Videogames in boxes: a question of ownership & preservation

With the next generation of consoles heading towards an exclusively digital future, what does that mean, we wonder, for game preservation?

Games and boxes: a long-term partnership that is easily overlooked. In the medium’s earliest days, games were housed in huge boxes made of chipboard and plastic, with names like Pong, Space Invaders and Breakout emblazoned across the top.

As games gradually infiltrated our homes, they remained inside boxes: chunky plastic cartridges stored inside other boxes covered in enticing slogans and artwork. Depending on how delicate and cherished these boxes were, they either remained for years in collections, immaculately stored on shelves or in cabinets, or alternately chucked in attics or landfill sites.

For generation after generation of computers and consoles, the boxes remained, even though the sizes varied and the contents grew more sophisticated. Tapes, floppy disks and cartridges gave way to CDs and then DVDs. Even as the 21st century kicked in, and the internet allowed the industry to distribute games on services like Steam, games in boxes managed, for a long time, to remain the overriding means of getting software to the masses.

This was because games in boxes made sense. You could lend them to your friends, or exchange them for different ones. You could keep them on your shelf and admire them from afar. But gradually, we’ve seen a shift in not only the way games are made and distributed, but in the way they’re thought of.

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The advent of multiplayer games and MMOs has seen games become less self-contained, and not so much a service as a product. Now, the production on a game doesn’t end when the finished code is written to disc or uploaded to a server; it carries on for weeks or even years afterwards, as improvements are added and new content is created in order to retain a loyal base of players.

Games of the self-contained, more traditional sort still remain. Whether they’re indie games, such as Super Meat Boy, which hark back to a bygone age of amusement arcades, or more expensive titles like Vanquish, there are plenty of games made with a more traditional mindset. But as downloads replace games in boxes, the way they’re perceived by players and publishers appears to be changing.

That games in boxes are nearing their end has been evident for some time, but the next generation of consoles could bring their demise a step closer. With Microsoft introducing an as-yet unclear restrictions to the lending and reselling of physical games on the Xbox One, the remaining advantage of owning games in boxes appears to be on the way out. If it’s no longer possible to sell our games on when we’re bored with them, or let our friends borrow them for a few days, what’s the point in buying them on disc at all?

But if the games we purchase only exist on the drives on our consoles and computers, and rely increasingly on server support and maintenance from developers, can we say those games are really ours anymore? When we pay to download and play a game, are we really buying it, or simply purchasing the right to play it for however long it takes for either the game or the system it runs on to become obsolete?

For some, these questions won’t mean much. Games are, in many ways, an ephemeral experience. We enjoy them for a little while, before something slightly newer and slightly better comes along: the FIFA series, for example, has a certain amount of obsolescence built in. It’s also arguable that the past three decades has seen the release of countless thousands of games , and that while some were unforgettable, most are little more than a footnote in history. Aside from that tiny percentage of classics, does it really matter that the rest of them are forgotten?

To those fascinated by the history and evolution of games, the answer is a resounding yes. The hard work and great ideas of a legion artists, programmers and designers are preserved in the collections of those who love those old boxes – whether they have the space and money to house and maintain a few chipboard-and-plastic arcade cabinets, or devote their shelves to old Atari, Sega or Nintendo cartridges. There’s a certain thrill to collecting and looking after those old games. Is that sense of ownership about to become extinct along with physical media?

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The collecting of boxes aside, the end of physical media raises a further question: one of preservation. It’s something Eurogamer’s Tom Bramwell brought up in his reaction piece to the Xbox One. Who looks after all those old games if the players don’t do it themselves? With games now so reliant on the maintenance of developers, what will happen to the current generation of games once their servers are switched off, and the hardware that supports them becomes obsolete? The programmers who created them would have to be relied on to look after all that old code, and with developers liable to closure, that preservation might not always happen.

As the next generation of consoles beckons, we find ourselves on the cusp of a crossroads. Not just on a load of new hardware to shell out on, but also on the nature of how games are thought of and collected. Certainly, the thoughts expressed here are based partly in nostalgia: like many gamers, there’s a section of my house that’s stuffed full of cherished little boxes, all carefully shelved and occasionally brought out to admire and play.

Yet behind all that, there’s a more serious concern about what happens to games in the future. With their code effectively out of our hands, who will preserve all that hard work in years to come? “A song or movie may be rescued forever through digitisation, but even small games may require significant time and expert adaptation if they are to be saved for posterity,” was how Bramwell quite rightly put it.

The era of games in boxes is almost behind us, that much is true. But while we’re keen to embrace the convenience of downloading games to hard drives, now is surely the time to start thinking about how those games can be stored for the future. The coming generation of consoles is sure to introduce us to new, vibrant experiences – and it would be a desperate pity if, in a decade or two’s time, those experiences were somehow lost for good. 

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