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It’s Time to Give Up on Physical Media

View Nelson Schneider's Profile

By Nelson Schneider - 10/15/17 at 04:01 PM CT

I bring you dismal news, MeltedJoystick readers. Sadly, the physical distribution of videogames has reached the end of its usefulness. As much as it pains me – as a staunch proponent of physical media and perpetual software ownership – I have to admit that physical media in videogames is no longer what it once was. Cartridges and discs have remained largely the same in structure, but the ways in which they are currently used largely negate their original purpose. What happened to bring us to this point? Read on to find out.

5. Games Require Installs, No Longer Run Off the Install Media.
Thanks to Microsoft and the OG Xbox, the concept of games requiring hard disk installs was shoveled from the PC side of gaming to the console side of gaming in the 6th Gen. While the OG Xbox never got a whole lot of respect from gamers outside the ghetto, other console makers took note of its ability to snag PC game ports… thus every Sony and MS console since has followed the same paradigm. In these situations, the optical media doesn’t even contain playable code, but compressed installer packages, and only needs to be in the console’s disc drive to act as an authentication key. Even worse, the installation process isn’t quick and easy, often taking a half-hour or more and requiring gamers to schedule their activities around it.

4. Games Require Gigabytes of Patches at Launch.
Having a collection of archived installers on optical media still wouldn’t be abjectly terrible… provided these optical discs contained the definitive versions of the games. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case, and hasn’t been for over a decade. After popping a disc into a console and waiting for it to install, you’d think your game would be ready to play… but you’d be WRONG. Nearly every game these days, even from conservative Japanese developers like Nintendo, requires massive day-one updates/patches. These updates fix glitches and add content that, for whatever reason, didn’t make it into the gold disc image that was sent to the manufacturing press. Prior to getting good Internet, these things were a deal breaker for me, as I couldn’t/wouldn’t leave my console running and downloading for days at a time. Now that my online connection has joined the 21st Century, I’m not as bothered by updates… but there’s no denying that their presence completely devalues physical media that doesn’t contain them.

3. Season Passes Sold Separately.
Season Passes are just the modern take on the old PC gaming phenomenon known as the “Expansion Pack.” There’s nothing wrong with these… except for the fact that they are now entirely digital. I can’t think of a single current-gen game that provides its DLC on a disc, whereas even last Gen, “The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion” and “Red Dead Redemption” did, to name some examples off the top of my head. If you’re buying physical media because you want to preserve and archive your games, keeping them accessible forever, the very presence of digital-only Season Passes completely negates your noble intentions.

2. Limited Runs of Indie Games are Against Everything Indie Stands For.
I love Indie games. They’re cheap, they’re creative, they aren’t bogged-down by all the nonsense that clings to the “AAA” Games Industry like so many malignant colon polyps. The lack of publishers is a large contributing factor to Indie game development’s freedom… but no publisher generally means no physical distribution. An outfit called Limited Run Games, however, on occasion will manufacture… err… limited runs of exceptionally popular digital-only games, complete with fancy box art. Then you’ve also got Nintendo encouraging physical releases of Indie games on the Switch. Yet these physical editions are inherently limited in availability and also boosted in price, since whichever company was brought on board to create the physical product will need money to do so, plus more money to make a profit off the activity. While Limited Run Games supposedly started out of a desire to preserve digital-only products, the very act of creating artificially tiny physical print runs is, hypocritically, even worse for preservation than a digital only format. Limited Run Games is doing nothing but creating an army of “Little Samsons.” The One True Path to perpetual game preservation is the DRM-free digital release, allowing archival copies to spread far and wide across The Cloud and settle in hard drives and DVD burners across the world. Unfortunately, until Sony and Nintendo lighten up a bit (read: a LOT), digital-only and Indie games will only receive the love and respect they deserve on open platforms, like PC.

1. Nintendo Dropped the Ball with the Switch.
When Nintendo Switched *snap* back to cartridges from optical media for their newest hardware, they had the unprecedented opportunity to flip the paradigm. They could have subverted all of the previous downsides in this list with their new cartridge format, the game card: The Switch could have run games straight off the game cards instead of installing them on the system’s tiny solid-state drive and/or SD expansion. The game card format could have been writable, allowing updates and Season Passes to be stored on the cartridge itself. Nintendo could have allowed shoppers to download digital purchases onto blank game cards, thus giving Indies a physical form without the associated limited runs and inflated costs. But Nintendo is a huge company, and Nintendo is an old company. After seeing how the original Wii, along with many of their other platforms, got hacked and homebrewed, the conservative Japanese dinosaur seems to be deathly afraid of exploring new technologies and new ways of doing things. Alas, the game card format is just being used as a small-footprint variant of the optical format, in all its uselessness.

