The Gaming Industry Went Digital, We Evaded The Attack

There was a time when sluggishly shuffling through pictures online would crash my Packard Bell, all while a symphony of dial-up tones ensured that my family — as well as my neighbors and any bystanders — knew that I was connecting to that unstable framework of telephone wires and freedom. It was a time when standing shoulder-to-shoulder with a friend as you both pounded plastic buttons at whatever arcade you frequented was multiplayer, and Blockbuster wasn’t just a playground for graffiti artists. I was always cotton to change, and the digital world was captivating, all the more in its sharp, ear-piercingly melodious beginnings. Which is likely why I never suspected that the internet — like the parasitic system that it is — would attach itself to my brain, and suck the friends, physical activity and well-paying job right out of my future.

It’s safe to say that I was wrong. The digital tomorrow was forged as quickly as it was introduced to us bright-eyed explorers of fancy new tech. Now that the 90’s are gone in both date and spirit — and have been, for quite some time — nearly every country that has eradicated the plague has their hands on the big-red-button of connectivity. The menu of options has greatly expanded, and with it a promise of a digital future. My 56k friend has since been removed from my desk, and its only remnants a box I’ve been storing mysterious CD’s in since 2001. The world we live in today is simply far more progressive than it once was, and digital distribution has become a staple in the digital ecosystem, with each individual infrastructure providing a platform on which the digital service-industry can expand.

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The perfect example of this is Steam. It’s a network of downloadable titles, stored and arranged neatly, all of which require an internet connection to purchase and load. While inconvenient for on-the-go players, it’s something we’ve learned to accept, and even love, in most cases. It’s how the service was born, developed, and surely how it will remain for as long as it’s a viable choice in gaming. Downloadable titles, too, have become something of a regularity on consoles, with the indie-sphere littering every potential marketplace with games aplenty, opening doors that have been shut to garage studios since the leap to million dollar productions. However, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo, all deliverers of the major consoles each generation, all capable of making the switch to disc-less systems, have instead decided to keep the world of gaming as it is.

As a gamer of nearly twenty years, I have my mind set on the comfort of sameness. I stand by my shelves of dusty cartridges and boxes of peripherals, and as far as I’m concerned, part of the experience is being able to hold the product that will frustrate you, make you laugh, smile, and supply you with hours of joy only such interactivity could produce; but also taking its share of space in a cabinet. I don’t have the same attachment to my Steam games as I do my GameCube library, and perhaps that’s an eccentricity I’ll struggle with in therapy someday. But the question isn’t whether I’d be accepting of a digital world, though.

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The real question is, why it hasn’t convinced The Magi of the gaming industry? Let’s begin with Sony, as their stance hasn’t shifted nearly as much, and their decision to stray from digital-only was founded in the early development stages of the PlayStation 4. Sony has made it abundantly clear that their new machine is for gaming enthusiasts, and despite the current lack of compelling games, its proven its stance across the board. They’ve improved the marketplace enough, and there are titles available exclusively through that outlet — including that one that saved the PS4 from an otherwise listless offering. Nevertheless, it won’t be replacing my Amazon orders or brick and mortar of choice anytime soon.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has teetered between their restrictions and potentially disastrous online-requirements for a long while. According to Phil Spencer, head of Microsoft Studios, the disc-less system was under consideration well into 2013. Even when Sony unabashedly announced their shiny new console and all its glorious flexibility, Microsoft was plowing towards the digital future, slowing down for no man, customer or dedicated supporter. While Microsoft’s idea for a digital-ecosystem was, and likely still is, a primary focus at the studio, it was ultimately dropped due to bandwidth and game size — and not at all because of the minuscule slice of humanity that doesn’t have access to the world wide web. In the end, the Xbox One was forgiven for its initial blunders, and the result was a capable console with desirable entertainment capabilities; and one that happens to be selling, as well.

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While this does answer the basic “why,” it also presents a myriad of “what if” scenarios that become more likely with each generational leap in technology. It’s a matter of companies like Microsoft losing interest in consumer value, and instead targeting optimal revenue flow — an understandable business model if your CEO is Satan. The thing is, few game development studios bring in that Candy Crush money — a game that’s producing around $800 thousand per day. That’s something that executive decision-makers recognize; it’s something they understand from the point of view of an accountant, though, not a customer eager to spend an afternoon relaxing with a video game. From a business perspective, the inclusion of a disc-drive is an expense that could have been spared, and digital distribution is affordable enough for even the lowliest of indie dev’s to exploit, so there’s that as well.

In such a world, however, choice would be eliminated, and gamers would be forced to purchase digital titles because they’d be the only available option. With that in mind, it’s difficult not to consider that Microsoft’s “change of heart” was brought about by the positive reaction to Sony’s announcement. Yes, Microsoft did indeed relieve us of their digital plans, but for how long? Company representatives have stated that Microsoft did not retract their disc-less idea due to negative press or customer response, but rather due to a plethora of issues it presented in terms of functionality. With the Steam Box approaching, it’s only a matter of time before digital becomes as prominent in the living room as its been at the desk. I’m sure a time will come when games are download exclusive, credit cards will entirely replace cash and we’ll all be implemented with tracking devices at birth, so let’s enjoy these plastic cases and our freedom while we can.