Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Suspect Stewards

About a month ago, “Good Old Games,” an on-line store that sells classic video games, advertised a site relaunch by hinting that they were shutting down. This hoax was quickly sussed out by a some Internet detectives and subsequently confirmed by the company, but not before it created a miniature panic amongst customers of the service.

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.


  1. I agree with what you said, but with one important caveat to keep in mind: GOG was not only way to get these games. GOG wasn't even the cheapest, or necessarily the fastest. It was perhaps the most legal, but there are dozens of abandonware sites and torrents and the like which deliberately thumb their nose at "the market." Obviously these mechanisms have their own problems, and they may be bigger than GOG's. But they do exist.

    And I've probably learned far more about game history from descriptions and links on Home of the Underdogs (and MobyGames) than perusing the shop at GOG. But I'd expect that.

  2. While I wasn't offended by GoG's stunt, I'm fully on board with your take on the importance of non-commercial collecting and archiving. Libraries are the natural place for this to happen: the infrastructure and the expertise are there, if not always a familiarity with the medium (though that is changing rapidly, especially in public libraries).

    I do think that academic libraries are ideal for this kind of archiving and preservation, as the focus of a public library is necessarily on what is popular. An academic library has a bit more freedom to collect what is important (however they choose to define that) regardless of popularity. The importance of preserving games has begun to penetrate: see, for instance, this very thorough paper, published in the International Journal of Digital Curation, on the preservation of console games: http://www.ijdc.net/index.php/ijdc/article/view/147

    That is my biased opinion; I co-founded the University of Oregon Libraries' video game collection in 2007, and continue to work to help it grow. So in some ways I'm on the inside looking out. It's very nice to see more people, such as yourself, joining us inside. :)

  3. I thought GOG's PR stunt was pretty stupid, and as a paying customer, I was a little frustrated that the site went down mysteriously for an entire week and I didn't have access to any of my games.

    However, at the end of the day, I think it was just a bad marketing decision. GOG isn't a library, they're a for-profit business, and they thought that they could generate some buzz with a kooky stunt. I don't think there's much to read into here besides marketing gone awry.

    IMO it's also worth pointing out that this is what makes GOG an appealing business to begin with: if they go under, for any reason, the install files are self-contained, DRM-free, and can be freely backed up. No matter what I might think of their business strategies, as long as they stick to their core philosophy of DRM-free installers, I think they're doing something good from a historical and academic perspective as well as from a consumer perspective.

    All of that said, I do agree that we cannot rely on for-profit businesses to archive the medium, and it will be very interesting to see how game libraries develop over the years.

  4. Hey Rowan,

    Thanks for stopping by. You bring up some great points. The thing that annoyed me about the whole GoG fiasco was that it was a shoddy way of treating people who were trying to do the "right thing" (of course, in this case, the "right thing" means accepting that the current laws for copyright are legitimate Quite a debatable assumption, but you have to start somewhere, I suppose.).

    For people who simply want to play the games without having to flaunt the law or tinker with emulation software, GoG seems like a good place to find standardized classics. It's mind-boggling that they would act in a way that pushes people towards rival ways of experiencing the games they are selling.

    Also, thanks for mentioning those websites; I wanted to do that in the PoP Matters piece, but I ran out of room!

    Hi David,

    Thanks for visiting the site! I haven't read that paper you linked to, but I'm looking forward to jumping into it. I know the folks over at Stanford are focusing on preserving the digital side of things, so I'm interested to see what's being done about the actual hardware.

    Also, I had no idea about the University of Oregon game collection, but it sounds great! I hope I can visit someday.

    Hey Grayson,

    Well put. While it's hard to get to the root of Internet-rage, I feel that some of it stemmed from a sense of betrayal. I personally don't expect shenanigans from a company who is otherwise progressive in their DRM policy, and it sends a message at how immature they must have thought their users to be.

    To put a positive spin on it, the situation was a great wake up call in terms of retaining reliable access to old games.

  5. It was a dumb PR stunt, invoked by guys who either don't know better or are socially inept morons. Thankfully, I can ignore it as marketing idiocy rather than lumping it in with their service/product. Their service is still great, their advertising is dumb. They certainly aren't the only company in the world with that problem.

    It does show a marked lack of professionalism, but as long as the products are solid, I can live with it.

    Moving on to game preservation and libraries, I've long believed such are necessary. Game designers too often reinvent the wheel *coughXComcough* instead of building correctly on past games. We may not learn a lot from Pong these days, but the history of video games has valuable lessons for devs today... and it's difficult to access much of it. That's one trouble with our medium.

  6. Half a year late, but I just have to laugh at this. Suspect stewards? Why? because their site legitimately went down, and they followed it up with a poorly thought out marketing stunt, once, in their entire existence, while the rest of their history is nothing short of pristine. Yeah I was a little annoyed when I saw the "we're closed" site, not because of the two dozen games I'd bought but because I liked the company, but then I was one of the few, it seems, that bothered to actually download the product they bought.

    As for Game libraries, I think they're a great idea, but I also think they should be general internet libraries instead. What demonstrated the ethereal nature of the digital age far better than a few dozen gamers getting their knickers in a twist was last year's shutdown of geocieties, the resulting scramble to archive the site, and the mountains of irreplaceable information that was lost.