Digital Distribution and the
Preservation of Entertainment Software
I am a person who loves to consume all sorts of media. A movie here, a TV show there, a night of meticulously constructing a playlist every now and then. However often I may jump from one thing to another, I am always engaged in playing a video game in between. I see gaming as an art. The programmers and developers are the painters while the gamers are the art critics and museumgoers. Music is art, paintings and drawings are art, movies, acting, and voice acting are art, so why shouldn’t games be considered such when they include at least two of those art forms within them? Art is forever. The Mona Lisa is kept safe and sound because not only is it a famous piece of art, but it should be around for everyone to enjoy. Yes, a quick Google search could give you a high-resolution image of the painting but seeing it first-hand like I have is different. Being able to look at it in person and see the physical details rather than just the content of the picture is a unique experience.
I want to provide an example of a game I love to display what exactly I mean by a game as art. Persona 5 features an acid-jazz soundtrack with rock elements that, by itself, could be a studio album. The songs “Last Surprise,” “Life Will Change,” “The Whims of Fate,” “Rivers in the Desert,” “Wake Up, Get Up, Get Out There,” and “Beneath the Mask,” are all vocal tracks that average around three and a half minutes and are subject to the ability to loop them. Those, combined with all the instrumental tracks in the game, create enough music to rival some musicians’ entire careers. I can gush about Persona 5’s soundtrack all day, but there is more to be said. The plot of the game is long and full of twists and turns. The well-written and lovable characters only fuel the fire of the whole experience, not to mention the superb voice acting for each. Finally, the art direction has a striking crimson, black, and white theme going for it. Sharp is the best way to define it. In one sixty-dollar game there is enough music for a studio album, hundreds of pieces of art, which includes character portraits, 3D models, enemy designs, and anything on display on the screen, and enough story that, if turned into a screenplay, could be its own novel if transitioned correctly. Recorded albums of music can be around an hour long, while Persona 5 averages around one hundred hours, even more on higher difficulties. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has a score, but it is miniscule in comparison to other games in the series. The light piano notes to indicated different settings of tension is part of the score, but it is artistry not in the complexity of the composition but in the atmosphere it creates. It makes up for a lack of score with the gorgeous art direction, masterful open world to explore, and almost life-like in game weather system. The programming that went into creating the physics and impressive wilderness in the game is equivalent to a finely made painting. Again, art is subjective, but I feel as though games, which usually include two or more art forms within them, are art. I like certain types of music and I dislike other types, but the types I dislike are still music because they fit the criteria for what makes something music.
Every work of art is digitally distributed nowadays, but what is digital distribution? There are two forms that are intertwined. The first and easiest form is the digitization of something. Converting recorded music into an MP3 file makes it available to transfer digitally. An image as a PNG or JPEG, video or movie as an MP4, the list goes on. The second form is the selling and purchasing of digital goods through digital platforms. Downloading and streaming are forms of digital distribution.
Where do video games come into play with all of this? For the PC market, downloading and playing games is the norm thanks to the platform Steam, which is managed by Valve. Each of the three companies making consoles to play games, Sony with their PlayStation, Microsoft with their Xbox, and Nintendo with their line of handheld and home systems. Modern generations of these consoles have online stores that can be used to purchase games and DLC, which stands for downloadable content, that expands the game’s content with a free update or a paywall. Many things on these stores do not get a physical release to insert into your system of choice or are locked to different systems as exclusives. As Matthew Golden, in his University of Pennsylvania Journal of Business Law published journal “Death of the Secondary Video-Game Market: Natural Causes, or Euthanasia,” puts it, “as data storage and internet technology has increased, distributing games in purely digital format has become more and more common, and many commentators expect that games will be distributed solely in this format sometime in the future, eliminating the need for retail stores.”
The preservation of games is done in multiple ways. Gamers have found ways to recreate hardware through programs called emulators on personal computers, allowing games that only worked on certain hardware to be played on other devices. This comes with time, usually after certain systems are discontinued and deemed obsolete. Despite the legality of such practices, it is still preserved. Personal computers show no signs of going anywhere, so having at least one version of a console-only game running on a PC somewhere in the world is a step in the right direction. Another way is for publishers to port their older games to newer platforms for purchase through digital stores, a limited physical edition, or a redeemable code for the game if someone has it linked to their account on a previous console of the same line (owning a game on the PlayStation 3 and receiving a download code for the PlayStation 4 version since the purchase is linked to your PlayStation account). However, markets, consumer feedback, and profitability are obstacles when porting over older games.
Keeping all games, good or bad, preserved and available by distribution online from fans, distribution through digital game stores, or remasters, collections, or new forms of availability, is important because video games are art and art is a part of our history. I see it as only logical to preserve games, since we preserve other forms of art. The original, well, everything that goes into a video game is usually kept by the developer or publisher or whoever owns the rights to it all. The CDs we bought, games we purchased, etc., are copies, essentially.
