MMORPG Preservation and Reality

There was a bit of news last Friday when the Library of Congress announced that they would allow an exception to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act so that institutions interesting in preserving online games, MMOs and the like, could do so.

An exception had been previously granted for stand alone video games no longer published or otherwise available, so this was something of an expansion of that initial ruling.  The Federal Register document is here for your perusal.

The document covers several rulings.  The one you are looking for is labeled as section 8, but is listed out between sections 5 and 7, so it was probably meant to be section 6 as there is another section 8, concerning 3D printing, after section 7.  Maybe this was an error… or maybe I just don’t understand how government documentation works.

This decision was greeted with almost universal acclaim in the niche genre that is fans of dead MMOs.  The Museum of Digital Art and Entertainment (The MADE for short or The Video Game Museum colloquially) over in Oakland, about a 40 minute drive from my home, was particularly effusive.  They were in the fight to make this happen, so were there to cheer once the ruling was announced.  They tweeted out a couple of messages on Twitter that got a frenzy of support over in the comments at Massively OP, this one especially:

I am going to quote that tweet here, just in case it spontaneously combusts out of sheer naivety:

Hey Twitter fans: please go track down people who could legally get us Star Wars Galaxy’s server code, and City of Heroes server code. If they agree to hand over the server code, we can bring those games back online legally.

That note contains the seeds of the problem being faced here.  If you take some time to leaf through the document I linked at the above, you might have run into a paragraph opening with this sentence:

The Acting Register found that the record supported granting an expansion in the relatively discrete circumstances where a preservation institution legally possesses a copy of a video game’s server code and the game’s local code.

Therein lies the rub.  To be within the law, and thus legally protected, a preservation institution like The MADE needs to obtain a copy of the server software legally.  So far as I can tell, the only way to do this is to get a copy directly from the companies who hold the rights to these games, and that seems an impractical and unlikely scenario for several reasons.

First, there is the question as to what sort of infrastructure such a server might require.

Yes, people who put together emulators of these servers do so on the cheap, using whatever is to hand, so you might think this is a non-issue.  But the official server software wasn’t designed to run on your desktop machine.  This isn’t an automatic pass.  This could be a problem because things as simple as the operating system and patch version required to the database connectivity expected to be in place.  The server software might not run as provided without the ecosystem it was made to run with.

The MADE likes to point out that they managed to get Habitat up and running, but that was not only a game from a simpler time, but they were given the source code to work with. I cannot see many MMORPGs doing that for reasons covered below.  Still, at least this is a technical issue, and enough time and effort could garner a solution.

Then there is figuring out who actually has the software and what shape it is in.

Let’s take Star Wars Galaxies as an example.  That shut down in mid-December 2011, almost seven years ago.  At that point it was run by Sony Online Entertainment, one small cog in the giant machine that is Sony.

Time to settle up with Jaba again

A little over three years after that SOE was bought and became Daybreak Game Company.  One might assume that all SOE games, past and current, went with that deal.  But I don’t know if that was actually so.  Given that SWG was a licensed IP, it might have been too complicated, too expensive, or simply not possible or desirable to let Daybreak have that.  It could be stowed away still with Sony.

And, once we figure out who has it,  we have to see if the software has been archived in a way that it can still be accessed.  The server software isn’t like the client, existing in the wild on hundreds of thousands of install disks.  This is likely tightly held, produce on demand software.  Somebody might need to run the build system to generate a copy.

Let me tell you a story about that sort of thing.

Midway through the first decade of the century a company I used to work for once had a formerly famous consumer film company call up and ask for a patch for the server software they bought from us nearly a decade back.  It was on IBM OS/2 and we had long since switched to Windows server.  But that was fine, we had kept the OS/2 build system machines in the lab.  Only when somebody decided to power the system on the drive on the main machine wouldn’t spin up.  And while we had archival backups stored off site, there wasn’t anybody around who could re-create the build system.  And that was all before we had to figure out the problem that company was having, update the code, and run a build.

