In the dead of night people think about a lot of things. I think about the extinction of video games.
In their native Japan, forgotten video game cartridges are left to yellow with age in the bargain bins of Akihabara’s second hand stores. Nowadays the thought of a physical cartridge containing a console video game is strange, and with the coming change in generation the mere concept of purchasing a physical disc in a box will be laughable in a matter of years.
As you hold a magazine in your hands, I hope the irony isn’t lost on you.
But with the transition from buying physical disks in a shopping centre, to queuing downloads from online stores with exclusive pre order DLC, our understanding of video game ownership changes.
We appreciate the digital purchase of games is tied to our online accounts, and that we are reliant on two things. The first is that our console will remain intact and safe from harm (a terrifying concept given the prevalence of hardware failures this generation). The second is a belief that the servers hosting our content will remain alive and well years after the fanfare for that generation has gone.
The truth is, when the current generation’s servers spin down and the lights go off, we have no idea what will happen to an entire generation of video games. The fate of almost a decade of digital games is in the hands of the publishers who will make rational economic decisions about what makes it to the next platforms. Games that fall into awkward licensing quagmires and those seen as pariahs of commercial failure will be lost along the way. There is no room for Gregory Horror Show in the next generation.
As a collector and borderline hoarder of video games, conservation of the medium in a digital age worries me.
For the most part though, the majority of us won’t care. PlayStation Plus has a firm foothold in the market, and as the paid service sinks its meat-hooks into early adopters purchasing a PlayStation 4, we’ll eat up digital offers for unique content and the ability to purchase exclusive games online at a reduced cost.
My tipping point to digital ownership was my North American PlayStation Plus account and glorious Day 1 Digital releases. The biggest and best games available cheaper and earlier. A tempting option for canny Aussies who can recall US zip codes or work the Google, Day 1 Digital releases allowed me to purchase the game I wanted, for half the price, with premium DLC and often at least 48 hours before the Australian release in stores.
I sold out for a discount and early access. And as the curtain falls on my PlayStation 3, it sits nestled on my shelf, sputtering dust and fat with a terabyte of PlayStation games tied to a PlayStation Plus service and no guarantees. I shudder to think what I’ve spent on digital releases and what I stand to lose when my old 60gig fat bastard kicks the bucket.
But why do publishers switch off servers, and should they be responsible for archiving their own games, or in the case of platform holders like Sony, should they be supporting the games made by publishers who have supported them?
The short answer is publishers often move on to the next game before the last even hits the shelves. Console servers have been incredibly expensive and difficult to secure in this generation. Publishers chase an active multiplayer community to help sell copies of their game in volume. If a game doesn’t work at retail or fails to gain traction with a community, servers are migrated and it dies a lonely death. While we’ve come to expect this lifecycle for annualised sports franchises, it has also meant the end for games that were reliant on servers to not only host multiplayer matches, but often large portions of content as was the case for the now extinct From Software’s Chromehounds.
When a server switches off what’s lost isn’t just balanced multiplayer match-making, it’s some of the best parts of why I love video games; user generated content and obscure downloadable games. What happens to games like Flower when the PlayStation goes the way of the Atari 2600? Not every publisher is going to put out disc versions if it doesn’t make fiscal sense. The reality is video games are a business.
When the servers turn off, content will be gone forever. Think of the millions of unique pieces of user generated content painstaking created for Little Big Planet. Gone. Def Jam: Vendetta for PSP. Gone, because the demand for its availability didn’t match expensive licensing deals for music and character likeness.
You don’t have to listen to what I have to say, I’m a crazy person who has a room dedicated to collections of Neo Geo and Dreamcast, but old games are a part of our history and are important. The next time you see a copy of Just Cause 2 or Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay in a bargain bin, buy it and save it for later. Because there’s no guarantee you’ll see it again.
– Paul Houlihan
This article first appeared in Official PlayStation Magazine Australia and has been republished with the approval of Citrus Media.