December 1, 2020

A Digital Future: Still Problematic.

 


There have been a lot of articles lately across the web about the “Next Generation” of consoles, and whether or not they will retain any physical media capabilities.

Some claim they absolutely won’t, some claim they shouldn’t, some revel in it and some are worried about the idea of a world in which our video games are no longer physical products we can buy and hold in our hands. On the whole, I fall into the latter category – I worry about it, but not because I’m against or do not indulge in the practice. Indeed, as a PC Gamer – the majority of the stuff I buy for PC Gaming tends to come digitally anyway, seeing as Steam has more or less sewn that particular well up good and tight. And even on consoles, if the price is right and I’m feeling in a particularly impulsive mood, I will buy a game digitally and not feel too bad about it.

Basically, I’m not one of those “I always like my games physically in my hands” types. Sure, it’s nice. But I’m also disabled. That requires getting up and changing discs, which isn’t so easy these days.

So why am I in the camp which has concerns?

Well, I’ll concede that the future is very likely digital and that future is pretty much upon us. With Toys’R’Us, Grainger Games, Maplins and others essentially going belly-up, the pool of places in which you can still buy physical products isn’t really on the high street (particularly in the UK). GAME may still be a thing over here, but it’s not like GAME has been very stable in the last few years itself, facing serious credit issues and at times unable to actually obtain and deliver stock. Supermarkets don’t stock a wide variety of software; most limit it to the Top Ten (or if they’re really generous, Top Twenty) games on a particular platform, so it’s not easy to obtain something which is decidedly niche. Argos in the UK offers a wider variety but again, not to an amazing degree – if you want a larger pool of games, and perhaps second-hand now too, that’s largely done through Amazon and whilst Argos has pick-up points and warehouse centres, Amazon is decidedly more mail-order so you still have to actually wait for said product.

It’s this massive contraction in how, where and when you can buy video games which is pushing the digital future – and with recent revelations that the Nintendo Switch now exceeds physical sales through digital purchases, the tide does indeed appear to be turning. It’s hard to argue against this – whilst Amazon still has considerable power, it also has its fingers in many pies and games are a secondary concern. The same can be said of Argos and supermarkets in general. They don’t have to stock them; they do so because there’s still a market for them to stock them, but if that market transitions across to digital… I can’t imagine many tears will be shed by those companies. I don’t think they’ll fight for physical product to remain a thing, is all. The days when retailers could block something like the PSP Go! have all but gone, such is progress I guess.

I have no punchline. The PSP Go! never needs one.

“But Kami, you’re defending digital here. What’s the problem?”

Well, strange disembodied voice in the back of my head, I’m glad you reminded me. Also, how did you get there and please go away, I do want to sleep tonight.

The problem isn’t the digital future – it’s HOW the digital future is pushed that concerns me. Right now, there are two branches of solution that could work and whilst both seem initially appealing, the reality is both of them come with inherent limitations based on our current hardware situation.

The first solution is the more obvious; games consoles continue to cram in loads of additional hardware as they push for 4K Resolution as a standard, and then just let you download the software onto a Hard Drive. This is how we currently do it, generally speaking, and on the whole it’s not a terrible solution when your games are moderately sized for HD Purposes. Storage solutions have been fine for High-Definition 1080p Gaming, but the push towards 4K is offering a particular problem on this front; 4K Games are large. The smallest on the XBox One X is as I recall Halo 5, at a measly 80GB. Whereas something like Quantum Break, with all its 4K FMV and Video scenes intact, pushes closer to 220GB. That’s… a lot of space swallowed up by one game, and the half-cocked solution of the XBox One X is to partially download 4K but still keep on-disc content. It… kinda works, maybe? And yes, without the HD stuff, you can scrap some of the guff but you’re still looking at a game closer to 180GB in size.

In order to push this future, Hard Drives will need to get bigger. And bigger hard drives cost more money – I know, shock horror.

Considering that Microsoft is already reported to be making a loss on the “True 4K” XBox One X, with its 1TB Hard Drive, it’s hard to see how a future console is going to be any cheaper than $500 at this juncture. And that’s considering they half-arse the hard drive; you’re likely going to need at the minimum a 5TB Hard Drive going forward, if not larger to allow for more growth as 4K Gaming gets more prominent and more complex software is delivered (think about 4K JRPG’s a moment; if me saying that didn’t immediately give you a headache, then… umm… congratulations, I guess?).

And this is base game stuff; DLC, patches, fixes and the like will require more storage and all of that needs to be shared with the firmware and at least some of your save files – yes, a cloud is a nice back-up but most games will still prefer to locate your saves locally. In short – this direction is going to test the very limits of local storage capacity; and this is still on old-style hard drives. Solid State drives are still considerably behind – they’d be preferable, of course, because they’re faster and all. But they’re still not viable in a commercial sense. Sorry not sorry and all that jazz.

The second option is Streaming.

This seems like the better solution all round; it’s not like streaming is a new thing. PS Now! may be relatively new, but OnLive was doing this in 2011. The technology has been around for a while, and as connections have generally improved and devices are all more capable of sending and receiving data in a more efficient manner it would seem this is where most would prefer things to head.

And there are definite upsides to Streaming; for a start, you won’t need to buy expensive consoles because the majority of the complex gaming stuff is done on the server end – so you’d be using a relatively simple and perhaps more cheaply-made branded Set-Top Box with a specialised controller. This would mean the idea of the $500 console is a thing of the past; hell, the $300 console would be done with. No-one would be prepared to pay more than, at most, $100 for one of these devices (and some might argue even that is rather expensive). This would make the idea of gaming more readily accessible to more people, and considering most of the processing is done on the server-end, these things could be mass produced in vast quantities; no stock shortages, no expensive exotic parts. You plug it in, you set up the account and you play.

