Opinion – Fully digital games should not be the new norm

Opinion – Fully digital games should not be the new norm

By Sam Couchman / Staff Writer

Video games have become a ubiquitous part of the student experience. In the wake of the stressful weekends and unqualified jobs that come along with being a newly-minted adult, it’s hard to blame someone for wanting to throw their obligations by the wayside in exchange for a few hours of high fantasy immersion. 

With that said, under the new direction of consoles like the Xbox Series X, students should raise concern about that leisure being stripped.

As new generations emerge, we’ve slowly advanced toward a digital-only, fully online experience. The Xbox Series X is being released with its usual Blu-Ray drive, for $499; but, at the same time, Microsoft seems equally keen on experimenting with digital distribution. The so-called “Xbox Series S” makes for a tantalizing alternative. 

Retailing at the reduced cost of $299, Microsoft has made a clear ultimatum on physical discs. The decision is left with us, the consumers, to embrace digital distribution for them.

Make no mistake about it – this is Microsoft’s final step in creating a long-sought customer dependency.  A console without physical media strips the user of legitimate ownership under the illusory guise of convenience.  A library of games only existing in code on a centralized cloud server owned by Microsoft cannot, by any stretch of logic, be controlled by a customer. 

While a physical disc is a material object for personal use that you have the right to do anything with, you will never be able to store, share, or sell the license to execute code anywhere apart from Bill Gates’ backyard empire. It is a worthless treaty with obviously one-sided benefits.

People of a certain age might remember the origins of this central online infrastructure during the heyday of the Xbox 360.

During the console’s formative years in the mid-2000’s, games were not released alongside a compulsory digital download. Instead, digital downloads were relegated to smaller games that never exceeded 50 MB. DLC was a luxury, and patches/installs were a rarity. 

Alas, three years into the system’s life, the 2008 economic crash strained the home console industry as technology’s evolution shifted towards the simpler, easier experiences of the iPhone.  As soon as the public grew accustomed to downloading Angry Birds from the App Store, Microsoft adjusted the Xbox brand accordingly. 

Ever since, physical media has slowly been strangled. Within the past decade, several physical stores have gone extinct. An ever-increasing volume of games depends on online connectivity. When the Xbox One came to market in 2013, installations became a standard.  Many mass-market games began receiving digital-only releases.

Microsoft also launched Xbox Game Pass in 2017 – a purely online subscription service often likened as “Netflix, but for video games.” This disregards the fact that, while films can always be seen offline, video games need to be played.  If a game is designed with online functionality baked into its core, that dependency will exist forever.

In an all-digital future, the first-sale doctrine does not exist. Expect server maintenance to completely disrupt your afternoon. Furthermore, when these servers inevitably shut down, expect your hundreds of dollars worth of games to leave along with them.  It’s easy to imagine that Microsoft won’t shut down any servers with their unlimited money, but offering any further level of trust in this unflinching megacorporation rides a fine line of consumer Stockholm syndrome. Simply put, whether or not Microsoft will go to such lengths remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is – they can.

You, the consumer, do not own anything with digital distribution. While that wasn’t such a problem in the era of simple games on the App Store, the home console industry reaches gaming at its core.  The greatest games of this generation deserve to be preserved, and the vote remains with the customer.

If you value your video games, make sure that you can actually own them. Buy physically, and don’t give Microsoft the opportunity to strip that luxury away from you

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