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For the Future's Sake, I'm a Collector

Pete contemplates how having shelves full of physical games might be good for the gaming medium in the long run.

Article by Pete Davison, .

Whatever your opinion on the interminable Games as Capital-A Art debate, hopefully one thing we can all agree on: games are an art form in the sense that they're creative works.

Games are an unusual art form, though, because they're one of the few creative mediums that is thoroughly dependent on technology. Books don't expire (though their ideas might), we can still watch old movies and TV shows, and the entire classical music business is based largely on pieces of music that have been around for literally hundreds of years, played on instruments whose designs have changed very little -- if at all -- for centuries.

Games, though? Outside of navigating the murky waters of the emulation scene, if you want to play an "old" game -- and by "old" I mean "from a generation prior to the one that is currently readily available" -- you'd better have an appropriate piece of hardware ready to play it. You can't shove a NES cartridge into a SNES; you can't put a Saturn disc in a Dreamcast; although you can put a PS1 disc into a PS3.

Games. Lots of games.

While there are ways around the backwards compatibility issues of modern platforms, both Sony and Microsoft have made it abundantly clear that it's not particularly high on their respective lists of priorities for the next generation. Nintendo lets you play Wii games on the Wii U, but if that console follows the same pattern as the Wii -- which used to support Gamecube games, but which removed this functionality from more recent models -- then it's entirely possible this feature will quietly disappear at some point in the future. Then what happens to those old games?

Well, old hardware doesn't just magically disappear, of course. Dedicated collectors will keep old game systems around rather than trading them in, thereby ensuring that they'll always be able to play their old games so long as the hardware continues to work. And even then, if the hardware itself breaks, it can usually either be repaired or emulated.

Archiving physical media, then, is easy enough; put it on a shelf or in a box, keep it safe, treat it with respect, get it out every few years to make sure nothing horrendous has happened to it, perhaps fire it up and remind yourself how good it was -- or, occasionally, realize that things have moved on a great deal in the intervening years.

Where the issue gets a bit more thorny is when it comes to digitally-distributed media.

Hey, Desilets, I care about physical media. See?

"Deep down, nobody cares about not having CDs any more," said Assassin's Creed creator Patrice Desilets, speaking at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona recently. Desilet's point in making this statement -- which was primarily directed at the backlash Microsoft suffered regarding the Xbox One's proposed DRM and used games restrictions -- was that an all-digital future would help the famously struggling triple-A sector become more profitable with more reasonable sales targets. Fighting said all-digital future, Desilets suggested, is a waste of time, because it is necessary, practical and efficient for the industry to adopt this model going forward.

Desilet's statement brought some of my own concerns regarding this issue to mind, though. While it's true that many people have embraced the digital-on-demand nature of modern electronic devices -- particularly on PC and mobile platforms -- what we haven't yet encountered is the archival issue when it comes to digital content.

Here's what worries me a little about the supposed all-digital future, you see: what happens to digital-only games when, at some unknown point in the future, Sony decides that the PS3 incarnation of the PlayStation Store is no longer viable to keep online? Or when Microsoft decides that no, you can't download your Xbox Live Arcade Games any more because dammit, it's been fifteen years and you should have played these games by now? Or when, heaven forbid, Steam shuts down, leaving you with a bajillion games acquired through various Humble Bundles that you can potentially no longer access easily, or perhaps at all?

It's at this point the standard response is to point out that, according to the standard end user license agreements you "sign" by installing a game, whether that's from disc or digital download, you don't actually "own" anything. Instead, you are simply purchasing a license to use the software -- a license that, theoretically, can be revoked. And yet in the past, this wasn't something that could be enforced: you owned a SNES cartridge, you could always play that game; you owned a PS2 disc, you could always play that game. So long as the physical media was intact -- and the game didn't require any sort of online authentication, which was unthinkable in generations prior to this one for the most part -- you could always play your games, regardless of how old they were. Nintendo wouldn't come around and smash up your cartridges when it released a new generation of hardware.

Some of these games are only available as physical media -- particularly the region-free Japanese titles.

Digital distribution is fantastic for one big reason, besides its inherent "instant gratification" nature: it allows smaller developers the opportunity to release their games to a public who would never have seen their hard work even just a few years ago. And yet at the same time it carries a big risk, both for players and content creators: the risk of making games feel like "disposable" creative works, rather than something that should be archived and treasured for years to come. How many times have you bought stuff in a Steam sale, then promptly forgotten about it for years at a time? When was the last time you looked at the Xbox Live Arcade games on your 360 -- particularly as with each Dashboard update, Microsoft seems dedicated on making them as hard to find as possible?

