Monday, June 13, 2016

The Digital Dilemma

I try to keep this blog focused on video games, but what happened in Orlando this weekend is incredibly hard to ignore. After a shooter's rampage in a gay nightclub, there are fifty people dead, fifty people bleeding, and at least that many politicians offering phony "thoughts and prayers" when they should be doing their jobs. I'd like to say I expect better from this country, but the fact that I don't honestly believe this is intensely worrying.

If you want to help (and I mean actually help, unlike the aforementioned politicians), you can do that by clicking this link and giving some much-needed money to the survivors of this needless, yet all too familiar tragedy. Thanks.

So yeah, video games. It's not a subject that's first and foremost on my mind, but there was something I've been wanting to discuss for a few days. In the early days of Wheel of Fortune, host Pat Sajak frequently reminded contestants that "once you buy a prize, it's yours to keep." It was a catchphrase that stuck with me long after Wheel abandoned its showcases filled with tacky ceramic dalmatians and Spiegel gift certificates. If you can't keep something and hold it in your hands, why even pretend that you own it?

This mentality left me reluctant to embrace digital distribution, but over a decade after the launch of the Xbox 360 and Steam, I'm starting to come around. What digital distribution lacks in permanence, it more than makes up for in convenience, as illustrated by my move to Arizona a couple of years ago. When I climbed aboard that plane headed for Tucson, there was only so much of my physical collection I could take with me, but all the games I bought on Xbox Live, PSN, and Nintendo's eShop took up no space in my luggage. Having a digital collection meant dozens of my games were available wherever I went, without actually being there.

There's another benefit to buying digitally... once you buy a prize it really is yours to keep. I can't count the number of times I've sold games in my physical collection to stretch my budget, but that's never a temptation with digital because you only own the license, and that can't be transferred to anyone else. Couple that with weekly online sales which drastically undercut retail prices and you've got a way to build a massive library of games that's always at your fingertips.

Well, maybe always. Digital libraries are still relatively new, and nobody knows for sure where their collections will be in the future. When console manufacturers like Sony and Microsoft abandon their old hardware, will players still be able to access the games they've purchased, or will all that software be lost once the servers are shut down? It's a question that's left older players, especially preservationists, on edge. They own cartridge-based games that date back to the '70s and '80s. Will their digital libraries stand the test of time as well? With Sony abandoning backward compatibility and adopting a streaming subscription service to take its place, it's hard to be optimistic about the answer.

So I might come to regret it later, but for now, I'm happy buying my games digitally. Hey, it keeps me from having to get off the couch to swap discs.

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