Give Me My Digital Future

This is (probably) the only time I’m going to say this; Bruce Willis inspired these words. Not because I loved Die Hard 4.0 or Moonlighting, but because of some legal action he’s taking against Apple. You may have already heard this news story, but in short Mr Willis is taking Apple to court over just who actually owns the music he’s downloaded. He says that he owns it and should be free to pass it on after his death, while Apple say he’s only actually borrowed it, and that he can’t pass it on. Anyway, it got me thinking. Will gamers accept a digital-only future where we never actually own games outright? I often hear gamers say that it’ll never happen, and we’ll always be able to buy physical copies, or that they wouldn’t be happy with only being able to download things, but I’m not so sure. I think there’s plenty to suggest that gamers are ready for a digital-only brave new world right now, they just don’t know it yet.

My first piece of evidence is the use of Online Pass codes. I realise this may be a bit of a tangent, but in a way the online pass code does suggest that gamers would be fine with the concept of borrowing games. This month many of us will be buying the latest FIFA game from EA; the disc we buy will contain both single player and multiplayer modes, but only a portion of that is available to us just by dropping the game in the disc tray. EA withholds part of our content until we jump through the extra hoop of inputting a code. Sales won’t be impacted by this, and I doubt any of us will be demanding a cheaper, offline only version of the game, so it seems only natural to conclude that gamers are at least willing to let publishers tell them what they can do with their content. Many of us might not like these codes, but we do put up with them.

Every game we buy that has a pass code attached to it weakens our resolve until eventually we accept it as a reality. Sure, forcing us to accept online codes is a pretty heavy-handed way of going about things, but it does train us to accept having less control over our content.

Now that I’ve sold you the gateway drug that is the Online Pass, it’s time to show you the good stuff; PlayStation Plus. For those of you not familiar with PS Plus, it’s a subscription service offering PSN account holders a host of small quality of life type improvements to the basic account. Things like cloud storage and background downloads for example. The key bullet point of PS Plus however has always been “free” games. I used quotations marks there because this “free” isn’t the “yours to keep forever” type of free, it’s the “books from your local library are free” type of free. Sony only allows you to play these games whilst you’re a paying subscriber, stop paying and you lose access. Just like your local library, eventually you have to return what you’ve borrowed.

I’m fine with that though, and based on comments from friends, a lot of other people are fine with it too. I know that PS Plus also offers (slightly) discounted games to buy outright, but Sony doesn’t make a big deal about those. Both at E3 and Gamescom, Sony talked about expanding the free offer. Gamers like this kind of “free”, that’s why we’re ready for the digital-only age.

Of course, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that gamers won’t go for this whole idea, and I can blow a massive great hole in my piece with just one word; OnLive. If gamers were at all interested in this, OnLive wouldn’t have just imploded. Yes, the company is still in business, but only after letting a huge chunk of its staff go and selling up to an venture capitalist. Clearly the company isn’t a commercial success. OnLive was already offering the kind of thing I’m talking about, and by and large, gamers didn’t go for it. Sure, there were latency issues involved with the multiplayer side of things, but users still had access to large number of games with great single player content, so OnLive’s failure can’t be entirely about the technical issues. Almost everyone I know who tried the service said something similar when reviewing it; “It’s OK”. If there’s one thing we can conclude from OnLive regarding a digital future, it’s that if the delivery isn’t absolutely perfect then paying to rent games is always going to come second best to actually owning them.

I’ve always thought that a console with only digitally delivered content was an inevitability. Both Netflix and Apple have shown that consumers are willing to pay for content without actually owning it, and gamers can’t be far behind. We’re halfway there as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of consoles take us the rest of the way there. Ask yourself, how often do you specifically go shopping for a DVD or CD these days? Not very often I’m betting. If I want to watch a reasonably recent film, I stream it. If I want to buy an album, I download it. Unless it’s some kind of special edition boxed set, I never buy a physical copy. The digital-only business model already works outside of gaming, it won’t be long before Sony and Microsoft make it work within gaming.

Chris Jacobs

Old enough to remember the Atari 2600, I’ve seen my fair share of consoles come and go. Xbox and PlayStation owning PC convert. Also, father of two and amateur Hobnob enthusiast.

