Debate Club: Owning Physical Media Wasn’t Broke, So There’s No Need To Fix It Digitally

I will admit that on occasion, I have climbed up onto my soapbox of my own accord and ranted like a crotchety old man about why I still prefer physical media and will largely resist buying my games, movies, CDs, books, etc. digitally for as long as the option for me TO resist that still exists. More often than not, though, said ranting usually comes about because I matter of factly mention that I still buy physical media, not necessarily looking to defend my position or engage the opposing side in a debate about it, and yet I am treated to a combination of shock and condescension that seems more suited to me trying to curmudgeonly defend Betamax or the Atari Jaguar then simply my own personal buying preference. I garnered such a reaction from Steve recently when I revealed this news to him, and thus, the opening statements of this week’s Debate Club were born.

Before I launch into my reasons for my stance, however, I will concede that my feelings on this matter put me in an ever decreasing minority, and that I am ultimately fighting a losing battle and will likely have to give in to the all-digital future at some point. That said, here is why I will still continue fighting my frivolous fight until the absolute bitter end.

In his piece, Steve dismissed the fear that the things we buy digitally may not always be available to us as “unwarranted.” The thing is, that fear of losing the ability to play games we already own isn’t some paranoid assumption of what MAY happen one day. It’s already happening. I once went to play a game on my Xbox 360 that I had PURCHASED (digitally). This was a game I supposedly owned, free and clear, and as such I should have the expectation that I can play MY game whenever I want. I boot up my console, find the game’s title in my library, and…what’s this? It’s only the demo?? Turns out, since my original Xbox had to be repaired and I was now using a different console, I had to be connected to Xbox Live in order to play any of the games that I downloaded. And on that particular day, my internet was down – so guess what? I didn’t have access to a game that I “own.” I was, however, free to play ANY game that I had on-disc to my heart’s desire, no matter how long the internet was down. I understand that for the most part, people’s internet doesn’t go down all that often, and when it does it isn’t usually for weeks at a time or anything quite so drastic. But the fact remains, I had been denied access to a game that I bought, through no fault of my own. Steve’s Steam account is no different – you need to be online to play ANY game on Steam, and anytime his internet is down, he can’t play ANY PC game that he owns. A guy from the gas company not paying attention to what he’s doing and cutting a wire somewhere can take an entire library of someone’s games out of commission, just like that. Even if it’s fixed in a matter of hours, that doesn’t make the concern any less valid.

Still not convinced that arbitrarily losing the ability to enjoy content that you own isn’t a very real concern, outside of the occasional temporary disruption to an internet connection? Last Christmas, people who had purchased Disney movies for their Amazon Video accounts were surprised to find that they couldn’t watch their movies. Just like that, they were taken away. Speculation ran rampant as to the reason for Disney pulling the movies, with most people arriving at the assumption that Disney wanted to drive traffic to their cable channels so that people had to watch their favorite Disney Christmas movies there for the holidays (which of course means more of that lovely ad revenue). Now, full disclosure, the whole episode was quickly resolved amidst a flood of bad press and angry customers, and people were given their movies back, with Amazon claiming a glitch and that “People should never lose access to their Amazon Instant Video purchases.” Believe what you want about that particular case, but the fact remains that Amazon and Disney have a deal wherein Disney is free to take their movies off of the service – including out of people’s libraries – any time they choose, and for any reason they choose. And as we continue to the next phase of this all-digital future, where downloading things to a hard drive is gradually replaced by everything just needing to be streamed, game/movie/music companies will have all the power in the world to control our access to content, perhaps even content we have purchased.

As a matter of fact, Sony currently finds themselves in the middle of a digital rights controversy in regards to the PS4 game Driveclub and it’s “PlayStation Plus Edition.” PlayStation Plus subscribers will have access to a free, truncated version of the game, and will have the option of upgrading to the full game for $49.99. Sounds pretty cut and dry, until you learn what happens if you let your PS+ subscription lapse: YOU LOSE ACCESS TO THE FULL GAME. It’s nothing new that you lose any free games you download as a PS+ member if you leave the service, but any game that you purchased that simply had a PS+-exclusive discount stays yours to keep whether you remain a member or not. But somehow, this Driveclub deal is being viewed as a free game that you lose if you leave PS+, rather than a discounted game that you should get to keep. This news is still extremely fresh – it only just broke today – and it will be interesting to see if Sony changes their position as the complaints and backlash pours in, but it still serves as another example of how companies are free to make and change the rules of digital game ownership as they see fit, and we have no choice but to be at their whim since all they have to do is press a button to take a game away from us, even a game we have paid 50 bucks for.

Which brings me to my final point, and that is pricing. Yes, I know that Steam periodically has sales where you can buy 20 games for a penny, and there is little arguing with the appeal of that. But by and large, digital games cost the same amount as physical games, and I have a major problem with that. When I pay $60 for a game, there is a certain comfort in having something to show for it. Getting to hold that disc and that case in my hand and have it sitting on my shelf, content with the knowledge that, short of a blackout, I can always play that game, any time I want. I can let a friend borrow that game in exchange for one of his. I can trade that game with someone in one of my online game collecting communities. I can sell it. I can put it towards the cost of a newer game once I’m done with it. I have a multitide of options that makes that hefty price tag a little easier to swallow. Or I can pay $60 for a digital version, and have basically little more than a license to play that game. I lose the ability to play it if it’s an Xbox 360 game and I lose access to Live. I can’t let anyone borrow it. I can’t take it to a friend’s house to play (yes, people still do that and should be entitled to do that). I can’t trade it in. A friend of mine recently purchased the disc version of Titanfall on sale at Amazon for $37. Gamestop is currently offering that exact amount to trade it in (even if he opened it). So because he bought the physical version, he has the option to take it to Gamestop and break even on it, and just look at it as a free game he got to play for a few weeks.

I think I’d feel a lot better about the whole thing if I could just pay one price for a game and get the disc and a download code for the digital version. Why not? Movies have been doing that for awhile now. They can set up 20 hoops you need to jump through in order to tie THAT disc to YOUR own platform-specific profile so that you can’t just give the code to a friend. I’m sure it’s doable, and I guarantee nobody will complain about how much time or work it takes if it means getting a free digital version of any game that they buy. Maybe that particular point falls more into the realm of unrealistic things I WANT to happen even though I know they probably aren’t feasible – like getting a full-blown, next-gen sequel to Skies of Arcadia – but I still would like to see that. All the convenience of digital, with the disc to fall back on for piece of mind. Sounds like a perfect compromise to me.

All that said, I guess I personally just don’t have this strong desire to have everything I own be stored on a cloud that I can access with the touch of a button on a tiny little box. I’m definitely no Luddite – I love technology and the various conveniences it affords us. I just like having things on shelves, and getting them down when I want to play/watch/listen to/read them. Call it old fashioned – though I prefer traditional – I enjoy looking around my house and having books on this shelf, and CDs on this shelf, and movies on this, and games on this shelf. To me it isn’t much different than still having framed pictures as opposed to only having your pictures online. There’s a certain warmth and comfort to it that makes it worth the space it takes up, the loss of convenience of having to actually walk the whole 5 feet to get it, and the risk of losing or breaking it. Which, by the way, what adult still has a problem with losing and/or breaking their games? Time to grow up and take better care of your toys, Steve. 🙂