There have been a lot of changes to the gaming world during my time as a gamer, but few have perhaps been as drastic as the switch from physical products to digital downloads.
From a publisher’s point of view you can understand why digital downloads are attractive. Digital products cost less to manufacture and it cuts down on the risks of over-ordering stock and being left with thousands of unsold product which you then have to bury in the Nevada desert. It also makes it easier for them to sell direct to the customer whilst reducing the second-hand market since consumers no longer have anything to flog on eBay.
From a gamer’s point of view, there are positives too. Digital downloads free you from shop opening times or having to wait in for deliveries. I can now download a game at any time of the day or night, and (usually) pay less for the digital version since the publisher’s distribution costs are lower and this is reflected in the RRP.
So I can certainly see the benefits, but it’s still a trend that causes me some concern. First of all is it really cheaper for the gamer? Sure, you might buy the game for a lower price but that’s because the publisher is also indirectly passing the storage costs onto you. If you own a Vita, one of the first things you have to do is buy a storage card for it and, thanks to Sony’s proprietary format, this is not cheap. If you own a console, there will come a point where the hard drive starts to fill up and you have to take difficult decisions on what to keep and what to delete.
From a practical point of view, I like to have control over my own stuff and not be dependent on other people keeping it for me. If I have a disk or a cartridge, it’s mine to do with as I like. I can keep playing the game for as long as the cartridge and console work. This is one of the fundamental things on which today’s thriving retro gaming communities (and second hand markets) are based. It’s about playing, not profit.
For the publishers, on the other hand, the bottom line is profitability. How long do you think Sony will keep downloads available on the PS Store for, say the PS3? Once the numbers don’t stack up for legacy systems, they’ll turn off support or re-release the titles on a new console so you have to buy them all over again. Despite the assurances from Sony, Microsoft et al, you’re not really buying a game, you’re renting it for as long as they decide to support it. In short, today’s games might not be as easy to get hold of in 30 years’ time as the games of the old 8-bit machines are today. We’ve already seen servers supporting online play switched off for some games because they are no longer financially viable. How long before they start doing with the same with game download services?
I might be over-stating that slightly. After all, there are now relatively few physical copies of Spectrum and C64 games around, but plenty are available to download from various websites (even if it’s slightly dubious from a legal perspective). It’s entirely possible that enthusiasts and activists will preserve today’s games in the same way that C64.com or World of Spectrum curate the 8 bit era. The big question is: will the publishers let them? Publishers have finally woken up to the value of their old IP, re-releasing old games so that they can run on new machines. They now know they can make money by repackaging old games for new systems, so they are not going to just let people download them for free. With each iteration of a new console, you’ll be expected to re-buy the old PS1 version of Crash Bandicoot, so you can play it on your PS 3, 4, 5, …78 etc. The games will remain in control of the publishers and they are in the business to make money. Re (re-re)releasing old games is a lucrative sideline.
Finally, from an aesthetic point of view, the loss of a physical release leads to the loss of cover artwork. Think of the some of the stunning images that have adorned cassette/disk/DVDs. over the past 30 years. Some are genuine works of art produced by incredibly talented people and they add something extra to a game. No physical product means they are gone. Sure, those same people might still find work elsewhere in the games industry, but it won’t quite be the same.
I know I’m fighting against the tide here and fully accept that digital downloads are the future. Before we rush headlong into it, though, we need to be aware of what we are getting into and pause for a moment to remember what we are losing. Sooner or later physical copies of games are going to be a thing of the past and, for a whole host of reasons – both practical and personal – I find that a little sad.