Out of all modern entertainment media, video games have perhaps the shortest lifespan. While many early films have been lost, it’s still possible to view footage stretching all the way back to the medium’s creation in the late 1800s. Likewise, although much literature and music has been lost through the centuries, modern archeological efforts have given us the opportunity to read and listen to creations from millennia ago.
By contrast, the rapid advance of modern technology has made it impossible to play a great many video games released in just the last few decades. All but the newest of gamers will likely have experienced the frustration of trying to replay a title from their youth only to find it’s no longer accessible. Such titles are known as ‘abandonware’, a term used for software no longer available through any legitimate means.
However, while developers or publishers may no longer supply older games or the means to play them, internet archivists around the world offer a solution. These projects, ranging from single, determined individuals to extensive, well-coordinated teams, work to preserve lost games in online archives and repositories for anyone to access. But what causes titles to become abandonware? And what does it take to save them? To find out, we spoke to some of the people working tirelessly to preserve gaming history.
Becoming a Lost Game
There are a lot of reasons why a title might become abandonware. Similarly, it can be difficult to predict how long it will take and what titles it will hit. For instance, there are games dating back to the ’80s that are still playable today via remasters or emulators. At the same time, there is no small number of games made in just the last few years which are already inaccessible. So, what is it that ultimately causes a game to become lost?
The most obvious cause for abandonware is also the one responsible for the vast majority of lost titles: technology obsolescence. In the last few decades, technology has advanced at a staggering rate. Over the course of 40 years, we’ve jumped from ‘high-end’ computers boasting 4MB of RAM to everyday laptops comfortably supporting upwards of 8GB. At the same time, operating systems have developed to such an extent that to a game produced in the ’90s or early ’00s, a modern PC is unrecognisable. Even if you have a compatible disk drive – which is not guaranteed – the machine and the game are no longer able to understand each other.
The same is true of consoles as well, of course, to an even greater extent. Not only have subsequent generations of Xboxes and PlayStations gradually become inaccessible to older titles, entire console formats have disappeared. Anyone who played video games in the ’90s will be familiar with the Nintendo SNES, the Atari Jaguar, and the Sega Dreamcast, amongst many others. Despite such a crowded field, none persist to the modern day. Even if you were to obtain a cartridge or disk for a game originating on one of those platforms, it’s nothing more than metal and plastic without the console itself.
Since the mid-’80s, the rise of the internet has revolutionised how people play games together. No longer did games have to be self-contained experiences; instead, they could be played together by people across the world. Unfortunately, while this introduced a completely new genre for players to experience, it also means that some games are unable to exist independently. Rather, they rely at least partially on the existence and functionality of online servers.
This presents a unique problem for the long-term survival of such games. Servers are expensive to run and maintain, requiring developers to continue pouring money into a released title even if they’re not actively developing new content for it. As a result, if they’re unable to successfully monetise their project on a continual basis, maintaining the necessary servers becomes unfeasible. Once those servers are gone, it will be impossible to replay the original experience.
Fortunately, technology obsolescence and server shutdowns are usually slow and predictable. Though they may be impossible to avoid, players will usually at least have some warning beforehand. Legal complications, however, can be much less foreseeable. Worse, they often impact games shortly following their release and can be entirely irreversible.
Typically, such issues are simply down to expired license agreements. Under copyright law, games featuring other companies’ property are required to pay the IP owner for the rights to use their setting or characters. However, once that agreement expires, the developer loses the right to sell the game in question. This is an extremely common problem for movie tie-in projects, or any game set within the Lord of the Rings universe. In fact, license expirations were responsible for Activision’s Deadpool being removed from stores not once but twice, when their agreement with Marvel ran out for the second time.
On rarer occasions, however, events can be substantially more dramatic. Take Too Human, for example, an action RPG developed by Silicon Knights. After almost ten years in development hell, the game was released in 2008 only for a bitter lawsuit between Silicon Knights and Unreal Engine 3 developers Epic Games to force the title’s removal from shelves in 2013. Fortunately for fans, Too Human did make a return to the Xbox Games Store in 2019, but such a redemption is rare.
Video game development is a complicated process. It takes a long time and exists in a very public forum, leaving developers and publishers open to slings and arrows of public opinion. That means that when something goes wrong or tensions get too high, it can spell disaster for a company’s image. And, in particularly rare occasions, avoiding or minimising that possibility can actually be preferable to continuing to market their product.
Perhaps the most famous example of such a title isn’t even really a game at all, but the free Silent Hills teaser title P.T.. Hailed on its release in 2014 as a horror game phenomenon, the short experience rocketed to popularity for its incredibly tense atmosphere and psychological torments. Unfortunately for players, the teaser ended up being a casualty of Hideo Kojima’s infamous split from publisher Konami. With Silent Hills cancelled and a lot of negative press aimed at Konami, P.T. was permanently removed from the PlayStation Store in 2015.
To this day, there is still no official way to play P.T. unless you are in possession of a PlayStation that has the game already installed. P.T. is hardly alone either. Issues with controversial work practices, negative reviews, and objectionable content has led to more than one title forever shuffling off this mortal coil. And, unfortunately, once a game has gone down this route, it’s highly unlikely it can come back.
