“Prophecies on the Inevitability of a Streaming Future”

FF3-NES-Geomancer “The following is a contributor post by the Optimistically Sentimental Alabaster Mage.”

Todd Howard is talking about it, Phil Spencer has alluded to it, Michael Pachter thinks that we’ll all be plugging our phones into our televisions, or that televisions will just come with a built-in GPU that is able to capture streaming signals… As much as I wish to hold on dearly to our physical media, with the explosion of Steam, Xbox Live Arcade, and PSN following suit—as well as the publishers realizing greater profits from digital distribution—a streaming future is inevitable.

In the future, we won’t even pay for licenses that grant us the right to download data to our computers or consoles, rather we’ll just have a bunch of Netflix-style streaming services that we subscribe to for the ability to play the latest and greatest in games. It is with that in mind that I proposition the following as both argument against, and for, an all-streaming, all-digital future of video games. I’ll try to tackle each alternating bullet point as a pro and a con, but honestly, I don’t see much wrong with a streaming future, and it may end up being more pro than con. I’ll defer to the comments for a meaningful discussion on the topic, and to illuminate some of the items I don’t address, or those items that some of you may disagree with.

1. Video Game Collecting Is Doomed

A collector I am not… as much as I would like to classify myself as a collector, I have yet to amass a large enough collection of physical games to build a giant gaming wall behind me for my YouTube channel; that being said, I do own some rare NES, and a few physical Genesis/Megadrive carts, as well as several PS1 and PS2 discs that comprise several of my favorite games. Ironically, they’ve all been copied over to my computer so that I can play them in an emulator without any shame. Inti Creates has done a remarkable job with porting the Mega Man games to modern consoles, and the same can be said for Code Mystics and their phenomenal job on the Atari Vault product, but their work would not have been possible if not for the pirates and gypsies that came before them: the people that worked at “Bloodlust Software” to create Nesticle, or the famous No$GB DOS emulator.

The costs associated with building a collection have gone up, people find value in owning physical manifestations of the games they grew up with. Not to mention the myriad of issues associated with licensing, there are certain games that can only be owned as their relic counter-parts, or to be downloaded as roms.

However, if there is no physical manifestation of your favorite game to buy, then what is there to collect?

Companies like Limited Run Games have done a great job with publishing hit indie titles that would have been digital-only otherwise, but there aren’t many other companies out there that have capitalized on collectors. Even more depressing is that the next generation of consoles may not even have physical media drives or slots to insert games into. What has started as an interest cottage industry, and an honest response to digital distribution may end up falling by the wayside entirely… that isn’t to say that I don’t think Douglas Bogart and company are doing a good job, in fact, quite the opposite. Though, more often than not, by the time I get ready to purchase an LRG published game, it has already sold out, and I’m left to the throws of seedy Amazon sellers or Ebay listings.

2. Physical Media Degrades

Even if you do still hold on to the vestiges of our illustrious gaming past, those items will one day rot and decay. As much as digital distribution alleviates the issues associated with getting something to a certain place to be purchased by someone at a brick-and-mortar store, it also alleviates the issues associated with having said items in stock, as well as their eventual degradation.

3.Trading in Games will be a thing of the Past – Used Games Won’t Exist

I’m the first one to admit that this is going to be a huge detriment to the current gaming economy that I partake in. Trading in games I don’t play anymore is a huge factor in how I partake in the overall gaming economy. Ever since I was a little boy, being able to trade in my games, and buy used games has been a godsend for new releases.

When I was younger it was a matter of not having the money at all. Now that I’m an adult, it’s a matter of prioritizing my budget. If I’m able to trade in three (3) games and get the latest release that I’ve been lusting over for $15 instead of $60, that’s a huge incentive. In fact, I ended up trading in my PS3, 360, and Wii along with something like fifty (50) or sixty (60) games to buy my PS4 and a couple of new games for practically nothing. In the end I think it cost me around $150, and it had only been around 6 months since the launch of the PS4.

Whereas, the games that I could have kept and held on to may have netted me more in the long run, I opted for the short-term benefit of getting the latest and greatest. It’s still the case that a lot of the games I traded in from the last generation are dirt-cheap at any local retailer as well. You can routinely find games like Persona 4 for the PS2 at a whopping $18. Sure, it’s a critically acclaimed game and a cult classic, but it isn’t that expensive if you want to play it on old hardware. PS3 and Xbox 360 games are even cheaper in price, let alone used copies. But, in a streaming future, this won’t be an option. You’ll pay a set rate, and you’ll be beholden to whatever licenses have been negotiated, and whether or not IP holders feel that they can benefit from allowing streaming services access to their games for a set rate per period of time for availability.

