The Digital Divide: Who Will Survive the Video Game Industry’s Online Future?

With digital downloads taking over the future, physical disks could be on their way out. (Credit: Sara Winegardner)

By Sara Winegardner

Washington, DC – From cartridges to Blu-ray discs, video games have found new homes in physical media in order to store the data for the massive worlds they aim to deliver to audiences everywhere. That is, until now.

As the world has become increasingly more digital, gamers everywhere have begun to ditch the discs of the past to make room for the now most popular purchasing method: the digital download.

According to the Entertainment Software Association, the U.S. association representing companies that publish computer and video games, a 2016 industry report on gaming habits showed that 56 percent of total game sales in 2015 were made through digital formats. The percentage of digital sales has been rising since 2010, outpacing physical sales since 2014.

a gaming infographic

With this shift in consumer behavior, shops have struggled to adapt to the digital shift. New strategies have been proposed to change how long-established processes, like game pre-orders, are approached by brick-and-mortar stores to make them more competitive with their digital alternatives.

In February, physical retailers proposed a massive change in the pre-order procedures to publishers as well as platform holders that would allow stores to sell games prior to their official launch date. The proposed plan was inspired by the pre-loading process that has become wildly popular in digital marketplaces, which allows consumers to download a game before it’s officially released. The game becomes “unlocked” at midnight on its launch date, opening it for nearly immediate play.

Business owners want to transfer this idea to the physical disc, having publishers use the same locking principles to prohibit users from accessing the content until launch date while still granting them the possession of the product.

This could solve a number of problems for online retailers like Amazon. Trying to hit an embargo date and deliver packages on a game’s launch date is a mammoth task, and is often impossible to accomplish. Deliveries can often arrive either days in advance or a week late, resulting in fans being disgruntled by leaks of game footage or by their own inability to play a product that they’ve purchased.

Garrett Kriegseis, a 23-year-old gamer from Burbank, Illinois, has had a number of close friends face this struggle with purchases from Amazon as well as specialty retailers like GameStop.

“Some people would order it off of Amazon or GameStop’s website and get the game a day or two early,” Kriegseis said. “Those people were able to download the game and even play it, maybe not online because the servers weren’t up, but they’re still able to play the story before anyone else.”

Because of these experiences, Kriegseis found the idea of being able to purchase that physical disk early to be a “pretty awesome option.”

Although retailers and consumers could agree that this would be a winning situation for all, publishers have expressed concerns over releasing a game’s code, hidden inside the discs, to the masses that early.

Sean Bristow, a computer and network technician, believes there is hope in fighting those looking to pirate code with this suggested pre-order process.

“There are always going to be critical files for a game that are required for it to run, and so you can definitely have the majority of the files pre-downloaded and installed to this disc, and then have some of the more critical files be downloaded on launch day,” Bristow said. “While they may be able to strip away some of the locked code, it’s not going to be useful without those other critical game files, which they won’t have access to until launch.”

This would ideally work in conjunction with the day-one patches that commonly occur with video games today, delivering crucial updates, bug fixes, and new content that the developer was unable to program into the originally shipped files.

“It depends on the game, it depends on the file, but download the rest of the files and that launches the game,” Bristow said.

Bristow agrees that this hybrid option could be a solution moving forward for games retailers like GameStop, who could suffer if gamers stop choosing to purchase physical media. However, while he believes it could help to “keep them afloat,” Bristow doesn’t believe it will give GameStop the powerhouse status it held in 2009, when the specialty retailer earned more than $9.5 billion in revenues.

“It’s just never gonna hit that high again,” Bristow noted, in large part due to the digital shift. “Downloads are just so much more convenient, and if people do want that nice case with the disc, I think that’ll certainly help drive up the sales for that.”

“But, the number of people who care for that [physical games] are slowly starting to dwindle.”

Kriegseis continues to find more value in buying physical media despite the digital detours of the industry at-large.

