Debate: Digital vs. Physical

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Casper: Earlier this year I had the delightful pleasure of finally visiting Stian all the way in Norway, which was the first time the two of us met face-to-face outside of video calls. We had a great time together and I enjoyed Norway a lot, but when I first stepped into his house there was one thing that struck me as odd: “Where are all the games at?!”

Turns out Stian has close to all of his games on digital formats, even his console titles. As a dedicated collector, I was obviously appalled. So what say you Stian! Defend yourself and explain why you forsake the traditional values of the plastic box and shining discs.

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Stian: First of, it was a delight to have you over and I am looking forward to coming to your house which I will believe is filled with cartridges, discs, and boxes worth more than what my monthly rent costs.No, but seriously, it was fantastic to have you over.

I won’t deny that it is a lovely charm to see a bookcase filled with games that I remember fondly or at least that makes me interested in the owner’s personal taste. However, for me, they are just that: plastic boxes and shiny discs. They do take up a lot of space and for one person who owns more games than he even remembers, it is quite convenient to have them in digital form whenever it is possible. Not to mention, I moved a lot before and still do from time to time to this day, so in many ways, it is due to the practical aspects. I wonder though, while I believe you take as good care of your games as you do with your kitties, aren’t you afraid that they might by complete accident get damaged? At least that the discs will?

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Casper: Well, those fancy boxes kind of negate the damage in a lot of cases and also limit how much you actually need to do in order to keep stuff clean, but my cartridges are kind of a pick-and-mix of what works and what doesn’t. I am going to freely admit that I don’t actually use my cartridge-based consoles that much, but I do keep the cartridges and systems purely for display while using emulators for the games themselves.

Your argument is really strong, however, and I can’t deny that if you frequently move or just don’t have the space for all this stuff, then keeping physical games is just not an option at all. What bothers me with digital games is that you solve the issue by abandoning your ownership of the product. It’s difficult to imagine, but if Steam ever shuts down people stand to lose countless games and probably won’t have any kind of alternative in the matter. Even if they keep the games downloaded, if Steam is gone then those games just won’t boot up anymore. While Steam vanishing is an extreme suggestion, consoles do regularly get replaced by newer systems and not every platform holder uses universal accounts or supports backward compatibility.

Even if I didn’t have the space, I’d rather not buy a game at all than risk losing it when somebody pulls the plug on the console’s online features.

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Stian: That is true, but anything can happen when a CD is out of its case. Though I have heard that especially N64-cartridges can be bad in regards to functionality, which is a shame when they seem on the outset like the sturdier choice.

What you are mentioning here is actually far from an unreasonable fear. Wii’s Virtual Console will be shut down for good in early 2019 and, by that point, you won’t be able to redownload digital titles. It is of course 13 years after its original release, but this is still an uncomfortable fate for all of us who have spent plenty of money on older titles, including myself. It does seem like both Sony and Microsoft are better in this regard, as you will get accounts that you can use directly online to get a clear look at your digital library, while Wii-U’s and Wii’s digital games are tied to only the consoles you have yourself, which is honestly bollocks. This is especially strange when you consider PS3-titles and 360-games can still be purchased and downloaded on their hardware to this day.

Though more studios seem aware of the digital market and how important it is, so I believe they and even Nintendo now, are more aware of how important they are to preserve. Though what does take up space, are of course the hard-drives and the SD-cards, but at least they are easier to store. Though with this progression at least, is it not then possible that more developers will follow the digital market and make sure it preserves and stays strong? It should also lower the cost of the game compared to physical copies, and we can’t forget how important digital gaming-market are for letting indie-titles get a shot at the spotlight, right?

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Casper: Man, I remember the Wii virtual store. I paid 5 euros to get the internet channel for the Wii back in the day and had to use that to play the browser game Land of Destiny when my PC broke down. Good times, sad to see it all go.

