Why All-Digital Console Games?


As we near a console generation that’s going to be increasingly digital, I’ve started to ask myself what it actually takes to get me to trust a digital storefront enough to buy all my content from it. Maybe the answer is different for everyone, but mine brings up a lot of issues over DRM and service that console gaming has yet to address.

I actually find it a bit strange that neither Sony nor Microsoft has said much about the fact that games on both Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will release on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network respectively on the same day as retail. The whole software library of a generation of consoles is going to be available digitally, and both Sony and Microsoft are still acting quite retail-oriented (I guess Sony’s promoted the whole play-while-you-download feature).

A while ago on this blog I wrote about how the current XBL and PSN marketplaces still weren’t very appealing for full-priced games, and I still have no idea how Microsoft and Sony respectively are going to do to improve them for next-gen. To figure out what I would want I took a look at everything else I do buy digitally right now.

I’ve gone all-digital for basically all my media except movies, comic books, and console games.

I think music is pretty much the easiest thing to go digital with for everybody. The files are small and almost every distributor has abandoned the notion of DRM. Until I really thought about it I never realized how much DRM was a deterrent to my buying digital content. It’s probably the biggest reason I haven’t gone digital with comics yet.

For anyone who hasn’t dabbled in the emerging digital comic industry, it’s really sprung up on mobile devices, but every major publisher has set up its own shop and limited its content to that shop. Only being able to read digital DC comics on the DC app and Dark Horse comics on the Dark Horse app feels restrictive in the worst way. Download-to-own movies face pretty much the same problem as far as I’m concerned.

And I already know I’m prepared to go all-digital for comics as soon as they’re DRM-free. The world of manga fan translations has already established smooth distribution models and very reliable software on which to receive and read DRM-free content, and it feels great. Fortunately Image Comics is already going DRM-free, meaning I can read its comics on whatever I want.

That’s really what it takes for me to be able to trust digital I guess — knowing that what I buy isn’t trapped on one device or one piece of software. Even the existence of DRM can be forgiven if it’s liberal to that point, or offers enough convenience to that end.

Steam is pretty much the ultimate example of DRM we’re willing to put up with. The most famous reason for that is the sales but people also ask for Steam copies of games because the service offers basically all the features of a console with one important difference: you can install that “soft console” and all its content on any PC you log into.

I’ve actually been recently re-buying some of my Xbox games on Steam. For some reason my games feel more secure to me on Steam as opposed to Xbox Live Arcade. I think it’s the knowledge that those Xbox games are only playable on one machine that I pretty much just use for playing games whereas my Steam games are playable on theoretically any computer I buy. The lack of backwards compatibility on next-gen consoles makes the problem worse by letting consumers know their existing software is forever trapped on the old machines. Sony is staring to get around this problem though.

I, like probably a lot of other people, have become perfectly fine with buying a lot of software and digital content through Apple’s iTunes store. For me that even includes books from iBooks (I know there’s Kindle but using the iBooks app feels better for me). I think it’s because I’ve invested myself into the Apple family of devices (except actual Macs), meaning I own several devices on which I can use that content and software, even if it’s all still locked to DRM.

Sony’s trying to create a similar relationship between the PS4 and the Vita, and it might be working. I gotta admit the idea of playing a game like Rogue Legacy on your PlayStation console and then on your handheld sounds cool. Cross-buy is still utilized far too seldom for games that have Vita versions. If Sony can actually get universal Remote Play to work it would give a whole new functionality and value to PSN purchases. Microsoft’s family sharing idea could have a similar effect on Xbox Live purchases.

Nintendo is the game platform company that frustrates me the most with this right now because it has the most content I would buy if it got its digital service in gear. For starters if Nintendo would just create an account system independent of the hardware — let me download my 3DS games on any 3DS I log into, I’d immediately go all-digital with 3DS games. Being able to open my 3DS and instantly launch Mario, Pokémon, or Zelda would put an unprecedented amount of convenience between me and some of my favorite games. And then there’s Virtual Console between 3DS and Wii U.

It’s almost criminal Nintendo hasn’t unified the Virtual Console stores between its existing devices. The ability to play Super Metroid or Earthbound on a console, and then continue on a handheld would almost by itself make me get a Wii U. It’s frustrating that in my eyes Sony has the better service but Nintendo has the content I really want. Hopefully Nintendo’s suggestion of accessing the eShop from browsers and mobile devices means it’s planning to upgrade its service.

Now this is all just my opinions on what makes an all-digital service valuable — the freedom to do what I want with my digital content, or at least some illusion of that freedom. Some people might want adjusted prices or still want a physical box or whatever.


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