The Digital Future of Games
By Brian Penaloza
The future of video games is digital, whether gamers want it or not. As with all technology, progress is inevitable, and video games have been moving in this direction since Steam launched in 2003. When Steam launched, it was mainly for first party Valve games so that they could easily be updated. However, in 2004 Steam released Half-Life 2 and gamers would be forced to download Steam to play the game. Gamers at the time had concerns about software ownership, amongst other things. Just a few months prior to Half-Life 2 releasing, Xbox would launch Xbox Live Arcade (which would become Xbox Games Store) followed by Playstation Network launching in 2006.
There were a variety of reasons for these companies to open digital storefronts. For one, they could release smaller, cheaper games on these services that were still great quality at a fraction of development cost. They could also more easily combat game piracy for games sold on the digital storefront. Further, companies could also cut out the middle-man of the brick and mortar stores and sell games directly to consumers, which meant saving money on producing discs, game sleeves, and other distribution costs.
Ultimately gamer’s main objections to digital distribution would be two-fold. For one, companies were including DRM (Digital Rights Management) software into the games that in the early days of DRM could render legitimate purchases unplayable due to subpar application. DRM that requires an internet connection was especially egregious, as players would lose access to their games if the game servers were down even if the game itself would ordinarily not require an online connection to be playable. The second major objection would be the fact that gamers do not truly own titles they purchase digitally. They are, in fact, purchasing a license to use the game. While this would seem like a minor thing, gamers would contend that since hard drive space is limited, sometimes they will delete a game that they assume they can re-download later. However, there is the possibility that the game can disappear from the marketplace thus removing their ability to play the game they legally purchased.
This fear would become far more mainstream as the industry made the jump from PS3 and Xbox 360 to PS4 and Xbox One. The question became, “what happens to the digital games I purchased on my previous console when I move to my new console?” This fear was further exacerbated by Microsoft when they announced that every game, whether digital or on disc, would require the game to be downloaded and that an activation code would be needed to be able to play. If you wanted to lend your disc to a friend, or resell it as used, whoever gained secondary access to that disc would also be required to purchase an activation code. While this concerns physical media, it de facto turned all games on Xbox One into digital games. Microsoft would ultimately walk this back, but the damage was done and gamers had questions that to date have not been answered.
The fact is, gamers worries were actually well founded. According to www.delistedgames.com, there are a total of 280 games that have been delisted and are unavailable to download even if you have already purchased the game. This list only includes games that were released digitally only, the real list of games that have been delisted is actually higher. Of the 280 games, there are nearly 30 on Playstation 4 and Xbox One. Some games that have been delisted that are not on the list, are games such as Driver: San Fransisco, Deadpool, and Marvel Vs. Capcom 2.
The interesting thing is that while back from 2013 through 2016 games media was mocking gamers fears about these things, more recently from about 2018 to today they are changing their tune. At the time, it seemed like a crazy idea that video game companies would delist their games. It made no sense, because why would a company remove a source of revenue that cost so little to keep on a store even if only a handful of people would buy it? Why would a company open itself up to the criticism of customers who purchased their game only to find out they can no longer download the game? The factor that no one really thought about is that video game companies are notoriously short sighted with licensing agreements. This is something that has plagued the industry since day one.
The licensing has affected everything from songs, to cars, to even the properties themselves (Deadpool being licensed from Marvel, for example). The movie and television industries had similar woes, and in some cases still do (mostly with music licensing) but with experience those have gotten better. The video game industry has a lot of growing up to do in that regard. Because of short sighted licensing agreements, and the cost associated with renewing said licenses, video game companies find that it is more cost effective to delist a game rather than pay to relicense, or even have to program in new things that may be cheaper to license.
Like the beginning of this article mentioned, the digital future is coming. Hopefully the concerns gamers have will be taken more seriously so that when it does, it is a bright and shiny future. Passing off gamers concerns with digital games is not an option if video game companies want their support. Microsoft found that out the hard way. The time to have these conversations is right now, before everything is all digital. Not after.