Stu Strock has been gaming since his parents sat him in their laps while playing games on an Amiga. Raised mostly on RPGs, he has since developed a keen interest in the narrative potential and immersive qualities of games. As games progressed and evolved over the years, that interest grew and Stu decided to keep games and their culture close by. During high school and college, he worked part-time for Gamestop and became exposed to a wider range of thought concerning what the word game means to players. Now a recent graduate, Stu is currently living in Atlanta, GA and maintains his blog, Experience Points, which seeks to encourage the open discourse of the creation, enjoyment and potential of modern games.
Stu's favorites: Metal Gear Solid (series), Chrono Trigger/Cross, Breath of Fire (series), Grandia, Suikoden (I and II), Final Fantasy (VIII, X and XII), Mirror's Edge, Demon's Souls, Silent Hill (series), Eternal Sonata, Fallout: New Vegas, Batman Arkham Asylum, Legend of Zelda (series), Okami, Ys (series), Valyrie Profile, Kingdom Hearts (series), Tales of Symphonia, Twisted Metal (series), Legacy of Kain (series), Gex (series), Heavy Rain, Wing Commander IV, Ace Combat (series), Zone of the Enders (series), Atelier Iris (I and II), Ico, Shadow of the Colossus
This morning, Destructoid's front page featured an article in which Jim Sterling commented on the announcement by Remedy's CEO, Matias Myllyrinne, that games should go all-digital as quickly as possible. Myllyrinne cited incredibly vague reasoning for this claim, "I donít think the big, huge experiences are going anywhere, but the sooner we go digital as an industry, the better for everybody." This isn't necessarily true, of course, as Jim pointed out; many people simply can't afford to consistently buy new games (myself included) and used sales would suffer a fatal blow should games go completely digital. Clearly not considering this point from the view of his own customers, Myllyrinne went on to show zero sympathy for retailers that sell used games, "...if youíre selling our games as used copies and incentivising people to do that, then I donít really feel sorry for you." This has already sparked some serious verbal backlash, for proof just take a look at the comments section in Jim's original post. I'm not here to tell you what you already know, though; I want to discuss the major problems facing all-digital gaming and to take the controversial stance that we should do it anyway.
I'll begin with a few confessions. I love the feeling of tearing the shrink wrap from the packaging of a new game and opening it for the first time. The slight resistance of an unworn case spine, the vibrant art looking up at me from the game manual and the disc face, the smell of a new game. This whole process has become something of a ritual to me and I treasure every moment of it. I stand in long lines for it. I pay for it. This experience has not lost any appeal as I have gotten older, and if games became 100% digital I would never be able to have it again.
Next, I love my game collection. I proudly display it, separated by system, with each subdivision in alphabetical order (most of the time, anyway). Each game is a memory, for better or for worse, and each deserves remembering as a brick in the edifice of my love for video games. If games ceased to be stored on physical media, my collection would seemingly stop growing. Again, the collector in me weeps.
Lastly, I enjoy sharing my games with my friends and neighbors. If I have a great experience with a game I want others to have it, too, whether that means letting them borrow the game or inviting them over to play. Digital games in their current state are not known for accommodating such social endeavors. You download the game and it becomes locked to your account. Sure, you could log in from someone else's computer, but then you would have to download and install the game, which takes a while. If it's a long game, then your friend will need your account to access it. I don't know about you, but I don't like to give out information that can potentially link other people to my credit cards. Yet another area where digital media falls short.
Personal reasons aside, there are greater pitfalls to a fully-digital conversion of the gaming market. Not the least of which is that not everyone in the market has access to the internet, a critical tool for the procurement of digital media. What's more, many of those that do have consistent internet access are now facing monthly bandwidth caps from their ISPs. Downloading full-sized games adds up quickly, and it's only going to add up faster as games get bigger. As an example, Crysis 2 is approximately 9 gigs. To many of us that doesn't sound like too much, but consider a scenario in which your ISP limits your monthly bandwidth to 100 gigs a month. This is a generous example, since Canada's Bell Internet recently announced it would be throttling back its bandwidth caps to as low as 25 GB/month. Regulations such as these pose real problems for any aspiring digital media consumer unfortunate enough to be affected by them.
Why, then, should games make the segue to digital distribution? After all, it's clear that there are plenty of reasons not to. The answer to me is simple: the current distribution model for games is incredibly wasteful. The factories produce the physical product, using tons of energy and expelling heavy amounts of particulates into the air. The shipping materials and vehicles necessary to transport the product to its destination. The packaging for the game itself. Plastic, paper, oil, electricity, all of it detracting from the planet's already failing health. Rafts of plastic and miscellaneous junk are floating along our oceans. Estimates place the size of the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch" at over twice the landmass of Texas. The degradation of the ozone layer by carbon waste products in the air has already led to a change in our global climate and is causing radical changes in our environment. Don't believe me? Ask the families of the 190+ people recently killed in Alabama by one of the worst tornadoes on record. Reports indicated that is was over half a mile wide. Our actions have consequences, and we're finally starting to see those consequences.
