Digital graveyards

PSN (3)

With reports abound of Sony closing its PSP, PlayStation 3, and Vita online stores forever in just a few months time this is the perfect opportunity t-STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING! DROP EVERYTHING RIGHT NOW AND GO BUY SOME OLD SONY GAMES BEFORE THEY’RE GONE FOREVER! FOREVER!

I say that and I wish more than anything it was a poor attempt at making a hyperbolic joke, just an overreaction worthy of slapping on a YouTube thumbnail in a desperate attempt to grab your attention – but it’s not. Whole games, the huge patches that made whole games so much better, DLC extras and fun digital bonuses will all be gone for good with no hope of legitimate recovery, an entire generation of gaming permanently hobbled for no reason other than it being too old and unprofitable to deserve to exist. And as much as every fibre of my being would like to argue otherwise, even I have to admit that both of those uncomfortable points are true – all of these formats really are old and unprofitable and Sony is first and foremost a business, so of course that’s going to matter to them. Customer goodwill doesn’t keep shareholders happy, and on a far more important note customer goodwill also doesn’t put food on the table of the army of PlayStation-reliant staff all over the world either. Could Sony have done more to keep these titles relevant? Absolutely. Emulating the original PlayStation – a console that outsold all of its direct competitors by an almost unbelievable amount, killed several of them outright forever, helped to seal the later fate of another, and took the entire gaming industry in a whole new direction – has been trivial even in an official capacity since the days of the PSP (a 2004 format that didn’t even have enough buttons to accurately mimic a DualShock controller, remember) so there’s no good reason why the PlayStation 4 or 5 couldn’t have followed suit and made an already pre-existing digital selection of hundreds of older classic titles available for purchase and play.

No good reason except “We don’t want to, we don’t believe you really want us to even if we did do it, and you can’t make us anyway”, which is more than enough of a flimsy excuse for a big international company that’s already holding all the cards.

So, what can we do about it? Short of a few last-minute purchases and filling our PlayStation 3 hard drives with everything we meant to (re)download but didn’t bother with (don’t forget a PS3 can also store games ready for USB transfer to a PSP!), that is.

Absolutely nothing.

And it’s so sad.

PSN (2)

I could never claim I’ve embraced digital purchases with open arms but even for me the freedom that came with being able to “import” Japanese games without the vastly increased time and cost associated with a physical purchase felt like nothing less than a revelation – a few clicks and that was it, a brand new game that I would have otherwise had to have shipped from the other side of the planet, in my home and ready to play. It felt like nothing less than magic. And then there are all the old PlayStation releases available on PSN for miniscule amounts of cash that would be completely out of reach if my only option had been to buy them on their original black-bottomed CDs: Harmful Park. Panzer Bandit. Rakugaki Showtime. Gunners Heaven. LSD. I could buy all of those from the PlayStation Store for a few thousand yen in total and still have some spare change left over – yes, as account-locked files but – or for the same amount I could afford precisely zero physical copies of any one them, in any condition. Sony’s digital store genuinely made inaccessible games accessible again, generating an infinite number of legitimate and incredibly cheap copies of never-to-be-repeated low print run games for absolutely anybody who wanted one whenever they wanted it – that’s not too far off my idea of heaven, really.

And soon there will be nothing at all.

Perhaps I’m the problem here: Gaming has changed, and I haven’t changed with it. This isn’t the first time a digital purchase of mine has vanished into the ether (my iOS download list is littered with icons of games now unsupported, like little square tombstones of happy times been and gone), so why would I expect anything different from Sony? Did I really expect to turn on my PlayStation 3 in twenty years time and have it greet me like it was launch day? Did I think I was building the Gaming Library of Alexandria over here, a prized collection to be kept forever that could be played without fail until I’m [even] old[er] and grey[er]? No, I didn’t. But then again – why shouldn’t I? I have hardbound antique books – pencilled-in love notes to people long dead and all – made mine until I die for less than the price of a budget game. I have the original 1954 Godzilla movie on DVD, an uneventful purchase from a small branch of a general entertainment shop. I can open up my iPad and within seconds start streaming officially purchased cartoons intended to be shown just a few times while the merchandise was hot, thirty years ago. To try and bring this meandering point back to the topic at hand: Games don’t have to be disposable, not even the ones that were designed to be. In fact Microsoft keep making game preservation look so damned easy – I can pop (a limited selection of) original Xbox games directly into my Xbox One’s disc drive, or purchase 360 games straight from their online store, and they just work (some work better than others, mind you). Playing Radiant Silvergun, an Xbox 360 remaster of a Saturn game, on an Xbox One or even an Xbox Series X, is as simple as selecting it from my library and letting the console do the rest. Now Sony’s consoles are different beasts and there are various reasonable barriers standing between that sort of seamless integration and reality, but to take the official stance that any and all emulation of every older release ever created is a technical and financial impossibility when PlayStation 3 emulators exist and Microsoft’s more than happy to mingle the old with the new as part of a commercial long-term multi-generation project is… is… well, don’t you think it’s a bit insulting?

