Monday, June 17, 2013


What Do We Own?

Well.  Here we are.

The thought on everyone's mind right now is the XBox One and its potential impact on what we own when we pay for a video game.  This has been an evolving idea for a while now, but the One seems to be the boldest step toward a new paradigm.

I can't say I have any real, concrete feelings about the matter.  The XBox has always been this sort of abstract thing to me.  My mind blots it out when I see it in a store.  I played Halo once and do not wish to play it again.  I understand that it's a very popular platform; I have some vague idea that the concepts it embodies are the ones that gamers seek out in particular, but its impact on my life is secondary at best.

Still.  It gives me pause, because it's a sign of things to come.  It gives me an opportunity to sort of feel this thing out before I'm pushed over the edge.  Here's what I'm wondering.  Is it really that bad?

Tycho gave me something to think about the other day:

Nintendo’s embrace of digital delivery is the biggest story about the company at the moment, but it’s rarely given stage.  I was downloading, playing, and deleting games I’d purchased from my 3DS until I realized that, no; this wasn’t a temporary change.  I wasn’t going to buy some carts and some digital.  I will always by digital and I will never buy carts.  Even as someone who occasionally makes his living hurling jeremiads about the coming retail apocalypse, even I was terrified by the swiftness with which this change occurred.  I bought a twenty dollar SD card with 32 gigs of space, and that’s it.  I’ll never purchase a game at retail for any Nintendo system ever again.

When the Kindle first came out, a lot of folks got nervous.  Download a book?  But... then you don't have it.  What if there's an error with your account?  Your ability to access the things you've purchased depends on the existence of this whole infrastructure to back up your content and send it to you.  It depends on having access to electricity.  In the event of societal collapse, hard copies will survive, but digital certainly will not.  And what about the physical, tactile pleasure of holding a book in your hands, turning the pages?  You simply cannot relate to a digital copy the same way you do a physical one.

It was with these fears that I took my first hesitant steps into the world of e-books.  At first I only downloaded the free books -- the classics, free of copyright, so no investment risk there.  But I liked the platform so much -- something about the device really makes reading easier, and the option to zap a pocket edition of any book to my iPod is handy -- that I started purchasing digital copies of books I already owned.  Okay, I was paying for it again, but I didn't have the worry of losing it because I had the hard copy.  Finally, I got where I am today.  I've come to prefer the digital copy over the hard copy.

Digital content has a number of advantages.  You don't need physical space to store them.  You can carry an enormous amount of content around with you.  There's the pleasure of instant gratification, being able to hear about something and having it a minute later.  And there's no scarcity.  Content is never "sold out", and it has the potential to stay in circulation forever.  Yes, used content is generally cheaper, but every now and then there's a premium to pay for an especially rare piece of content -- none of that with digital.

Okay, but what about the long term?  Say Amazon or Nintendo goes out of business and suddenly you can't access what you bought anymore.  When it comes down to it, any digital content really amounts to a long-term rental, with no way of knowing when your access will be revoked.  What happens then?


I think about the way I relate to books.  There are some really good ones that I can read again and again.  But the way I relate to most books is that I'll read them once and then put them on the bookshelf.  Then they sit there and gather dust until I decide I need the space back, and then I have to haul them off to Half Price Books for basically no return on my investment.  I don't actually need, or even want, lifetime access to most books.

And what about video games?  I used to be -- and to some degree, still am -- a hoarder.  I clung to my NES and SNES for years, with their libraries of classic games, knowing that I would want to play them again and again forever.  That is, until the day I didn't.  Sure, there were the classics... which I now own on Virtual Console.  But I think that most content -- movies, books, video games -- tend to be one-shot deals for a lot of people.  You experience it once or twice or a hundred times, and then you don't need it anymore.  Our brains need new experiences.  Newer and better games often replace older ones in our minds.

How do I relate to video games?  I buy new whenever possible to avoid the possibility of defects.  I only resort to buying used when a new copy is no longer available.  When I trade in games, it's never because I need the money; it's usually just because I've got tired of that particular game and I don't want it taking up space anymore.  Doesn't digital delivery work out well for me then?  I can always be assured that I'm buying a pristine copy of a game, and when I don't like it anymore, poof!  Into the ether with it.  And if I regret evicting a game, as I often have in the past, I can just download it again.  Add to that the obvious advantage of having my library with me wherever I go -- no more lugging around cases full of DS cards because I can't decide which games to take with me.

After all, I've been buying games this way on my iPad, haven't I?  It's kind of disappointing to come back to my 3DS from my iPad and not having EVERYTHING right there on the screen, available at a touch.  Suddenly, that changeout -- going over to the desk, finding the game I want, and swapping the cards -- feels like an avoidable chore.

I've complained in the past about the price.  Nintendo is asking the same price for a game whether you buy it at retail and download it.  But the more I think about it, the less of an issue this seems to be to me.  Yes, digital delivery should, in theory, drive down the price of games as it drives down Nintendo's costs, but hey.  You're getting the same game either way.  The only differences are the particular advantages and disadvantages of the format you chose.  If I want a game badly enough to spend $35 on it, then shouldn't I just get it in the format I prefer?  Shouldn't I save my complaints about price for whether or not the software itself is worth it?

So I've taken the plunge.  I downloaded the new Animal Crossing game rather than buying it at retail.  It's the kind of game I would never trade in or loan to anybody, so it seems like a safe first step.  Yes, I have my misgivings about the idea, but seeing the way Nintendo handled the transition from Wii to Wii U, I'm cautiously optimistic about their ability to give consumers security in their digital purchases.  I have a feeling this won't be the last game I download.  Maybe I should get one of those $20 memory cards.

Oh brave new world.


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