What happens when your game gets delisted?

What happens when your game gets delisted?

Cory Davis woke up one morning in January to some unfortunate news: Spec Ops: The Line, the game he directed at Yager Development, had been removed from digital storefronts. Over 24 hours, the game would disappear from Steam, GOG, and the Xbox Store. At the time of this writing, it’s not available to buy new digitally.

“At first I thought, This is probably a mistake or something that’ll be resolved in the next few hours, so I was kind of in denial mode,” he recounted to Polygon. “It became obvious after a little while that it was not just Steam, but it was coming down off of other stores as well.”

The 2012 shooter didn’t perform as well as publisher 2K Games would’ve liked when it first launched, but it’s become a cult classic for how it subverted the fantasy of other military shooters from the time. “We were all really shocked. It’s kind of that feeling like your mark on the world is being erased,” Davis continued. “All games are extremely difficult to pull off and to put in the hands of people who understand and enjoy them. There was just so much extra effort that went into this one. […] We broke through a lot of boundaries that are still difficult ones, especially for AAA games.”

There are a lot of reasons why a video game might be delisted or taken offline. A spokesperson for 2K revealed in a statement that Spec Ops: The Line had been removed “as several partnership licenses related to the game are expiring,” which makes sense since the game uses a lot of licensed music, including tracks from Jimi Hendrix. However, the reason why games might be delisted can be way more complicated than that. For example, a slate of Adult Swim games was removed from Steam recently; a representative from the publisher’s parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, told one developer that the decision “stems from logistical and resource constraints” but didn’t give any other details. A delisting can often leave a developer stuck in limbo, having to rely on the publisher to figure out licensing issues or other problems, all while knowing their game isn’t legally digitally available anywhere.

Video games disappear all the time. The Video Game History Foundation co-ran a study in 2023 that revealed “only 13 percent of classic video games published in the United States are currently in release.” That means almost nine out of 10 games can only be played if you find a physical copy in a secondhand market or pirate a copy online. Even if a game is available to buy, it might not be playable, as many are taken offline and their servers shut down due to corporate decision-making. Just last week, Sony Interactive Entertainment and developer Sumo Digital announced that the servers for LittleBigPlanet 3 would be taken offline indefinitely due to “ongoing technical issues.” Late last year, Ubisoft revealed that it would be delisting The Crew from all online storefronts and would be shutting down servers on March 31. “While we understand this may be disappointing for players, it was necessary due to server infrastructure and licensing constraints,” a spokesperson from the company said in a statement to Polygon.

Soldiers approach a bombed-out building in the desert in a screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line was delisted from all platforms in January, with no word yet on if it’ll come back.
Image: Yager Development/2K Games

What happens with a game as it gets older, in many cases, comes down to who owns the intellectual property. It could be the developer or the publisher, although this depends on the contracts the two parties signed. For example, if the developer owns the IP and the publisher decides it doesn’t want to list the game anymore, the developer could put it up on its own (barring any other agreements, of course).

Ryan Morrison, co-founder of video game law firm Morrison Cooper, says that he’s seen a lot of studios that have had contract issues come up that resulted in delistings. It’s part of the reason he started his firm in the first place.

“I was also part of the Reddit game developer community. […] And I remember going on there and basically just making a post saying, ‘Trademark your stuff,’” he said. “And instead of yelling at me, or going in any wild direction, they said, ‘What’s a trademark?’ And I saw there was this whole industry of people that just were afraid to talk to lawyers.”

However, there are a few paths to take if a game is delisted. For one, if licensing agreements expire, the developer or publisher can work out a deal with the license holders. The first Alan Wake, for example, was able to come back to stores after Microsoft, the original publisher, straightened out the music licensing agreements, but it took over two years to get relisted. Developers can also theoretically just put the game back up themselves. Owen Reedy, creator of Small Radios Big Televisions, made the title available for free after it was delisted by Warner Bros. Discovery, although this can be a risk depending on the IP agreement. In general, Morrison suggests that developers and publishers open up conversations when something like this occurs.