I'm not trying to imply that modern game consumer culture is somehow going to be responsible for the destruction of the planet. What I am saying is that we can really make a difference by cutting out the physical materials that go into the distribution and consumption of video games. This is not about cutting out the retailers selling used games or shafting the consumers who can't afford new games; it is about taking a new approach to the way we consume electronic media. For those of you still concerned with the affordability of digital media, consider the following. The cost of distributing and packaging games is steep. Hell, just look at the price of gas!
Without the need to manufacture and distribute games, their prices could realistically drop by a sizable amount. Would the companies charge less at first? Probably not, but that's where you come in. You are the consumer; you're the reason they exist. Raise enough of a stink and you'll get your way. I guarantee it. I'm not finished yet, though; I've planted the idea, now I'm going to run with it.
What of the collector's personal taste that I mentioned I'm afflicted with? If you're a collector, chances are that you buy collector's edition games now and again. Game companies could continue to distribute collector's editions, complete with boxes and any extras that get thrown in. In fact, with their decreased expenditures on physical distribution, they might even be able to include better bonuses. You know what I mean; you pay $10 extra for a limited edition game and it only comes with a 16-page art book. What a letdown.
Next we have to consider the problem of sharing games. As I mentioned earlier, there is always the possibility of sharing an account with someone. For sharing with people less 'familiar,' however, there should be alternatives. Perhaps each purchase of a digital game could come with a handful of codes to give someone a free trial of the game. If the company is feeling particularly generous, the code could even be redeemable for a full copy of the game (I'm thinking promotional sales on that one). I like to think of it as akin to the "digital copy" that so often comes with Blurays these days. I pretty much always give that code to a friend. Moreover, it's a bit more effort, but with the Xbox360 the option is always there to pop the hard drive off and bring it to a friend's house.
Alternatively, for those of you who don't like to feel obligated, consider new services like OnLive. They are 100% digital and allow for free demos of any game in their library and the option to rent a full game for a number of days. The rates for services such as these are well within the realm of affordability. Even better is eliminating the need for hard drives at all; OnLive saves your game data in the cloud. I know there are those of you out there who will ask, "but what if someone hacks their servers and steals or otherwise eliminates my game data?" My answer is one of harsh reality. Sometimes people are pricks and do things like that. What if someone broke into your house and stole your games and your console? It is undeniably unpleasant, but I would argue that the likelihood of your physical media being stolen is higher than that of your digital media. There is still the problem of bandwidth throttling, or, worse still, a total lack of internet access.
These problems are a lot more difficult to solve, and I won't pretend to have all the answers. Internet service providers do not appear to be wavering in their vision for the future of internet service. The recession is hitting them hard, like everyone else, and they are determined to recoup costs by charging us out the nose for less actual service. It all reminds me of the days when unlimited text messages plans were unheard of and companies made a mint on the instantaneous messaging between two people. The answer, I believe, lies with the game companies and unaffiliated retailers.
Having worked for Gamestop for years, I can assure you that they and other retailers are no strangers to figuring out better ways of making money. Let's imagine for a moment that digital transactions actually become the predominant method of video game distribution. Not to be cut out of the loop, companies that previously depended upon used games as a primary source of profit would be forced to adapt or die. Such is the law of both business and nature. A decent example comes to me from a small game retailer near my parents' house in Pennsylvania. Here, paying members to the store's loyalty program may play any game in the store on a large TV and decide whether or not to purchase the game.
With all-digital games, these retailers could effectively segue to established game lounges/distributors. Buying a game from these locations may cost a few dollars more, but that extra cost would go to the installation of a digital game to a relevant storage device that you already own. As an alternative, game companies could arrange deals with ISPs to cover the cost of added bandwidth usage when downloading their products. Perhaps the customer selects their ISP upon purchasing a product, and the file downloaded carries with it a marker that alerts the ISP to its existence as a 'sponsored' download. With the decreased expenditures outlined earlier, the cost for companies to execute a deal like this would be marginal at worst.
Is all of this idealistic? Sure. Nevertheless, I believe radical change like what I have outlined here is not only plausible, it would go a long way toward making the world a better place. Apocalyptic wastelands with scorching suns and scarce resources are fun in movies and games, but I, for one, don't want to see the Earth become one. We are all capable of instituting wonderful change upon this planet, but we need to put our selfish consumerist tendencies aside, myself included. Converting to all-digital media is not an easy idea to swallow, but neither was the idea that cigarettes cause cancer. Times change, we need to change with them.