It’s not news that the method of buying games has changed over the last several years. XBLA jumpstarted the digital download market on consoles while Steam started giving the idea legitimacy around the same time. Digital distribution had been around long before then, of course, but it wasn’t until the one-two punch of Steam/XBLA that buying buying games you didn’t physically own began to get popularly accepted. Now it’s 2014, everyone has broadband, and MS still hasn’t given up on the idea of a disc drive-less Xbox One. Digital distribution is the new normal, but it’s worth remembering what’s being lost in the transition while also appreciating the advantages of each.
Like many gamers, I’ve got shelves packed tight with jewel cases, cardboard boxes, DVD cases, and a number of loose cartridges. They’re not too big individually but together they take up a ton of space and are a giant pain in the ass when moving. Some sell for next to nothing and others command an impressive price, but the thing they all have in common is they’re mine. Legally there’s a EULA saying I’ve licensed the use of the software and the only thing I actually own is the media container and any box or instructions included, but let’s be real here. In 10 years time if I decide I want to pop out Chulip, Drill Dozer, Patapon, Chibi Robo, or whatever else is taking up all this space, it will be there for me. PS2 Rez is forever, but the XBLA version on 360? What I paid for was the gaming experience for as long as Microsoft is willing to keep it alive. That’s probably going to be a good several years to come, but it’s not forever.
Honestly, most games don’t need to last forever. Call of Duty is nice this year, dead next year. My time in gaming retail taught me that last year’s sports games are only good when parents want to keep their kids happy for under $10. There’s a lot of disposable entertainment out there, and it doesn’t need to be carried around in ever-growing collections of generic product. Owning every book, DVD, or game you ever experience is a great way to get a starring role on an episode of Hoarders. Watching the game industry evolve into being primarily a digital distribution industry isn’t the solution, though.
The arguments against digital are well known- DRM and online requirements, unpredictable lifespan (anyone want to buy Deadpool?), etc. Some companies handle the challenge well ( Steam, GOG, Sony) while others kinda suck at it (Nintendo). On the plus side, digital distribution is a huge advantage for small developers, allowing for games that just don’t have the market for a physical release and freeing them from the requirement of managing inventory while still giving access to a potentially huge fan base . It even allows for quick and painless updating when necessary, including brand-new content that vastly expands the game (Don’t Starve, Minecraft). However…
The Vectrex came out in 1983. It’s over 30 years old. The system is expensive as hell and the original games aren’t exactly cheap, but you can still find them. (We’ll ignore the multicarts for the sake of this discussion.) Plug a cartridge into a working system and it’ll play as good as the day it was made. The same holds true of the various Atari consoles, NES, Genesis, SNES, and all the other systems that have gone from being part of pop culture to a piece of gaming history. There will generally be workarounds to losing games to the dim, dark recesses of an ever-retreating past, but playing the original game on its intended hardware will almost always feel better. Isolated cases like Final Fantasy XII International Zodiac Edition in high resolution on emulator exist, but they’re fairly rare. There’s a difference between owning and emulating something that’s got very little to do with logic.
Other considerations about the future of the present- I love The Pinball Arcade, but the licenses only last so long. Will the PS4 disc release (without the ability to download the patches) be the only way to access the Season One tables in 2044? Will Windows 20 have a Win7 compatibility mode so TPA can be played after downloading it from a dodgy abandonware site? Then there’s games like Asura’s Wrath, which Capcom decided would be best served by having the final chapter made available as paid DLC because they were infected by a vicious combination of evil and stupid. The disc is playable as long as its taken care of, but seeing the story through to completion is going to take future-magic similar to the kind that will be needed to access on-disc DLC like that found in Beautiful Katamari. Basically, it’s a bit of a mess.
Game preservation isn’t about archiving the past, but rather keeping it accessible because it’s as fun today as it was however many years ago. You can plug Sunsoft’s Batman into an NES and play it exactly how it was meant to be played on the day of its release, or you can do the same with Super Mario 3D World on Wii U. If you bought it it’s yours, and, barring bad luck, isn’t going anywhere until you decide to get rid of it. If you’re far more attentive to detail than I am you might even back up DRM-free PC games to disc, granting them the same permanency. 90% of the time, though, a digitally distributed game is available only so long as the publisher allows it, and while that may be a very very very long time, it’s not going to be forever. There will always be emulation, modding, and piracy to share the games we bought and paid for in the past with our descendants in the future, but it would be nice if more of today’s games had a legitimate way to keep them around once their distribution method disappears.