Part of the solution to this is down to self-control and discipline -- don't buy things you're not intending on playing at some point; back up things you want to keep. On PC, Steam has a built-in backup function; stuff downloaded from DRM-free services such as Good Old Games can simply be burned to a disc or copied to an external hard drive. In the console space, this is an area where both Sony and Nintendo have their heads screwed on reasonably well -- it's a simple matter to back up digital downloads to external USB devices or memory cards on PS3, PSP, Vita, Wii and Wii U. Microsoft also now supports USB flash drives with the 360, but it wasn't so long ago that you were limited to the Xbox 360's hard drive or memory units and their proprietary connections.

Where this falls down somewhat, however, is in games that require online authentication to play -- a particular issue with many downloadable Xbox games, but an issue which the other platforms are by no means immune from. In this instance, you can theoretically back up your games to return to in a few years time, but if the authentication servers aren't there any more, you're stuck with either a trial version or perhaps even a completely non-functional piece of software. This is one of the main things people were worried about with Xbox One -- under the original restrictions, if you had no access to Microsoft's servers, you simply couldn't play your games at all. Thankfully, this has now been revoked.

Why does all this matter, though? Since gaming is probably the most technologically-advanced entertainment medium on the planet, surely we should constantly be looking forward, not back at old stuff?

I even have a healthy selection of Wii games, and maintain the Wii is a much-maligned platform that played host to some extraordinarily good games a lot of people missed out on.

Well, I can see why some people think that way -- progress is fun and exciting, after all -- but progress also doesn't make old stuff irrelevant. As we've seen in other art forms, something can be hundreds of years old and still be relevant today. Gaming's entire history isn't even a fraction as long as that of, say, the written word or music, and yet many of us are alarmingly quick to discount things that are just fifteen, ten, even five years old on the most tenuous of grounds -- it's not HD; it doesn't have trophy support; it's only got text, not voice acting. Looking back is important, because it can also help inform the future and show us where trends have come from -- and help us to appreciate when those trends are bucked.

Looking back also becomes more important as time passes. I don't have kids now, and presently have no intention to, either, but that doesn't mean I won't feel differently in the future; if and when that happens, I want to be able to educate them about games of the past, and share the joy of experiencing these creative works with them. I also have no doubt that at some point in the future I'll simply want to replay some of the games I'm playing today; I don't want to be left unable to revisit, say, the Ar Tonelico series and its gorgeous soundtrack, for example.

It's for this reason that I'm an unabashed collector of physical media. Given the opportunity, I'll always take a physical version of a game. Not necessarily a collector's edition, as I feel that the vast majority of those are tasteless wastes of space -- your mileage may, as ever, vary -- but at the very least, a box with a disc or cartridge in it. Or just a disc/cartridge if the box is too much to ask, which it thankfully usually isn't in my experience. I will even often go out and buy a new physical copy of a game I reviewed and liked if it was originally sent to me by the developer or publisher as a digital download.

I know it's fashionable to "declutter" one's life these days by getting rid of stuff that isn't of immediate "use," but I think of my game collection in the same way a book enthusiast thinks of their personal library, or the same way a music enthusiast would think of their record collection. I like looking at my shelf full of games that I've hand-picked, chosen to keep and proudly display to anyone coming into my home. I like occasionally catching a glimpse of a title I once had a lot of fun with, and being able to reach out, grab it and play it. I like talking about the more obscure titles on my shelf to people who ask about them; I like bonding with someone over shared recognition of something I own a copy of.

In short, if I were to get rid of my collection, I absolutely know I would regret it a year or two down the line. I already regret some past trade-in decisions from a time when I felt less strongly about this; the only things I will trade in nowadays are things I know I will be able to reacquire easily. These days, I'm not buying games as something for immediate, short-term gratification; I'm collecting games to build my own personal archive of things I've found enjoyable, interesting or noteworthy, and at some point in the near future, I'm going to be very glad I did, I'm sure.

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Comments 17

  • Avatar for MattG #1 MattG 4 years ago
    I always buy the disc or cartridge when available over digital versions (exception: Crosswords Plus for 3DS) because I like owning a library of games I can access at any time as the years go by and because I don't want to have to account for buying bigger and bigger hard drives to upgrade consoles (when applicable). Even the largest compatible drive for my PS3 wouldn't contain all of my PS3 games in digital format.
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  • Avatar for jeremy.parish #2 jeremy.parish 4 years ago
    And, on the other hand, I've gone all-digital. The only time I end up with physical copies of games is when publishers send me one to review and I can't transfer the save data to a digital version (so, mainly, with Atlus games). I love not having shelves full of games. My 3DS has something like 150 games on its SD card (retail/DSware/Virtual Console). It's so great to have that many software selections available any time, legitimately, on such a tiny device.
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #3 MHWilliams 4 years ago
    This is my small collection.

