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Are expiring licenses bad news for video game preservation?

Published: 08:47, 29 June 2018
GTA IV Vladivostok FM broken logo on black and orange background
GTA IV - Vladivosgok FM

The 10 year anniversary of GTA IV is just behind us and it came with an obligatory update which removed a number of songs due to their expiring licenses. One station hit particularly hard is fan favourite Vladivostok FM. What now?

Is this right? I certainly don't think so. A core release should not be negatively altered, the songs, character dialogue, scenery etc. should not be alterable regardless of licences or legal changes. Removing content from the original game to please the courts is giving two fingers to players who bought the vanilla game on release.

Should players be entitled to prevent updates? I certainly think so. If the update changes the core of a game then you should have the option to prevent it, otherwise you completely remove a sense of ownership of that product. Forcing updates is just like having your parents tell you to drink grandma's tea or you won't be allowed to visit her anymore. Forcing an update on players before permitting them to continue playing a game they enjoy the way they enjoy it, players are told ‘you must do this’ or no longer be able to play the game. A game you paid for and own.

Is this something we need to live with in the gaming world, and does it really matter? It is the the age of today I am afraid, for all the positives an update brings, there is little we can do about more undesirable updates. An update like this my be seen as fairly minor, but any changes in the law could prevent games from remaining playable in their original form. Could changes to a game like GTA or changes to the law make them unsuitable for the market in general? On a global scale, games are banned or altered far more often than you may think - usually on legal grounds.

Rockstar Animated gif of Nico Belic from GTA IV dansing on a striper stage GTA IV - Dancing in a silent room?

What would happen if licences similar to GTA's were lost? A good example is EA Sports who use athlete’s names, face and body likenesses, sports stadiums, badges etc. The game's mechanics may not change, but the mere thought that these games could lose important elements because of expired licences is a potential threat to any game you own and continue to play online. If EA lost their sports licences and the likes of Konami got them exclusively for PES instead, I can see this sort of downgrade happening more often in a games as a service publishing climate.

Could we see other classic games having elements removed and therefore only remain in memory? Yes, Street Fighter II is another example, but any games with music as the focus point like Guitar Hero or Rock Band could face a similar fate.

A compromise solution could be found by taking these GTA IV songs out of online play only. Let’s not forget, for a game that is 10 years old, it is astonishing to think it is still heavily played and even regularly patched and updated.

I would say this is a downside to the unexpected longevity of GTA IV. Currently, the only way to play the game in it's original state is to instal it from a disk and make sure your gaming device never gets the chance to update by keeping it off the internet - but why would anyone want to do that? Even more troubling, in the era of digital purchases options like avoiding updates are less and less likely to be supported.

Konami Screenshot of PT demo showing hallway with spooky lady and her turned back PT - Finders keepers?

Remember the PT demo? There was a frenzy to get a hold of a PS4 that had it installed as you could no longer download it, even if you had done so previously. In fact, a quick eBay search will show people still auctioning these between £200-£400, although some have actually sold for around £170. This shows people are willing to pay for something that has been forced off of a platform. Similar things are also happening over on iTunes, with very little disclosure as to why.

In contrast, gamers currently benefit hugely from patches which often add content and address various issues. A notable positive example is Dying Light which essentially got free DLC that turned out to be as extensive as a whole standalone release called The Following. It was a new story campaign, had controllable vehicles needing fuel and salvaged parts, along with a whole new map.

There are the benefits to updates and patches in the modern era, but the licencing issue is surely a negative. In spite  of what the law says, it doesn't feel right. In fact, it isn't right that a game can lose core features which were part of the initial purchase.

Re-writing history books certainly springs to mind and we have seen this from the Nintendo's Switch version of Street Fighter II. The game saw everything updated in order to fit today’s political landscape. Two examples of this are Russia being shown as the home country of Zangief in place of the USSR and China replacing Hong Kong for Chun Li.

Capcom Ultra Street Fighter 2 player select VS. screen showing Russia Ultra Street Fighter 2

The changes do reflect contemporary geopolitics, but as a classic game it has left a lot of fans with the impression of lost originality and authenticity with regards to the original release. The effects of changes like this are no different to playing an updated classic such as World Cup Italia '90 with countries such as West Germany and Czechoslovakia altered because things changed since then, regardless of the justification one might find for this type of revisionism.

Let us have the game we purchased! By all means update and improve them, but don’t diminish what they are because it is no longer profitable from a licencing standpoint. Games like GTA will continue on regardless of these minor changes, but these turbulences in the way games are delivered to the customer are sure to cause more of an uproar in the future.

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