The perils of console gaming’s digital future

The past generation of console gaming has been an interesting one. With the help of the various platform holders, the proliferation of downloadable games and content became a viable option for many publishers and developers to further extend the life of their games. Along with this came the rapid acceptance of independent gaming on consoles, the ability to patch games, and the widespread acceptance of online gaming as a main staple of this section of video gaming.

But what happens when all this is gone?

Star Wars - Yavin IV
KOTOR had free DLC set on Yavin IV, which had one new quest and gear not found in the main game.

I know… too terrible to be true right? But this is a reality that we will soon be facing with many of the things we’ve purchased on the various platform holders’ online stores over the past few years. Several years ago, Microsoft decided to turn off the original Xbox’s Live servers, effectively putting Halo 2‘s multiplayer servers offline. Not only did they do this, but they’ve also prevented a small amount of available downloadable content from being available, including one that was released for the award winning Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Microsoft, in their Xbox Live Terms of Use, even says outright that they can turn their Services off at any time:

1.8.  What types of changes can I expect to the Services?
We continuously work to improve the Services and may change the Services at any time.  Additionally, there are reasons why Microsoft may stop providing portions of the Services, including (without limitation) that it is no longer feasible for us to provide it, the technology advances, customer feedback indicates a change is needed, or external issues arise that make it imprudent or impractical to continue.

While I’m using Microsoft as an example, it could very well happen to both Sony and Nintendo. Imagine this: You’ve just spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on downloadable games and content, thinking you can probably play it later and finally clear your backlog only to realize that, because you were running out of space and you had to delete your games, that you’re unable to download the games anymore because the PlayStation Network on the PlayStation 3 was turned off. I talked to a GameStop patron recently, who plays games on both PC and consoles, and asked him what he thought of this.

Do you buy a lot of digital content?

On my Xbox I think I have at least 100 (games)… ’cause I have 2x 250GB drives and they all only have 5GB left so. Then, PC, I have a lot of space there.

Oh, so you’re a PC gamer… so you’re kinda used to the whole thing right?

Kinda. Well, somewhat.

Somewhat used to it?

Like I still love getting physical copies. I mean I have downloadable Halo and I still have the physical copies of it… same with Battlefield and other games.

Thinking in the future, if Microsoft turns off the Xbox 360 servers how would you feel about that?

I honestly would be remorseful of all the stuff that I got. I bought a lot of games and I’m not really going to be able to play them. I have a huge backlog of games, and a lot of games I’d want to replay. I’d be really upset.

If I lose multiplayer with my games, that’s fine I think as long as I can still play through the entire single player part.

Recently, I managed to pick up a copy of Viva Piñata. I had missed this game when it first came out and, for $9.99 at the local GameStop, I figured, “Why not?” So I popped the disc in and, prior to installing the game onto my Xbox 360, I saw a details page which essentially said that I could no longer share piñatas anymore. Saddened, I played anyway, knowing that my time in the game would be spent knowing that I’d be playing in solitude. Granted, there probably aren’t many gamers playing the game at this point in time, but who’s to say that the low price hasn’t lured anyone to pick up the game like I did?

Mass Effect 3 - Extended Cut
Mass Effect 3’s Extended Cut provided additional context to the controversial ending

Having downloadable content that’s not crucial to the main story of a game is one thing but some games, like Mass Effect series, have been known to extend the protagonist’s adventures well beyond the disc, connecting and providing more context to your adventures in between games. In fact, when people complained about Mass Effect 3‘s controversial ending last year, the developers over at Bioware provided a massive download called The Extended Cut which, disputably, provided more context to the choices you made at the end of the trilogy. Leviathan–one of Mass Effect 3′s DLCs that was released after this controversy–is considered by many reviewers and industry pundits as “required reading” for fans of the series.

What happens when we can no longer access The Extended Cut and Leviathan? What happens when many of the stories that actually add to your experience of the game become simply unavailable?

