Quintessence: The Challenge of Digital Preservation (Part 2)

20 Sep 2016 4

Menu Following on our recent exchange with Jon-Paul Dyson about game preservation, I turned to the first people I interviewed, Chris Schwass and John Meindersee, creators of Stone Age. The exchange has been edited for clarity and context:

Kelsey: I … wondered if you had any thoughts about issues related to the preservation of games like Stone Age. I think of it as not only a marvelous design in its own right, but one which had a strong influence on later designs which departed from strict replication of their cardboard forebears, like Agricola. It was the first game in which I saw offset dragging, for example, which I have been gratified to see spread widely.

Meindersee: It's … very rewarding that you recognize the new ground that Stone Age did break in the digital board game space. We had so much fun doing it and it truly was an inspired and destined project!

Kelsey: I fear that many of the games which expanded quickly into mobile and explored its opportunities in innovative ways were made by similarly small groups [like Campfire Creations], some of which have already disbanded or lost crucial members and most of which are vulnerable in this way. This seems to me like a threat to cultural history I value. Is this something which has been on your minds at all? Have you had any experiences which might inform those with an interest in this topic?

stone age 2

Online play is key to prevent games from fading from memory - and from app stores.

Schwass: Oddly, I didn't think at all of true preservation for Stone Age. I thought it was a well-made game worth the time we put in, and I hoped that ours and other ideas would proliferate in future games. But I figured that it had (like everything) a shelf life. My main concern has mostly been compatibility with new iOS versions while it lasts!

When I wound down my time with Campfire Creations it changed the course of our small team's future, and I suppose leaves Stone Age more vulnerable over time. John has done a great job keeping Stone Age alive with our developers. I think there is a market for true classics that are either preserved or reborn, though I'm too subjective to say whether Stone Age belongs in that category.

I think you'll find more examples of small studios making great games since the launch of Apple's App Store because it lowered the barrier to entry. The iOS platform has incredible universal scale (versus arcade or console games), with mostly simpler and less immersive games (versus PC). So, an individual or a small team could develop a successful, simple game with a small budget. Of course, that naturally means more volatility in maintaining those games, and studios.

Meindersee: You are insightful to look at the preservation of these indie games as an interesting point. Finding both a business model and the resources to preserve a game like Stone Age for iOS can be hard, although I do have ideas on how to solve these problems. Let me quickly jot out a few ideas and see if any resonate.

  • A subscription model solves much of the problems of non-IAP titles like Stone Age, or at least games that don't rely on some sort of IGC [In-Game Currency] (i.e. Agricola has IAP but they are self-contained expansions in their own right).
  • Building applications cross-platform in a smart way allows developers to leverage their previous code to release on new platforms.
  • Taking advantage of 3rd party or 1st party multiplayer solutions will go a long way to preserving your game's multiplayer experience.

Kelsey: Those last two ideas seem to revolve around building as much of your game as possible using technologies which will be in many games. It’s more likely that a crossplatform development environment or multiplayer solution in wide use will be updated by others to work on new devices than that something purpose-built by a small house for a single game will. Indeed, if enough popular apps use a particular framework, it becomes worthwhile to develop later platforms with support for that framework in mind. So that seems like a way to make adapting games to work on future devices far more efficient. It is my impression that any solution used by many apps will tend to be better suited to some than others, so this method might suit certain games poorly, but it’s a promising approach.

Schwass: Perhaps we'll need more backward compatibility once iOS or the next paradigm fully eclipses current games - but for now you can still play most games on the same platform (incredible if you think about how iOS has evolved). I'm picturing long-term what PlayStation and Wii did for legacy games, or even emulators on PC. I'm a purist and love playing simple, well-made games many times - even if they are decades old on outdated platforms. What’s your view on preservation? What steps would you take if you could?

Stone Age Tutorial

The dawn of worker placement.

Kelsey: My ideal would be a cross-platform multiplayer standard supported by the W3C (or a similar standards body with broad acceptance) and adopted by Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and anyone else involved in making platforms. I’d like each of these to commit to supporting such a standard at the OS level, such that individual devs have little work to do to include or update multiplayer. The farther we can go down John’s suggested path, the easier we make the job of preservation for the future.

The Mantle

Something Dr. Dyson wrote, combined with the fact that Chris even thought it worth asking me my ideas, is also relevant. ICHEG preserves published media about games. I started pursuing this story because I thought we might gain insight into how platform holders, developers, and players could aid in preservation efforts, and how limited such preservation must be. Plato quotes Heraclitus’s maxim that you can never step into the same river twice—nostalgia-related art like Super 8 or Stranger Things may try to evoke the feeling of stepping back into that same river, but both the river and the foot have changed.

But, as someone who has written about games for years, it’s never occurred to me that I’m in the best available position to highlight what’s important and put it in context. We can’t ever hold on to the present or preserve the totality of the past, but we can try to predict what patterns and connections will seem important to our descendants, and document them. I feel like I’m sitting at a table and I just asked, “Whose turn is it?”

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