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.