Vintage vidgames remain viable

Museum repairs old consoles; rights-holders snap apps

For media institutions and game publishers, videogame preservation and conservation have become serious concerns. Museums and universities are now trying to chart the history of a new and popular form of entertainment, and gamemakers are discovering ways to profit from the growing nostalgia around what used to be considered obsolete software.

“It’s a real challenge to maintain our games and keep them playable,” says Museum of the Moving Image director Rochelle Slovin. “Because if you don’t keep them playable, what’s the point?”

The Museum keeps an exhibition of old-fashioned arcade games, including classics like Donkey Kong, Asteroids and Pac-Man machines.

Its game collection curator, Carl Goodman, says the goal of the exhibit isn’t just to present a working game cabinet to a Museum guest but to get the games as close to their original state as possible. That means locating parts that haven’t been manufactured, in some cases, for nearly 40 years (the exhibit has a Pong machine from 1972). “Some of the conservation issues are not that different from the issues that affect painting,” he says.

It’s worth the effort, according to Goodman.

“The spatial and social context of the out-of-home environment is really something you don’t get when you play Asteroids on your iPhone,” he says.

But even though it offends purists, an iPhone Asteroids-style app is a great example of the other, potentially lucrative end of the preservation spectrum: re-releasing old software. Just ask Jason Holtman, director of biz development for gaming giant Valve Software.

Valve doesn’t sell arcade-style stand-alone cabinets, but it does do a healthy business in older computer- and videogames, many of which wouldn’t run on modern computers or gaming consoles without Valve’s help. By updating code, wrangling intellectual property rights and creating distribution outlets, Valve has invested heavily in the past — games like X-Com: UFO Defense and Commander Keen that haven’t been available for purchase in a decade or more.

It’s possible to profit from these games — which move far fewer copies than their megabudget great-grandchildren — because of Valve’s online gaming platform, Steam.

Originally, Steam was a program that gamers had to install to play the company’s much-anticipated actioner Half-Life 2. It was a way for the game to update itself and keep current with new patches and additional content, but it also gave Valve digital-rights management (DRM) protection — security measures to prevent piracy — for HL2.

Much gamer kvetching followed — strict DRM measures invariably result in complaints by gamers that they’re being “treated like criminals,” while mild restrictions tend to allow a piracy boom — and Valve mollified its customers not by removing Steam but by adding new features. Among them are several long-lost games now downloadable from an e-tailer section of the program. And some games cost a fraction of their original prices, because the publishers don’t have to burn any discs or mail any packages. Consumers only need an Internet connection to access them.

“It’s definitely worthwhile financially, just in terms of pure dollars in the door from the customer,” says Holtman. “It’s also worthwhile for our customers because it makes people really, really happy.” Last year’s model, it turns out, can end up becoming a classic.

Thus, a number of game publishers have begun dusting off their old software and updating it to work with contemporary operating systems. With most contemporary videogame console systems (the Wii, the PS3, the XBox) Internet-ready, an older, smaller, easily-downloadable game is nothing but profit; preserving them in playable form is a wise business decision.

“Videogames have led the way in forcing a discussion about software preservation in general,” says Goodman. “People don’t think about it in terms of preservation — they think of it as keeping them alive.”

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