unravel hundreds and hundreds of secret, undocumented, proprietary hacks to get them working as expected.

3. Consoles can't save us.

PS4 Xbox One Wii U

The if you're laughing at all the PC Lamers and their goofy computing boxes, you should be aware that things are even worse on the console side. Sony hasn't made a properly backwards-compatible system since the PS2 in 2001. Microsoft has never done it. They are burning their bridges as fast as they can, and the only way to run yesterday's games is to own yesterday's hardware. Sure, they might sometimes do re-releases of big-name AAA titles. But if they don't think a re-release will sell, they won't bother to salvage it. Which means a lot of games will eventually stop existing.

4. And then there's the DRM problem.

Over the last 10 years there's been a proliferation of games that have stupid extra account logins and platform-specific launchers and social media integration and phone-home DRM. Some day all of that stuff will be gone. So even if you miraculously get a 2005 game working in 2025, the game will still be trying to connect to servers that are gone. You can crack the game, but because of the wonderful DMCA, it is illegal to do so. Which means if you're a hobby programmer just trying to preserve old games for purely historical reasons, you are now a criminal. This means that instead of games winding up on Good Old Games where everyone can buy them, they will wind up on the piracy torrents.

5. Licensing is a nightmare.

Games are getting to be more complex, which means the business relationships behind them are more complex. Companies are bought, sold, and re-organized. Franchises change hands. Even if one company has the rights to re-release Shoot Guy IV 10 years from now, do they still have the rights to the graphics engine that the game runs on? Do they still have the rights to the soundtrack? Do they have the rights to make new titles but not the rights to continue distribution of the old?

Like NOLF, some games will vanish not because we can't get them running, but because the titles have been cut up and sold in such a way that no one person has enough of the rights to do anything.

6. Basically, the future is screwed.

A lot of games are going to go away. Newer titles will face a harder road to revival when their time comes. The technological hurdles are getting taller, the legal [dis]agreements are becoming more complex, and the DRM continues to sabotage the game long after sales are over. This is an industry set on burning its bridges behind it, as fast as it can.

Sure, we'll always have classics like Tetris and Doom. But what about oddballs like Crackdown, Prey, Heavenly Sword, Jade Empire, FUEL, Thief: Deadly Shadows, or one of the other thousands of games that didn't become legend, but have a small following of devoted fans? At least some of those games will die with the hardware they were designed for. And that's a tragedy.

Shamus Young is a programmer, critic, comic, and crank. Have a question for the column? Ask him! askshamus@gmail.com.

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