Digital Death Knell

As the reality of a digital download only future grows ever more likely, Luke looks at the ramifications this will have for the industry, gamers and collectors.

By Luke Brown. Posted 09/13/2012 14:00 4 Comments     ShareThis

You may have recently read about a video game collection which has apparently sold on ebay for $1.2 million. Whilst some have questioned the validity of the sale, the amount of coverage generated by the news points to one thing: video game collecting is serious business.

Since the first wave of games consoles was released in the late 1970’s, there have always been video game collectors. However, as technology progresses ever faster, it seems that the onset of nostalgia and a longing for times past happens more and more quickly. In recent years interest in video game collecting and retro-games and gaming appears to have hit the big time. The fact that the new Disney Pixar movie Wreck-It- Ralph is a loving homage to the medium proves as much. The pale and pasty misfits are slowly dragging themselves from their mothers basements and are now thrusting retro gaming and games collecting into the mainstream.

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This has got to be better than the Super Mario Bros. movie right?

I still find it incredible how quickly we yearn for the past. It only seems like we were all playing Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 two minutes ago but already they’re being spoken about as if they existed long, long ago, shrouded in the mists of time. As a result of this, the cost of retro games is increasing rapidly as collectors clamour to recapture a piece of their past. YouTube is rife with gamers proudly showing off their collections or un-boxing their latest find. In addition to this, the last couple of years has seen a massive increase in so called “home-brew” games which are still being developed for consoles we thought had been consigned to history. It’s as if we’re all desperately trying to cling to the past, refusing to accept the fact that, to quote Bob Dylan, the times they are a-changin’, and that this process is accelerating with each passing day.

misc_supermetroidinstructionmanual.jpegI’m sure you all appreciate the simple pleasure of visiting a video game shop and collecting a brand new game, stepping out into the open as you frantically unwrap the cellophane, remove the multitude of stickers with trembling hands, open the box, remove the instruction booklet, bring it to your face and breath deeply. This process has always been an absolute joy for me and this feeling has never been diminished, even as the lines on my face furrow ever deeper and my general cynicism towards life increases, I can still find solace in the smell of an old video game manual.

Imagine a world in which this experience is no longer possible; a world without relationships being destroyed by a stubborn refusal to surrender his or her ‘games’ room to a baby and its nursery; a world with no discs to scratch; no cartridges to frantically blow into in the hope we can squeeze a few more precious moments out of Mario Kart; no physical games to hold as our hands tremble with anticipation. A world in which games are solely available via digital download.

The above scenario will become a reality in the not too distant future and we are undoubtedly moving towards a time when entire game collections will exist purely in the digital realm. Valve have been offering a digital download service via Steam for some time now and, only recently, New Super Mario Bros. 2 was made available for download via Nintendo’s eShop. Furthermore, the boom in the download-centric mobile gaming market has drawn envious glances from companies such as Nintendo, who have watched on helplessly as Angry Birds has become a global phenomenon and been downloaded over a billion times! However, keep in mind that it costs less than £1 for me to download most mobile games, whereas a digital copy of New Super Mario Bros. 2 costs approximately £39.99. Nintendo must make sure they get the pricing right if their loyal followers are going to fully embrace the notion that digital downloads are the future.

image_nes-super-mario-bros-3-cart.jpegIt’s hard to explain why I’m so adverse to the idea of this process for video games, especially when I have to admit that I love utilising download-only purchases for music and, to a lesser extent, films. I adore iTunes and was only to happy to consign my old CD collection to the past or, more accurately, the back of a cupboard. I guess it’s just because video games are my passion and, in much the same way as a collector of vinyl would consider the notion of converting to digital downloads a heresy, I feel that a conversion to download only releases will somewhat lessen the magic. Then again, maybe I am just blinded by nostalgia. Was blowing into an ageing NES or SNES cartridge repeatedly ever really that wonderful?

It must also be said that I love my collection of Virtual Console games. These downloads have enabled me to accumulate a collection of games that would otherwise have cost me a considerable amount of money. However, the fact of the matter is that this doesn’t really feel like a collection. The games don’t exist in any tangible space, as if they are just floating in the Nintendo ether. I don’t really feel as if I actually own these games, which is slightly galling for me. Now we must all learn to accept that this may well be the case for all releases in the future, certainly if the developers have their way. I would happily predict that any console released after the next wave of hardware, will be disc-drive free. No boxes to lovingly caress and arrange; no instruction booklets to sniff… It damn near breaks my heart.

Digital downloads are convenient, fast (in the majority of cases), clean and clinical. But where’s the sense of excitement that comes with attending a midnight opening in the pouring rain, surrounded by slightly unhinged individuals who have been camping outside for weeks on end? Where’s the wonder of pouring over the box-art and instruction manual during the journey home? The whole argument seems to have created a real sense of “them VS. us” within the gaming community. An army of passionate fans standing against the evil corporations who want to meddle in our gaming routines and rituals and drag us kicking and screaming into a download only reality. I admit this is something of an exaggeration, but a future in which all games are stored on a hard drive and not a dusty, lovingly assembled set of shelves is difficult for me to accept.