Abandonware Preservation Efforts
Evidently, it is easier than you might think for a game to disappear from cultural accessibility. Although high-profile games have a better chance of enjoying a long life, it is no guarantee. It is fortunate, then, that a great many individuals work to ensure such titles are never lost for good.
Across the internet there is a wide range of abandonware preservation projects. In some cases, the projects come down to a single person determined to archive as much as they can themselves. In others, they are government-led efforts to preserve a country’s creative output. Although all archives have their own style, the general intent is consistent: to record abandonware games and make them accessible to whoever still wishes to play them.
Nowadays, the archiving community consists of a widely diverse group of people, united by their love of gaming. When asked how they had become an archivist themselves, one of the founders of the OldGamesDownload project, who chose to remain anonymous, told me, “Like many of our users, there was a video game I played as a child that I really wanted to play again. I still had the old Windows CD, but it was scratched up and no longer worked. I then looked into buying the video game again, but the publishers had gone bankrupt and shut down in 2004. There was nowhere for me to buy the game again. Looking for a download online, all I found were sketchy websites and downloads bundled with installers. Being a technical person, I eventually waded through these and isolated a legitimate download.
“It took me days of troubleshooting to get the game working again, and I was still thrilled to play it. At that moment I asked myself: how many others have tried getting this game and ended up giving up or with a virus? I decided to share clean versions of the game files and made a YouTube video showing users how to get it to work. The response I received from the game’s community was overwhelming – and the rest is history.”
The Technical Barriers to Preservation
As the majority of abandonware is the result of technological progress making them obsolete, it stands to reason that one of the major barriers to preserving them is making them compatible with modern platforms. By their nature, every game is going to be slightly different and present its own challenges.
“In the early days of the project, our main focus was making Windows games playable on modern PCs,” the OldGamesDownload team told me. “As the project developed, this has become increasingly difficult. Luckily, most games have developed micro-communities where members can help each other get the game working and troubleshoot individual errors. There are thousands of possible computer configurations (for example, even within a particular operating system, such as Windows 10, specific updates within the OS can determine whether a game will work or not). This makes it very difficult to find a solution which will work for everybody.”
The potential challenges are not solely software-based either. In some cases, the copyright protections put in place to prevent piracy can actively prevent efforts to archive them at a later date. As Jason Scott, a Software Curator for the Internet Archive, explains: “Copy protection at the hardware level becomes more aggressive certainly by the late 1990s/early 2000s. A really good example is the Xbox 360. The motherboard has a set of five fuses and when they hit certain major revisions in the operating system, it burns out a fuse. Previous versions then know to check for the amount of fuses. So if I’m running on a board that has had a fuse blown out by an update and then I try to go back to a previous version, it’ll refuse to run.
“That’s the level of wartime battlefield happening back in even the ’90s. There’s a whole layer of games that are resistant to being preserved.”
Overcoming the Challenge
While there are technical challenges to abandonware preservation, a lot of work has gone into overcoming them.
“Win 95/98 can be a real pain to run, but several solutions exist: virtual machines, DxWnd, dgVoodoo2,” An anonymous MyAbandonware admin told me. “For lesser-known games, it can be difficult to find workarounds. Some copy protection systems are harmful (Starforce), or not functional anymore (TAGES) and require NoCD/cracks from the scene to be played again.”
It’s also important to note that the burden of archiving software isn’t solely the domain of self-appointed teams. There are things that players and developers can do to help future preservation too.
“The best thing to capture honestly is game footage,” Scott said. “Just record photographs and videos of these games because in many cases, it’s going to have to be a ground-up restoration. [The archivists] are going to have to look at the game being played for 10 hours and say, ‘Okay, here’s what it was like playing the game.’”
The MyAbandonware team shared a similar sentiment, pointing out that scene releases – versions of a game that are made available online – can be vital to the preservation process. Even if they may need adaptation for newer systems, having the original game files on hand is invaluable. With them, archivists are able to get a much clearer understanding of a game they may never have played themselves.
Community input shouldn’t necessarily end once a title is archived, either. Technology will always continue to develop and evolve, and with each new advancement, preservation has to adapt. Although ground-up reconstructions remain the domain of experienced programmers, smaller-scale tweaks don’t have to be.
“At the end of the day, we are a very small team and it is not feasible to individually help everyone play a specific game,” the OldGamesDownload founder told me. “We do regularly upload fixes and patches, and try to help whenever we can, but this is not always possible. Our focus is on archiving clean, unaltered copies of the original game files for the purpose of preservation. The onus of getting games to work on specific platforms goes back to the community. In the long run, fixes will always be temporary, but archival is permanent.”
The Legality of Archiving Games
Aside from the technical challenges presented by reviving abandonware, there remains one other major hurdle: legality. Abandoned or not, lost games remain intellectual property subject to copyright laws. Even if a developer or publisher has no intention of selling their game, they still have the legal right to prevent anyone else from distributing it.
