Today, Good Old Games (gog.com) shut down. It was one of the very few ways available to customers who want to purchase a game that's more than five years old. This is sad news, but not nearly as sad as the cannibalistic reality that we've been living with for a very long time.
"Abandonware" is a term that should fill the heart of anyone who cares about computer gaming with shame. Imagine if you couldn't buy or borrow a book written more than five years ago - or if older films like Casa Blanca or Citizen Kane were simply impossible to get your hands on. The grim situation - if you're not already familiar is this. After a game is about 5 to 10 years old, two things happen. Firstly, it is "succeeded" by a sequel. Instead of adding bug fixes, new content and other improvements to the original game, those are usually released in a new box and sold as a separate piece of software. Then, the old software is simply forgotten, and it is assumed that no one cares about them and they are not sold. The other problem that leads to the existence of Abandonware is the insane, frothing-at-the mouth technology arms race that we've found ourselves embroiled in since day one. Technology has, of course, always been linked to computer games; but for the past twenty years, the situation has been ridiculous. If your software is more than six or seven years old, chances are most people won't even have a suitable platform to play your game on.
"So what?" You may be saying. "New, better games come and replace the old games." I've heard this argument many times, and indeed, this is the narrative pushed by not only retailers but even our media, our "journalists". The problem is, new games aren't better than old games. Some new games are better, and some new games are worse. Sometimes a sequel comes out and it's improved in some ways and less good in other ways. How many games released for the Wii last year were truly better games than Spacewar, often credited as being one of the first electronic games? Furthermore, just as there is value in understanding political history, art history, or the history of any field of study at all, there is great value in understanding video game history. If everyone understood the history of CRPGs, would they be all that impressed by Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? If The New Super Mario Brothers for the Nintendo DS was the first platformer I ever played, I would probably think it was an outstandingly good game (and if Tetris DS was the first Tetris I had played, I would grow up thinking Tetris sucked - which is what's happening to a generation right now, hope you're all comfortable with that). The point is, history gives us the context we need to judge a game's quality.
Another problem with this practice is that we lose respect for software, in general. I remember working at FuncoLand (before it was bought by Gamestop Evil Enterprises Corporation), and lifting a few-years-old copy of Madden for Gamecube out of a great bin of 1.99 discounted sports games (sports games, by the way, are the worst offender here, since most of them have a new release EVERY YEAR). I thought to myself "man, only a couple of years ago, people were lining up to buy this for FIFTY DOLLARS, and now, not more than a couple of years later, it's basically cultural garbage." The game wasn't any less of a game than it was the day it came out. I used to have a saying to customers, "games don't get any worse over time, they only get cheaper." Few listened to my advice, because we are so wrapped up in this mindset that any game more than a few years old is basically garbage.
So what is the solution to all of this? Sites like Good Old Games have popped up here and there, offering consumers a way to play some older games, but clearly it isn't working out too well. Steam and Impulse both sell a lot of old games on their services, as well. Someone may still be able to make a viable commercial site dealing in old games, but my idea is to create a digital, public video games library. Right now, these do exist, but they're unofficial, and technically illegal. I donated to The Underground Gamer, a torrents site which is one of the only places on the internet documenting nearly all of video game history. Despite this service to history and our culture, what they are doing is illegal. This is why I think it should possibly be the role of the state to step in and say, "hey, this stuff needs to be preserved and made available for the public at large", just as we have done for literature with the public library system. This would require both a technical know-how and a respect for video-gaming that I do not see the government having for another ten or twenty years, however, so I wouldn't get too excited.
The digital library idea may seem crazy, but if you're like me, you think that we've been in a pretty dark place for gaming for the past ten or fifteen years. This situation will not improve until we change the way we look at, and deal with our heritage. I'm to understand that GOG.COM isn't actually dead (could be a rather tasteless PR stunt) and there are some new technologies, such as OnLive which could serve to function as our digital library. However, they will only function this way, if these companies think that there are enough of us who care. We have a long way to go.