The Digital Guillotine Is About To Fall

drm_imageAmong all of the bad news that the XBox One brings to gamers, one of the key elements is that there is no backwards compatibility to it. This is a decision as understandable as it was inevitable; after all, there’s a reason – namely, the cost of the components – why the PS3 and eventually the Wii dropped backwards compatability in the first place, and there is no benefit to adding it into a system that is likely going to centre around large, hit-based AAA games. Of course, Microsoft couldn’t leave well enough alone, and sent out Don Mattrick, their head of interactive entertainment business, to basically bludgeon anyone concerned about the issue. Talking to noted games site The Wall Street Journal, he actually had the temerity to utter the words “If you’re backwards compatible, you’re really backwards”.

While I admit it’s fun to watch this buffoon make a fool of himself and further damage Microsoft’s already imploding good will within the gamer community, and it’s convenient that this supports my established narrative on Microsoft’s disregard for the “core” gamer, it has to be admitted, even by noted Microsoft fans, that the company has a cavalier attitude towards the gamer and their wishes. Furthermore, they have a recent history of quickly abandoning past products unless absolutely forced to keep them going; while past editions of their Windows operating system stayed around for a long time, Microsoft couldn’t wait to end-of-life Windows 7 to force both OEMs and consumers into migrating to Windows 81. Their relatively short video game history also suggests that the 360 is going to be growing cobwebs sooner rather than later; once the 360 was released, all development of Xbox games essentially stopped, and Microsoft made only cursory attempts to address backwards compatibility for their older library before scuttling it, leaving many popular games with no support on the 360. If I was a betting man, I’d have to assume that was going to be the case for the 360, too.

That’s terrible, horrible news if you are or were, like me, a customer of either the Xbox Live Arcade or the Xbox Live Indie Games store. Though nothing’s confirmed, it’s possible we’re about to learn, first hand, the real dangers of ownership in an all-digital environment. I’m not talking about losing features; I’m talking about losing over half of my damned library.

As of right now, I have a bunch of Xbox Live Arcade games installed to my 120GB hard drive. In fact, because my disc drive doesn’t work at the moment, they’re the only games I can play. However, I don’t necessarily have everything I own installed. That, in and of itself, is easily fixable; load up my 360, go to the game’s page in the store, and download it. If I want to buy a new game, that’s easy, too; hell, I’ve even gotten over having to use Microsoft’s space bucks.

But extrapolate a year or two from now. The One is out, it’s had a couple of Christmas seasons, some big titles are out for it, and people are using it. It’s no longer just a launch system, it’s now running along at full speed. Every TV only has so many HDMI slots, so for most people, what will then be antiquated hardware in the 360 will no longer be running. What, then, will happen to all of those digital games that people own? The Xbox Live Arcade, XBLIG and full digital games that we bought, in the latter case at a heavy markup for what Microsoft called a “convenience” charge at the time selling full retail games online became a thing?

My personal fear is that within a year – maybe within months – of the One being released, it will no longer be convenient for Microsoft to keep their download servers open for the 360’s digital storefront. At that point, they’ll simply sunset them. Such a decision is understandable for the online functions of a video game; there’s no reason to run, say, Madden ’11’s online servers, an expensive undertaking, for the sake of ten people who refuse to move on. But those are usually just features. If Microsoft, or even Sony and Nintendo, sunset the PS3/Wii section of their online stores, it will mean a significant loss of peoples’ libraries. Eventually, as hard drives fail, it will mean that those games are never playable again.

Contrast the above with literally every system that has come before this current generation. I own in excess of 200 PlayStation 2 games, and I will be able to play each and every one of them ten years later so long as I own the hardware to do so. I could also go online, or to a store, and purchase any game I want, and take it home and be able to play it, with very rare exceptions such as Final Fantasy XI. If I want to, I can plug in my Atari VCS to either of my old, standard definition TVs, and play Enduro as much as I want. So long as the hardware holds up (or is replaced, much like there are new systems that allow people to play old NES and Genesis carts), I will be able to play that, and every other 2600 game, until the day I die. That copy of Enduro, from 1982, will be able to be played long after all of those 360 games become unplayable because the gatekeepers of the games I legally purchased decided it was no longer in their financial interests to provide me the access to download them. After all, shouldn’t I have bought the One?

When digital distribution started coming into relevance, a few people, myself among them, raised the question as to who really owned what we were buying, and what were to happen should the companies we were were licensing from – not even purchasing, just licensing – pull the plug on our ability to play or download what we paid full price from. It was easy to ignore those concerns in those days because that future seemed so distant. In reality, we’re already going through it, just in a different form, with the closure of so many free to play games by companies like Zynga. Those players paid money for their virtual goods, supported these games, and then were cut off when Zynga deemed them no longer useful, only to be shoved onto other games for the cycle to repeat. They can no longer play the games they effectively purchased into. Console gamers, I fear, are about to learn what that feels like, and when it comes, it’s not going to be pretty. I know if it does come to pass, I’ll regret the hundreds upon hundreds of dollars I paid Microsoft and other third party publishers in good faith, faith that has routinely been abused by just about all parties in the past seven years.

1 – It should be noted that Windows 8, so far, has been a commercial, critical and financial flop for everyone *but* Microsoft, who essentially beat the OEMs with a club so that they’d have to flog the software. The only PCs with Windows installed that are selling are running 7

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Christopher Bowen

About Christopher Bowen

Christopher Bowen is the Editor in Chief of Gaming Bus. Before opening Gaming Bus in May of 2011, he was the News Editor at Diehard GameFAN, a lead reporter for DailyGamesNews, and a reviewer at Not A True Ending, also contributing to VIMM, SNESZone and Scotsmanality. Outside of the industry, he is a network engineer in Norwalk, CT and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.