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  1. james bowerbank
    September 25, 2012, 3:46 pm

    I can’t thing of anything worse than a digital only future as it is, I generally buy all things in a physical form where possible (books, music, comics, games, movies etc) the only time I will purchase something digitally is if it is significantly cheaper than its physical counterpart, this whole idea that a digital copy holds the same value as a physical copy which you can do with as you please it’s complete nonsense!

  2. Ujn Hunter
    September 25, 2012, 4:26 pm

    I won’t be buying games any longer in an all digital world. Give me retail or give me death! I actually won’t even buy games that include an online pass “new”, I buy them from Gamefly instead.

  3. Lee Williams
    September 25, 2012, 9:07 pm

    I’m gonna be honest as much as I would like to see it happen I don’t think it will not for a long time. Problem is I want bigger, better and sexier games which means they are gonna be larger file sizes. Say for example next gen actually starts filling a blu ray disc – that 50gb of data, that’s gonna take an age to download and what about storage? To last a cycle we’re gonna need terabytes of space, all in a box big enough to go under the telly. Then what about mid way though the cycle when we would have needed to start putting some games across two discs? I would rather suffer a trip to the shop than an 80gb download. I want it as much as you do mate, I just think our lust for bigger and better games may always the issue.

  4. Jakub "Koobs" Klitenik
    September 25, 2012, 10:38 pm

    Until net speeds in the UK are actually decent (like South Korea) then a digital age is not coming any time soon.
    Why wait 2 days to download 30Gigs worth when I can get the game in shop that day for just a short walk (or even order it online to be delivered to my door on the day of release). One way they can get around this I guess is to let you download a couple of days in advance and I have a feeling that is not going to happen.
    Let’s not start on prices. I will never understand how a digital game can cost the same as a physical game. The only cost I can see that is incurred via digital is server cost which isn’t much based on the costs of physical (making the disks, postage to retailer, postage to store, cost for staff to sell over counter). I could be wrong about this but from a public point of view I just can’t see a justification for the cost.
    However there is one plus side behind digital. Back catalogue. How often have you gone in a shop but found that their selection isn’t all that great or that the game you’re looking for just sold out. Something that digital will always have covered.

    • Jackson Lewis
      September 30, 2012, 12:57 pm

      You mean like it has been with pcs for a couple of years now? Digital only will come, sooner rather than later. PC gaming is, to all intents and purposes, digital only, and Steam does let you download a couple of days early any just unlocks the game on launch day, why would you have any reason to think that wouldn’t happen?

  5. The Sunday Papers | Rock, Paper, Shotgun
    September 30, 2012, 10:24 am

    [...] This is an interesting read, with a console gamer suggesting that gamers are ready for a “digital only” world. As a PC gamer I rarely get physical media anymore. I was surprised to receive a Carrier Command disc in the post from Bohemia this week. It’s so rare that anything is physical, and it’s been like that for a couple of years. [...]

  6. JP
    September 30, 2012, 11:44 am

    Bruce Willis isn’t sueing Apple. Embarrassing lack of research for the start of your article.

    • Chris Jacobs
      September 30, 2012, 1:52 pm

      Hey JP, thanks for being so… polite (?) with your criticism!

      My intro was referencing a news story I’d heard at the time of writing and believed to be correct. Here’s a link to the original story on the very same news site you quote, and you’ll notice that they’ve amended the story a day after publishing it.

      You’re quite right however, Mr Willis isn’t suing iTunes, I got that bit wrong. Rest assured, from now on I’ll pay extra attention to whether national news stories are factually correct at the time.

  7. Jackson Lewis
    September 30, 2012, 1:11 pm

    Is kind of cute hearing console gamers musing about digital only…

  8. Adam Whitehead
    September 30, 2012, 2:38 pm

    Interesting article. Sony recently purchased the Gaikai service and there has been huge speculation about their reasons for doing so. Releasing PS1/2/3 games on Gaikai for PS4 owners to access could simply throw the backwards-compatibility issue out of the window. But more interesting is the possibility that PS4 will simply be the last traditional console of its kind for them, with PS5 just being a cheap box that plus into your TV and handles streaming (very similar to OnLive). No need to wait for next gen – the technology at the other end would constantly be improving – and no ability to resell games or buy them second hand would benefit Sony’s bottom line (assuming the EU’s warning shots to Sony and Microsoft that they must allow 2nd hand sales of digital media don’t actually stick).