Digitization has changed everything. Record labels of old “turned music into a business by recording what was previously only available to a live audience, promoting it, and selling it to consumers; labels made music a commodity,” says Michael McCubbin in his journal “The Aftermath of Aftermath: The Impact of Digital Music Distribution on the Recording Industry,” which was published by the University of New Hampshire Law Review. The change of norms in this new age has left music in a weird spot, but it works out. “The music industry itself is prospering as niche music markets continue to sprout, and unique genres appeal to growing new audiences,” McCubbin also states. Thanks to digitization, Deven Desai states “tools that had allowed garage bands to record and mix music at home improved to the point that expensive studio production was not necessary [anymore] except for highly sophisticated work,” in his journal “The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption,” which can be found in Hastings Law Journal 1469. With games, smaller studios that can consist of just one person have the power to release a game on a major distribution platform like Steam. If one-man developers can do this, larger publishers can too. However, larger publishers release physical copies as well. It becomes difficult to preserve independent games when they do not have the funding to make physical copies.
The video game industry needs a balance between physical and digital distribution. There’s a reason why the abbreviation for the Xbox One S All Digital edition is the Xbox One ‘SAD edition.’ Digital games should be for accessibility. There are unlimited quantities of the product since it is just a copy. We are currently on the horizon of the next console generation as of writing this paper. The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are set to release later in 2020 and will feature disc drives for physical games. However, if all consoles proceeding that generation become all-digital, the second-hand gaming market will only be available up to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X generation. In time, selling old games or giving them to a friend will be no more, unless they are given games that were from a physical generation. To further support the need to keep producing physical games, Saara Toivonen and Olli Sotamaa, in their study “Digital Distribution of Games: The Players’ Perspective,” found that “a majority of the respondents [in a survey] expressed that they appreciate the opportunity to look and touch the [games] and booklets. This gives them a concrete feeling of ownership, different from the one connected to digital copies. Many of the informants also emphasize the reliability and safety of physical copies.” The study also found that the informants “often listed quite a catalogue of memorable game cartridges, had a separate place for them or actively showcased some of the games to other people. In many ways gathering and controlling meaningful objects can work to gain one an improved sense of self.” Digital games as an option is important for those who cannot get access to copies of older games, if companies keep porting over their old games to newer systems. Not all games may be deemed profitable in the future, however.
Profitability is the defining factor when it comes to a company holding on to games. Nintendo will keep nostalgia-pandering and continue to release Super Mario Bros. on all their systems going forward, so keeping an emulator active for that game won’t be as important. More obscure, yet cult-classic, games, like Nintendo’s Earthbound will need an emulator active. The original release for the game on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System is hard to come by and goes for a high price. There was a time when people couldn’t purchase Earthbound on Nintendo’s home consoles. The Nintendo 64 and GameCube eras made it almost impossible to play the game without an emulator, which weren’t as common or readily available as they are now. Even then, the game was barely ten years old.
As of late, retro gaming has skyrocketed in popularity. As Jaakko Suominen describes it in the abstract of his article “Retro gaming Community Memory and Discourses of Digital History,” “retro gaming refers to a practice of playing and collecting original classic videogames of the 1970s, the 1980s, and the early 1990s, or using emulators for playing them.” In Fan favorite classics such as Crash Bandicoot and The Resident Evil series have been receiving remakes or remasters to pander to the nostalgic or to introduce a new generation. Even more recent games are getting the remake treatment, such as Monolith Soft’s Xenoblade Chronicles, which released on the Nintendo Wii back in the year 2010. But what if this didn’t occur for other games? Keeping physical copies alive, the second-hand gaming market and retro gaming market can increase its reach in terms of what is retro. Games from the late 1990s and early 2000s are starting to be considered retro, since they are almost twenty years old. If physical copies of the current games keep coming out, when the developer or publisher deems it as unprofitable, the fans can take charge and make these games available through emulators as time goes on.
Why does all this matter? If a game releases, it will be out there and someone will find a way to preserve it, right? Yes, but the security of that preservation is up for grabs. Companies dissolve, there are buyouts, some publishers decide to leave a series dormant for decades, etc. Keeping this art form, its music, characters, stories, and artwork alive is all part of the gamer culture. Adrienne Shaw, in her journal “What Is Video Game Culture? Cultural Studies and Game Studies,” quotes L. Copeland in saying “the stereotype of the gamer as a glazed, incoherent teenage boy is wrong,” and I couldn’t agree more. While those people do exist, it isn’t the overwhelming majority. Gamers, regardless of race or upbringing, are unified by the word ‘gamer.’ As of late, it has become a fun way of greeting one another, saying “hello, fellow gamer,” in a comical and ironic sense. As someone on the inside, I can say that L. Copeland is correct. Stereotypes exist for a reason, yes, but they are not always true for everyone. Different subcultures of gamers unite under different game series or genres or even publishers. Different groups band together in anticipation for a long-awaited release, some share fan-made content to add into a popular game through modifications. Think of it as going to see a concert with friends. Concert tickets are expensive, but people go to them out of their love for the music. Typically, people do not decide to go to a Billy Joel concert because they feel like it one night. Gamers who love The Legend of Zelda will theorize together on how the next game will connect to the overarching story, when it will come out, and be saddened as a unit when the game is inevitably delayed by a few years. Culture and art are part of history, so it should, once again, be preserved. This is the heart of gamer culture. Showcasing their love for certain titles is a culture that transcends skin tone, geographical region, and social standing.
