Tuesday, February 9, 2010

A Closer Look at Downloadble Content: Is it Really Good for Gaming?

A Closer Look at Downloadable Content: Is it Really Good for Gaming?

Oh sure it’s all the rage, from WiiWare, to Madden NFL roster updates on your 360, downloadable content is the new vogue in modern gaming.  But caveat emptor, my friend, downloadable content is seductive and chic, but it might leave you high and dry in the morning and it will never, ever call you the next day.  Don’t be fooled.

For me, it all started back in the heyday of the original Playstation.  Final Fantasy IX came out and it was awesome! I scrambled to get it.  After playing the peerless FFVII and the so-so FFVIII, I knew I had to have the latest installment of the Final Fantasy franchise.  Also, thanks to my knowledge of the previous games, I knew a good strategy guide would ensure that I would be able to ferret out every last secret from a game known for having some of the best kept hidden treasures in the gaming universe.  So, like a good consumer I rushed right out and picked up the Brady Games Official Strategy Guide to Final Fantasy IX.  I had bought both guides for FFVII and they were exceptional, so of course I expected the same from this publication.  Boy was I in for a surprise!  Much to my chagrin the guide contained no actual tips, secrets or, get ready, strategies.  No, if you wanted that kind of in depth information you would have to go online, following the links provided in the “guide,” to PlayOnline.com.  Sounds fair.  I paid twenty dollars for a book to tell me to go online for free and get the information I am seeking.  Never mind the fact that this is back in the days of dial-up and my internet access was the equivalent of shouting across a canyon to a deaf-mute.

All of those things aside, this was not the most egregious part of the deal.  Oh no, that would come years later, when I decide to play through FFIX again, this time armed with a high speed internet connection.  Finally I could eke out a little satisfaction from that horrid “strategy guide” I paid for all those years ago.  So I go to PlayOnline.com and what do I see, absolutely nothing about FFIX.  Everything was all up FFXII’s butt, and it was as if FFIX never existed.  After some digging I discovered that when the newer games came out, all online support for FFIX was discarded.  So not only did I waste twenty dollars all those years ago, but my waste was compounded by insult when the company that initially ripped me off, ripped me off all over again by removing support for a product they had produced.  Little did I realize that this annoying incident would lay the foundation for something that would change the face of video gaming and collecting and not necessarily for the better.  Downloadable content was coming on fast, and it wasn’t all good news.

Now, let me jump ahead a bit and tell you that I absolutely love Mega Man 9, Castlevania Adventure Rebirth, and I am extremely excited about the new Blaster Master game that is available via WiiWare.  That’s right, I am guilty of partaking in the very thing I am about to rail against.  However, I am partaking with full knowledge of what I am doing and the implications thereof.  I wonder if my fellow consumers are doing the same.  If not, then it is the purpose of this missive to enlighten and warn the modern gamer/ collector that downloadable content may be the hottest new craze, but it is fraught with potential peril!  Brace yourselves, you’re probably not going to like or agree with where this is about to go…
Mega Man 9 goes in this empty spot

Downloadable content has caught on like wildfire and is only getting hotter.  Whether it is something small like unlockable online content, massive online multiplayer experiences, or something huge like an entire game obtained solely via download, this latest gaming fix is absolutely wonderful for gamers, but absolutely disastrous for collectors.  Take me for example.  As previously stated, I love the new Mega Man 9.  I have played it for hours and hours and hours.  It is great.  But guess what, it is also temporary.  Don’t get me wrong, I bought it, I downloaded it, I even saved it on an SD card (or at least that is what the wife tells me happened), but I have no real anything to prove that I have it.  I have nothing to put on a shelf, I have no documentation, instruction manual, warranty, or anything to prove that I own this game or that it exists.  Maybe I am old school, but there is something comforting about the shelves of NES, VCS, PS2, and so on, games that I have stacked up in my game room.  They ain’t goin’ nowhere.  But all of this new downloadable content?  I’m not so sure about it.

