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wonderbanana's blog

4:13 PM on 09.08.2009

Digital distribution to kill future classics?

Love D'toids latest post on digital downloads so I thought I'd share my post from a week ago here where it may even get read! :)

Digitally downloading your games is a convenient and often cheaper method of building your games collection. The games are usually automatically patched, the ístoresí never close and they can deliver your chosen game (more or less) there and then.

The lack of packaging probably helps the environment and certainly saves on shelf space; if my house is anything close to normal for a gamer then for many of us there is a constant battle on the shelves between games, movies and music who do not wish their physical selves to be re-located to the darkness that is the bottom drawer.
The major bonus of digital downloads for me though, is that it has allowed a whole series of smaller titles to rise; games that would have struggled within the normal channels are thriving as digital only releases. These titles are spanning everything from traditional bedroom coded projects, publisher back catalogue revamps, right up to the bigger budget exclusives such as the recently released Shadow Complex. Arguably weíve never had it so good!

But the digital distribution model does concern me a great deal. Because as much as Iím enjoying the benefits, I canít help but worry about the future pitfalls.

Some of my favourite games recently (Shadow Complex and Rez HD immediately spring to mind) have been exclusively available via the download model. These are games which, if they had of existed on physical media would have taken up the Ďpremium spaceí on my shelves and relegated a couple of lesser titles to the tomb which is the drawer.

They are both games that I will return to regularly and both are titles I could see myself revisiting in years to come (perhaps more so with Rez HD because of the games nature). The question that irks me though is will I always be able to return to them?

Because the media is digital I am very much reliant on the continued support (in this example) of Microsoft and itís Xbox Live Arcade service.

If my game corrupts or if I change my console, itís easy enough to re-download my games. If I run out of space on my HDD I can temporarily delete a few games and re-download them later. But what happens when that service is no longer there?

Console life cycles vary, but on average a system tends to remain current for around 6 years before it begins to fade into obscurity. Sure some systems last longer (PS2) and some shorter (Dreamcast/Xbox) but eventually they will naturally die in terms of availability. And when that happens the support of both the manufacturer and the various publishers dies too.

With physical media, your game is for the most part safe. It does not die when the support dies, at least not it itís well looked after. Many gamers continue to play their classic games from the very dawn of gamingís short history.

Dead consoles can be replaced via 2nd hand sources such as eBay or the local boot sale as can any poorly looked after games that have become damaged. Ultimately, if you loved a game from yesteryear, itís simple enough on the whole to play it today.

The same principles however do not apply to the download era. Once Xbox 720 and PS4 launch, the services provided to PS3 and 360 owners will gradually decline and eventually cease. Suddenly the security of the re-download feature will become redundant. Will this mean that your much loved games are simply living on borrowed time?

From a personal view, this uncertainty bothers me because I canít imagine the possibility of some of my favourite games being permanently resigned to fond memories. I want to be able to play these games for as long as Iím a gamer, I want to introduce these future classics to the next generation.

We are a completely different model to other media types; games are always based on specific hardware formats, and this is where gaming digital content differs so much from other types of entertainment such as movies and music.

So what happens? Emulation is one answer but it is far from ideal. Thereís no doubt we are spoilt with the excellent emulators that already exist but as systems become more complex, can we really expect these part time non profit coders to keep up?

Even today, there isnít a 100% perfect emulator for the Dreamcast despite the fact the system is over 10 years old and Ďdiedí young. Sega themselves couldnít emulate the Saturn and so eventually acquired the Giri Giri emulator, itself not perfect and now ironically abandoned. And besides, if you Ďowní the game, you surely will want to play it on its original hardware where possible.

In some cases it may be possible to back up the games to DVD/CD, and certainly it is possible with the 360 to do this but it does require a fair amount of know how. On top of that your games are tied to your Live account, and of course thereís no guarantee that in future these accounts will operate in the same manner or for that matter, exist at all.

So are we doomed to losing our favourites? Itís certainly going to be an interesting time when the new consoles hit; I just hope that it doesnít prove to be some kind of Digital D-Day.

In the meantime all eyes are firmly on the PSP Goís download only model. Just donít get too attached to your games eh?   read

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