Since we started this debate, however, something interesting has occurred. Nintendo is suing websites that host ROM files and Emuparadise has taken down its download links, preferring instead to be a website that acts as a memorial to the retro games you could once download there. The war on emulation is once again on and, if you ask me, that is the exact opposite of what you refer to as “seeing the importance to preserve”.

These platform holders are not preserving anything, they are trying to capitalize on it. While new markets are adopting subscription models or offering their products for low prices, Nintendo is still trying to sell its NES games for 5 euros apiece, the same price it charged on the Wii, then again on the Wii U, and now on the Switch. Each console generation passes and these overpriced “official” roms are lost as you plug in your new console and find that none of your library has been carried over. You mention PSN, but even if you still have your PS3 games on your account, you can’t download and play those on the PS4.

Meanwhile, people actually making an effort to preserve are marked as criminals and websites are shut down. People that want to enjoy these decade-old titles have to abide by the outdated methods of these companies. And games that were never brought to your country or that these companies just don’t bother putting on their store? Too bad, you can’t have that anymore. Let the annals of history forget them.

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Stian: Capitalizing on this is definitely a reason for why Nintendo shut down these sites, I won’t deny that. However, I will defend parts of Sony and Nintendo on this regard. You see, PS4 is not backward-compatible with PS3, so I can understand that the server with old PS1-titles, might not work on PS4 or even PS3-titles for that matter. However, they have been quite nice about this, with allowing PS-Vita and PSP being used for crossplay, meaning both PS1-games and most the indie-titles, are playable on more than one system without extra cost. There are, of course, PS2 titles you can purchase on PS4, but they have been severely upscaled to look and run better, so I don’t mind them charging a bit more there.

However, Nintendo has been somewhat bizarre here. They let you play downloaded Wii-Virtual Console games on Wii-U, however only through a unique channel. If you want to play these using the pad, you must purchase them again and while it is about 1 euro depending on the system the game originally came out on, it is an odd feature and also not possible to do if a certain title is not available on the Wii-U shop. Though I will admit that Nintendo is strange here (and definitely will be onwards with the Switch-online subscription), there are some that take good care of re-releasing older titles. Ports of arcade-games and Neo-Geo titles by Hamster has been severely updated with features like online play and providing a choice between the US or Japan-version.

Not to mention with Capcom re-releasing older titles on multiple compilations (with them being severely more faithful than the PS2 and GameCube-compilations), wouldn’t you say that at least some of the market understand the importance digital gaming? These are also small in terms of size, so having them on a disc would simply be a waste of space. With also how common indie-titles are on the digital market and that nowadays, any title in physical form is on the same date or even after as it is digitally released, wouldn’t it make sense that they focused on this? Especially when shops like Gamestop are getting less customers due to this change. Besides, angering fans and gamers with poor practices of repurchasing or canceling shops, can lead to more than just a little loss in income.

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Casper: Man, this discussion has really shifted from its original target, but yes, both physical and digital media struggle to meaningfully contribute to the preservation of video games. This is mostly the fault of obtuse publishers, however, and not a fault of either medium.

Still, how do you feel about stores? The digital age has certainly done a number on my city in particular and three of the four game stores here have since closed down. I really miss some of these places, the fun of browsing through racks of games, peek at the used games section, maybe even browse the movies. Convenience is nice and all, but it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more stores close down due to an inability to compete, the less worthwhile it becomes to go to town and visit actual stores. No Steam, PSN, or Eshop can compare to the joy of picking up a game and bringing it home.

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Stian: That is quite a valid point honestly, which is a shame when you can’t please both crowds. What you experience however with stores, is pretty similar to what is going on here and other parts of the world as well I believe. I think also sites for purchasing older titles like eBay, is also responsible for this, as the prices in certain game-stores could be too high and I personally do not miss them much.

