The Issue of Digital Distribution and Library Longevity

January 24, 2017

Casey Moore – Host

About a decade ago, services like the Playstation Network and Xbox Live Arcade began offering digital games to be downloaded to your consoles, which were sometimes exclusive releases such as Castlevania: Harmony of Despair and Scott Pilgrim: The Movie: The Game but more often classic games like Jet Set Radio and really that’s all you need.  Even earlier in 2003, Valve released the computer-based digital distribution software Steam, allowing consumers to purchase virtual PC games with multiplayer, DLC, developer-side patching, and the now-dirty phrase digital rights management (DRM).

It’s easier than ever to access classic and modern games alike.  With nothing but the power of a credit card and a source of internet connectivity, you can launch your interface of choice and have a game downloading in seconds – or hours, depending on how esoteric the PSN is at the time.  If I were to turn around right this second, I could have Chrono Trigger installed on my Playstation 3 by the end of the hour.

However, it was no mistake that I typed Playstation 3 and not Playstation 4 just then.  While the availability of these games is nigh infinite and production costs are all but nullified, as well as the matter of the war of supply and demand, the matters of persisting availability are becoming something of a concern among gamers and distributors alike.

Last season, we posted an episode of Respawn Lounge involving the issue of preserving video games, and going digital seemed to be the best answer.  A start, but not much more than a band-aid when what we need is surgery – the real issue comes from distribution rights.  Three years ago, Marvel games inconspicuously vanished from digital distribution sources, including the then-recent Deadpool game.  Marvel vs Capcom 3, Spider-Man: Web of Shadows, and several others were simply gone, with explanations largely pointing to Disney’s dissatisfaction with the way their IPs were being published (remember that Disney purchased Marvel a few years ago).  This has been rectified now, but some products remain unavailable such as the DLC characters for Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3.

Harkening to my point about Playstation 4, PSOne classics, at this time of writing, are not available for download on PS4, despite being available on PS3, PSP, and PSVita.  The PSN typically allows cross-platform use of digital content, meaning if you buy Crash Bandicoot on the Playstation Store you can then download it to any compatible device.  This does not extend fully to PS4, despite being Sony’s most modern platform.  It’s not perfectly clear why this is, but some, myself included, speculate that contract oversights with IP owners has an awful lot to do with it.

The question becomes, “Is buying digital games truly preserving that game in my collection for all time?”  This has never been a simple answer – when you buy a digital game, what you’re really buying is the rights to use the product and not true ownership, and this also applies to physical games to some extent.  Strictly, consumers do not have the legal right to edit the code present on, say, Pokemon cartridges, an issue that was a point of interest among competitive players regarding hex editing to obtain competition-ready creatures.

Digital doesn’t seem like as perfect an answer now as we begin to see how ephemeral your library truly is.  Perhaps digital is more sustainable long-term than physical, but perhaps not – the Deadpool game wasn’t available for a full year before being removed from digital distribution services, and although it’s available again now, there was a time that this was an uncertainty.  The longevity of these digital libraries is the responsibility of the distributors and their ability to maintain rights for distribution, as well as providing products that continue to support them.  In our preservation episode we talked about how physical games break and corrode with time, but so do consoles, and if games aren’t made available on future consoles, consumers will continue to have the same issue of needing to keep a physical electronic running ad infinitum if they want their game to be available forever.

There’s no easy fix to this.  Consumers are at the mercy of distributors to keep their games available, and though that sounds extreme, I consider it extremely important to have Chrono Trigger accessible for my entire life.  Ethically, there’s an issue with whether or not consumers are entitled to having access to an intellectual property if the owner doesn’t want it available, causing clash between culture preservation and IP rights.  Unfortunately for the matter of solving this disparity, but fortunately for my sanity, I’m not an authority enough to begin resolving this issue.  What I can do, however, is continue to buy quality games when they re-release to encourage developers to keep their products available.

Equally unfortunately, video games are a consumer product before they’re an art form.  If they aren’t profitable, they’re disposable as far as money is concerned, and money will probably always be a concern.  Perhaps it’s futile to presume that we as consumers have any rights to access these items forever.  Perhaps it’s naïve to suggest we can archive them for all time, for our children and grandchildren to enjoy.  Time will tell, but for now, I’ll let my nostalgia for classic games take point and continue to push for some method, some platform for where games go to die – and therefor, live forever to be enjoyed in 10 years, 100 years, and hopefully until the eventual heat death of the universe.

The future is hopeful from Nintendo, interestingly considering their somewhat draconian digital practices up to now.  In an interview performed by YouTube personality Jared Knabenbauer (ProJared), Nintendo of America President Reggie Fils-Aime noted that they hear the cries of fans regarding cross-platform Virtual Console purchases to keep their library on each console.  It’s not the Megalixer I’m hoping for, but I take solace in the fact that somebody hears what consumers have to say regarding library longevity, and discussing it in a widely-distributed interview bodes well for the future of digital games.  Hopefully, Nintendo will make good on this idea, and perhaps other companies will follow suit.  For us consumers, we need to continue being loud and continue to prove that classic games are a profitable venture for distributors, and so long as Super Mario World continues to be released, I should have no trouble pulling my weight.

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