I remember the first game console I ever owned. It was a Super Nintendo. I liked playing games like Super Mario World and Megaman X. Those were simpler times - you simply clicked your cartridge into your console, picked up your controller, and immersed yourself in a completely new world. There was something satisfying - something visceral - about holding the games in your hand; a feeling that stuck with gaming straight through to our current age.
Those were the days...
A feeling that we might well be leaving behind in the very near future.
As network connections become more powerful and hard drives less expensive, the constraints which originally forced games to be designed, sold, and stored on external media are slowly dropping away. Digital Distribution - a buzzword which gets tossed around quite a bit but which nevertheless carries with it some very serious connotations - is slowly replacing the physical storefront as the gamer's method of choice where purchasing is concerned.
I know that in my case, I've bought more than 90% of the games I've purchased in the past year over Steam or a similar service. I'm certain I'm not alone in that. Though I know I will miss the feel of actually holding a game in my hands, I nevertheless welcome a total shift towards digital.
The problem is, I'm not sure we're ready for it quite yet.
It has a lot to do with this.
For one, the legality around multimedia content in general is a touch bogus. We've got publishers and developers trying to ban the sale of second-hand games in North America, while over the EU they were for a time debating whether or not second-hand sales were even legal - whether people had a righ to resell a product which they legitimately purchased.
That's just physical content. Make it digital, and things get a thousand times worse. The problem is that no one's quite certain about the legality here. As is often the case, the law has lagged behind contemporary technology. One might assume that digital content is privy to the same laws as physical content - that is, you don't actually own any of what you've purchased (except for the physical disc, which doesn't exist in this case); you are simply paying for a license to access and use that content.
Except that it doesn't actually work that way, even for physical content.
It works more like this.
Ownership of digital content, explains gamer lawyer Jas Purewal, has "never been completely resolved...at best, we have some guidance to follow. The most common position is that when we buy a boxed game, we own the DVD, but only have a license to use the software on it. It's essentially a limited personal right to use the software on certain terms and conditions." In short, there is currently no legal precedent. What that means is that publishers and developers are, for all intents and purposes, free to do what they will.
Introduce DRM into the equation, and that notion gets downright nasty. Making content purely digital could whittlw away the few rights we have left as consumers in the games industry. Is that really something we should shoot for?
Now, to be fair, there are a number of very strong arguments in favor of purely digital gaming. The first (most compelling) of these is price. At the moment, the current price point of games is (theoretically) set by the fact that the developers need to concern themselves with the manufacture and distribution of game discs. Remove that step from the equation, and you've got a price drop in the works (though I'm certain more than a few developers would fight tooth-and-nail against that drop). Convenience is another: rather than having to travel to a brick-and-mortar location to browse through a library of titles, you can simply pop open an online client and choose your poison. A few clicks later, and the game's downloading - you're good to go.
Of course, neither of those really seem to matter if the games can be taken from us at a whim with no legal recourse whatsoever.
Something tells me it'll be settled here.
As such, I still don't feel we're ready for a complete shift over to digital. We still don't have the physical end of things figured out. Until we can get the shaky legality surrounding games software set in stone, we cannot, in good conscience, make that jump.