Most people are already aware of the major issues with streaming video games. Latency, data caps, subscription models, and ownership seem to get brought up every time a newcomer enters the streaming scene. However, these are all problems that will be sorted out over time. There is another concern that people don’t bring up as often as they should, though, and that is the problem of video game preservation.
This week, Google announced Stadia, their new service that will allow users to stream AAA video games to just about any screen they can think of, whether it be a television, a phone, a PC, or a tablet. The idea behind Stadia is great; lowering the entry barrier to gaming will open the doors of this great medium to so many people, but an all-streaming future presents problems that haven’t quite been experienced at a large scale yet.
Stadia games aren’t owned by the players, they’re just streamed from whatever data center the players happen to be connected to. What happens, then, if a game is pulled from Stadia? What if Stadia shuts down entirely? Games like Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Doom Eternal, both of which were featured prominently in Google’s keynote, will still be available on other platforms, but what about Stadia exclusive titles? Stadia Games and Entertainment is Google’s first-party studio tasked with creating exclusive games for the platform. This studio is comprised of incredibly talented developers who will no doubt create excellent games, but what becomes of these games when Stadia is gone? Even if Stadia is a runaway success, the servers will be turned off one day. It’s an inevitability, and when that inevitability happens, those games are lost.
Scenarios like this aren’t even hypothetical. They’ve already happened to beloved titles, both low-profile and high-profile alike. Konami pulled P.T. from the PlayStation Store following the cancellation of Silent Hills, and even those who own it can no longer redownload it. Aside from some very wonky workarounds (and a very faithful fan recreation on PC), P.T. can no longer be played. Being a strictly digital release that can no longer be downloaded, P.T. practically doesn’t exist anymore. Marvel vs. Capcom 2 and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game were both pulled from digital storefronts as well, presumably due to licensing issues. On top of these examples, the closure of the Wii Shop Channel in January left a multitude of WiiWare titles abandoned, unable to be redownloaded.
Luckily, these games still have homes on consoles where they’re still installed. However, a service completely centered around streaming like Stadia won’t allow users to install games locally or access the files at all. When Stadia goes the way of the Wii Shop Channel, those games will be gone for good.
Even if games aren’t pulled from the service outright, there are still other issues that arise with an all-streaming future. Final Fantasy XV has undergone radical changes since its release back in 2016, and although it may be a better game in its current state, the vanilla version still has value, at least from a historical perspective. With a disc, the vanilla version is playable offline if updates aren’t installed, but a game like Destiny 2 doesn’t have that luxury. Vanilla Destiny 2 doesn’t exist anymore. Destiny 2 is not playable without updates or an internet connection, so there’s no way to experience the game as it launched. At least with single-player games, older versions can be accessed offline, but with online games, the experience is constantly evolving, and older versions are lost. With streaming, even single-player games cannot be experienced pre-patch, and games might even be replaced by inferior versions, like the awful Silent Hill 2 HD version replacing the original masterpiece.
Game preservation is a tricky subject, especially in today’s climate of live services and ever-changing games. Regardless, video games are art. They’ve been recognized by the government as art since 2011 and they’ve been recognized by gamers as art for far longer, and it’s time for people to start taking game preservation more seriously, before some games end up permanently lost and forgotten.