Though things may look bleak for physical games, it’s really only bleak for physical games distribution, and specifically on locked-down platforms, like consoles. While next to no stores still stock physical PC games, PC is – ironically – the best platform for physical preservation of software, thanks to a combination of loosening DRM – with sites like providing 100% DRM-free digital products – and the open nature of the underlying operating system, allowing software owners/licensers to create their own physical archives via any form of non-volatile storage or optical media. Hell, thanks to the long tradition of emulation and ROM dumping on – you guessed it – PC, it’s also the definitive platform for the preservation of console games. No, you won’t get your fancy box/disc art or instruction manual (unless you print your own), but if that’s the part of physical games media you love the most, you’re kind of missing the point.

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View dbarry_22's Profile


Wrote on10/24/17 at 02:36 PM CT

I recently played Super Mario RPG on the SNES for the first time and reviewed it. That game is 21 years old. Did I play it off a ROM? No. Did I play the virtual console release or the SNES classic version? No. I played it on the SNES using the physical cartridge. I'd say there's a good chance in 20 years I'll still have a reason to play a PS4 or Switch game from time to time.

Will I buy some of those re-re-re-masters you speak of? Probably. Generally speaking I don't believe in ROMs, for the most part that just promotes stealing intellectual property in my mind. Are there rare exceptions where I think it might be ok to do so? Maybe. But for the most part I think playing games that way is wrong.

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on10/19/17 at 09:00 PM CT

I'm not saying that physical media is bad: I still love it in theory. I'm saying that is has degraded is usefulness to the point where it's no longer recognizable, like a beloved family member decaying in a nursing home. Back when game software was a one-and-done release and the game machines were built with longevity, physical media was indeed the best, but it was also the only.

In 20 years, nobody will be playing PS4 or Switch games off the physical media, we'll be downloading the ISOs/ROMs or repurchasing re-re-re-re-re-mastered versions of them for full price. I'll be doing the former, YOU will be doing the latter, I'm sure... or maybe I won't, because I'll still have access to my backups, so all I'll need is a virtual machine, maybe a simple hack if Steam has somehow disappeared.

And on some platforms, digital is really getting its act together. Hell, you can even packup software on friggin' ANDROID, yet Nintendo won't even let you backup your save files without fully migrating to a new console (as per the brand new patch).

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Wrote on10/17/17 at 02:46 PM CT

Sigh, nice of you to attempt to sound like you still play consoles but I guess I'll have to go into more detail.

Games you're referring to as console exclusives like Pop'n TwinBee and Little Samson are either games that never came to North America or are so rare that you played them on a ROM, not a console.

And all the multi-platform games you reviewed that have console versions you played on Steam/PC. When was the last time you stuck a physical game in a current generation console and played it...then reviewed it?

So when I say you haven't reviewed a console game since May of 2016 I am correct, you aren't playing these other games you referred to on consoles. So when you're talking about all of these flaws that the PS4 and Switch has when it comes to physical media, I'd be more willing to listen if you actually interacted with the consoles on a regular basis.

As someone who plays the vast majority of his games on consoles I can say that I'd still prefer to have them physically whenever possible even with the reasons you stated above. One prime example is that the Wii Shop Channel is ending in 2019. That means years down the road if my Wii dies I'll lose Wii Shop exclusives on my system like Blaster Master Overdrive, Gradius Rebirth and Castlevania The Adventure Rebirth. Eventually the PS3 store will go away and games I've downloaded from that will be at risk as well. I realize that these physical games 20 years from now might not have the most current patch or online multiplayer or DLC but I can still play them.

And how about people out there that have no easy access to internet? I guess no video games for them in a non-physical world. You use to be in that scenario right?

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Nelson Schneider

Wrote on10/17/17 at 12:01 AM CT

Huh? I've reviewed tons of console games lately. Out of the 11 reviews I've posted so far for Fall 2017, 3 are console exclusives and 3 are multiplats with console versions.

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Wrote on10/16/17 at 10:04 AM CT

Pretty strong opinion for a guy who hasn't reviewed a console game since May of 2016.

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