    I do enjoy some of the benefits of physical, but I admit that Steam and PSN have pushed me toward digital in a big way. Physical is still great for deal hunting, but at least on PC even digital deals can be better (without shipping time!). I only recently started reviewing games, but I shutter to think how Jeremy and Jaz must've gotten review code back in the day. It's just so /easy/ now.
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  • Avatar for BitBrushStudios #4 BitBrushStudios 4 years ago
    Once again Pete, you've done your fellow collectors a great service by writing this article out the way that you have. I applaud and echo all of the sentiments here.

    I found Desilet's comments about nobody mourning the passing of physical medium funny. He believes it's essential to the survival of AAA game development as a viable business model. I, however, would very specifically mourn the passing of physical medium . . . but would not really miss AAA development if it were to sputter out and die in its current form. Funny that.
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  • Avatar for Brendan.Sinclair #5 Brendan.Sinclair 4 years ago
    I've gone all-digital, but I still have a collection gathered over the last decade. I'm moving this weekend, and all these old consoles and games feel like a weight around my neck. :(
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  • Avatar for MHWilliams #6 MHWilliams 4 years ago
    @Brendan.Sinclair Oh man. I have to move in August.
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  • Avatar for kidgorilla #7 kidgorilla 4 years ago
    This has really been on my mind lately, actually. I have a few hundred games in my apartment and I'm shopping for a house. Part of me can't wait to display everything in my new home when I get there, but the vast majority are games that I'll never play again, essentially making them expensive wall paper.

    I was pretty heavy into collecting until about a year ago when I realized that I was buying piles of games that I'll probably never play, so I slowed way down. But I still love physical media. Maybe because we're in the slow death of it I've been more apt to grab and hold on to things, but the practicality of all-digital is way more enticing as I get older.Edited June 2013 by kidgorilla
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #8 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    THANK YOU. Finally someone says what I say. I want physical. Stop telling me what my future is
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  • Avatar for SargeSmash #9 SargeSmash 4 years ago
    I don't see myself ever going all-digital. Besides, I can't get some of the titles that I own in digital form, anyway, especially some of the more obscure NES/SNES/Genesis titles.

    I'm not knee-jerk opposed to digital, I've got quite a bit in that form. But if it's not DRM-free, I'm under no illusions that I "own" it in the technical sense of the term. But digital has certainly been a boon for titles that would never have found traditional retail release.Edited June 2013 by SargeSmash
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  • Avatar for jrronimo #10 jrronimo 4 years ago
    @jeremy.parish While I see how that is an awesome feature and something that would be beneficial, I am deeply afraid of the day that the 3DS breaks or the SD card is corrupt and the Nintendo servers supporting it are no longer operational. What happens to my "licensed" content when the servers go down and my system breaks? Emulation and other work-arounds?

    I'm in it with the Author: I'll stick to physical copies that I'll care for in the hopes that they'll last as long as I can make them last. I guess when the discs degrade and I can't play them anymore I'll be out of luck... Or, hopefully, the parent companies will maintain their back catalogs...
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  • Avatar for The-Fool #11 The-Fool 4 years ago
    I'm really quite fond of physical media.

    I also collect things, for some reason. Probably because of that NES we've had lying around... it set me on a path.

    I even own Battletoads... but I'm too young and terrible at games to try it too much...
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  • Avatar for Rory-Taylor #12 Rory-Taylor 4 years ago
    I used to be like you. I used to consider myself a collector. 10 or so years ago I would buy a ridiculous amount of games; too many for any sane person to play and enjoy. And for dumb reasons too. I would buy games "just to have them". Like, did I really need that copy of Board Game Top Shop? Of course not. And if I had one game in a series then I had to have the entire run. Ebay, as it turns out, is a cruel mistress. Chasing that ever elusive gamer cred...

    Then one day I just said enough is enough. My game collection was becoming a ball and chain tethered around my neck. It was out of control. I, like many others, came to this realization during the moving process. I think this feeling was compounded by the fact that I had the same mentality about movies and music as I did about games. I ended up selling all my legacy games and consoles (pre-PS1 era). And now I buy far fewer retail games. That has helped some. Still, all the jewel cases and disc boxes take up an irritatingly large amount of space in big cardboard boxes in my closet.

    I tend to buy a lot of digital games, and I do so with the understanding that I'm not buying this to be able to play it 15 years from now. Which is perfectly fine to me. I'm not one of those "all digital, its the future" type guys; I tend to think the two distribution formats can co-exist harmoniously.

