When I started gaming 15 or so years ago, buying physical cartridges and discs was the only option for playing video games at home.
In the digital age, however, there is another choice that is quickly gained popularity: downloading games. I’ve been opting for digital games more than physical ones in recent years, but the more I do, the more I worry about what that means for the future of my gaming library.
There are plenty of reasons gamers opt to download rather than buy physical versions of games. Most obviously, it’s incredibly convenient.
Back in college, I often had to go to Walmart or GameStop hours before a midnight release of a highly anticipated game in order to snag a copy and start playing as soon as it was available. While I always made an adventure out of it, I ended up wasting hours standing in line during each release. These days, it is a common practice to pay for and download a game before its midnight release and start gaming as soon as it launches, all from the comfort of your couch. It's hard to pass up on that convenience.
As another bonus, digital games don’t require a disc that takes up space in your home. I’ve always liked physical media; it just looks nice having a bunch of different games on your shelf. But many gamers are equally content without a physical disc that can be broken, lost or stolen, effectively ending the ability to play it. Digital games don’t go “bad,” so there’s no worry there, right?
According to Microsoft and Sony, when you buy a digital copy of a game, you’re not really purchasing it to become its “owner.” Instead, you’re buying a license to play it for as long as the respective company determines you should. That could be forever--but very likely, it is not.
Decades from now, it’s possible publishers will clear out parts of their libraries by dumping old games, kind of like when publishers shut down online servers for old multiplayer games, effectively killing them. When that happens, any digital games you “own” that you don’t already have downloaded will be gone forever.
Something similar happened when developer Hideo Kojima released “P.T,” a free demo of his upcoming “Silent Hill” horror game. Fans quickly downloaded the free demo and lauded it as an excellent horror experience. But the demo was suddenly pulled from the PlayStation store, and those who hadn't downloaded it missed their chance. And those with “P.T” on their consoles can never delete it because the ability to re-download the game is gone.
Imagine this happening with games you pay for. It’s an uncomfortable thought.
I own a PlayStation 2, Xbox 360, PS3, Xbox One and PS4, and with each console generation, you can see the number of physical games I own shrink as my digital library grows. My Xbox One games are primarily digital. I have so many they can’t all fit on my Xbox One’s hard drive, meaning I often have to re-download games from my library when I want to play them.
And, considering Microsoft’s and Sony’s terms of service, that worries me. I don’t often boot up my old consoles to play old games, but it’s nice knowing I have the option. That comfort isn’t necessarily there with digital games.
Fortunately, physical copies of old games will be around for decades, and publishers have a tendency to remaster popular old games for newer consoles anyway. It won’t be time to panic until buying digital games becomes consumers’ only option.
As the world moves away from physical media, let’s hope consumers always have the choice of buying game discs so we never have to face a day when our favorite classic games have been lost forever.