Since the company calling us wasn’t current on their maintenance contract… we were surprised they were still running our software… we declined to put in the effort.  We probably could of done it, but the work required was not trivial.  Even with the company in question willing to pay us, we had more lucrative avenues to pursue.  Software development is as much choosing what to focus on as anything, since there are always more plans and ideas than there is time.

If we weren’t going to do it for money, we certainly weren’t going to do it for free, which is what organizations like The MADE will expect.  And no company is going to let outsiders troll through their company to look for such software, so finding it relies on a current insider getting permission from the company and using their own time to find things.  This isn’t impossible, but the candidates able to perform this task are probably few.

And, finally, there is the question who can legally provide the server software.

The above are both solvable problems, things that could be made to happen if the right people were to volunteer some time and effort.  Getting the right people to green light this sort of project though, that feels like the highest hurdle of all.

I am going to go ahead and declare Star Wars Galaxies lost to any preservation effort for the foreseeable future right up front based on this.  At a minimum you need Disney, who holds the rights to the IP, to go along with this, and I cannot see that happening.  Mickey Mouse doesn’t even get out of bed unless he’s getting paid.

So let’s look at City of Heroes instead.  This is easier.  NCsoft owns all the rights, so there is no problem dealing with IP problems.  There should be no issue here, right?

The final plea

No server software stands alone.  Even if the previous problems can be brushed aside, it is very likely that Cryptic, in developing City of Heroes, licensed third party libraries, utilities, and other assets in order to create the game.  That licensing likely doesn’t allow NCsoft to give the server software out, even for a good cause.

This, by the way, is part of the answer to every question about why companies don’t open source their games when they shut them down.  They cannot if they don’t own all the code.

In order to cover themselves, NCsoft would have to run down every third party aspect of the software and get the permission of the licensing entity.  My gut says that NCsoft isn’t going to do this and, if they did, that getting every single third party on board would not be easy.

But if you can get past all of that, then you can have an MMORPG in your museum.

And I don’t even want to delve into the question of which version of a game ought to be preserved.  The answer to that will only make people angry since it likely won’t be the launch version or the version from what you might believe to be the golden era of the game.  It will most likely be the final version available from the build system.

All of that ought to be enough to make you say “screw it” and just start working on an emulator.  That has to be easier, right?  You can do what you want with that.  Then you can put it up in your museum.

Well, there is a whole paragraph devoted to that in the ruling.

The Acting Register did not, however, recommend an exemption to allow for instances where the preservation institution lacks lawful possession of the server software. She found the record insufficient to support a finding that the recreation of video game server software as described by proponents is likely to be a fair use. A number of scenarios described by proponents do not involve preserving server software that is already in an institution’s collections, but instead appear to involve something more akin to reconstructing the remote server. She found that this activity distinguishes proponents’ request from the preservation activity at issue in the case law upon which they relied. Moreover, she noted, the reconstruction of a work implicates copyright owners’ exclusive right to prepare derivative works.

That sums up pretty much as, “No, you may not have cheezeburger.”  Recreating is not preserving.  You either get the real deal or you get nothing at all.

And so it goes.  The door has been opened ever so slightly for the preservation of MMOs, but there are still many problems in the way.

Finally I want to call out what I consider a disingenuous to the point of being nearly deceptive part of the tweet above from The MADE.  This phrasing irks me greatly:

…we can bring those games back online legally

Without the necessary context, always a problem on Twitter, one might assume that people will be able to fire up their clients and play their favorite shut down MMO if only The MADE can get the server code.  However, this is covered in the document linked at the top as well:

Video games in the form of computer programs embodied in physical or downloaded formats that have been lawfully acquired as complete games, that do not require access to an external computer server for gameplay, and that are no longer reasonably available in the commercial marketplace, solely for the purpose of preservation of the game in a playable form by an eligible library, archives, or museum, where such activities are carried out without any purpose of direct or indirect commercial advantage and the video game is not distributed or made available outside of the physical premises of the eligible library, archives, or museum.

