09 July 2014

Will Current-Gen Games Be Collectible? []

This is a serious question I was asking myself the other day, and I'm sure it's one others have asked as well. It's a question that may seem odd at first, but the more I look at current trends in the video game industry, the more I begin to suspect that it will be much more difficult for people in the 2040s and 2050s to be retro collectors for current-generation games.

"But JT, you numb-witted fearmonger!" you shout at me, "surely you must be jesting. There will always be those who collect games, and perhaps you're just bigoted against the present generation and hence simply want to take opportunity to disparage it via Internet weblog post!"

Believe me, I've got plenty of disparagement to hurl at some of the current-gen systems and games, but this isn't just about my love of systems from the '80s and early '90s. This is just something I'm noticing, and something about which I'm hoping I'm wrong. Let me elucidate my reasoning:

1. Gaming is going digital.

Collecting anything usually requires that that thing be physical (well, unless it's Pokemon or something). So when games stop being physical, they stop being collectible in the essential sense.

Lamentably, this is what seems to be happening. I first noticed this trend when they introduced the PSP Go, which completely ditched the traditional physical media for games downloaded from the PlayStation Network onto Sony Memory Sticks. The PSP Go was a bit of a flop, but the idea stuck, and now it's everywhere.

Whether via PSN, XBLA, whatever the Wii uses, Steam, Origin, and too many others to list, the last few years have seen a large rise in games delivered via download instead of physical media (disc, cartridge, floppy diskette, etc).

This is a major step forward in convenience to the user, without question. I've personally downloaded a number of games via PSN to my PS3 and PSP, many of them retro titles like Metal Slug, King of Fighters '95, R-Type Delta (yes, PS2 counts), et al. Not only is downloading them easier than tracking them down at a resale store or flea market/garage sale, but it's a lot cheaper.

This means that (a) a lot more people will be encouraged to play games they otherwise wouldn't, and (b) the costs for independent developers to produce a title need no longer be bound by the cost for producing the physical medium plus packaging.

At this point, you're now re-reading the title of this post and realizing what this means for collecting. Simply put, digitally downloaded games are platform-dependent and service-dependent. They last so long as there is still a platform to play them and a service that can provide them. So, by way of example, were PSN ever to go away:
  • You would need to maintain that PS3/PS4/PSP/PS Vita (and not all PSN games can play on all of those). More specifically, the storage device which holds the data for your game on that device. Better hope the hard drive never crashes or the memory card never gets corrupted.
  • Even so, a lot of digital titles require you to be logged into PSN to validate that you own the game. Therefore, you may not even be able to start it anymore.
And this is only for keeping your own games. It won't exactly be possible to pick up a copy of a digital-only game secondhand. Nor will you be able to sell off your old digital games. Digital downloading is really convenient, but it doesn't exactly help the collector.

On that note:

2. Game purchases are becoming non-transferable.

We as gamers are not tremendous fans of Digital Rights Management (DRM), although we know why it exists. Piracy hurts sales, and that discourages developers from producing more product. Thus, panicky producers pick pesky, ponderous protection packages to perplex proponents of perfidious piracy (for a while), in the meanwhile peeving paying patrons.

Let us all thank social media and public outcry for scoring a major victory last year. Microsoft was all set to release their Xbox One console with built-in DRM that would effectively nullify the ability to trade in games or share with friends. We stopped that. At least for now, that is.

Even with that pat-on-the-back moment to our credit, it's just a fact of the world now that DRM is and will continue to be present on new software titles for all platforms. It's going to be there, and there's no saying that in the future they won't try again to use DRM to cut off used game sales at the knees. It's already being done at the game level in some cases (see 2011's Mortal Kombat), with "passes" that require players who buy the game used to pay extra for the right to play the game they already purchased. 

This directly affects collectors, because it makes both resale and purchase thereof more difficult. With current retro collecting, you can pick through a group of loose cartridges, pay whatever the seller asks (and maybe less if you bargain correctly), and use them as if you were the original owner on your own console. In the future, this will almost certainly not be the case.

