WATA and the gray areas of wildlife conservation – is there a better way?

NES and Super Mario Bros
Image: Nintendo Life

The games industry is young compared to other areas of entertainment and recorded culture – younger than film and television and, of course, a baby compared to print. But we’re decades into gaming history now, especially if you go back to the systems of the 1970s, maybe even earlier. Even if you choose to focus on the “modern” post-crash era of gaming, we’re fast approaching 40 years within that narrower perspective.

As fans, of course, we see this every day – franchises like The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, and Sonic the Hedgehog are over 30-35 years old. We have commemorative products and new releases on a regular basis, and the way we appreciate and consume retro games is also constantly evolving.

Despite all of this, an issue of increasing importance drives on along with limited improvements and the commitment of the biggest gaming companies and rights holders – conservation. It’s a topic we’ve covered before, both in terms of the practical realities of aging media disruption and the tough questions surrounding copyright law.

It’s an issue that came up again recently when Frank Cifaldi announced that he has reached an agreement with WATA to screen and catalog rare prototype games before they disappear into private ownership entirely. Before we examine what has ruffled so many feathers, a quick recap of the parties involved and why they matter in the field of player retention.

Working with WATA for the common good

Frank Cifaldi is co-director of The Video Game History Foundation, an organization that deserves credit for its ongoing efforts to build and expand a video game research library. It is an organization that also organizes events to showcase history, gathers important physical gaming history such as hardware and magazines for their archives, while challenging companies like Nintendo and working to improve their gaming preservation practices and attitudes. Cifaldi is an important and respected figure in this field.

WATA is a company that first attracted attention for facilitating auctions of game collectibles at staggering prices and making headlines when game copies changed hands for huge sums, such as a Super Mario 64 copy sold for over 1.5 million dollars was sold. A focus of these sales is a “rating” applied by WATA, which bills itself as the “trusted leader in grading collectible video games.” However, there have been allegations that the organization operates a rigged market based on speculation and flipping, driving artificially high prices; There were also allegations of collusion with auction house Heritage Auctions. Karl Jobst produced an extensive video in which he explored different angles of the controversy. Questions about the basis of these ratings continue to be raised, citing the greed driven by WATA ratings as distorting and damaging the collectors’ market.

Cifaldi, an advocate for game preservation, therefore caused surprise when he confirmed his work for WATA in verifying prototypes of games before they are auctioned off, some of the industry’s truly rare products; for some it was difficult to bring the two together. From one perspective, Cifaldi had made a deal with the devil. However, as Cifaldi puts it, his work allows him to review and record data on rare game prototypes that might otherwise be lost from the public entirely, for some form of information he can share before it’s gone.

Of course, social media is rarely a place for sane debate, but after a few days of dust settling, Cifaldi posted one detailed thread in which he explains his reasons for the agreement with WATA. He offers a defense of some collectors regarding the work and research behind many purchases, in addition to paying substantial sums of money with each purchase. The earlier post also shared three years of reports giving an insight into the number of interesting prototypes that have been authenticated and recorded.

Ends that justify means

Whilst it’s an easy way to simply take this as a negative given the bad reputation many WATA have, we think valid points are made about the gray areas where compromise and reality are accepted and are the best possible solution is found. Most wish for a wonderful world where all rare game history is shared freely for the public to enjoy. However, that’s not the world we’re in, so getting it is understandable involved on the auction market on condition that you get something back – in this case records of rare non-commercial gaming prototypes.

We are at a difficult juncture where the retention and failure of old cartridges and systems makes archives more necessary, but businesses still see money to be made.

We’ve unfavorably compared game record keeping to older media in the past, but similar compromises take place in these archives. Let’s take rare books as an example. Academic and publicly funded organizations such as national libraries do much of the probate work in cataloguing, preserving and disseminating images of rare books. But this is the result of over 100 years of work and many more centuries of book history coming together. For example, many archives rely heavily on posthumous donations from collectors, so there will have been decades if these rare editions had been privately owned. Universities and libraries also take part in auctions to acquire objects, but are often outbid by private individuals.

So even this scenario isn’t perfect, and that’s because these historical editions don’t have the same copyright concerns that are still prevalent in the modern gaming industry. This is where the big companies come in – they want to profit from their products and not give them away. Nintendo is now sharing a controlled number of retro games on Switch through its Nintendo Switch Online subscription service, while SEGA recently revealed details on them Sonic origins, which wraps old games together in a $40 digital package. We are at a difficult juncture where the retention and failure of old cartridges and systems makes archives more necessary, but businesses still see money to be made.

Old technology failure is one area where the gaming situation is coming under stress. There is also the question of how long companies should keep their “vaults” of old content to avoid the chance of further profits. The business aspect would be “as long as copyright, IP and trademark laws permit”, that is the right of the company. However, what organizations like The Video Game History Foundation emphasize is that companies like Nintendo (and many others) often fall short when it comes to preserving their own source code practices. For example, companies sometimes turn to those who preserve the original game code for help, as their own copies and virtual archives are not enough.

It is often private groups or enthusiastic individuals who preserve the game’s history, and doing so privately is perfectly legal. However, the question arises as to when this story should be released to the public. When can a ROM of a classic game be shared with the world? Are we waiting for countless copyrights to expire, or are companies looking at it more holistically? Probably the former of course.

Document a digital past before it disappears

And what about games that aren’t available through any legal channels? These are of course often closed to public access as well, leading to many disputes when digital stores close and games are truly lost outside of private copying and safekeeping. This is just on the horizon for relative youngest Play when the Wii U and 3DS eShop stores close.

It’s complicated and difficult, and of course the best solutions require compromises. We’d love a scenario where big companies agree on a “sale period” for games, maybe 40-50 years, after which public access to digital source code is allowed without roadblocks and shutdowns.

That sounds fanciful, of course, but if a compromise between business and preservation isn’t struck, we’ll have to deal with the devil or, worse, wait decades for copyright and other legal deadlines to expire.

Let’s just hope that historical source codes survive in various forms and on physical media long enough for the final solution.

https://www.nintendolife.com/features/talking-point-wata-and-the-grey-areas-of-game-preservation-is-there-any-better-way WATA and the gray areas of wildlife conservation – is there a better way?

Fry Electronics Team

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