The emphasis is my own.

So no, should any of this come to pass, you are not suddenly going to be able to play City of Heroes or Star Wars Galaxies or any other closed MMO.  This whole thing isn’t being done just so you can play a video game. Unless you’re willing to schlep on over to Oakland to visit The MADE in person, you won’t be able to see what has been preserved.

And even then, I wonder what a visitor will be allowed to do.  MMOs are strange beasts.  They aren’t like Donkey Kong with discreet interaction parameters and a “Game Over” state after which everything starts again fresh.  MMOs, at least the ones mentioned above, are MMORPGs, with an emphasis on the RPG part.  You go into the world and play a role, interact with things, accumulate items and wealth.   A story unfolds before you as you progress, and it doesn’t reset when you put down the controller and walk away.

How will a place like The MADE handle this sort of game?

Do you let every random person who walks in create a new character?  Do you have some template characters available for people to wander around with?  Do you let people wander around the world and die or do things that irrevocably change the nature of a character’s position in the world?  Do you store progress?  Do you wipe progress every night?

Probably the best case, within the law, scenario here is that a place like The MADE will get software that will let them setup a closed environment in their facility where the general public will get to see, maybe poke at, but probably not play in any depth, certain MMOs.  The only people likely allowed greater access will be press writing articles or academics doing research… and the occasional big donor or volunteer who will get to make a character and play.   The rest of us will just have to feel better that something has been preserved and move on with our lives.

Which is fine.  I can live with that.

But I suspect that many people expect a lot more out of these efforts.

Addendum: Endgame Viable used a couple comments I made on Twitter in his post on this.  This post is essentially an expansion by a couple thousand words on those two tweets.

Addendum 2: Ars Technica has a write up on this as well.

8 thoughts on “MMORPG Preservation and Reality

  1. bhagpuss

    By complete coincidence, while I was researching yesterday’s post on the Gamigo acquisition of Trion Worlds, I ended up on some parts of the Daybreak website I’d never visited before. If you scroll to the very bottom of the main page, right at the bottom in small print is a very boring-looking list of items including “Legal Notices”. If you click through that one you get a complete list of all DBG’s games that includes a breakdown of what parts they own and what they licensed. Some of them, like Miles Sound System. © 1991-2000 by RAD Game Tools, Inc or Autodesk® Scaleform® software, © 2012 Autodesk, Inc. All rights reserved. I was aware of but others, like Crypto Copyright © 1998-2013, Brian Gladman, Worcester, UK or LZHam Copyright © 2009-2012 Richard Geldreich, Jr. I have never seen mentioned before (although I bet they’re in the tiny print at the end of the manuals that used to come in the box).

    Anyway, yes, it’s complicated. On the other hand, if it’s *that* complicated, then how do the often tiny teams of volunteers, working in ther spare time, manage to get emulators up and running that are functionally indistinguishable from the originals? And if it’s such a huge legal problem, how come the only time anyone cares is if the emulator is emulating a game that’s still running commercially, like WoW? Even SWG, the rights for which, as you say, are owned by one of the most fiercely protective megacorps on the planet, has had very well-known Emus running openly for years – in fact, probably for longer than the official game by now.

    If action hasn’t been taken against those it seems odd to think it would be taken against a purely academic project. The PR value of allowing hosting in a museum would seem to be preferable to the PR hit from issuing a take-down. I don’t think it’s anything that couldn’t be done if the right people wanted it done, is what I’m saying.

    Then there are the MMOs whose code has already been released into the wild – Ryzom springs to mind but there have been a few. Presumably those could be both hosted and made available online. And speaking of being made available remotely, I did indeed assume – obviously incorrectly – that remote access would be a part of the deal. After all, what’s the point of curating an online game that can only be played offline? I was imagining potential “players” would have to go through an accreditation process and demonstrate their academic credentials but I did think that, for example, someone studying video games in my old University (Cambridge, as it happens) would be able to do their research without having to fly to the other side of the world.

