A list of Steam video games.

Digital Downloads – Why I Still Hate Them

We’re not guaranteed access to the products we purchase.

I’ve said it before, in fact, my first post in the hallowed pages of this very website talked about the subject in a different manner. However, it’s been almost a year, so I’m going to say it again. Hell, I’ll keep saying it until someone listens – digital downloads are ultimately bad for gamers.

Sure, having the ability to get our games without leaving the house, or waiting on a delivery may seem like one huge benefit of modern consoles and distribution systems. It is without a doubt incredibly convenient. With pre-loading, you can play your newly purchased piece of gaming heaven the instant the release button is flicked by the distributor.

But I remain a staunch advocate of good old-fashioned hard copies – and a teeny bit of a hypocrite, more on that later. Before I say anything else, have a read of this quote from the Nintendo website;

”Users were able to add Wii Points until March 26, 2018, and they will continue to be able to purchase content on the Wii Shop Channel until January 30, 2019. In the future, we will be closing all services related to the Wii Shop Channel, including the ability to redownload WiiWare and Virtual Console games, as well as the Wii System Transfer Tool, which transfers data from Wii to the Wii U system. We will announce specific details as that time approaches.”

Yup, at some point – and probably not too far off knowing Nintendo, we will be unable to download our Wii purchases. Sure, in the meantime, you can re-download them. Or get them transferred. But then what? What happens 10, 20 or 30 years from now?

I’ll tell you what, you won’t (legally) have many, most or all of the games you are purchasing now. Today (well yesterday as it happens) I can pop my copy of Super Mario Bros. 3 into my N.E.S and happily play it as much as I want. Because I still have the cartridge. No-one can stop my using it. Yet I have a nasty feeling that in 30 years time, the only way we’ll be playing a lot of older games is thanks to the pirates – not something I’d normally say I’m in favour of.

The ownership difference.

There’s a big difference in the licensing terms for physical and digital games. Without getting too bogged down in the mire of terms & conditions – it’s basically this; When you purchase a physical copy of a game, you are purchasing the right to own that copy and use, sell, auction or otherwise do whatever the heck you want with it – illegal copying aside.

For digital downloads, however, there’s a huge shift in the licensing of that product. Instead of purchasing the right to own a copy of the game. You are purchasing a lease to use the software for so long as it’s publisher and distributor see fit to make it available. If one or both of those parties decide they no longer want it on sale, you’re stuffed like mum’s Christmas turkey.

Generally speaking, you are fine for so long as you have a download on your system. But what if your system dies, you get drive corruption, someone steals your beloved console, your bratty little brother pours dads coffee in it to see what happens, or any number of other reasons that could prevent you accessing your game? Well then, kiss it goodbye.

There are the other obvious downsides to digital distribution. We’ve all heard of or experienced the disappointment of getting a shiny new console for Christmas. But wait, no games? WTAF? Just gift cards for you to top-up your credit and download something. That’s not so bad I suppose – until some cockwomble hackery type with nothing better to do decides to do a DDOS attack on the company servers. You’re downloading nothing for now.

For some people, there’s the other aspect of digital downloads. You pay (over the odds if you ask me, considering the lack of manufacturing costs) for your game, you play it to death and then you never want to see it again. So you pop to your local store to trade it i….. Oh, no wait, you can’t, because you neither own a physical product, the right to make one, the right to re-sell or any other fairly standard consumer rights we have come to expect.

Does the youth of today not care anymore?

I could go on for hours about this. Maybe I’m just getting old and out of touch, after all, I’ve been gaming since the 70’s. But then, it’s that experience that helps me to see these downsides, god knows I’m not alone. Let’s put it this way, here’s a photo of some of my console collection. Most of which I’ve owned since release and many of which are older than my wife – there’s a sobering thought. (excuse the mess, I’m rejigging the office. And yes, that huge expanse of grey is a big old CRT in the bottom right corner, it’s the best way to play old systems as far as I’m concerned.)


Every single one of those systems can still play every game I still own for it, or that I will own in the future. Yeah, there’s another benefit of physical products. Anytime in the future, I want to buy a new (old) game which was released physically for these consoles and computers – I can. Imagine that, buying something which existed almost 40 years ago.

I just think we’re giving away far too much these days, with not owning the actual products we pay for – and it’s just going to get worse. So long as we, the consumer, vote with our wallets and prove to these companies that digital distribution is the way forward. That’s just what will happen. Eventually, we won’t actually own a single game and one day, when they switch the servers for a system off – the games will disappear forever.

So maybe you don’t care about playing old games on old systems that hardly anyone remembers anymore. Well, lots of us do care and we don’t want gaming’s future flushed down the pan for the sake of convenience. Thankfully it’s not going to happen too soon, but I have a horrible, horrible feeling it’ll happen at some point during my gaming life.


Wrapping up!

Oh. I did mention earlier that I am a bit of a hypocrite. Well, I suppose I am. There are a small handful of games, mainly Indie releases that I do occasionally buy digitally. That, however, is because I have no damn choice. They don’t get physical releases anymore. But I don’t make a habit of it and if a game is also available on physical medium – that’s the one I buy. Whether it’s cheaper, or more expensive. Because in 30 years time, I might just want to play it again.