The shift towards an all-digital way of purchasing games would be cost efficient for publishers due to the lack of manufacturing. However true this may be, as Saara Toivonen and Olli Sotamaa have, through their research and study, concluded that “the relation between physical and digital copies is obviously not that of opposition or even alternative. Many popular games build on a hybrid model in which the starter pack is sold as a physical copy but downloading updates or the playing itself requires the players to connect to the official game servers.” Culture and the preservation of culture have no relevance towards cost-efficiency. People involved in eSports and competitive gaming are losing money. They travel, pay for food, pay the entry fees for the competition, and never make that money back unless they continuously win. Even still, larger video game competitive events receive upon thousands of entrants and maybe a few people, the top placements, make any of that money back. People do this out of love for the game. Conventions exist for people to waste their money out of love for an industry.
Religion has been around for thousands of years because people remain faithful to this day. Despite historical instances and any modern image certain religious institutions may have now, they are not businesses. Funding is needed to keep certain activities available, which is a given, but maximizing funds and profits are not, or should not, be the goal of places of worship. Keeping physical copies of games around will entice those who love a series or game to purchase them. People are willing to pay more money for that plastic box and cover art. It’s the same thing as going to a preferred place of worship and donating some money here and there to keep it active.
Storage space is a major issue with downloading games. I mostly play on my Nintendo Switch, which comes with thirty-two gigabytes of storage space. I purchase almost all my games physically. I only make the exception if there is no other option. Avid gamers on the base PlayStation 4 and Xbox one have only around five-hundred gigabytes of storage. While digital storage is at an all-time low pricewise, it is still an extra burden. A recent release, Final Fantasy VII Remake has been highly anticipated for years. It finally released and gamers who are fans of the series or just want to see others happy rejoiced. There is a catch. The download size for Final Fantasy VII Remake is rounded up to ninety-one gigabytes. That is almost a fifth of the storage space for a base PlayStation 4 or Xbox One. It is a tenth of the storage for newer models which pack in a terabyte of storage. External drives are easy to come by, yes, but I think having a stack of plastic boxes with end labels displaying the game’s title is nicer on the eyes rather than a stack of external drives that the player needs to memorize which drives have which games on them.
Digital purchasing of games is often seen as a convenience when it is more an accessibility. It makes games accessible for people who do not have three GameStop stores within a ten-mile radius. Retro video game stores rely partly on the community of retro gamers in their region to purchase, trade, and take part in store activities. Not all regions have the people or product necessary to keep stores like that alive. While it may be convenient for those who despise going through the trouble of going to the store and picking up their copy of a game to simply download it to their system of choice, it may be a necessity for others. Convenience factors have been put in place, but it is a quality of life change rather than a convenience. There is a feature on consoles now that allow players to pre-download a pre-purchased game digitally. This way, the player will no longer have to come home and wait for a fifty gigabyte download to start playing the game.
Toivonen, Saara, and Olli Sotamaa. “Digital Distribution of Games.” Proceedings of the International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology – Futureplay ’10, May 2010, doi:10.1145/1920778.1920806.
Desai, Deven. “The New Steam: On Digitization, Decentralization, and Disruption.” Hein Online, 2014, heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals/hastlj65&div=50&g_sent=1&casa_token=DzQ19dXzlRwAAAAA:Y1n-Yye_D-YaQ2i_Od0t5UjkNEbb8vLNt1gqH4Ff3_soSrXpYE8JmbTdZA-7M686uGuw7RJWlA&collection=journals.
Golden, Mathew. “Death of the Secondary Video-Game Market: Natural Causes, or Euthanasia?” Penn Law: Legal Scholarship Repository, 2014, scholarship.law.upenn.edu/jbl/vol16/iss4/4/
McCubbin, Michael. “The Aftermath of Aftermath: The Impact of Digital Music Distribution on the Recording Industry.” Hein Online, 2012, heinonline.org/HOL/Page?handle=hein.journals%2Fplr10&id=335&collection=journals&index=.
Shaw, Adrienne. “What Is Video Game Culture? Cultural Studies and Game Studies.” Games and Culture, vol. 5, no. 4, Oct. 2010, pp. 403–424, doi:10.1177/1555412009360414.
Suominen, Jaakko. “Retrogaming community memory and discourses of digital history.” Navigating Landscapes of Mediated Memory. Brill, 2011. 143-154.