Image: XBLA Marketplace. Microsoft.

With every new system, every new game, and every new feature we appear to be inching ever closer to a video game industry I want no part of. “Always online” DRM is becoming common, downloadable games are hotter than ever thanks to services like Steam and the App Store, and DLC is ubiquitous.

Although the new system generation dawning (begun with the 3DS, soon to be continued with the Vita and Wii U) will include physical media as its major method of supplying content, it is altogether likely that the generation after that will not. That day, the day I can no longer collect physical, complete copies of games for systems, is the day I stop playing new games.

Gaming for me is not just the act of playing a video game, the hobby also includes a heavy emphasis on collecting. There’s nothing like rooting around bargain bins for hidden gems, seeking out that one obscure game I need to complete one collection or another. For me, gaming is as much about filling up shelves as it is blasting aliens and zombies. An all digital, all download future will kill my drive to buy games.

It could be argued that download games are still collectible. You can still fill up digital shelves with them. Indeed, it is at least theoretically possible for game companies to organize the sales of their titles in such a way to keep the collector in me happy, but trends up to this point don’t leave me hopeful.

My main concern is long term “storage.” As game companies have opted not to sell digital copies of games, but rather licenses to players, the question of just how permanent a digital game purchase is arises. As illustrated by Amazon in 2009 with its decision to pull copies of 1984 not just from its Kindle store, but from the Kindles of purchasers, game companies could actually eat away at collections over time. Even worse: entire segments could be wiped out should a digital retailer go under or end support for a particular download client. Things get even more precarious when always-online DRM is thrown into the mix.

Up to the this point, digital games pulled from stores have generally continued to be available for those who already purchased, although that won’t necessarily always be the case. The older digital stores get, the more likely online retailers are to simply stop bothering to support older and/or less popular games, similar to the way online support is slowly dropped for older games today.

In the all digital future, titles pulled this way will also entirely cease to be available through legal means for those who did not already buy. Games purchased in this fashion cannot generally be transferred, resold, re-gifted, or returned. What’s worse, they cannot easily backed up or stored long term. The end of games as collectible items dawns.

When digital music piracy rose to prominence in the early 2000s, it was clear consumers were unhappy with the way music was being offered to them. They wanted a cheaper, easier, more manageable, and more flexible medium. They found it in the MP3. As record labels slowly came around to demand and music became legally purchasable in digital form, consumers got some of what they wanted, but not all.

Until 2009, digital music available through iTunes generally came packaged with DRM restrictions. It took a retailer independent of labels (Apple) to force out DRM and give consumers a digital medium they could truly self-manage. The model evolving for game companies is quite different. Publishers are selling their games through their own applications, without a hard-headed middle-man to push back.

The chance of consumers arguing developers and publishers out of heavy DRM restrictions seems so unlikely as to be a fantasy. Consumers eventually gained control of the music files they were paying for, and the ability to both buy music legally and collect it digitally became possible. The same will not happen with games.

Nightmare Scenario: The All Digital Future