Such a future would also, inherently, destroy the idea of Console Generations (congratulations Mr. Pachter, a broken clock is right twice a day…). There’d be no need to “upgrade” a console; all of that would be done at the server end, so a PlayStation 5 is… actually, the 5 would be irrelevant at that point. You could just call it Vita TV oh wait no… just plain old “PlayStation” would likely suffice at this point. Same for XBox and perhaps even Nintendo. There’s no need for inventive naming at that point; you’re just making a box that streams games.

All of that sounds pretty sweet for consumers, right?

The Ouya
Somewhere, someone is crying that they were early to the marketplace…

Well… maybe not. You see, OnLive went defunct in 2015, because maintenance costs were extremely high. It actually ran aground in 2012, but it struggled on in various ways for another three years before the remains were picked up by Sony to wrap into its Gaikai acquisition for PS Now!

The question was pertinent in this period – who owned the games? People were buying software, but they didn’t actually have a downloaded copy of said hardware. So when things started to go awry, people began to worry if they would lose all their games and be wasting their money – which of course only further caused financial issues for OnLive, as people were spooked by the issue of ownership and didn’t want to spend $60 on a game they may not actually own in any real way.

This is still as relevant a question now as ever; whilst a Streaming Device is a remarkable idea with an unquestionably lower financial demand on the consumer… those servers don’t come cheap. Those servers will need to contend with millions, if not tens of millions of people, putting heavy demands on the infrastructure and I’m going to suggest this is going to be extremely expensive; not to mention this is HD Gaming, or in the case of the PS Now!, not-always-HD. Hell, Steam crashes every time it has a sale. Imagine that, whilst trying to start playing a game. None of the content is local; so if the servers go down, you have no games.

As this would be inordinately expensive, this would probably mean your games aren’t going to get any cheaper to buy – if you buy at all, that is. Subscription models with a pool of free games would make some sense; basically the PS Now! model as it stands, and more current games you have to pay additional cash for. But even that subscription is unlikely to come cheap, considering the potential costs involved here. Sure, you’re not paying $500 for the console – but even if these subscriptions come in at $25 a month (which I’d consider very cheap), you’ve basically spent more than a console for two years of subscription. Across many, many years… that adds up. And if you buy – chances are you’d still need the subscription to actually play the thing and access their servers to play the thing you just bought.

Not to mention there’d be additional premiums on extras, like additional controllers. And for 4K Gaming, you’d probably need a very fast Internet connection – fibre optic fast, which is still sadly not the norm in some places. And even then, as PS Now! has demonstrated, “lag happens”. Networks get congested, servers get overloaded, things happen, weather gets in the way… a multitude of things can happen and if they do, you have an extremely pretty paperweight until these things are resolved.

And by the way, just as a reminder… remember how Sony handled the PSN Hack of 2011? Yeah. Yeah…

So sure, the future is digital. Good. But either you need to spend lots more on additional storage, or you are at the mercy of servers and internet connections. Right now, you can still buy a game – new or second-hand – and it will run on your hardware. And I think that’s why for some, physical media is still a preferred thing. The problem is, as I’ve said before… there’s no immediate 4K Media Format being passed around right now. BD-XL is the closest you’ll get but that will still for some games require multiple discs… and BD-XL isn’t as reliable as its other two smaller variants.

As we all get excited for rumours of a 4K Future and “the death of physical media”, it might be worth taking a step back and asking the question – is this good news? Remember; digital services could mean dozens of copycat companies, or farming out the manufacture of set-top boxes to third-party companies. Or you’ll be pinning everything on some kind of massive breakthrough in hard drives, and more pertinently solid state drives.

And all of this is predicated entirely on having a solid Internet connection, either to download 200+GB of game in a reasonable time-frame or to send and receive the vast quantities of data that gaming will require. At least streaming shows and movies is relatively simple and static!

Hell, it could also mean the death of the brands you know. Why bother making a “PlayStation Box”? That could simply be an app in a general-purpose device; Sony Interactive doesn’t need to concern itself with the hassle of making any hardware at all and can still charge you whatever the hell it wants for you to get access to anything inside said app in the first place. PlayStation would just be… another app. Same for X-Box, or Nintendo, whilst the likes of EA and UbiSoft and all that will no doubt take such an opportunity to launch their own apps and do you see how this might just get a teensy bit expensive if everyone is charging a fee to play their games?

And that ends up in a situation where a big company – let’s call it “Sky” for sake of argument – can move in, offer a deal to said companies in order to effectively monopolise the video game market and bring it all under one roof for a more reasonable fee and make lots of money on advertisements and various other things in the process.

EA Logo
Or… oh dear god… the horror…

So yeah. That’s our “digital future”. The one everyone seems to be running headlong into. I don’t argue now that it’s inevitable – it is. But rather than crash into it, face-first, maybe a little tiny bit more caution is warranted, maybe? The current situation has never been ideal, to be sure. But hey, at least for the most part, you have your games in your hand. If a company dies in this digital future… access to all that content will very likely disappear with them.

I’m just saying… tread carefully on this one. Gamers won the Loot Crate battle, but this is an upcoming war in which your content can and will be held to ransom even more than it is now.

Rather than worrying about regulating Loot Crates, which companies are abandoning like rats from a sinking ship (oh hi WB Interactive!) how about politicians and governments and the ESA take a few moments to consider the next step forward and put in place some decent consumer protections now, eh, and save us a lot of hassle in the coming years?

Oh wait, that requires some effort. Never mind then.

Kami

I'm the big cheese here. Comment, subscribe, direct waves of hate at me - all the same. Just hope you've had some partial enjoyment here!

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