“The physical and the digital games are always going to be the same price [at launch],” Kriegseis said. “I feel kind of cheated out if I get a digital game for $60 where I could have paid the $60 and got a solid game with the CD art, the cover art and any extra little pamphlets on the inside.”

Kriegseis sees these additional features as a way to connect with the developer behind the title. He had a particularly memorable experience with the pamphlets found in the CD case for The Witcher 3, which included a special message from developer CD Projekt Red.

“They had a huge pamphlet on the inside from the company itself saying, ‘Thank you so much for purchasing our game. You’re the reason why our company is still going,’” Kriegseis said. “You kind of get a connection with the company if they do something like that.”

Preserving the Present

While physical retailers try to find innovative ideas on how to rebrand themselves and retain their core audiences, publishers and platform holders are looking to retain the power they hold over the industry at-large.

Caught in the middle of this struggle are those trying to preserve the art of video games for the future. These still rely heavily on physical media as they await the freedom from lawmakers and publishers to work in the digital space.

Matt Steadman, the founder and executive director of the Video Game Heritage Institute, which works to preserve the cultural heritage of and promote the art of video games, has concerns far outreaching those of the present. His eyes are on this digital revolution could affect how we save the games being made today for future generations, leading him to start VGHI in Taylorsville, Utah two-and-a-half years ago.

“Our overriding goal is to just build a place where people can go and actually learn about the history of video games, experience them in an interactive environment, things that a lot of people just otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience,” Steadman said. “Interactive media really is the future and is bleeding out into other areas and is really just, I think, an amazing art form.”

Although Steadman admires how far games have come since the early days of the Atari, the digital shift and online connections required for most developed today have organizations like his struggling with how to adapt and preserve the art form for the future. Steadman believes that, without publisher support, the task will be incredibly difficult.

“At this point, the people who produce games and the people who make the money… they really haven’t shown any interest in preserving their work for the future,” Steadman noted. “They’re really the obstacle that’s stopping us.”

This causes problems particularly with games that live in these online spaces, never seeing any sort of physical iteration. A change in the industry has led to a number of games to release “patches” and “updates” after they launch, changing the landscape of the game forever as new content is introduced. For preservationists like Steadman, this means that VGHI must work to preserve every version of a game that comes to exist.

“It’s a huge issue because once those games are patched and they’re changed, there’s nowhere to find the original unless you already had a copy and are no longer allowing updates,” Steadman said. “There’s nowhere to go to that arena and experience the original arena that everyone played when the game was brand-new, but the publishers have access to that and the publishers are really the ones who would enable us to have a way for people to experience that.”

Preservationists have had victories in recent years granting them more freedom when working in these digital and online environments, making the shift from physical media slightly easier.

For video games relying on developer-owned servers to run, recent legislation will allow these worlds to live on long after the developer decides to pull the plug.

“Legally, preservationists and organizations like ours are allowed to create replacement servers and replacement systems to facilitate these games moving forward into the future,” Steadman said. “It’s a special exception that was made to the DMCA [Digital Milennium Copyright Act] just recently, which is really exciting.”

However, these laws are just a starting point, with many more improvements still waiting to be made before organizations like VGHI have the freedom necessary to preserve any and all games being made today.

“At the same time, without having the original developers, original sources, and companies who own that content at least providing some information to push that forward, it’s an extremely difficult thing to just pull off technically,” Steadman said.

Without the support of the publishers and content creators, the task becomes gargantuan, and nearly impossible for a growing organization like his. The switch from physical media could be a positive one in many ways, according to Steadman, but there has to be cooperation from every part of the industry before digital platforms are ubiquitous.

“Physical media is very much on the way out,” Steadman admitted. “That actually makes the job of the preservation easier, but in other ways it makes it much more difficult.”

“The major thing that needs to happen is buy-ins from producers and buy-ins from the big companies like Nintendo and EA and Ubisoft and all these other big game studios who are creating this content and having them realize that, really, what they’re creating is a part of culture and it’s an art form,” Steadman noted. “They’re really the ones in a position to enable organizations like ours to preserve them for the future.”




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