Continuing from my last post over the growing conflict over video game ownership, I would like to address a recent episode in the debate and what implications it may have for the future of video game preservation.
On March 2, Sony announced that as of March 29, 2012, it will permanently shut down the servers for Star Chamber: The Harbinger Saga, an online-based collectible card game (CCG) where players build decks and battle other players. Sony is completely cleaning house and purging it from the net, as they will also shut down the game’s official website and forums. Since the game was entirely server-based this also means that players’ progress in the game and all the cards they earned will effectively vanish into the ether forever, never to return unless Sony decides to re-release the game (and of course charging players to build them all over again).
This is a situation where Sony has scrapped the game because it is no longer profitable, but will also ensure that no one else can profit from it. The people who really end up losing in this situation are that dedicated body of fans who played Star Chamber. All of their playtime essentially disappears as Sony locks it away in the vault forever. I am sure there will be attempts by fans to create their own games and emulate the experience, although given Sony’s recent track record regarding players’ use of their products, chances are they will attempt to stifle these attempts with litigation. By shutting down the servers, Sony essentially has declared that the game was their and theirs alone, licensed out to players to be eliminated at the company’s whim. For players who spent time and money building their decks, I imagine Sony’s offer of a free three month Gold Membership trial of EverQuest or EverQuest 2 offers little compensation for all that time spent.
The shutdown of Star Chamber demonstrates there is a very real possibility that we may eventually reach a point where we will no longer be able to preserve video games for posterity. There is a real potential for an “End of History” for video game preservation, when we will no longer be able to save them as copyright holders hold the reins on their properties indefinitely with the power to prevent them from seeing the light of day. The future of video games is leading toward products that are increasingly virtual; online services like Steam provide games with no discs necessary and we may be a generation or two away from the end of disc-based storage for consoles. How preservationists, both archivists and fans, preserve the medium is going to be increasingly challenging when corporations like Sony maintain all the control over electronic games.
One player on the Star Chamber forums (the link I include will also be dead by the end of March) summed up the tragic situation for players and I feel for those of us interested in the preservation of the history of the medium: “No other form of creative endeavor is as ephemeral as a server-based game. There’s no screenplay to read, no DVD to watch, no book, no archive — just memories.”
I don’t have any solutions to offer, but there has to be a way to preserve games like Star Chamber for posterity so that they can be more than just a memory.