Sony's surprising plan could bring an overdue change to the games industry

This goes beyond backward compatibility.

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In a change from all the recent news about acquisitions, reports suggest Sony has established a brand-new department at PlayStation that focuses on the preservation of older games.

It’s not unusual for companies to rerelease classic games, and Sony has recently announced plans to add libraries from the PS1, PS2, and PS3 to its new PlayStation Plus Service. What is uncommon, however, is seeing a company form a dedicated team to preserve content for posterity.

Evidence of PlayStation’s new preservation team was first spotted by VGC, which reported that a new Sony employee named Garret Fredley has posted about joining the team. On LinkedIn and Twitter Fredley wrote, “Today is my first day as a senior build engineer for PlayStation, working as one of their initial hires for the newly created Preservation team.”

Preservation has been a problematic issue in video games for years, as the industry at large has shown little interest in the idea. Gaming is a relatively young medium compared to something like film, which has dedicated organizations that ensure the industry’s creations aren’t lost to time. There are some organizations in the gamed industry trying to do the same, namely the Video Game History Foundation. However, up until now, there’s never been a significant public effort by major publishers in the industry.

We don’t know the exact goal of PlayStation’s new team and details are sparse, however, it seems like the focus is indeed on simply preserving games. VGC notes that Fredley worked for EA from 2016 to 2019 where he “led the preservation efforts for the FIFA franchise, resulting in the complete archival of multiple titles.” Hiring experts like Fredley seems to indicate a serious commitment on PlayStation’s part, and it could set a valuable precedent for the rest of the industry.

Having major publishers actively participate in preservation efforts could drastically enhance awareness and access to gaming history, especially if those companies collaborate with existing organizations like the Video Game History Foundation.

Over the years, there have been countless stories of huge companies, like Nintendo, shutting down ROM-sharing sites. Shutting said sites down is perfectly legal — many of them were profiting from distributing copyrighted material for free. However, without official systems in place, ROM sites were the only way to preserve and access a lot of older games, unless companies like Nintendo decided to re-release something.

Games like The Beatles: Rock Band are a complex web of licensing issues from multiple companies and groups, which is likely why we’ll never see a re-release.

MTV Games

A lot of the problems with preservation come down to licensing. It can be hard to track down and figure out who’s in charge of licensing for obscure 90s games, especially as developers and publishers go out of business.

When Inverse spoke with Xbox Director of Program Management Jason Ronald about backward compatibility on Series X|S back in November 2020, he said licensing was a significant hurdle in bringing original Xbox and 360 titles to Game Pass:

“Some of the challenges are technical, but more often than not it comes down to licensing. In some cases, the developer or publisher doesn't exist anymore. Even tracking down who we need approvals from can be very, very difficult.”

While Xbox seems to have focused on technological innovations that allow the games to run better than ever on modern hardware, PlayStation appears to be setting up a dedicated team for preservation. The difference between backward compatibility and preservation, though subtle, is significant. It means finding solutions to licensing problems and potentially finding ways to avoid them in the future. A dedicated team can properly catalog everything, make sure the licensing and sourcing are all in order, enabling content to be accessed for years to come. An internal team would be able to access all of the technology and infrastructure of PlayStation, which is a huge boon.

In an ideal world, every game publisher would have an internal team that works to preserve past works, and PlayStation’s initiative here could pave the way for others to follow suit. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but this at least feels like a step in the right direction.

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