To bring you up to speed…

For the past few years, going back before the glorious founding of Critical Coins to the ancient days of Pause Your Game, and the primordial ooze of Digital Dinosaur, Lazy Lion, Ranternet, among other names that were tossed about back before the world began… Mitch and I have disagreed philosophically about a few fundamental issues in video games.  One of these is the transition games have made from the physical/material/tangible medium to the digital/immaterial/virtual medium—and this has been a topic we have bandied about between ourselves for much of 2018.  

For my part, I have, in accordance with my title of “Prophet” of Critical Coins (some might consider me “false,” but they’re usually wrong), predicted things from time to time; one of those being that games—for better and worse—are inevitably transitioning towards a wholly digital medium.  My prediction has not been without supporting evidence from various sources.

Mitch, for his part, has carried the torch against this transition to digital time and time again, raging against the dying of the physical light… or medium.

But alas, all good things must come to an end.  So here we are in the twilight of the gods, the Ragnorok of physical copies of games, those last gasps and final valiant entries standing against the inexorable approach of a digital future.

The Future is Now

I’ve never been fond of looking back, preferring instead to gaze forward over the horizon of the new year, and the days to come.  So, rather than recount for you the battles fought and the points made over the past year by Mitch and myself on this issue of the physical vs. digital form games take, I’m going to take this opportunity to consider our digital “Now” — even if it’s not entirely manifested into the temporal space we call the “present” just yet — and the situation we find ourselves in with an all digital gaming medium.  In particular, I’m going to look at the way it might impact gaming as an industry and as an activity we participate in and generally enjoy (presumably).

To his credit, Mitch raised a number of fine concerns in his latest ranting against the wholesale digitalization of games that I would like to consider, among others, as I explore this issue in the sections to follow.  While I have always said that a completely digital game industry is inevitable, that doesn’t mean I’ve wholeheartedly felt that it was an improvement over physical copies of games in every way; in fact, I believe a completely digital gaming world comes with its own specters at the feast of which we should be ever mindful.  So come with me, as I take you through Tomorrow’s wholly digitized gaming universe and what it may just be like to live there.

Goodbye shipping, hello midnight (and earlier!) release!

Mitch and I both agree that digital games (provided you have an internet connection of some reliability beyond your phone’s data plan) have and will continue to allow us as gamers to play these games the moment they are considered “released.” We already know this to be true, because it has been this way for some time with digital versions of games.  I would go further, and say that all alpha, early release, beta-testing, and specials which allow certain exclusive customers to play games a day or more earlier than everyone else have been and are all possible thanks to the digital medium. History bears out that it was virtually impossible for your average gamer to so much as be considered for playing a game prior to its release in the pre-digital era.

As a direct result, I anticipate that we’ll see even further blurring of the line for when the game is actually “released” and wouldn’t be surprised if we saw tiered systems built on top of subscriptions and season pass early-adopters who would be able to get to play some form of a game as a routine benefit for pre-ordering with that season pass.

Digital pre-orders can be found in every digital store.

This will, as a consequence, encourage ever greater numbers of gamers to buy into a season pass before the game is even finished, and that comes with all of the problems (on a lesser scale) of signing any kind of contractual payment agreement site unseen, as they say in the housing market.  In other words, I think the prudence of being able to “test drive” the car will be pushed aside, and worse, the player/buyer will be on the hook for a game they can’t even play yet for longer than even one initial payment.

Subscriptions take over

Nearly every AAA publisher—and their developers as a direct result—are moving towards models of pricing and releases that come in bits and pieces now, doled out periodically.  Some offer this DLC piecemeal for a little here and a little there (which adds up to a lot); some offer a subscription or season pass of some sort; and, finally, some offer both.

This trend of bits and pieces released out like a stream of kibbles in a skinner box is made possible and feasible by the digitalization of the medium.  DLC was pretty much non-existent in the pre-digital days—everything that came with the game was packaged at release, or in substantial expansion packs.  That was it, in terms of revenue for companies; it was a shot in the arm on those occasions and then their profits dried up.