    Gamers will likely hate a lot of these ideas. But the benefits for the publishers are clear to see.

    “Say for example next gen actually starts filling a blu ray disc – that 50gb of data, that’s gonna take an age to download and what about storage?”

    The Steam version of MAX PAYNE 3 is 35gb in size and took me about 5 hours to download. 50gb would still be a fraction of the time people waited to download games and films ten years ago on low-speed connections. The goal in many territories is to make 100gb connections standard. So this is not a huge problem.

  9. Easter Smith
    September 30, 2012, 7:31 pm

    I know that this is a blog, and you’re entitled to your opinion. Those things considered, throughout the whole article you claim that “gamers are ready for a digital-only brave new world.”


    But the sporadic and anecdotal points you make would have been more fitting if you had only re-asserted your title: that you’re – JUST YOU! – ready for the digital future, not speaking for other gamers or picturing the industry as a whole to anyone who takes the time to read your article.

    I came here from RPS thinking that you were going to bring up sales data or a list of pros and cons of a purely digital distribution. Instead, here are your main points:

    I got used to games with Online Passes, and so did other gamers.
    I think getting decent games for a huge discount via a monthly subscription is a very good deal.
    But I also realize OnLive, which is purely digital, failed quickly.
    Then again, Netflix and Apple’s digital only businesses are booming.

    The first point is not a reason for gamers to look forward to a purely digital distribution. It’s the complete opposite. That’s like saying you’re looking forward to Diablo III because its beta trained you that the game is online only. Saying that you or even other people got used to Online Passes doesn’t turn it into a pro, it’s still a con, one that many others by the way still have not gotten used to and are annoyed by.

    The Online Pass was not invented for the gamers’ benefit. Worse, it has a negative impact on the gaming experience and the value of our money. That is not a thing to vouch for, and I wish you had made that clear in your article.

    I wholeheartedly agree with your second point, I just hoped you expounded on it a bit more. Physical distribution cannot hope to compete with digital distribution when it comes to bundles and obviously delivery. With a digital distribution, you can sell as many copies as you want, because you have an infinite amount of copies. No one has to wait in line or lose a copy as it’s shipping. If you did this with a bunch of game discs, your sale wouldn’t last long and your game bundles would be inconsistent, based also on store inventory than just value or quality.

    But here’s the better part about digital distribution: You can even leave the pricing up to consumers and directly decide who gets how much, as with the Humble Indie Bundle. There is no way this would happen with your neighborhood game stores.

    But here’s the best part: Digital distribution means gamers can go from seeing an ad/trailer/article/forum post about a game to owning that same game in seconds. You can’t do that with a physical copy. I can pre-order a game’s physical disc within seconds of finding out about it, but that’s significantly different – i.e. worse – than instantly being able to play it. And that is a rare pro that benefits both gamers and publishers/developers.

    Now here are the bad parts. When a library burns down, the books burn with it. When you buy your own books, you can take them with you anywhere for as long as you want, provided you take care of them. Same goes with games in a digital distribution only world, which is exactly what happened to those poor OnLive subscribers, however few they were. When the company folded, they lost their games. OnLive may come back, but they customers don’t know when that’ll happen, or if their games will still be there.

    Let’s not even mention the many MMO games that shut down. Or the multiplayer servers for many console games like Burnout or Halo. I can still play Final Fantasy VII even if I’m the only person on Earth who loves it and even if it’s decades old. That’s a big minus for digital copies – when the market decides until when you can play your game, and that inevitably you won’t be able to play it AT ALL. Can you imagine if Super Mario Bros. had an expiry date, all copies vanished and we can’t play it anymore?

    PS Plus users also face the same perils, but with two crucial exceptions: they get to download the games, not stream them, which means they can play it at the optimal quality and they can play even while they’re offline.

