Let’s get physical

If you spent any time near, well, the internet over the last week, you probably heard that Microsoft experienced a number of server outages that rendered many Xbox games unplayable. Server downtime and internet cut-outs are nothing new, of course, and when it happens it’s reasonable to expect a loss of access to certain services. With Game Pass for example, a loss of service is perhaps understandable. Nobody (hopefully) is under the illusion that they own their Game Pass library. These games are loaned to you during your subscription period and taken back once that period has expired.

It makes some sense that these games require some sort of online check-in to ensure your subscription is active before they can be played (although PlayStation Plus games have a slightly less intrusive ‘expiry date’ attached to them that matches the end of your subscription instead). Just as with Spotify and Netflix, you don’t own your Game Pass content, and people have come to accept that.

The problem with this particular outage however – and far more troubling in the grand scheme of things – is that many games that had been purchased outright and were already installed on consoles also failed to work. The issue here is that many Xbox games require at least one online check-in after download in order to be playable offline. If you’ve downloaded all of your games to your console but haven’t played them before any server outage, they won’t work.

And herein lies the issue with digital purchases, and the main source of concern for advocates of physical media and game preservation in general; in years to come when servers have potentially been switched off and these consoles are no longer being supported, just how many of the games you own will actually be playable?

Obviously Microsoft has been on the wrong end of the pitchforks this week, but it would be unfair to suggest that they are the only company embracing DRM. Most do in some form, and just recently flagship PlayStation title Gran Turismo 7 was rendered almost completely unplayable due to similar issues (earning it the lowest Metacritic user score of any Sony game ever in the process). But GT 7 (and I’m not excusing it here by the way) is an isolated case as a result of the way that specific game was designed. Microsoft’s DRM is system-wide, and affects games in a way that Sony and Nintendo’s consoles simply do not.

Now, it has to said that despite Microsoft’s shaky DRM practices, when everything is working as it should Xbox remains the best place outside of PC to play legacy titles. The Xbox backwards compatibility program is phenomenal and was a monumental undertaking from Microsoft. If you bought Geometry Wars at the Xbox 360 launch back in 2005, you can still play it now on Xbox Series S and X, and in 4K HDR to boot! The same goes for hundreds of digital and physical games dating all the way back to the original Xbox in 2001. It’s a beautiful thing, but the events of last weekend have truly soured Microsoft’s otherwise incredibly sweet retro offering.

Many believe the solution is to avoid digital titles altogether and to stick to physical media. But is it really that simple? These days when a game is released you’re lucky if even half of it is actually on the disc. The rest usually delivered through a colossal day-one download and across countless updates in the weeks and months that follow. In many cases, discs these days simply act in lieu of that online check-in, they grant you access to content that is still obtained digitally. In that hypothetical future when servers are no longer active, will discs really be worth what we think they are if those downloads and such large portions of the game are no longer accessible?

In an ideal world games would arrive fully formed on disc on day-one, but that’s just not how games are made anymore. That’s not how the industry works anymore. Sure, a disc is something you can hold in your hand and do with as you please, but unless the industry fundamentally changes, even that may not be enough to keep it fully playable.

As always a solution is more complicated than it may appear, but at the very least there should be an easy way for consumers to find out exactly how each company approaches DRM, and how it will affect the games we are buying both now and in the future.

This article is an extract from The Week in Games newsletter.

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