PC gamers have had to deal with digital content for years now. With the advent of the Steam service in 2003, Valve revolutionized PC gaming by allowing players to easily make impulse buys and get games without ever leaving your home. But there is an inherent difference between PC gaming and console gaming. PC gaming is not cyclical; PC gamers do not have to worry too much about Valve releasing a brand new Steam client that would render games useless in the next generation. Dave, an avid PC gamer working at Cal State Fullerton, shed some light on this:

“With PC games, you can generally run them in different versions of the operating system. For incompatibilities, you can always find tools like moslo and kboost to help compatibility with the current OS. So when purchasing digital software, you can easily store it in the cloud (and)or download it locally for permanent storage.

For console gaming, digital software usually means cloud only. This means they (the platform holders) control your assets and whether you can play in future versions of the console, which is not likely since they will sell you a new version of the same game for the new console. It also means that they can enforce DRM methods such as preventing the reselling of used games, and activation of digital purchases to bind a specific console or account. This is what makes digital only on consoles a very difficult sell, especially when new games cost $60-70+ to purchase.”

Talking to Michael, a security guard in Los Angeles, he said that while he likes playing games on the Internet, specifically naming Star Wars: The Old Republic, he considers himself very old school and likes going down to local game stores to buy games. He adds that if gaming goes digital, smaller independent games stores (he specifically mentions a store called World 8) would go out of business. “Digital (content) … for consoles is a bad idea.”

Outdoor Concert
Concerts are an example of temporary entertainment

Clearly, the issue stems from the fact that by going digital on consoles, our time with our games and downloadable content becomes temporary. We’re essentially given a time limit of a few years to go through all the games we purchased, whether we downloaded them onto our consoles or not, then, “Poof!” They’re gone for good. And while there are certain types of entertainment, such as live performances, musicals, concerts and the like that can be unique and temporary, video games have been tangible ever since the very beginning of their inception. A cartridge or a disk contained your game forever… or up until the cartridge or disk wears out.

While there is no indication in the near future that Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo will be abandoning physical media or turning off their servers and move on any time soon, I feel that console gamers should heed this article as a cautionary tale. Is PC gaming the way to go? I can’t really say. While there’s definitely many benefits to PC gaming, there’s an allure to console gaming that I just can’t have on PCs. The idea of being able to play beat-em-ups or dungeon crawlers on the same screen at the same place with any of my friends, the ability to smack talk a friend next to me in a fighting game, the ability to start up a band and rock out until the wee hours of the morning, being able to lend a friend a game because he can’t afford it… these are all inherently part of the console experience. And while I’m not saying that these certainly can’t be a part of the PC experience, the medium still has a ways away to make it from the office table back into the living room and in front of the couch.

In closing, I’d like to quote Jimmy, a Goodwill worker in South Carolina. I feel he said it best:

“I feel we should keep physical copies and make them have equal value to the digital copies… this way it’ll be a win win situation. A gamer equivalent to having your cake and eat it too, if you will.”

Thanks to all the Gamer Horizon fans who participated in providing content for this article.

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0 thoughts on “The perils of console gaming’s digital future

  1. I truly believe that when games become digital, hacked systems will become more desirable and underground hacking stores will raise. I would gladly make the sacrifice of keeping my system cut off from connectivity to insure that I can play the games I paid for. Taking away digital content we own is the same thing as burning books!


  2. I think Steam is going to be around for a long time so I don’t mind buying digital games on there as much as I do on consoles. On consoles I only buy digital games if they’re exclusively digital, if there’s a sale that’s too good to pass or if it’s a game from previous generations and I just want the convenience of having it as a download, being able to buy a PS1 game on PSN and access it on your PS3, PSP and Vita is a good example of that. I think I only have 3 retail games as downloads on my 360, one was given to me by a friend who had an extra code, one was $3 and the other is Deathsmiles 2 which is self-explanatory. It’s safe to say I will not be getting an Xbox One.


    1. It’s also a question of games being temporary entertainment on all platforms. Right now, the magnifying glass is on the Xbox One, but the PS3, 360, and the Wii, as we all move on, their digital content might not be sustained any more. Admittedly, not a lot of people think about what I just said, so we need to spread the word that it’s not just Microsoft that’s at fault here, but all the current consoles we own as well.


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