About the Software Preservation Society (SPS)
SPS is a privately funded association of art collectors and computer enthusiasts striving for the preservation of computer art, namely computer games.
Art is an important cultural asset. Thousands of museums and archives all over the world preserve and restore pictures, books, movies and audio recordings and information in general for generations to come. To accomplish their assignment, national libraries are backed by law which, varying from country to country, forces production companies to deliver copies of publications, books, audio recordings and movies to the archives for long term preservation. It seems that as of today, nobody has ever thought or actively cared about the true, unmodified and verified preservation of computer games. Without any action taken, time will run out, very quickly.
Unlike games from the 1970s (delivered on solid state ROM-modules) and games from and after the mid-1990s (delivered on optical media like CD-ROMs and DVDs which are supposed to last for decades), computer games from the 1980s and early 1990s were delivered on magnetic media like tapes or floppy disks and are now at the brink of extinction.
From a preservation point of view, tapes and floppy disks are a nightmare for several reasons:
1. Tapes and floppy disks constantly degrade, in two ways. First is the physical degradation of the orientation of the metal particles which form the magnetic field and store the data. This process is slow, and given the fact that the data is encoded digitally, it may be too late to do anything when reading errors occur. Reading errors happen when it has become difficult to decide if a particular bit is 0 or 1. Preservation should occur before it becomes a gamble to get a good read.
2. Second is the chemical degradation. The metal particles bound to the plastic platter of a floppy disk or the surface of a tape can come off the surface. In fact, in most cases the bonding will simply fall apart after years of temperature changes, moisture and other issues of improper storage. Record companies struggle with this problem when remastering old recordings and have developed a process called baking where the original master tape is actually put in an oven to rebind the coating to the transport material. After baking, playback is a one try only process because the media will fall apart after passing the playback head of the machine. While similar to the original is sufficient for analogue material, even a single misinterpreted bit in the digital world means instant failure.
3. While no user can actually press industry standard vinyl recordings, CDs or DVDs at home (recordable media can be spotted by simply looking at it), tapes and floppies can actually be written and modified with consumer-grade equipment. It takes a lot of expertise to distinguish a professionally replicated medium from a home made copy. Even if a disk was produced by a commercial replicator, it does not necessarily mean that disk is still authentic and appropriate for preservation. Apart from a game possibly being copied over the original (as we have seen many times to “fix” a broken disk), many games themselves persist some kind of save state or high score, thus changing or erasing data that was available on the disk in the first place. As soon as the disk has been modified in any way, the authenticity of that copy is put into serious doubt.
SPS has successfully mastered these challenges and developed software and hardware technology to deal with the problems arising during the preservation process. Founded by computer expert and preservation pioneer István Fábián in 2001 as CAPS (the Classic Amiga Preservation Society), our highly specialized team has more than nine years of field experience. SPS members have not only been involved in playing games on the machines which are regarded retro today, but were programmers and designers also responsible for some of the games and programs available on these platforms.
While our original disk imaging tools (working on e.g. a standard Amiga 1200 with a compact flash adapter) are still good and easy to use, we are currently moving on to a completely self-contained floppy controller “KryoFlux” developed by SPS that works with any modern PC via an USB connection. This does not only speed up imaging of disks, but also enables physical media restoration of any title preserved so far.
Preservation at SPS usually is a two step process. Contributors from all over the world can help imaging disks with our unique technology. At SPS, our experts then use the Softpres Analyser to investigate the disk structure and create an IPF (Interchangeable Preservation Format) file. Scripting allows a flexible, even game-specific, way of representing data when read by a tool, or when rewritten to disk. Often rather different methods are required to represent various disk formats or copy protection methods when intended to be read by e.g. an emulator or to be written back when restoring an original disk. Due to the high quality of the preservation technology, IPFs have become the de facto standard demanded by Amiga users when looking for unmodified images true to the original.
While disks themselves are the problem that needs to be addressed quickly while they are still readable, SPS is also striving for complete archival of manuals and boxes in the form of physical products as well as digital scans. As of today, SPS has digitally archived about 3000 games produced for the Commodore Amiga, but now also supports other computer platforms like Atari ST, CPC, Spectrum and the Acorn Archimedes, to name just a few. Complete support for other platforms, like the C64 (which is a real challenge due to a second “computer” built straight into the floppy drive) is in the works, but disk imaging of such material already works today. It is only a question of manpower when the data imaged will be ready for presentation in dedicated IPF files. Again, this is a race against time to protect gems of yesterday from fading into oblivion.
For more information visit http://www.softpres.org/
Contact the Software Preservation Society:
If you want to see part of this article you can do so at SPS’s facebook page. If you want to see how their analyser software works view this facebook page. If you want to follow them through facebook click here to go to their fan page.
We must help in order to ensure that many games and programs we enjoyed in the past get preserved for generations in the future.