Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How Software Dies

It's possible for a book, or a film, or some other work of art to have little impact when it is released, but then get discovered later and capture the cultural imagination. This is possible because books printed long ago can still be read, and film and music created long ago can still be listened to. It's not the case with theater and staged dance. If it is not discovered during its run, it fades into obscurity.*

This is true for software as well. There is a great game that ran on my Tandy 1000 computer called "Blood Money" by a company called Psygnosis. To play this game now, you'd have to buy a very old computer, and find the software on ebay or something. You can experience a bit of the game by watching gameplay videos on Youtube. But watching a recording of someone playing a video game is to playing a video game like watching sports is like playing it. In the case of Blood Money, it's not such a gorgeous game to watch. What was good about it was actually playing it. Here is a gameplay video of Blood Money: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=goipyhIU138



I'm not even sure these gameplay videos are legal. At some point there will be no more working Tandy 1000s, IBM PCs, and Commodore 64s, and then this lone video will be all we have. If a game is discovered soon enough, someone might make an emulator for it, or re-release it on a new platform.** But it has to be liked soon enough for this to happen.

This problem was brought to my attention with a review of what appears to be an amazing game, "Pathologic."
This review is a fascinating read, and I recommend it to anyone interested in computer gaming:
http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2008/04/10/butchering-pathologic-part-1-the-body/

The problem is exacerbated by games that require social networking for the complete experience. I played "World of Warcraft" for about half an hour, and didn't care for it, but so many people love it that I feel that there's some experience there that I'm missing. And if I don't do it relatively soon, people might stop playing it (perhaps because people move on to another game), and then the experience won't be the same.

Today I came across a neat project description of a system called "Technosphere."
http://beallcenter.uci.edu/shift/games/technosphere.html
In it, you can create creatures and watch them try to survive in a virtual world. I would love to play around with this, but it was a museum installation that has now closed. There is nothing I can do to experience it now. I can't find youtube videos for it either.

This brings up a problem with academic funding and online computer projects. What probably happened with Technosphere was this: the authors had funding to do this project. They created the project. They published. The funding ran out. The project got terminated.

There are two problems. First, the funding models do not support long-term upkeep funds. That is, grants typically last for several years, but do not offer money to keep something online indefinitely. Online software requires hosting, at the very least, and possibly software maintenance as well. It's expensive.  The second problem is that the authors don't really have an incentive to keep it up. They published, and what more do they have to gain my keeping the site active? Aside from pride in the project, probably nothing.

Although code can be saved, and printed, there are other factors, such as the hardware the code runs on, and costs for keeping things online, that prohibit the longevity of the experiences they provide. This is a shame, making what should be a lasting artifact a bit more like ephemeral arts such as performances.


* You can document a staged performance, but much is lost.

** One of my favorite Playstation 2 discs is Midway Arcade Treasures.

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