3. Gaming is moving away from consoles.

You don't have to be Sherlock Holmes to observe how quickly the mobile and online game market is growing. Nearly everyone in the United States has some form of mobile device, and even I have been known to use my phone to play Tetris or Solitaire in a spare moment. Whether on Android, iOS, or Facebook, the mobile/web platform is growing steadily, taking more and more time and money away from console gaming.

What does that do for collecting? Same effect as moving to digital games. Nobody is going to be collecting copies of Angry Birds or Temple Run (even if, for some reason, they wanted to do so) for the simple reason that they don't exist apart from a mobile device and an account that says you bought the game.

Let me reiterate: this is where the market is growing on an incredible level, and it's where the money is. Mobile games can be sold for free on the knowledge that users will likely pay more for add-on content than they would for the game up-front. This is great for the economy, but not so much for collectors. If all games go mobile, we just won't be collecting them in the future.

4. Buying a game no longer buys you the whole game.

While we're on that subject, let's talk about DLC. I love DLC; I hate DLC. You'll hear both opinions, and I happen to share both, depending on the context.

I love DLC because it (a) expands the life cycle of a game and (b) allows any major flaws to be corrected without having to re-purchase the game.

I hate DLC because (a) it allows developers to release unfinished games and charge ransom for fixing it; (b) it means that whenever you think you've bought a game, you haven't really bought the game.

Let me illustrate with a common experience: you've just bought Shiny-Awesome-Game for PS3, a couple weeks after the release date. You paid $60 for it, and it's got that wonderful new-game smell to it. You tear off the plastic wrap, open up the case, and pop it into your console. It's ready to go, right?

Well, it would be ready to go, except that you first must download "the most recent version" of the game, because there's been a patch already. Actually, I've gotten pre-ordered games that had updates pre-release. See my first reason above for hating DLC.

Even though patches and upgrades are often free, I still consider them as holding the game for ransom, because it means that, essentially, you haven't bought the game just by purchasing it from the store. This is doubly true for purchased DLC (and triply so for disc-locked content that's actually on the disc but won't be available until you buy it).

Imagine a future collector buying Shiny-Awesome-Game for PS3 in 2034. He dusts off his PS3, boots it up, puts in the disc, and has to hope there's still a PSN around, at least one that will still speak to his PS3, or else he's only going to be able to play the initially available version on the disc. Who'd want to collect that?

5. Everything has a life-span, especially optical media.

I saved this one for last because it's probably the weakest point, but it's still important. In fact, it's one that currently affects collectors for CD-based consoles (Sega CD, Atari Jaguar, Sega Saturn, etc). It's called disc rot. Sounds like a horrible disease, and it is. And it's incurable.

Essentially, CDs will accumulate scratches which expose the data layer to the air, causing oxidation and hence data loss. Once the data's lost due to disc rot, it's just gone. While ROM cartridges have an incredible shelf life (my Atari games from the 1970s – almost 40 years old now –  still work just fine), it's really only a matter of a decade or so before CDs start to degrade. DVDs last longer, due to their better protective coating, but they're still susceptible. I've even seen stories of Blu-ray discs going bad already, although those may be just bad batches (do a Google search to see the horror stories for yourself). So this is a problem that will affect current games less, but may still become an ever-increasing problem.

By the way: this affects solid-state storage (like flash drives and memory cards) as well. Keep backups of your games for PSP, in other words.

Okay, JT, we get it...final thoughts?

So all of these factors are what have me worrying about the future of collecting. It's not that games being released now aren't good enough to be worth collecting (well...not just that) or that the market is about to collapse, leaving games worth nothing (we've survived that before),  but simply that future collectors may not have anything that can be collected.

Where do we go from here? Well, unfortunately there's not much we can do. It makes great business sense to move to the digital distribution model, so there's not much stopping it. We can protest DRM all we want, but it's going to persist.

If all else fails, though...well, let's see how long my Atari lasts.



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