    OnLive failed because they were both behind and too ahead of their time. They were behind because contrary to what you said, OnLive didn’t have enough quality/popular games. They were too ahead because their whole business plan was founded on a relatively young technology that they couldn’t influence or improve: a good Internet connection. The Verge has a detailed – albeit significantly reliant on the ol’ “unidentified source” – article that expounds on those two points:

    Netflix and Apple on the other hand, succeeded because both their services could fare well on a less robust Internet connection. Unlike OnLive, Netflix built an eye-popping, huge library. And like PSN Plus, Apple’s App Store lets you download games, not stream them. More importantly, mobile games are significantly smaller compared to many of the games you enjoy now. You’d have to have an awesome Internet connection if you want to download the next Elder Scrolls in a reasonable amount of time. Scratch that: not just you, or your friends, but MILLIONS of people would have to have an awesome Internet connection for Bethesda to even consider clamoring for a digital only route, if they’re rational that is.

    Which brings us back to the OnLive dilemma: a PURELY digital future can only be enjoyable if the majority of gamers have great Internet connections. Otherwise, that is one fucked up future that we should not advocate for yet. Remember, you’re talking about going full digital. Lose the Internet and you lose many if not all of your gaming access.

    Here’s MY IDEA – just me – of what a great 100% digital future could be like:
    We pay monthly subscriptions in exchange for cheap games that can be downloaded and played offline, not streamed.

    Games are patched and enhanced on the fly.

    Game manuals and guides make a comeback in the form of packs of videos and interactive ebooks bundled with games.

    Like library books, you can replace games from your monthly subscription, essentially waiving the privilege to play them in exchange for other games.

    Unlike library books, you don’t have to worry about scratched or dirty or lost copies of games.

    Like music, you pay once for a game and you can play it on multiple devices, and you can carry – or at least have instant access to – hundreds if not thousands of games with you.

    As a corollary to the above, hardware manufacturers will soon settle on a handful of standard formats for games and their hardware, i.e. like PCs but on a more massive scale. A decent gaming PC from this year can play any game – from the latest PC games, to previous generation games via emulation. My ideal future will see this scalability and compatibility spread to smaller devices and consoles – i.e. PCs plugged to TVs – and we’ll all be able to play the exact same copy of a game on multiple devices the same way we can play the exact same mp3 file on different devices of different sizes and features from different brands.

    Many games will be free to play, with schemes that are reasonably priced and congruent to the game’s design, or totally free with commercial breaks in between.

    Finally, we’ll all have access and contribute to an ever growing museum of games, a website, repository or what have you where literally every game ever made can be found, along with all the mods made for each game if any, and information for that game, who made it, its context, contributions etc.

    Also when we throw money at the screen, something will happen.

    That is an awesome future, but even at my most optimistic I doubt that we’ll get half of that.

    Here’s MY IDEA of a bad, 100% digital future:
    Due to the lack of decent Internet connection in much of the world, gaming truly becomes a luxury enjoyed by a relative few. OR the reverse happens: Piracy becomes even more rampant as the requirements for legitimate gaming become even more expensive or exclusive to rich countries and people. Or both instances happen.

    Fewer and fewer games get developed because gamers become risk averse: if a game they play doesn’t sell well, the publisher will shut down that game’s servers and a gamer’s investment just goes down the drain. Hence, to maximize their money gamers will only tend to buy games that already have a massive following, i.e. a game that won’t be shut down or canceled or dropped from the monthly subscription. Innovation falters, the industry stagnates. It’s like what happened with WoW and its clones, except on a more massive scale.

    No more mods.

    Many games are free to play games with ridiculous payment schemes, or have regrettable bait and switch tactics, where the first and free part of the game is good, but the succeeding – and paid – part of the game turns out to be crap.

    Tons of online marketplaces/streaming services/monthly subscription services crop up, each incompatible with the other. Marketplace exclusives mean gamers have to make many accounts to play all the games they want and pre-order bonuses become even more rampant and confusing, not to mention wasting development time as game developers do added work crafting these pre-order crap.

    As a corollary to the above, these online marketplaces/streaming services/subscription services are each tied to their own hardware, i.e. like the situation now with consoles but exponentially worse.

    Most games are not preserved, or even documented. Many are lost forever, not to be played again or studied by future generations because the game’s servers are shut down because the publisher wants to host a newer game or the publisher outright goes belly up, or the servers get attacked by malware or hackers.