The main justification for this change seems to be that it will prevent piracy and, ultimately, be less costly for us gamers. This may well be the case to begin with but we all know that hackers will quickly find a way to exploit the new technology. The only thing we can be sure about is that this change will also spell the final death knell for the second hand and used video game market. By including download only content codes with the majority of recent mainstream releases the game development companies have already started the ball rolling and this strategy will become utilised more and more as time goes on. The foundation for a digital only future has been well and truly lain. Nintendo may not have been at the forefront of this for traditional releases but the Nintendo e-shop is a sure sign that this is likely to change, very quickly.

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The future has already begun.

A purely digital future is inevitable, no matter how loud we may protest or stamp our feet. It’s looming on the horizon like an approaching tsunami from which there is no escape. We can try and deny it is coming for us but ultimately, there can be no escape. We will all have to make a decision sometime– do we accept defeat and dive on in, or do we retreat to our living rooms, close the curtains, lock the door and alphabetise our Super Nintendo cartridges, as the rest of society surf the digital download wave? Don’t be shy, my constant readers. Throw in your two cents.

4 Responses to “Digital Death Knell”

  • 282 points
    Kyle England says...

    I’m clinging to physical media for as long as I possibly can. I absolutely LOVE collecting video games and the fact that some games in the future may not be collectible really gets me down in the dumps.

    And of course we have parts of games that can only be accessible online that will disappear eventually. It’s already started to happen– games from last generation have started to go offline, which means future players will be forever left with an incomplete video game. Our dependence on the net and downloads is very convenient and cost-efficient, but it doesn’t last like a physical game. So it goes.

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  • 201 points
    NintendoDad says...

    I’m sad to see the physical medium being phased out. While I’m older, I was also old enough when the NES came out to know how to take care of my games. I now have an impressive collection of over 400 NES, SNES, Genesis, N64, GCN, Wii, GBA, DS, and 3DS games, all with the original boxes and instructions, all in great condition. Although most are currently boxed up, there have been times in my life when I’ve had them all out on display in my “game room.” It gives me great joy to look at them and seeing the boxes of many bring back great memories.

    However, with the 3DS and the WiiU, I think I’m about to go all digital. Its bound to happen sooner or later so I might as well start now. I did buy the box copy of New Super Mario Bro’s 2 instead of the download. I told myself it was because I got a deal on it. However, part of me also thinks it’s because I don’t want to commit to digital.

    I guess my next “test” will be Paper Mario Sticker Star, and then soon after the WiiU titles. I guess I have another month or two to really decide. But I know it’s coming, and with Nintendo’s 10% back program on the WiiU, digitals are the future.

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  • 120 points
    NinSage says...

    “The above scenario will become a reality in the not too distant future and we are undoubtedly moving towards a time when entire game collections will exist purely in the digital realm.”

    I just plain disagree.

    People love to rush to conclusions like this. It’s a type of thinking that reminds me a lot of Conan O’Brien’s “In the year 2/3000” skits.

    Radio was supposed to be killed off when TV got big, print of all kinds was supposed to be dead a decade ago, the list goes on …

    The bottom line is this: as long as people (like us) keeping spending the vast majority of our gaming dollars on physical media instead of digital downloads, guess what? These companies will be more than happy to sell them to us.

    If someone tries to phase out physical all together, they will likely suffer poorer sales for it.

    Steam and Smartphones are different because they never had a physical version to begin with. Those services sprung up and said “want in?” and people said yes. But they didn’t have to GIVE UP anything in the process.

    A 100% digital industry would require gamers to be happy GIVING UP their physical media and THEN opting in.

    … I just don’t ever see that happening. I just played DuckTales on my NES with some friends YESTERDAY. Unless people are short-sighted, they will have to realize that wouldn’t be possible in the future with a modern purchase. MAYBE if a future service happens to offer a specific game, fine, but even then you’d have to BUY IT AGAIN.

    … and that ain’t cool.

    So, everyone take a page from Olivia Newton John’s book and “let’s get physical!!” ^_^

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  • 22 points
    Luke Brown says...

    Obviously physical game collections for past systems will continue to exist and be enjoyed, so we are not really being asked to give anything up as such.

    Also, it would be perfectly feasible for someone to be playing a game that they purchased digitally years ago in the same way that you played Duck Tales. I very much doubt that any downloads would expire once they have been purchased. As long as you keep the systems, a digital collection could be kept for as long as required.

    I’m not saying this is the scenario I want. However, with Valves announcement that they are creating a games system (which I guarantee will provide games via download only) and the new Ouya system, I am confident that the generation of consoles that follow Wii U, 720 and PS3 will be download only too.

    For the record, I hope NinSage is correct on this one.

    Thumb up 0

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