Preserving Games

Archiving the Creation Processes of the Video Game Industry

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A New Kind of Archive

2 November, 2008 (18:45) | News and Commentary | By: TimA

Unlike books, movies, or even console videogames, the design process of MMORPGs does not have a fixed endpoint. After the MMO is initially released, designers continue to work on patches and expansion packages and game content is updated continuously. This presents a unique challenge to the archivist, especially one who is interested in preserving content created during the design of the MMO. If MMOs, much like living organisms, are never explicitly “finished,” at what time does the archivist stop archiving artifacts developed during the creation process? Would a collection of artifacts that document the development of the “World of Warcraft” software package released in 2005 accurately represent the design of the state of the MMO in 2008? The short answer, of course, is “no.”

While the consistent incompleteness of the MMO presents a challenge, it also presents an opportunity to create a new kind of archive. Alterations that are made to the source code of a particular MMO are recorded by game designers in what are called “living documents.” These documents were originally saved individually as MS Word files on local workstations, however developers are increasingly using Wikis instead of Word files so that multiple developers can update the design documentation simultaneously. Like the design documentation, the source code for an MMO is also updated continuously. Initially, when updates were made to the source code, the code that was being replaced was lost forever. Increasingly, however, programmers archive their source codes in databases so that previously replaced code is retrievable. They do this largely because updates will frequently cause unintended errors, and the only way to determine at what point the error was introduced is to revert to previous code. What this means for the archivist, however, is that it is within the realm of possibility to preserve the design documentation along with the databases that contain the various versions of the source code. One could then, theoretically, examine the updates to the design documentation and access the state of the game content at the time that the design changes were implemented.

This prospect is certainly ambitious. The most salient issue standing in the way of the archivist is intellectual property. Game development companies will not likely allow access to their source code or even their design documentation. One would hope, however, that with time, executives will become less protective of outdated source codes and design documents that are no longer explicitly relevant to maintaining the current functionality of the MMO.

The archivist, as always, has other options. If the source code, for example, is just too valuable for company executives to allow access to it, there are periodic “snapshots” of the current state of the MMO that executives release internally. A “snapshot” includes an executable file and a copy of all of the files in the game at a given point in time. Since these snapshots are released internally to all members of the company, executives may be less protective of them. While they would not allow access to an uninterrupted history of the evolution of the MMO, the snapshots would at least lend some idea, however incomplete, of the various stages in the MMO’s development.

There are certainly some significant challenges to achieving this goal, however to know that it is possible to preserve both the evolution of the game content of the MMO and the documents that illustrate the design changes to that content is nothing short of inspirational.

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