Screen Shot 2018-03-07 at 11.06.51.png

Soapbox features enable our individual writers to voice their own opinions on hot topics, opinions that may not necessarily be the voice of the site. In today's article, editorial director Damien admits he may have been wrong about gaming's all-digital future...

During the 3DS era, something remarkable happened – I was liberated from physical gaming media for the first time. The big driver of this change was the rise of digital downloads on the 3DS eShop, combined with the fact that the publishers who supplied Nintendo Life with review code fully embraced the ease of digital distribution; as a result, my 3DS quickly filled up with a horde of downloads not just for eShop exclusives, but for retail titles, too. At this precise moment in time my 3DS has a 64GB MicroSD card inserted which is almost entirely full.

Why was this remarkable, you may ponder? Well, for the first time ever, I had a handheld system which allowed me to carry around my entire software library without having to also carry around a bag full of small, easy-to-lose cartridges. When leaving the house, I didn't need to make sure I had the right selection of games at my side – my 3DS collection was with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I stopped buying physical cartridges for the system altogether, instead prioritising the far more convenient world of digital downloads. The future had arrived, and I felt like I had cast off the yoke of physical games.

That story has continued with Switch; I own a handful of Game Cards – most purchased at launch – but the overwhelming majority of my purchases have been digital, and I made sure early on that I acquired a roomy 200GB MicroSD card for all those lovely downloads. In the past, when I've seen discussions on this very site regarding the hot topic of physical versus digital, I've almost always sided with the latter; why would any sane person possibly choose physical games – which come with the added annoyance of easily-misplaced carts and the need to hot-swap games constantly – when a far more elegant digital solution exists? My dismissal of boxed retail titles has, in the past, gotten to the point of openly mocking those whose desire to have a physical box on their shelves overrides rational though. How can such blinkered Luddites possibly justify such backwards behavior?

Having Nintendo purchases tied to hardware is one good reason to avoid fully embracing the digital route, even if it means you miss out in terms of sheer convenience

That, I'm ashamed to say, was my stance. I use the past-tense here because recently I had a worrying revelation that makes me fear for the future of video gaming, and our ability to preserve our hobby's history. This was triggered by two key events; the first was my attempt to get my Japanese NNID working on an old Mk1 Japanese 3DS console. I've not been successful so far in this venture, and as a result have decided to source physical copies of some of the games I'd previously purchased in digital form from the Japanese eShop. While mulling over this situation, I thought to myself – surely it's best for me to actually own these games in physical form rather than trying to jump through Nintendo's archaic, hardware-based ID system? That way, at least I'll have the game itself and it won't be tied to an account system that keeps my titles arbitrarily locked away simply because I can't tie my existing NNID to a "new" system.

This thought process ran almost parallel with another, which was linked to the news that very soon Nintendo will be switching off the Wii eShop, so you won't be able to purchase games using the service (you will, however, be able to re-downloaded previously-purchased titles, but even this is likely to be removed at some point in the near future). Despite being over a decade old, the Wii doesn't "feel" like a retro console to me; I can still vividly recall when I picked up my system shortly after launch and how I marvelled over the motion-based control system. Now, Nintendo is switching off the lights and with it, the ability to buy the digital games which are exclusive to that console, such as (off the top of my head) M2's superb line of rebooted Konami classics, like Castlevania The Adventure Rebirth, Contra Rebirth and Gradius Rebirth. A chapter of Nintendo's history is coming to a close, and it's a chapter that cannot be easily opened again.

I've tossed these thoughts around my head for the past week, and have – at certain points – tried to push them to the back of my mind, because the reality is simply too horrendous to contemplate. A digital future means that many games will die completely; without a physical edition available, there will be no way of owning these digital exclusives when they are removed from sale. This is already happened in the mobile sphere; there are countless iOS games which are no longer available for purchase or download, and that means they effectively cease to exist; you can't walk into your local charity shop and pick up that iPhone title you wasted hours on back in 2009 – it's gone.

One of these cartridges contains the full game, which will remain unchanged until it stops working altogether. The other already contains an outdated version of the game, and requires an online connection to get the full experience. Can you guess which is which?

As a keen retro gamer, this almost inevitable reality scares me. I'm a massive nostalgia junkie and get genuine happiness from firing up my Mega Drive and SNES and playing dusty old cartridges on them; it's a way of reconnecting with my childhood and appreciating the games which have influenced an entire generation of players and developers. Now, imagine for a moment that the games you grew up with didn't exist in physical form, and after a few years were removed from circulation, with no pre-owned copies available for purchase on the secondary market and no means of emulating said titles via other hardware. That's a potential reality that awaits upcoming generations of players, because sooner or later, we're going to enter a period of gaming history where even the major console manufacturers ditch physical media and go all-digital. You might cite the abysmal failure of the PSP Go as evidence that this soothsaying will never come to pass, but that was simply a case of right console, wrong time – movies and music have both slowly but surely embraced the digital age and the same will eventually happen with games (it arguably already has happened, if you only do your gaming on your smartphone).

This only serves to illustrate the importance of emulation when it comes to preserving gaming history; we've already seen the MAME community resurrect arcade games which, without their hard work when it comes to dumping ROMs, would be lost in the mists of time. Likewise, emulation of domestic systems is ensuring that games which are no longer in circulation for whatever reason (licensing issues or the collapse of the original developer) still remain playable, despite the obvious legal issues with copyright. Emulation also means that in many years from now, when the hardware and media are no longer functional, we'll still be able to experience these games. However, our impending all-digital future means we may not be so lucky; eShop games, for example, are not easily converted into ROM form and when the store is eventually taken offline, the games will vanish with it – unless the original developer decides to release the source code, or industrious hackers are able to crack the system and obtain the ROM.