And, as history has shown, abandonware can be reclaimed by its creators. Sometimes these can be high-profile rereleases, such as Nintendo’s revival of their old Game & Watch series a few years ago. In other cases, abandonware reclamation can be a quieter affair. Take Zork, for instance, a text-based adventure game from 1979. Through the years, the rights to the game changed hands until they eventually landed with Activision. As a result, Zork made an easily-missed reappearance as an Easter egg in Call of Duty: Black Ops and CoD: Black Ops Cold War more than thirty years after its initial release. All players needed to do was enter a code into a text prompt, and they’d be able to play the game in full.
(Video by jordychinchin)
So, with all this said, how are archival projects able to carry out their work?
Working in the Grey Area
For some titles, archiving will always be something of a difficult situation legally. This is particularly true for games such as the previously discussed P.T., which still has a publisher actively controlling its rights. However, for most abandonware, this is rarely the case. Far more often, the games in question have become abandonware because there is no longer a controlling entity to continue its distribution or to argue for its removal.
“It is a vanishingly small number of organizations [who will send DMCA requests], all of which are pretty basic names: Capcom, Sony, Nintendo, Blizzard, and so on,” Scott revealed. “On the whole, most game companies are out of business and most game company materials are lost. The archive has put up tens of thousands of games and only a couple of hundred have been taken down over the course of twelve years.”
The OldGamesDownload project shared a similar story. “We haven’t had any specific issues with copyright claims. On the very rare occasion that we do receive a claim, they are usually done by automated systems and we unarchive the game. The vast majority of games in our archive are developed or published by companies that no longer exist.”
In such instances, it seems to be widely accepted on both sides that issuing a takedown notice ultimately serves no one. Largely, it comes down to a matter of finance. If the publisher is defunct, then there isn’t money to be made or lost in an archive preserving a title. On the contrary, a member of the OldGamesDownload team told me, “In fact, we regularly receive messages from developers that remember working on an archived game and thank us as it gave them a chance to relive their own work!”
It’s Not a Competition
Of course, as discussed above, archival projects have to be prepared for a game’s abandoned status to change. As the MyAbandonware team told me, “We are in touch with publishers several times every year, when games stop being abandonware. We gladly link to digital stores every time!”
At the end of the day, the people curating and managing archival projects are not trying to detract from active game developers or to negatively impact a company’s profits. There is a clear distinction between archiving a lost game and pirating an active one.
“A library or archive should not be competing with active sold products,” Scott stressed. “Like, it is possible to make Candy Crush run in an emulator in the Archive, but now you’re just directly competing with somebody’s sold product.”
A similar sentiment was shared by everyone who spoke with me for this article. As the OldGamesDownload project says on their website: “We truly do not want to infringe on anyone’s copyright and this is not the purpose of this project. Only to keep the history of video games alive for future generations.”
Why Should Games Be Preserved
With so many ways for a game to become abandonware and so many challenges involved in restoring them, it’s entirely valid to question whether or not such titles should be saved. There is no shortage of games still available after all. Why, then, do so many people go to the trouble of working to save them?
Responses to such a question among the individuals spoken to here were overwhelmingly consistent: because video games are a part of our culture that is worthy of saving.
“Digital preservation is important, just like any cultural piece,” a MyAbandonware admin told me. “Games get old very quickly due to quick progress in hardware and software. Only a few countries (like France) have video game archives and digital media can be easily lost.
“The love and nostalgia of the DOS and late ’90s era got me in, and I love to save old games for strangers to play again, it’s kind of satisfying. Archiving, digging in the past, has to bring some sort of pleasure, as it requires a lot of grinding and patience.”
“There are over 3 billion active gamers worldwide,” the OldGamesDownload team agreed. “For these billions of people, there are equally billions of core memories that revolve around playing a specific game or on a gaming platform. I’m certain the majority of users reading this have had similar fond memories of playing video games in their childhood with friends and family members, many of whom may not be around anymore.
“From a humanistic perspective, providing an archive of these video games allows millions of people to reconnect with old memories, providing unlimited entertainment, nostalgia, and closure. Since launching this project, we have received thousands of messages from users sharing how playing a game archived by us allowed them to reconnect with a forgotten, but important, memory.”
Evidently, within the abandonware preservation community, the question of carrying out this work is not a matter of technical or legal challenges, but instead one of culture. There may be difficulties, but these projects are undoubtedly important. With the constant evolution of technology, it’s likely they will only become more so as time goes on. New games are constantly being developed and lost, and they make up a part of our history that deserves to be recorded.
“On a cultural level, games are as critical as books, movies, and music,” Scott said. “A person will listen to a Beatles record for 100 or 200 hours, but that’s also how long they’ll play certain video games throughout their life, especially if it’s meaningful to them. Once games became more than simple amusements that gave you a challenge like a cup and ball on a string and became actual epics involving movement through space and competing against others and earning rankings and so on, they manufactured for themselves a critical component of human nature and culture.
“It’s not universal but it’s within its realm extremely important. If you think that human culture is worth saving then this is human culture and this is worth saving.”