    In conclusion, I THINK a digital only future for gaming is desirable only if the infrastructure is there to support it and if it ends up being advantageous to all parties involved – creators, distributors and consumers alike. As it stands, YOU may be ready for a digital only future but I respectfully refuse to be put in the same boat.

    I live in the Philippines, a third world country, but the hilarious thing is I have enough money to afford the same things you do but I am denied access to those things because a) the Internet connection in most our country is an expensive joke and b) our market is considered small and thus ignored by some services and publishers/developers. For example, my country isn’t even listed in the PSN account creation process. I have to enter a fake address just so I can register a PSN account. I have money but I don’t have a credit card so I can’t play on Steam; there are no Steam gift cards where I live. And did I mention our Internet connection is an expensive joke? If the digital future is forced to arrive prematurely? I might be kicked out of my hobby despite the fact that I’m willing and able to pay for it. And I’m betting a lot of people will share my fate.

    • Jennifer Taylor
      September 30, 2012, 8:35 pm

      Hi Easter,

      It’s unfortunate for a lot of gamers in the world that their countries are not as advanced/catered for in the industry, and I’m quite surprised to find that you have to fake your details simply to create a PSN account. This article was written under the impression we get over in the UK, and we seem to be on the verge of a digital-only market, which some approve of, while others do not. Some gamers (in the UK at least) believe we should have hard copies, maybe for sentimental reasons, maybe so that they know their purchase is protected (in a physical sense so the files do not corrupt). Others are embracing the idea of having digital copies – making it ‘easier’ to purchase games, keep storage in the home to a minimum, maybe even to stop the issue of discs becoming scratched/damaged therefore unusable. With any media, as I’m sure you’re aware, things progress; I still remember using the huge floppy discs/data keys, and companies trying to push the mini-disc. Technology is constantly moving forward, and unfortunately for some that means they will be left behind (for a while at least). In the UK we are moving forward into the digital-only technology, not just with gaming, and discs are becoming very obsolete.

      Companies like Onlive did fail, and last year with their big push for change they were maybe a bit too early for people to deal with, and therefore it flopped. Having just come back from Eurogamer Expo in London, Onlive didn’t have such a physical presence as last year by any means, but we do have an interview coming to the site with Onlive, which may highlight some of the faults with their campaign to begin with.

      So… please read this from a UK perspective. Many in the UK are coming to terms/embracing the digital marketplace, and almost expect the next generation of consoles to be pushing digital storage more than physical copies. I really hope this does not effect the amount of games being made/stolen and I’m a bit on the fence myself about the whole thing. The next few months/years or so will hold the answer on how it will go for the market place, and I just hope it doesn’t ruin people’s hobbies in the process.

      Thanks so much for your considered response to the article, it was really interesting to hear your opinion of the digital market, and how it effects people in other countries other than our own.

      Jenn :)

  10. Otter
    September 30, 2012, 9:10 pm

    You can either ride the metaphorical wave that is the evolution of the entertainment industry, or you can drown in the depths of traditonalism.
    For example, look at the lp being replaced by tape, which in turn was replaced by digital copies.

    As the late Kim Jong Il so eloquently professed “Inevitabre! Things are inevitabrey going to change!”

    (In my opinion)

    • Otter
      September 30, 2012, 9:13 pm

      And that Kim Jong Il quote is from the film Team America which I think you can get on vhs from your local video sto…oh wait I mean download from a torrent site ;)

  11. cj Thorpe
    October 1, 2012, 8:21 am

    Yep, Bring on a download only future.
    My fabourite games that I pkayed in the last year are Journey, Fez, Stacking, Minecraft and illo Millo.
    All xbox arcade/psn games.
    I signed up to Playstation Plus last month and got Red Dead, Borderlands, Saints row 2, Just Cause etc and immediatly sold my hard copies.
    I move house a lot so having hard copies of anything is a pain for a start and generally I keep a tidy house which is better without being cluttered by books, games, dvds, cds and comics.

  12. cj Thorpe
    October 1, 2012, 8:43 am

    Oh and of course The Walking Dead which I feel shits all over any disc game of the last year by far.

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