PSN (1)

So what’s the solution? How can we demand better from an industry that already has demonstrated it has no qualms about (and has received no real pushback for) releasing half a game on a Switch cart and then demanding users download the rest? Can we honestly expect consumers to ignore those brilliant digital sales that enable them to purchase big titles – maybe only a few months old – at a hefty 75% off (if not more), or insist they go to the trouble of importing a boxed release if the local variant is digital only just to prove a point?

No, not really. Besides, as my own experiences with these soon-to-be-closed online stores has hopefully shown, digital distribution has earned its place and more than proved it can have a real positive impact on anyone – to try and avoid or ignore that side of the hobby would only result in us having less games to play; games that cost more and will never be graced with any additional extras, or at best give us the chance to pay full retail price for a highly limited release of last year’s red hot indie game. Digital’s definitely here to stay forever… right up to the point it decides to pack up its toys and leave.

6 thoughts on “Digital graveyards

  1. As I said on Twitter, it has felt like the PS3 and Vita stores have been living on borrowed time for a while, but this is still sad news. Even in the last year I’ve found out about old releases that passed me by at the time, and then been delighted to pick up a cheap digital copy for my Vita instead of having to scour eBay for an affordable physical version. Sure, I can try to buy as many of the titles I might be interested in before the great shutdown, but I can’t future proof for my random whims or discoveries of series I’d never heard of before but absolutely must find out all about now.

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    1. Not to mention, the PS3 and Vita don’t make for particularly futureproof archival devices. Both are prone to failing (especially Vita memory sticks) and unless you’re diligent enough to backup your machines, you’ll lose access to those games all the same. :/

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    2. Yes, that’s a real problem! Find out about a fantastic game three years too late and what can you do? Not a thing D:

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  2. It’s a damn shame, honestly. If anyone were in a position to preserve gaming history, it should be these large companies, especially when they have such historical significance.
    Now, of course, while backwards compatibility ensures a game remains accessible, making “hd ports”and remakes is a more interesting business move, and, ok, fine, those are businesses.
    But I believe they could do both, ensuring backwards compatibility AND pushing remakes that add value and justifies (somewhat) buying yet another version of Shadow of the Colossus or what have you.
    Note that while I’m mad Sony’s halting support of the only ways to legally obtain these older titles, let’s not forget most other manufacturers hardly even tried, Nintendo chiefly so.
    Of the gargantuan DS library, which is so gloriously represented in these pages recently <3, only a handful of games managed to crawl out of the Wii U eShop, leaving the vast majority of that unique system's works out of anyone's reach.
    And that encourages hoarding behavior in gamers, which in turns tends to make us attach unrealistic value on plastic while killing our desire (well, for most of us anyway) to actually go and play these games we've accumulated.

    UGH.

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  3. This issue saddens me as well. I am one of the (apparently crazy) people who still buys PsOne Classics and PsTwo Classics off of the Playstation Store. I thought as we moved into the digital age these stores where you could more or less buy ripped versions of the discs (or in Nintendo’s case cartridges) were a pretty good solution.

    The presentation of Sony’s PsOne classics is actually pretty good too, they all include a full digital scan of their original manual that you can look through on your system.

    Nintendo will currently sell you Virtual console games on Wii U and 3DS… but I fear those days are numbered as well.

    I definitely believe there should be regulation that requires companies to preserve their games in some respect. It doesn’t feel nice that I can’t play all the PS1 games I purchased digitally on my PS4 or a PS5 if I can ever acquire one… when I know the technological solution to this is trivial.

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