    Moving forward, the only next-gen console that is on my radar at all is the PS4. I can't tell you how liberating that feels, as someone who previously felt compelled to own every gaming device to call myself a "true gamer". I mean, what is the real tangible benefit to owning both a PS3 and 360? The handful of exclusive titles? Ain't nobody got time for that.
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  • Avatar for TheColorUrple #13 TheColorUrple 4 years ago
    @Rory Taylor I think we have to distinguish between compulsive collecting and preservation. It's true that, due to our inherent nature to horde, we can wind up buying up more games than we play. (It happens to me too.) But turning to digital distribution instead of physical media doesn't change this desire - it's in fact much easier to have a bloated Steam collection - a collection of temporary licences, really - due to extreme sales that de-value games tremendously that occur on a weekly basis.

    What Davison is suggesting is that regardless of the quantity of games you buy, the feeling of security that comes with actually "owning" a copy of a game makes a huge difference to any gamer that values the games they've played. Also, owning a game means there is no time limit on when you can experience a game for the first time. For example, I just played Fatal Frame II for the first time this year, and it's been sitting on my shelf for a decade. And it was awesome.

    As for exclusives, yes, they are a very tangible benefit to owning all consoles, because exclusives are often among the best games a console has to offer. Being able to play Halo Reach and The Last of Us and Metroid Prime 3 is very much worth owning numerous consoles, as is the ability to select a certain version of a cross-platform title based on how they compare. Check out Eurogamer.net for their Face-Off articles, you'll see just how different the same game on two different consoles can be ;)
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  • Avatar for malkav112 #14 malkav112 4 years ago
    I think that moving to digital is actually (potentially) a huge step forward for preservation. It's the digital format that permits emulation. It's digital distribution that makes it nearly logistic-free to offer up virtually any title that one might want to play, regardless of whether there are enough other people in that situation to justify a new print run, and digital distribution that makes the number of circulating copies of a previously out of print game entirely irrelevant. (It could also be a huge boon to book preservation as there's no need to store (and pay taxes on) a huge print backlist).

    The problem comes when preservation bumps into current copyright and intellectual property law. DRM and the necessity to negotiate elaborate (and revokable) licensing deals just to sell a digital product mean that the only ones who really own a digital product are the companies with the IP, and they have no obligation to be good digital citizens and make anything actually available. I am hopeful that there is some middle ground where creative efforts can be rewarded financially, but ultimately these games (and books and music and so on) can be released to be enjoyed by the public from digital archives without doing so at the end of a string that a company can simply yank away from you.
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  • Avatar for Rory-Taylor #15 Rory-Taylor 4 years ago
    @patrickdaigletuttle regarding multiple consoles, I used to believe like you do. For the last few generations now, I've owned every console. But I also think with each passing generation they distinguish themselves less and less. With development costs soaring, companies can't really afford to be exclusive to one box anymore, so the reasons for owning multiple boxes is dwindling. I think Nintendo consoles will always be worth owning because their games are so different (although I still haven't picked up my WiiU), but do I really need a PS4 AND a XboxOne? I feel like their respective libraries will be so similar. Who knows, I might change my tune once their libraries flesh out a little bit. I probably will.
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  • Avatar for pjedavison #16 pjedavison 4 years ago
    @Rory Taylor@patrickdaigletuttle You're absolutely right that there's far less to distinguish today's consoles from those in, say, the 16-bit era... but there are still reasons. My personal Xbox 360 and PS3 libraries are very distinct from one another: on the 360 I have various "bullet hell" shooters (because, for whatever reason, Japan inexplicably decided that the 360 was the Right Place to port these) along with a few exclusives like the Project Gotham racing games. My PS3, meanwhile, is largely a JRPG machine, since while a few of them came out on 360, the vast majority of them are PS3-exclusive.

    Patrick's absolutely right, too; you have to distinguish between preservation and compulsive collecting. It's very easy to get into the habit of having to own an entire series, and indeed there's nothing wrong with that -- so long as you're actually intending on playing them all at some point. There's really no sense in buying a whole franchise if you're only ever going to play the latest ones.

    Interestingly, games are the only medium that I feel this way about; my DVD and Blu-Ray collection has diminished considerably over the years as I'm more than happy with what services like Netflix and Crunchyroll offer, and I haven't played a music CD for a very long time indeed. In fact, I sold most of my music CDs a while back -- pretty much all of my music is digital now.

    I guess it's a matter of where your "priorities" are and what's important to you, and everyone feels differently about this. Personally, I like my games to be permanent, and find music and movies to be more "disposable" entertainment -- other people may feel the exact opposite!
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  • Avatar for coinsicons #17 coinsicons 5 days ago
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