Also, my recent Twitter poll suggests (out of seven votes) that most people haven’t traded in their games in more than a year

4. Streaming Services Cost Me Less Than Buying New Stuff Every Month

This is true with movies… I used to be a hoarder of DVDs, and before that, VHS tapes. Once Netflix arrived on the scene I felt little loyalty to my grandiose collection of obscure nerd favorites. Sure, I had taped every episode of Cowboy Bebop, meticulously cutting out the commercials from Adult Swim, though, it wasn’t long after I had the entire 26 episode run on DVD via the box set, and could watch the show in Japanese audio with English subtitles, and switch to the dubbed version at any time. The quality was greater than I could have imagined as well, it definitely looked better playing through my PS2 than it did broadcasting over the airwaves.

Music has suffered a similar fate for me. I used to have a massive collection of CDs, and then I migrated to burning MP3 CDs (thanks to the ability of my Sony Xplode system in my 1979 Honda Accord hatchback). With Napster came the realization that music didn’t have to fill up an entire crate, rather, I could own every song I ever imagined—divorced from the album it was released on—and all I had to worry about was my hard drive space. Really though, even if I had a file on my computer one day, deleted it the next, it was available for peer-to-peer sharing a week later if I regretted clearing the space.

Now-a-days, I don’t even really care to have access to all that. There’s a wealth of new media I’ve never experienced before. I can only imagine that having a streaming game service will yield the same benefits. Games I might be on the fence about today (i.e. Dead Cells) will be readily available for streaming without any added cost to me as a gamer.

5. The Console Manufacturers Have Been Testing Us

I have such a backlog with PS+ games, it’s ridiculous, and the majority of the games that have been released through PS+ I haven’t even bothered to play, let alone was I ever interested in buying them as brand new titles. Legitimately, I cannot imagine a world where several thousand games are at my fingertips. There are moments when I spend an hour or more just navigating the menus of Netflix or Hulu, trying to find something to watch. I can only imagine that the fifty-some-odd dollars a month I funnel into Sony or Microsoft will probably result in a similar pattern; I’ll spend several hours browsing games, and only a finite amount of time actually playing the games that are available.

Getting back to my comment on roms and emulation… speaking of console manufacturers testing us, Nintendo has finally released their plans for the online service to their Switch. It comes complete with 20 NES games that will be retrofitted with online functionality. Personally, I’m really excited to play Super Mario Bros. 3 with my friend in Japan. Just as Jim Carrey’s character lamented in the movie The Cable Guy, “THE FUTURE IS NOW”:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DCyZYhobvc4

The main argument AGAINST a streaming future is the infrastructure. But, with service comes demand, and I believe that the free market will adapt to compensate for the general public. Realistically, we’ve all been looking forward to the time when we wouldn’t have to jump through hoops to play TMNT IV with our friends across the globe. I recently did this with a friend of mine in Japan. Despite the fun that we each had, utilizing Mednafen, a rom obtained legally, and a server supplied by Emuparadise, we were still subject to weird bouts of lag and latency that wouldn’t be an issue with any commercial product.

6. There is Nothing You, as a Consumer, can do

The bottom line is the bottom line. Licensing agreements without any warehousing or physical production of product will ultimately win out. I think it will also allow big name publishers and triple-A developers to diversify their portfolios, as they won’t have to worry about the ultimate number of units sold-through for any given title. Subscription rates will dictate whether or not a budget can handle any particular project, as retention rates will most likely speak for themselves. The major caveat will be on the console manufacturers or the streaming service provides to determine whether or not said game will net them more long-term subscriptions over time.

I suppose this point also goes back to the previous point made… publisher and Console Manufacturers have already been testing us. Games-as-a-Service is a thing, just as loot boxes were a thing before the internet nerd-raged all over that idea. Subscription models will most likely follow similar monetization structures; whether it’s selling cosmetic items inside of a multiplayer game, or dolling out sections of a story one chapter at a time.

 

The Optimistically Sentimental Alabaster Mage is also known as Berkough, you can find his other musings about video games on the blog section of his user profile at SIFTD.net (http://siftd.net/#!/profile/berkough), or by following him on Twitter @berkough.

 

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9 thoughts on ““Prophecies on the Inevitability of a Streaming Future”

  1. I see a mixture, with Digital being the vast majority. I don’t think all digital games will be a stream on demand service either. I see it being like music services. You can pay to stream whatever you want, but downloadable games will still be prevalent. After all, there are always going to be situations where you’re not connected to a wi-fi network. You took your computer or device camping. Or a storm knocked out your utilities. Having that game on your laptop’s hard disk is going to be nice in a situation like that. And just as Vinyl made a massive resurgence in music amongst enthusiasts, I think there will still be physical games for enthusiasts. Just not to the same degree. Mainly because even when you buy the rare physical pc game it still requires a store account. Or when you buy that console game, it needs to check to see you’re up to the latest version.