Dawn of War’s first expansion, Winter Assault.

While Mitch has pointed out the thriving secondhand game market that operated in this physical environment more than once, the original developers and publishers never saw much of that money directly—it all went into the hands of former game owners and places like GameStop.  There were methods such as online game passes in those times that developers and publishers used to attempt to steer more revenue their way, but they never generated a significant amount of revenue by comparison to that gained through original releases and expansions. In the digitalverse, however, game companies have utilized the trickling content capability they have now to continue to finance their teams long after release—as well as promise their stockholders a predictable revenue stream.  In addition, they can ensure that nearly all of the profits come directly to them, cutting out those who might normally profit off of the secondhand trading of games.  

While this has increased the revenue stream going directly to these companies, and provided ways to keep the money flowing into their teams’ and shareholders’ pockets, Mitch has rightly pointed out that by doing so, game companies have also removed any possibility of direct ownership.  Essentially, while you may “own” a game in your digital library, Valve, EA, Microsoft, and whoever else you use, will always hold on to the actual product, and without them, you will not be able to play it, and—for now—you most certainly cannot sell it.  You’re basically buying permanent access to this product through the provider, rather than holding on to a physical copy of your own at home. Ownership of games, like home ownership, is on a steady decline, replaced by an economy that has seized financial control and ownership to turn increasing numbers of people into renters, potentially on a permanent basis, as subscription models expand.  

It’s about the service, first; products, second

With the demise of physical games, comes the possibility for services we already see in operation across other mediums, such as music and film.  For example, on Netflix, you don’t own any of the movies there; you pay a subscription fee, and in exchange, gain access, for a time, to the products they offer.  The same is true for Amazon Prime Music: pay a fee, gain access to their library of songs.

This opens the door to a few different possibilities for gamers.  One is the service, provided by a publisher, on a subscription basis, for access to its game library.  Some publishers are already moving in this direction.  Beyond that, we might imagine the demise of the console altogether.  After all, in my examples provided above, your only physical component is perhaps a dongle you plug into an HDMI port in your tv for something like Amazon Fire TV.  When your games are already played over the publishers’ servers, rather than on your own machine (and already, this is true to some extent, excepting files that may be stored locally), then what need have you for a hardware device at all, except as a way to plug into that service?  Even now, with this hybridized model of streaming and local files, many games have become unplayable without an available online connection.

Xbox Game Pass, included in the All Access Subscription Service

Given the steady increase in internet speeds, playing even fast-twitch FPS games at the same quality over a streaming connection may soon become possible at the same level of performance.  This is already true for games that don’t break performance down to fractions of a millisecond.

If a publisher is no longer tied to a particular piece of hardware for games to be played on, this opens up an enormous standardization possibility for developers who can now design games for their machines, rather than yours.  And if that’s the case, the need for a console, or even a PC, goes right out the window.

What replaces it?  Again, if subscriptions are part of the digital future, it’s not difficult to imagine that performance itself, as it relates to your games could become tiered at different price points.  Right now, this exists for films; you can stream a movie at standard definition or high definition. It’s just a hop, skip, and jump to imagine paying a monthly fee for more powerful performance through a tiered subscription connection provided by the same publisher who also curates the library of your games.

Collecting becomes a niche market

In this digital universe, much like with vinyl music, classic, physical copies of games become the province of niche collectors, who primarily keep these games for their own personal preference.  The market value of these remaining physical copies have already gone up due to rarity and decreasing ways to acquire them, and this will likely continue, as both rarity and lack of availability only increase with time.  For most gamers, however, physical games will likely become a distant, fading memory, as will consoles and even PC rigs in time.

In their place will be tiered subscriptions, offering different levels of performance and different libraries of games from different publishers, much like your internet providers and telecommunications companies offer their own tiered plans with products available (and compatible) with those levels of service.  

Welcome to the digital normal of gaming.  Which subscriptions will you pay for?