It is hard to deny some enjoyment and nostalgia for them, as I remember when I purchased titles that I had waited for a long time, like the Chrono Trigger remake for the DS, and there is a charm in talking to someone with a passion for gaming. However, this I could do with friends and for me, I don’t need anything physically to make them touch me on an emotional level. It might be far-fetched, but it is kinda like how our friendship was for a while. Despite that I did not meet you before in real life, I still treasured our conversations and our friendship more than 90% of those I could actually meet physically here. It might say something about my circle of friends, but I also believe that it kinda shows how little it does not matter whether I have games or friends physically or digitally: it rather comes down to what they offer. Besides, with sites it is also easier to meet those people you are more similar to online, and I believe it is somewhat similar to games too.

Sorry, it became a bit sappy or over-the-top, but I really believe because of this, it is a time-saver when you can enjoy something through digital media. Besides (as for games), they are usually cheaper online and thus you should have the money for external SD-card or hard drives for safe preservation.

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Casper: I will agree that stores had a tendency to lack behind in pricing and it’s the very nature of technological advancement that the old and cumbersome is replaced with efficient, new alternatives. However, that would assume that digital games are the superior alternative to brick & mortar stores, which I don’t feel is true.

Digital games are never truly your possession, they are more like a license to use the software that lasts for as long as the platform it is bought on remains in business (as we discussed earlier). This also means digital games can’t be traded in and many platforms still struggle under unreasonable, customer-unfriendly return policies for purchases you don’t actually like. I remember buying Deus Ex: Human Revolution on Steam, a game that literally would not start on my system. Steam wouldn’t refund it, so I had to pirate a copy that did work. When I bought a game for the PS3 online and later realized I had the wrong thing, I could not refund it because it was already downloaded.

And there are other gripes, such as the vast libraries of these digital platforms making it hard to find relevant games as opposed to the professional layout of a physical store. Physical copies are also less affected by DRM and they also suffer less under company politics, like that recent debacle where Steam suddenly demanded anime games be censored. It is part nostalgia and I agree that online experiences can be just as (if not more) valid than physical ones, but I simply feel digital stores haven’t surpassed some important qualities of physical ones yet. Even when you buy from a webshop you have to pay for delivery and wait a day or two. Just hop on your bicycle, go into town, and buy the darn thing.

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Stian: Well, the license won’t remove the games even if the software is discontinued as long as you have it installed on a memory-unit. This, of course, goes for the consoles though, as Steam can be quite finicky if you don’t have the application installed. Although GoG at least don’t require you to use its galaxy, and you can easily download older titles thanks to the DRM-function.

However, when it comes to the costumer-service, that is definitely true. I remember that I had the worst time getting Gabriel Knight 3 working, as GOG had some disc-reading issues (which is still a problem for many) and the Steam-version crashed 70% of the time, so in the end, I just bought the CD-version and found an old laptop I could use. Though this was also a problem, as older titles, don’t have necessary patches. This is understandable, but it is terrible to have purchased a game and no way to make it work. Because of this, GOG at least was nice enough to ask if I wanted a refund (though I finally got this version to work most of the time), while I now have an ugly physical copy of the game that is hell to get running. Not as bad as Steam-version at least, thank God.

I must admit, I don’t get completely your side of the issue when it comes to the amount of digital games. I find it interesting to look after exciting or creative titles that fit certain genres, and of course: the mystery of new titles. We also have much better access to reviewers (both bigger and smaller names), so there will always be someone who can voice an opinion on not just if a game is good or garbage, but also who they will appeal to. The “professional” stores, usually only categorize them in alphabetical order and for what system they are made for. Though I will admit that censoring something like what you mentioned when Hatred got a pass, is definitely shit. Truth be told, I hate censorship in general, but this has happened in physical format too. Conker’s Bad fur Day’s remake had a lot of odd censorship and Ocarina of Time got a new version released where Ganon coughing of blood was changed to green goo, despite both having other elements that are not suited for a younger audience at all.

I can, by this, agree that there are some quality aspects that digital stores haven’t necessarily surpassed the physical formats on, though I also don’t think physical formats are better. They both have problems, though it is hard to see physical format existing further on, is it not? There are of course some indie-titles that get a physical release, but with more stores closing and games sold on eBay being more and more expensive, do you think we all have to resort to the digital market exclusively one day?

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