    Be that as it may, I also don’t see the big game sections at retail remaining. Like the music sections, and DVD sections at Target, Walmart, Best Buy, these too will shrink. Perhaps even become things you need to order from the site, as the store will no longer bother carrying them. This is one of the reasons Gamestop is in the position its in. Rather than immediately trying to adapt when services like Steam got over their issues, and improved they waited. The same problem Transworld faced when the market transitioned to downloadable purchases, and streaming services. Now they’re trying to cram in any pop culture collectibles/knickknacks they can to diversify but it’s running the risk of becoming another Hot Topic or Spencer’s Gifts that happens to get in a game or two. But I think there will be independent businesses, and e-shops that will continue on, focusing on the antiques collector’s like myself enjoy, as well as the limited physical releases of new games, which again I think will resemble the Vinyl Record end of album sales. It will be an enthusiast niche that won’t completely go away, but most people will end up getting games digitally. It’s something everyone, creators, publishers, retailers, e-tailers, and the fans who enjoy the hobby will need to think about.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ll always be a physical fan. Hopefully all the collector’s editions push will keep them around. If not, the pendulum always swings the other way. I mean, just a few years ago, it would have seemed crazy for stores to have a vinyl music section.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Thanks for writing this up and collecting some thoughts together. This is the kind of article I couldn’t write as I don’t keep up on the wave of the future. I feel like my heart is in the past.

    That said, I’ve talked about this with a few people before and I like some of the interesting points you brought up here which were new to me. I too think that collecting is doomed. Moth and rust, y’know? I enjoy my collecting but I couldn’t imagine starting a collection from scratch today. I doubt it’ll be a thing when my kids are my age.

    The biggest fear I have about streaming games-as-a-service stuff is that I go on Netflix or Hulu and it’s just a bunch of crap, the odd classic movie or the occasional great tv show or a blockbuster I missed from last year, but most of it is the equivalent of Santa Paws 5… I don’t know if you’re alluding to that when you mentioned spending so long browsing on these services. I already am anti-subscription, so I don’t plan on paying for the online Switch service and I’ve only ever used PS+ sparingly (resenting Sony for blocking multiplayer behind a paywall…). For me, that trickles down to a service. I don’t always want new games so I don’t want to spend money on them every month.

    Ultimately, I’m fine with whatever happens though, because I think as a consumer there is something I can do: not buy it. If I had to stop getting new games, I would. I could likely spend the rest of my life exploring all of the tremendous libraries we’ve had from the PS4 all the way back to the Magnavox. In that, gaming for me is more of a pastime than a hobby, so I don’t mind if the industry does something I’m not on board with. I just don’t get on board, as with the recent VR craze that already seems to be dying out. Heck, I dipped out of current gen for something like 7 years before getting back into it.

    So anyway, just one perspective. I think you provided an excellent set of points as to the inevitability of streaming for games. The precedent in movies and music is spot on! I just don’t think it’s inevitable for me, unless it can be demonstrated to me that I’m not shelling out monthly money for the equivalent of Netflix and Hulu? Or maybe I just have more learning to do.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Digital is one thing (though I prefer physical when possible), but streaming I’m not ok with at all. I want to buy something and have it not just have it whenever some company’s service is working and then lose it forever when they suddenly decide they’re not hosting it anymore.

    I don’t think we’re even there yet in terms of current internet tech. We still have problems with online services with physical systems right now and already existing streaming services like PSNow still don’t seem to work very well at all (being commercial doesn’t seem to do anything at all for all the lag there). Don’t think that ISPs like Comcast will sit idly by while all their customers start sucking up twice as much data either.

    And who’s going to be paying for the constantly increasing costs of game development if we’re all theoretically just paying a simple monthly streaming fee? I imagine it’ll go much like video streaming services are starting to, with massive splintering and everyone and their mother having their own separate paid streaming service. Instead of PlayStation and Xbox services we’ll end up with THE EA CHANNEL and THE CAPCOM CHANNEL and etc.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Great, thought-provoking piece. I welcome the digital future and think that individual pieces are more interesting than collections. My only disagreement would be the used games fade-out being bad. Prices have adapted with the indie scene and modern game development to where Game Stop’s fairly cheap handouts are somewhat counterbalanced with proper pricing of digital releases. I’ve traded in a lot in my time, but not being able to enforces an online classified approach which generally offers more reward. But I have nothing to trade in anymore! So much online, haha.

    Liked by 2 people

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