Sure I’m a gamer.  I love playing video games, so this new downloadable content is great, it comes right to my house and I don’t have to do much to obtain it.  The games are fun and appealing and they seem to know exactly what to release to get me in a buying mood.  But I’m also a collector.  I like having stockpiles of games on my shelves that I can pull out and play anytime I want.  I like inventorying them and basking in their nerdy glory.  I like the fact that I can go to my favorite second hand and pick up a SNES game I missed out on twenty years ago and experience like it was new.  I like that I can add it to my collection and sell it later or trade it or whatever.  So as I move into the 21st century, I wonder how Mega Man 9 fits into that aspect of my gaming life.  What would happen if I didn’t download Mega Man 9 right away?  What happens if it came out, I never managed to get it downloaded and then it is gone?  Am I going to miss out on a great game forever?  And what happens to my Mega Man 9 if something horrible happens to my Wii 15 years from now and I lose that data, or the SD thing gets corrupted (like all of those old 3.5 floppy disks that now sit in my filing cabinet mocking me) and the game is lost?  I know that bit rot and all of that can still happen to my Atari 2600 games (my Burgertime has been acting a bit scooters…), but if that should happen I can always find another copy at a flea market or something.  I’m not convinced that the same will be true for all of this new downloadable stuff.

And I know I have cause to worry.  If the FFIX strategy guide wasn’t historical proof enough, just last month Micro$oft announced that: “on April 15, 2010 Microsoft will discontinue Xbox LIVE service for original Xbox consoles and games, including Xbox games playable on Xbox 360. Our first step in this process will be to turn off auto-renewals for those members who only use Xbox LIVE on a v1 Xbox. While I can’t comment on the specifics, this change will allow us to continue evolving the LIVE service with new features and experiences that fully harness the power of Xbox 360 and the Xbox LIVE community. We did not make this decision lightly, but after careful consideration and review we realize that this decision will allow us unprecedented flexibility for future features.”  (source).  With so many games nowadays have HUGE online game play appeal an announcement like this is shocking and disturbing.   Particularly for those who cannot afford an XBOX360 and still enjoy their original XBOX.  What will be the quality and value of these largely online content based games once their support has run out?  Will HALO be as fun when there is no way to play it online?  HALO has been heralded as a modern classic and a triumph in gaming, but will those accolades hold true fifteen years from now when the support is gone and only the base game remains?
The lesson here is obvious:  the video game gods can giveth, and they can certainly taketh away.  Quickly.  This is what worries me as a gamer/collector heading into the future.  With so much downloadable content pouring forth from companies, how much of it can we really expect to hold on to as the years roll on?  The great thing about classic gaming is that it is a material commodity.  Not only do we get to play the games, we get to keep them and keep playing them for years.  Will this same thing be applicable to modern downloadable games 25 years into the future?  Will Mega Man 9 be lost forever to the annals of time and memory because someone failed to download it in 2009? How am I supposed to go to a video game convention in 10 years and pick up a copy of Mega Man 9 if I missed it?  These are my concerns.  Are we so enamored with the ready availability of downloadable content that we fail to see the pitfalls and longer reaching implications? Or am I just being overly dramatic and downloadable content is a fad that we should just embrace and damn the consequences?  Is downloadable content the future of gaming?  And if so does this mean the demise of the collector?
GameCon 2025: Not a Mega Man 9 to be found!

I think all of these things are definite concerns that the gaming community faces as we rush headlong into the latest, greatest offerings in the world of video gaming.  The gamer part of me is loving it, right now, in the moment, but the collector part of me is nervous.  Therefore, I cannot full condemn downloadable content as I would like to, but I can be wary of it. Downloadable content is a lot like the girl you love to date but can never marry.  As we move forward and consume more and more downloadable content and spend countless dollars, maybe it is also time to ponder some of these implications.  You can be sure I’ll be thinking about and lamenting that empty space on my NES shelf…

Join me next month when I’ll come to the defense of yet another LJN game and show you how I took a game that I deemed unplayable and turned it into one of my favorites!

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