So, maybe think twice about what you’re doing with your money. Do you want to own a product, or essentially borrow it for a while? Maybe now and again just buy the really good games physically, who knows, the future of gaming history might depend on it.


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  1. Luckily there is a legal difference in Europe: If you buy a game, you do in fact own it! The only problem is enforcing it is basically impossible since most game company’s act, well, American … also since most games are bound to a certain platform and need an account there to run, those accounts in fact belong to the companies. The only thing one could do would be to download the owned games and safe a backup – and use a crack to remove the DRM to be able to play them whenever you want and especially for the case that the online service of the publisher shuts down.

    This said, I’m not completely against download games, especially on PC the generations thing doesn’t really count. I can theoretically still play my 20 to 30 years old PC games on today’s PCs, wether I got them as download titles or physical. And I guess that won’t change as long as Windows is around.

    However when it comes to consoles I really prefer physical retail versions of games. I have to admit in recent times I bought a few download games for consoles as well, in case they were cheap enough or the physical copy wasn’t available so easily, anymore.
    Especially some (third party) games for Nintendo consoles are difficult to get or they cost tons of cash since they were only published in small numbers. I’m still looking for a decently priced copy of Fatal Frame 5 for Wii U …

  2. Interesting! I don’t agree. Everything you’ve said is true, of course, but personally I feel that the positives outweigh the negatives.

    While it’s true that every digital game I own has a use-by date, the same is true for physical media. You can’t say on one hand “my hard drive could become corrupted, killing my digital copies” but on the other say “my floppy discs will never die”. Space/time/effort is a cost too, and one that eventually becomes prohibitive. I’m totally envious of the room you’ve dedicated to your consoles, but I just don’t have the space. If that were what Retrogaming required, I would not be a retrogamer because I could not afford it.

    Conversely, digital distribution (being so cheap, and not having to fight for shelf-space) has made so many games more widely-available than they ever would be if we had to rely on the ever-dwindling supply of second-hand copies. Put it this way – a quick search of Ebay shows that I can get a physical copy of Ultima IV for about $100 (assuming I have a machine to play it on). On GOG, it’s $2.09. The fact that I can’t re-sell it is not a serious factor in my purchasing decision.

    If it were not for digital distribution, I never would have played Ultima IV. Or Wing Commander, Curse of the Azure Bonds, Temple of Elemental Evil, Simon the Sorcerer, Quest for Glory, Wizardry VI or any other game that I couldn’t afford back in the day, or simply never got around to playing.

    Now sure you might argue that, but for digital distribution, many of those old games would see physical reproductions. But in many cases, I just don’t think that would happen. I don’t think you could make a good business case for reproducing Ultima IV, or convince EB Games etc that the game would have sufficient audience to warrant precious self-space.

    You’re right of course, there are serious limitations to digital ownership. But personally, I’ve found the positives outweigh the negatives.

    Anyways, thank you for your blog post, I really enjoyed reading it and it certainly made me think!

    • Thanks for the opinions, it’s always interesting to hear how others feel about this. Without a doubt there are some great benefits to digital downloads – as I mentioned, I am slightly hypocritical as I do occasionally purchase the odd digital only game.

      I’d be much happier with DD’s if they allowed us to make a backup of our purchases, so we have permanent access to them, regardless of the state of their online services.

      Of course that’s a difficult proposition, how do you provide such capabilities without opening the door to piracy – difficult, but far from impossible.

      As far as old systems are concerned, it can be an expensive hobby if you’re just starting now. Some of the retro prices are beyond ridiculous. I’m not so affected by that as I’ve been keeping my hardware and software since I started in the 70’s. I do still buy the odd game to bolster my collection, but I stay away from the idiotic pricing. Certainly don’t go near eBay for your purchases. At least, don’t go for a buy it now, you can still pick up the occasional bargain in an auction.

      As for lifespan. The cartridges are pretty robust and will likely outlive me. Floppy discs and cassettes aren’t too bad, I have some older than my wife 😀 but they are certainly more likely to fail than a cartridge.

      Fortunately there are some amazing devices, created by some very talented people, which allow us to keep our originals safe and protected and use backups of them for our day to day use.

      That’s not to say I condone piracy. As an indie software developer myself, that’s the last thing I’d promote. However, the grey area of using backups of software we legitimately own, I don’t really have a problem with.
      And that’s before you even get to software who’s licensing has expired and is essentially public domain. And of course, the excellent homebrew software created for, well, old and new systems alike.

      But all of that is something I’ll be covering in more detail with my upcoming series on the systems I own. Essentially a roam through the history of gaming. I’ve finally got the first draft of my first article done – so it shouldn’t be long before that starts. Naturally I’ll be discussing DD’s when I get to the modern systems too.

      But thanks again for the feedback guys. Naturally we’re all going to have different opinions on things – that’s what keeps life interesting. So it’s good to hear what others think. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer on the subject. But it’s a good one to debate.

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Written by Stuart McLean

Self confessed technology addict. iOS software developer, avid gamer and living embodiment of too much to do, not enough time. Insert something nice about spending time with wife and family in the "real world" blah, blah, blah.