A disappearing history.

Among the many badly kept secrets of the games industry was the existence of a multiplayer mode for BioWare’s Mass Effect 3. Officially announced recently details are still scarce though what has been revealed is that the co-operative multiplayer mode will connect with the single player game. Co-operative play will increase Galactic Readiness which will in turn impact the outcome of the single player game. There will be ways of increasing Galactic Readiness in the single player game itself alongside other platform specific means, Facebook or XBLA tie in games seem like the most obvious possibilities.

With rare exceptions I think providing additional options for players is to be lauded and as such there’s nothing about this news that has made me question the likelihood of purchasing Mass Effect 3. Of interest is what happens to the experience of playing Mass Effect 3 months or maybe even years after launch. Recently I replayed Mass Effect 2, over eighteen months from its initial release the availability of DLC means that there is now more content, more options, on offer than existed when I originally purchased the game.

It’s an assumption, but I feel a justified one, that eighteen months after the release of Mass Effect 3 notably less people will be playing the co-operative portion that were doing so eighteen days after release. Therefore through the simply act of delaying their purchase of the game, or by deciding to replay a game, players may well find that some of the options available to them for raising Galactic Readiness will not be as viable as they once were.

Thinking further out two or three years from the release of Mass Effect 3 will the servers for the co-operative multiplayer mode still be running? With a likely dwindling player base and no new revenue streams the financial benefits of turning the servers off will be high. This is not uncommon for EA, I cannot play Mercenaries 2: World in Flames because, unable to contact the now offline EA servers, it hangs at the main menu. If somebody wants to play Mass Effect 3 several years after release certain options may not simply be less viable they might not be available at all.

This is already a problem when it comes to multiplayer games, but the growing integration of multiplayer elements with the single player portion of games is creating a new issue. When the two modes, multiplayer and singleplayer, are separate then they are effectively two distinct, albeit similar texts. In time one may text made remain readable, which is to say extant in a playable form, the other not. That is the problem we have right now; I can still play the single player of Halo 2 but not its multiplayer. When the two modes are interconnected as they will be in Mass Effect 3, or as a better example Dark Souls, then it can no longer be treated as two distinct texts rather it is one text with multiple facets. In five years even if I can find or emulate the hardware to make these texts readable, one or more of those facets will still remain unavailable. Through actions beyond my control a game I have purchased will have been altered, instead of the future bringing more content in terms of DLC or Mods, the future will bring less as servers are shutdown and options once available disappear.

As a consumer this is problematic, but as a student or historian of game design this is tragic. Hardware alone already makes the play and study of games older than a decade or two a challenge, but imagine students of game design in the next decade attempting to examine and learn from a game like Dark Souls? How much of what makes that game unique will be lost when players are stripped of the ability to interact with each other?

If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?

The answer is not to abandon multiplayer or avoid attempts to cross-pollinate multiplayer and singleplayer, to do so would be reactionary and narrow minded. A better answer might be for developers and publishers to rely on the community to maintain these games and their servers if it ceases to be financially viable to do so. No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way is nearly ten years old, the official servers for it were shutdown over three years ago, fortunately thanks to the dedication of members of its community it’s still possible to play online. Obviously when it comes to console games, there are factors beyond the control of the developers and publishers that need to be worked out if the severs for certain games are to remain active in some fashion. But isn’t the preservation of gaming history worth solving those issues? If not then we are saying that gaming in all it’s forms does not deserve preservation and I don’t think I have the language skills necessary to describe how angry that idea makes me.

ADDENDUM:

The potential method described to preserve games is one among many, and only deals with a single aspect of the  larger issue of preservation. Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends. Games exist to be played and the inability to preserve those specific experiences is noteworthy. These are larger problems of preservation and archival, daunting problems that I have no solution for. I’ll admit I avoided dealing with them in order to end on a somewhat positive note, this may have been naive of me.

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13 Comments

  • Randomizer says:

    This essay wonderfully articulates a worry that has been gnawing at me for years now. The preservation of games today is such a hard thing and—insomuch that gaming culture and art are important—both utterly necessary and neglected. Multi-player experiences are one facet. Another is decay of architecture and computer system support. How will we play Mac OS 8 and Windows 95 games in fifty years?

  • “Though it may well be possible to preserve the ability to play a multiplayer game long after its release, this does nothing to preserve the experience of playing that game at launch, or the time you spent playing it for six straight hours with your best friends.”

    Neither does preserving the words of Shakespeare preserve the experience of watching actors at the Globe Theatre while immersed in an Elizabethan crowd. Those losses are by no means unique to games.

  • Rowan says:

    Perfectly done. I’ve been complaining about this with MMRPGs for a while, but it’s understandable if frustrating there. That it can happen to single-player games is absurd and horrifying. We will end up having to rely on hackers and torrents to play older games. Unacceptable.

  • [...] Keverne just made a post on his blog entitled A disappearing history. In it, he talks about Mass Effect 3′s multiplayer being integrated with its singleplayer [...]

  • I wrote up a response to this and our Twitter discussion that I felt was too long for a comment on this blog post: http://macrotransactions.wordpress.com/2011/10/13/a-time-and-place-for-multiplayer-gaming/

  • After reading and responding to the comments on my response post, I would suggest there are a lot of unstated assumptions in this post about what the value and meaning of a game is, and what it is essential to preserve. I also feel like there are some unstated assumptions about the value and integrity of singleplayer games as static texts in there too.

    I think you could get a lot out of trying to dig out those assumptions, and spell them out explicitly. I think that would help a lot with showing where exactly you’re coming from on the issue of preservation.

    • Justin Keverne says:

      If there are assumptions that is because this is the one hundred and thirty sixth post on this site, and the majority of those assumptions have been dealt with in previous posts. I could refer to all of them directly however I feel the problems that would create in terms of clarity and post length would outweight any potential benefits.

      That said possibly the most relevant to the disccusion at hand, in so far as they go some way toward explaining why I think being able to preserve the ability to actually play games is beneficial are the following:

      http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=1518 Which outlines why I think games are more than simply rules and objects and that it is impossible to understand them without direct interaction.

      http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=1529 Which expands on the previous post with more detail regarding why context is vital but also why play itself just as important.

      http://gropingtheelephant.com/blog/?p=1588 Which provides examples of the concepts described in the preceeding two posts.

  • [...] For Justin Keverne, it isn’t the branding problem of giving Mass Effect 3 multiplayer; it’s the ephemeralness of it. [...]

  • The solution is simple. Open Source into the public domain. Let any programmer who thinks it’s worth preserving, adapt it.

  • [...] A disappearing history. | Groping The Elephant "If this doesn’t seem like a big issue imagine the state of cinema if film students were only able to study films made in the last two decades? Or if English Literature students no longer have the ability to examine the works of Shakespeare or Twain? What might be lost?" Seriously, companies: stop turning servers off. Processor power is cheap. (tags: multiplayer history games ) [...]

  • [...] Keverne makes an interesting point about the shifting nature of games that integrate their multi-player and single…. How will the difficulty and experience of the Souls games, for instance, change when their servers [...]

  • [...] A Disappearing History. An interesting piece by Justin Keverne on the struggle of game preservation given the current trend to integrate multiplayer elements with single-player games. Keverne raises a good point that, more and more, the experience of playing a game changes drastically over time. Adrian Forest responded with A Time and a Place for Multiplayer Gaming, which tries to place this question in the context of preservation of performances. Keverne objects in a lively comment thread. [...]

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