The dangers of a digital download world

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Syd Bolton, Special to QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:33 PM ET

As Canada's top video game collector, it's probably no surprise that I'm not exactly thrilled about digital downloads with video games. I like having a tangible item on the shelf. I enjoy the experience of owning a piece of creative work, displaying it on my shelf and being able to hold it in my hands. I understand the benefits of digital distribution when it comes to all kinds of forms of media (including newspaper) but I also appreciate and enjoy flipping through the paper with a coffee on a lazy Saturday morning.

Although there are likely separate arguments about books, music, film and newspapers in digital form, I've been thinking more and more about video games. Nintendo recently announced that, after May 20, it will shut down its Wi-Fi service. This means big titles, such as Mario Kart on the Wii, (as well as hundreds of other online games from the company) will no longer work online. The games will still play locally but some of the most fun can be had playing others over the Internet. In the case of Mario Kart for the Wii, that potentially affects 34 million copies of the game.

While these games are on physical media, the servers are strictly controlled by Nintendo. From its perspective, this is a cost-cutting measure as, I am sure, the number of players using these servers has diminished greatly over the years. However, it's a reminder that these companies are in complete control of the content you purchased (or,  technically, licensed). That will have great impact over gaming historians like myself for years to come.

When it comes to download-only games, the situation is far worse. Many gaming devices use hard drives (which are prone to failure after a few years) and even things, such as our phones, tablets and other mobile devices do not have an unlimited life expectancy. What happens to the content that you have paid for today when you try to use it five or 10 years from now? If your device is still working, you are going to be in luck but if your hard drive fails and you replace it, will the company or service you originally used to download the game still be running? The days of pure gaming nostalgia could be limited, or at least limited, to the games that run on solid state hardware. Many of the latest computing devices do not include optical drives at all. One software developer I spoke to said, "[Beyond the lack of optical drives], the other thing that scares me is 'software as a service'" where all software is downloaded and controlled somewhere in the cloud.

When researching my book Collecting for Dragon's Lair & Space Ace, I attempted to catalogue and collect every single home version of Dragon's Lair that I could. One that has eluded me to this day is Dragon's Lair for the Java mobile platform, released in August of 2005 by Starwave (developed by MMJ games). I managed to track down some of the original development team, but nobody seemed to have any copies left themselves. The game was available for download from a major U.S. carrier on a certain phone platform. However, because of its size, you never actually had the full game on your phone at any given time. The game streamed content from the company servers to your phone as you played, allowing for a much larger and more in-depth gaming experience. It was great for the time, but if you are a collecting "completionist" like myself, you are likely out of luck. Even if I found someone with a working phone that contained the game, the streaming content servers would have long been shut down.

While a certain portion of the population will inevitably ask the question "who cares?", it is going to be a real problem for future generations. While we can discover books a couple of thousand years old and still be able to read them (even if we can't always decipher them), the same is likely not going to be true for digital forms of entertainment going forward. Books, movies, video games and music released exclusively in digital format could run the risk of being completely lost in the future if the machines and infrastructure required to access them are no longer functional. Recent scares like the Heartbleed Bug show us how vulnerable we can be when we rely too much on technology.

I have been called a digital archeologist in the past and I think this now goes beyond just me and my efforts of digital preservation. This is going to have to be a worldwide effort to preserve what we create and what happens with digital content. It's definitely going to be a different world.

Syd Bolton is the curator of the Personal Computer Museum and the manager of Information Technology at ACIC/Methapharm.  You can reach him via e-mail at sbolton@bfree.on.ca or on Twitter @sydbolton.

 

 


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