Gaming as we know it has gone through a lot of changes from its conception. The largest of these, at least in my experience, have been due to the internet. First, in the realm of multiplayer gameplay. I remember my first multiplayer experiences were games like Excite Bike or Contra. Games like In The Hunt, or Gunstar Heroes. These were very basic co-op games that allowed to people to play at the same time. You didn’t interact much with each other, it was merely fun to play at the same time as your friends. The N64 introduced 4-player multiplayer with the likes of GoldenEye (a game that shall never be forgotten). The largest change, though, came with the internet. These days, our shooters are 12 on 12 or more. They’re massive multiplayer contests. We take these things for granted now, but they were really quite unheard of just 15 years ago.
However, we didn’t lose anything with this shift. Titles like Castle Crashers still give us the same feel that we got out of Streets of Rage. The internet just makes it easier to get our friends together, while also allowing more of our friends to get in on the action. A win/win. However, the internet is taking one thing from us as well… The physical distribution medium.
I have every confidence that digital downloads will be the only way to acquire games in the future. Maybe not the next generation of consoles, but perhaps by the one after that. Every child growing up today with an iPhone is already accustomed to the notion that buying games means going to an online store, and downloading the title. We all know that Steam allows us perhaps the easiest access to PC gaming that we’ve ever had. Can you honestly remember the last time you went and purchased a PC game? Rather than downloading it from the internet? Consoles are really the last bastion of physical distribution that we see today, and it’s only a matter of time before they go the same way.
Objectively, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s easier for the distributor and the player. It solves the “used game sales” problem, ensuring that companies that make good games get paid for them. It means you’ll never lose or break another disk again. However, it also means we lose this:
Yup, that’s my bookshelf. Taken minutes before I started writing this article. I’ve got all the games I’ve seen fit to keep since the N64 and PS1 (sadly lost most of my NES, SNES, and Sega Genesis stuff…). I’ve got original copies of Valkyrie Profile, Final Fantasy Tactics, and Ico. Gold cartridges of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. A signed copy of Catherine. I’ve kept all the games that I played throughout my life that made me think: “Damn, this game is something special. This game has something that no other game has, and it’s worth keeping forever.”
In 10 years, or however long it takes, when we have a purely digital distribution of games, this sort of bookshelf won’t exist. There will be no stacks of wonderful box-art. You won’t be able to walk by your collection on your way out and think: “Man, yeah, that title was awesome”. And that’s sad to me. I’m the type of guy that still buys books. I don’t have many, because I’m poor and TGF doesn’t pay me, but those that I do own, I want physical copies of. I don’t own a Nook or Kindle or whatever for that very reason.
There is just a tactile value in having a physical object that is irreplaceable. I am proud of my collection of games and books, but I have no such pride in the fact that I have maybe 13 downloaded games on my PS3. Maybe another 8 on my iPhone? I can’t even tell you what they are except for maybe Journey and Fat Princess? I imagine a lot of the younger generation is going to not have any idea why I dread the day when digital downloads become our only option (because, again, I promise you that day is coming), and that some of the older gamers among you already understand exactly what I’m getting at.
So in the end, what is the point of this article if I’m not really telling anyone anything new? Maybe it’s just a preemptive attempt to acknowledge an inevitable loss. All I know for sure, is that when I have a child of my own and the day comes when we pull down the boxes from the attic, and I hand him or her a pristine copy of Xenogears, that it’s going to mean a lot to me to physically pass the torch. And I wouldn’t trade that for all the convenience or practicality in the world.