Unfortunately, in some cases, there isn’t anybody available — or at least anybody obvious — who can have that conversation. Brandon Huffman, an attorney with Odin Law and Media and volunteer counsel for the International Game Developers Association, told Polygon in March that some former Adult Swim Games developers didn’t know who to talk to in the event their game had been delisted or would be in the future.

“I’ve talked to a couple [Adult Swim Games] developers who don’t know who their contact person to get the rights back would be, because it’s such a big company,” Huffman said. “And so navigating at this point, If I want out of this, how do I get out of it? Who do I call? That in and of itself is not clear to them.”

In a perfect world, this wouldn’t happen. Morrison suggests that agreements should have clauses for these situations. “Whether it’s one month or 100 years, there should be a mechanism there of wherever the rights go. Who has the ability to renegotiate? Just what happens? Not this void of nothingness.” In general, he encourages developers to always have a lawyer go over contracts so that every condition is covered.

An old man character firing a bright gun in Gigantic: Rampage Edition.
Gigantic was taken offline in 2018 before being brought back in 2024.
Image: Abstraction Games/Arc Games

There are also instances where a game can come back even after going offline permanently. The free-to-play team-based shooter Gigantic came out in 2017, but its servers were shut down around a year later due to low player count. However, the game was rereleased in 2024 as the paid Gigantic: Rampage Edition. This was possible due in part to members from the original publisher, Perfect World Entertainment, being a part of the process. (Perfect World was renamed to Gearbox Publishing San Francisco after being bought by Embracer Group, and has since rebranded to Arc Games.)

“We received the latest version of the game and some of Motiga’s original documentation. While we did not interact with the former Motiga devs, there were multiple people on the publisher side that were part of the original Gigantic launch,” Bart Vossen, game design lead at Abstraction Games, told Polygon via email. “So, the first step was familiarizing ourselves with the game, filling in gaps of documentation, and seeing what the fans loved about the game that made it great. This informed our approach to new content, which should fit in with and complement the game that was already there, and the parts we rebuilt.”

This wouldn’t have been possible if not for fan feedback over the years, Arc Games producer Maverick “Mav” Bautista said via email. “For anyone considering reviving an old IP, I’d say look to your community first. The Gigantic community played a big role in our decision to bring Gigantic back, so a huge thank you to them for their continuous support!”

There have also been grassroots efforts by communities to keep games online; fans of the MMO City of Heroes were able to make their own servers with the game’s source code, and were recently granted the right by developer NCSoft to make one server official. Players are also trying to take the problem to legislators. Ross Scott, creator of the YouTube channel Accursed Farms, started the Stop Killing Games campaign to raise awareness about The Crew’s shutdown. The hope is to influence EU lawmakers — especially in France, which has a lot of consumer protections — to look into the issue of games becoming unplayable for the people who purchased them.

“The best-case scenario would be at least one major country says that ‘no, your companies are going to be fined if they do this,’ where if you paid one time for a game or, I guess, a microtransaction, it’s sold as a good. Then you have to at least make some provisions so that I can keep it when you end support,” Scott told Polygon. If a game would miss out on a huge market, then it’ll force studios to not let delisting occur. “Once that happens, I think we would see a big shift in the industry.”

We’re still in a world, though, where a game can be delisted forever. Platforms and online servers are shut down after a period of time, and if the game lives online, it’s unlikely it’ll come back, unless it’s in a case like with Gigantic.

While Davis couldn’t comment on any discussions related to Spec Ops: The Line, he advised that developers should have contingency plans in place if there are any risks in a game that could lead to a delisting. He also proposed a sort-of “switch” that could take out the problematic elements and push alternatives. All of this could allow games to easily come back online instead of waiting for a potential rerelease.

“It’s me and over 100 developers that still hold this project, the experience of developing and everything, close to our hearts,” Davis said. “It’s something we’re not going to forget. We’re still hopeful for the future and no matter what, really hope that new gamers get the chance to play the game.”