Games, rumors, the past, and the future

Rumors are starting to swirl about both Microsoft and Sony’s yet-to-be-finalized next generation videogame consoles — never having owned any iteration of the XBox, I’m more interested in the Sony PS4/Orbis rumors — including the likelihood that one or both consoles will have some way of limiting the playability of used games, and that backwards compatibility will be totally eliminated from both systems.

As to used games, Kotaku offers five reasons why the end of the used games market as we know it might not be the end of the world, including the possibility that by allowing game publishers to participate in the revenue generated by the used games market, the price of new games might come down. Rationally, the argument is sound — currently, game developers can only capture revenue from the sales of a new copy of a game (well, and DLC, subscription fees for MMORPGS, sales of strategy guides, etc.), so while your local game store can make a significant profit selling and re-selling the same disc, publishers have to make enough from each disc’s initial sale to cover production costs and make a profit. Theoretically, at least, if the publisher can make five bucks each time a disc moves to a new user, then they wouldn’t have to rely on a $60 initial sale price to make a game profitable.

Theoretically, that is. I think it would be great if initial game prices even moved back into the $40-50 initial price range, but having worked in a music store, I’ve already seen an industry nearly destroy itself because it couldn’t back away from an inflated price point long after there was any justification for it. It’s great that the music industry doesn’t seem to be insisting on $18.99 as the natural price for a CD album anymore, but it’s been a long time coming, and it wouldn’t have happened without the explosion of the downloadable MP3 market. That is to say, limiting the used market might make it economically feasible for publishers to lower prices on new games, but I don’t see any reason to assume that such a thing will actually happen just because it could.

Second, I’m more than a little heartbroken that backwards compatibility is looking more and more like a brief anomaly in the history of videogame consoles. While the PS2 wasn’t the first console to offer backwards compatibility — the Atari 7800 would play Atari 2600 cartridges, and an adapter was available for the Sega Genesis which would allow it to play Sega Master System cartridges — the ability of the PS2 to play nearly all PS1 games without any sort of additional hardware or adapter meant that any PS1 owner who purchased a PS2 already had a library of games which could be played on the new system. It’s somewhat ironic that Nintendo instead of Sony has carried the banner of backwards compatibility/emulation into the current generation with the Wii’s ability to run GameCube discs and the Virtual Console library of downloadable previous generation games.

My own informal surveys indicate that I’m far more attached to backwards compatibility than many gamers, and that may well have to do with my own interest in games as a form of literature — which is only really possible if games and their embedded narratives continue to be readable, that is, only if there are broadly accessible ways to play old games. I’ll hold on to my old machines, but many other people won’t.

There are already ways to play games other than keeping old discs, cartridges, and consoles, but when old games become something you can only play in one of the handful of libraries who archive games AND systems, or when playing an old game means downloading an emulator and an at best semi-legal ROM, that is, when old games aren’t something that people keep in their homes and continue to use and share like (e-)books and music, then videogames run the risk of being further marginalized in the cultural conversation.

Which, in turn, will limit the number of people who want to play (and buy) games, which (much more importantly) will limit the sort of games that get developed and produced. For an industry and a medium on the verge of convincing a wide audience that it really is so much more than just a way to entertain children, that would be an incredible shame.

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