Tuesday, August 30

The Future of Videogame Consumption: Digital or Analog?

The recent GI article about the Videogame History Museum brings up an interesting point -- the founder and curator of this proposed museum foresees a future akin to what other industry analysts are predicting, in which games are no longer purchased from stores but downloaded to console or PC hard drives.  Gone will be the era of instruction manuals, game cases, and *gasp* discs.  Instead, our games will simply be gigabytes (maybe terabytes by that time) of information, seamlessly interwoven into a singular box of console gaming glory.

Now that's an archive.

This foreseeable future has led to the invention of the Videogame History Museum, an effort to preserve all the physical products of the videogame industry to date and effectively constitute an archive to the world's new favorite medium's early beginnings.

My question then is this -- is this prediction not the same prognosis for the music industry?  And if so, will we not see the same revivalist trends down the line for firm hardware over ethereal software?  Record sales are a tiny, meager faction of music sales even today, for sure, but they are a small area of the industry that has at least shown modest growth.  There is a real desire, especially amongst today's youth (of all people), to hold a record on your hand, to appreciate its luscious cover artwork, and to hear it "as it was meant to be heard."

If there is one key difference between music and games in this regard, it is that last point.  Fundamentally, there will be no change in quality or perception in playing the game based on whether or not you are using a disc or a digital file, whereas an mp3 doesn't quite sound as rich as an analog playback.  This, I fear, will catapult gamers overwhelmingly into the "yeah, digital!" camp, fully embracing a time of less disc-clutter and an equal amount of digital carnage ensues.

But I won't be a part of this revolution.  And, yes, part of it is because I am a gaming curmudgeon.  I'll be the first to admit it, in fact.  I simply ENJOY going into a gaming store, looking around, checking out titles and scouring the bargain bins, until I've settled on my purchase and bringing the box home.  No, I don't really read instruction manuals anymore.  I don't have any nostalgia for them, necessarily, but the loss of a physical product to me is simply unimaginable.  For me, it disrupts the ritual.

Get off my lawn or I'm calling Karl Rove!

Despite my nerdy, nostalgic, and overly-emotional appeal, there is a degree of practicality involved in this idea as well.  Forcing all game transactions down the digital pipeline means that, just like your giant mp3 collection, if your data isn't backed up and your hard drive crashes -- bye-bye game library.  This isn't a very positive potential outcome, to be sure, and at least in the foreseeable short- to mid-term future, I see it as the greatest barrier to widespread digital transaction of big budget games.  The XBOX 360's red ring of death plagues gamers everywhere on an annual basis and Sony's record of consumer happiness in the past year isn't exactly stellar.  If they can't protect their own servers, how can they guarantee your data?  Software navigating this rocky terrain is no doubt some years away.

Still, the indie game scene thrives on digital download, but no doubt because losing a $10-$20 digital purchase doesn't hurt quite as bad as a clean wipe of hundreds of dollars of blockbuster game titles in a single crash.  If we are heading for a digital future, it will be the indies leading the charge.

I guess my point is this -- if the cost is the same and I receive added enjoyment from going to an actual store to pick up my new game purchase and the disc acts as a physical back-up (assuming all read-times from hard-drives and disc drives are equal, which, functionally, they almost are), I'm going with the game store every time.  I can chat with the dorky shopkeeper and listen to his pitch to pre-order the next big game (I won't do it, but it's fun to listen), pick up aging Gamecube, Xbox, and even Wii gems for pennies, and continue enjoying my ritualized experience, just as music aficionados do in record shops nationwide.  

Those were the days of glorious disco hits.  And Grover.

And isn't the goal the same?  To preserve a commercial institution that founded the games industry in favor of the antiseptic, anti-social, instantaneous digital transaction that just leaves me feeling like I stole something?  I'll stand with the physical product -- games, music, books -- every time.  Maybe this is what Walter Benjamin was talking about when he suggested mechanical reproduction destroyed an object's "aura," some esoteric quality that can't be replicated by a xerox machine.  Only this time, it's not just the aura, but the digital safety net as well as the ritual of purchase altogether.

What do you guys think?  If push comes to shove, will you commit to buying games in a shop, or are you totally comfortable with digital purchases?