    Anyway, it’s a step in the right direction. As an interested party of naturally academic turn of mind I do care more that these things are preserved than that anyone can play them. Just don’t let them vanish into the void.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Emulators get along by relying on players having a copy of the client. If you remember original EverQuest, it came with a stubbed out demo version of the client that would let you walk around in a test zone without connecting to a server. I figured out you could rename zone data files to use the demo mode to explore zones offline. So the client does a lot of the heavy lifting in the “virtually indistinguishable” department. If it looks right, you accept it, even if it doesn’t behave exactly the same.

    The emulator itself doesn’t have to do all the security and redundancy stuff that a live server would have to do. It just needs a database for data and the ability to handle the outputs that come from the client and responding with the expected return values. I wouldn’t call it “easy,” but reverse engineering something is always a much simpler task than making it in the first place. While I hate when people say “it is just software,” it is just software. Enough time, effort, and brute force can make it happen, even on a volunteer only scale. Talented amateurs can make amazing things… but you wouldn’t want to run their software as a business.

    How they don’t all get shut down is simply by remaining low profile, amateur projects with little to lose. If Blizzard or Disney sends a cease and desist you take things offline and maybe hand it to somebody else to setup later at a different address. The companies don’t waste time because it would be a game of whack-a-mole. Unless, of course, your emulator gets too big or starts charging money. Blizz sent a few cease and desists this year, likely because WoW Classic is on the horizon.

    Or, in the case of The MADE, you have a fixed physical address. The ESA is in those briefs opposing this expansion of the exception, so you can bet they know where they live. The MADE has to keep their collective nose clean because they have something to lose. The law says they cannot run an emulator and you don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.

    And maybe the companies will see the PR value of letting The MADE host an expired MMO. But, more likely, they will fear that if they let the server software out of their control some volunteer will make a copy and share it. And, as we have seen, once that djinn is out of the bottle, there is no putting it back. Like the Star Wars Christmas Special, or copies of MMO client software, somebody will always be able to find a copy.

    Like

  3. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Also, I went to what I imagine is the page you had in mind at Daybreak and, while I saw what you mentioned, I was also struck by the fact that nothing on the page has a date after 2016. So, for example, the 2017 expansions aren’t on the page. Seems like a bit of an oversight.

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  4. ibaien

    granting the right to reiterate an MMORPG at your museum without any players seems rather akin to granting the right to open a zoo without any animals…

    Like

  5. Mailvaltar

    “Social dynamics, while sometimes over emphasized, are part of the genre”

    Indeed, in a game like SWG even more so than in most contemporary MMOs I’d argue.

    Imagining one of the many concerts I played with my SWG-band in a crowded player cantina, but subtracting all player characters but my own from that experience…not much there worth preserving I’m afraid.

    Like

  6. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Mailvaltar – In the same vein, is there even an EVE Online to play if you don’t have a few thousand people stocking the market in Jita so you can find the stuff you need fit your ship.

    Leave aside PvP and such, just imagine the task of starting from scratch, alone, and obtaining all the materials needed to build a battleship with tech II fitting. Do you have to build an engineering complex to build a mining complex to mine moon goo to convert that into raw material to combine with PI stuff?

    And oh, you want a capital ship? Good luck with that solo!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Mailvaltar

    @Wilhelm – True, EVE might be the one MMO where being the only player wouldn’t just be pretty lame, but might well be pretty much impossible.

    Well, ok, the lowest level missions reward frigates nowadays, so at least you wouldn’t be stuck in your noob ship forever. But doing level 1 missions or just cruising around aimlessly in a frigate would probably be the pinnacle of the experience unless you were very, very persistent and industrious.

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