This whole situation also makes you actively question just how much "ownership" you have over the games you purchase digitally. Supporters of physical software rightly point that the small print issued by Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo talks of you buying a "license" to play the game, rather than owning it outright. That basically means that they can, at any point, decide to remove that license and withdraw the game from active distribution, and there's legally nothing you can do about it; at least with a physical game, you own that particular version and it cannot be taken away from you.

Yes, this is an utterly gratuitous shot of my Mega Drive collection. But the point remains; would I feel as strongly about these vintage games if most of them were missing content that could only be obtained from online servers, long since shut down? — Image: Damien McFerran / Nintendo Life

This is an element of gaming ownership which future generations are simply not going to experience, and as a result we could see their perception of a game's "worth" diminish. Ask yourself this – how many times have you picked up that beloved copy of Super Mario 64 from the shelf and reminisced over the hours spent finding stars and exploring the 3D worlds? Without that tangible nostalgic connection, would you feel as fondly about the game? What if, ten years after you played Super Mario 64, it was unceremoniously removed from sale, never to be seen again? Would it still endure in your memory, or would you simply forget about it and move onto other, newer games? The disposable nature of gaming on smartphones is, in my opinion, one of its least welcome aspects; iOS games which – many years ago – I enjoyed thoroughly have simply vanished from the App Store, and no one really talks about them or their impact anymore; they have become the "lost generation", and tales of their conception, development and success are now fading into memory because we no longer have access to them. Even evergreen iOS titles like Angry Birds, Crossy Road and Temple Run are updated several times a year, so chances are they won't "feel" like the game your remember from years ago.

Of course, you could argue that the gaming industry's obsession with remastering past classics will ensure that titles like the aforementioned Super Mario 64 remain available for all eternity, but what of the obscure classics that aren't afforded the same treatment? Everyone has a guilty pleasure from gaming history that they couldn't live without; a game which, despite not being a smash hit, has a special place in your heart (I have several, including Shin Seikimatsu Kyūseishu Densetsu: Hokuto no Ken on the Mega Drive, which was released as Last Battle in the west and is based on the Fist of the North Star manga and anime – it's also pretty rubbish, but I love it all the same). Titles like these are unlikely to be remastered repeatedly (or at all), and in the digital age, they therefore have no future outside of unofficial emulation.

Taking all of this into account, I can now see why so many Switch owners are keen to get their hands on physical releases of eShop games, and why they insist on buying nothing but boxed copies of full-price retail releases. However, even this will not totally solve the problem, at least during this current generation; we live in an era where games are updated constantly with new content and patches, so the game that exists on the cartridge (or, in the case of other systems, the disc) is practically out of date the moment it is manufactured. Day-one updates and bug fixes drastically alter the way these games perform and function. Case in point: DOOM was recently updated with motion controls, but in 20 years time, when the servers have long since shut down, you won't be able to play that version of the game because it's not the one that ships on the original Game Card; in fact, the entire game isn't even present on the Game Card, so a physical release can't prevent titles like DOOM from becoming either being borderline unplayable or half-finished; just like digital downloads, they rely on a connection to online servers which will, at some point, cease to operate.

DOOM's recent update brings with it motion controls, but in 20 years, you almost certainly won't be able to access that version of the game. How will collectors of physical games respond to this?

I might sound like I'm becoming slightly hysterical about all of this, but hear me out. As we've already established, I play a lot of retro games, and when I plug Contra III into my Analogue Super Nt I can rest easy in the knowledge that the experience I'm getting is the same as the one I had back in the early '90s (namely, brutal but intensely exciting). Fast-forward to 2037, and my son, who will be in his late 20s, won't have anywhere near the same experience when he loads up a Game Card on his battered and dusty Switch. For those who grew up in the '80s, '90s and '00s, games are frozen in time; a snapshot of an era which can still be played and enjoyed today. Modern games are in a constant state of flux, with new features, DLC and online modes which anchor them to the present, potentially denying them a lasting legacy. How will my son communicate to his offspring the appeal of Switch games in 20 or 30 years? Granted, he's not always impressed when I show him the "blocky" pixel visuals of the titles like Super Mario World and Golden Axe, but the sheer notion of this element of gaming being curtailed in the future fills me with existential dread.

In fact, as digital streaming becomes more and more the norm (even Apple is thinking of killing off downloads and opting for an entirely cloud-based solution, it would seem), we may even see the idea of having a digital copy of a game on your console become a thing of the past. Netflix has already changed the way people consume movies – movies they never actually own – and Sony has a cloud-based streaming service on the PS4 which does the same thing, but with games. We may well face a future where nobody owns anything, and we merely pay a monthly fee for all of the digital content we consume. 

And on that note, I'm off to cower in a dark corner, clutching my treasured Mega Drive collection and worrying about other associated problems, like bit rot, failing save batteries and other jolly stuff. Sleep well, dear readers.

Here's you chance to gloat at Damien for being so supportive of digital downloads in the past. Alternatively, let us know if you've had similar nightmarish visions, and if, like Damien, you're a digital convert who is now feeling a little less sure about the future. Post a comment below to share your views on this topic, and don't forget to vote in the poll, as well.

What are your feelings about an all-digital future? (538 votes)

  1. I'm going to fight it for as long as possible49%
  2. I've got a foot in both camps and don't feel strongly one way or another24%
  3. I'm all-digital already, and there's no turning back for me11%
  4. It's not something I'd previously considered, but now I'm scared, too!4%
  5. I'm fearful for the future, but there's no point in fighting this - it's bound to happen12%

Please login to vote in this poll.