I've wanted to say something about this for a while, but I couldn't quite find the right angle by which to levy the harsh criticism GoG deserves. As I was writing my most recent post for PopMatters, I realized that the issue was more than an example of poor business practices. GoG's actions are offensive on a deeper cultural level and they illustrate the dangers of privatizing our past.
The entire mess started when GoG had to take the website down for a refresh. Instead of issuing an announcement explaining this, they opted for something "flashier." GOG managing director Guillaume Rambourg elaborated on this in an interview with Joystiq:
Due to this situation, we had only two options in terms of communication: either making an official "boring" statement or taking a more creative route. We have been gamers forever and thus decided to pick the second option, as we believe the industry has been getting dead serious for the last few years. If even the entertainment industry – which I believe is supposed to generate emotions and creativity – gets dull, where is the whole world going? Our aim was never to harm anybody here. All we wanted is to take an exotic path to cause a debate. Luckily, this was the first and last time we had to take down our servers. In practice, this means our future major announcements will still be creative (we'll never give up on that!), but without the slightly bitter part for our users.
It's hard to understand how Rambourg can believe that the industry is "getting dead serious." We just came off of an E3 headlined by Cirque du Soleil and showcasing motion technology intended to make games less serious undertakings in order to attract new players. Bioshock Infinite provoked more fanfare with a pre-rendered trailer than most games achieve with their release. Valve's commitment to the expanded universe around their games prompted numerous Team Fortress 2 comics and a retcon of Portal's story. The industry is as lively as it ever was, if not more.
The problem seems to be that Rambourg and other folks at GoG see themselves as Valve-like figures. They wanted to create an iconoclastic image of the company to blur the line between corporation and community member. They took a chance that the PR move would come off as quirky and lovable rather than immature and obnoxious.
They are under the illusion that GoG's role is anything more than that of a middleman. GoG is a store whose role is to provide a service rather than act as industry critic, artist, or provocateur. Valve walks a fine line that few others can even attempt, and even they are careful to limit their own quirky stunts to Valve-developed games and to treat the business end of their operation seriously.
The incident demonstrated that they were either unaware of who plays their games or ignorant as to their audience's appetite for foolishness. Does GoG or anyone else truly believe that the kind of people who are looking to play King's Quest are the kind of people amused or impressed by PR stunts? GoG is a tool for people like Michael Abbott who can use the catalogue as a resource for teaching. It's a service that allows the Vintage Game Club to appreciate and reexamine gaming history. It's a service for those who want to make sure they can hold on to history for reasons of nostalgia, education and pleasure.
At this point, perhaps we need to turn our focus towards ourselves, the gaming community. Is this the way we want to access our history? Hucksters who think that toying with their customers and a medium's artifacts don't seem like the kind of people best suited to curating gaming history. The GoG incident illustrates the problem with relying on the market to safeguard culture: marketing and profit will always carry the day.
Socially and academically-funded libraries and archives are anything but flashy, but they will be necessary if we ever want to seriously document the medium. The GoG incident has inspired me to actively pursue learning about and supporting alternative methods of preserving video game history. Relying on private companies to act as arbiters of culture is naive at best and disastrous at worst.