Live services and the tragic death of physical media

Adam Meadows
Jun 17 · 6 min read

Buy a game on a current-generation device.

There’s a chance that you’re not able to play that game in a complete or playable state. There’s a chance that, without waiting hours for that massive update, the game you’re about to play isn’t really there.

In short: what’s on the disc isn’t what the developers actually intended — because that’s yet to come down that magical data pipe. It’s for this reason, then, that the death of physical media isn’t impending — it’s already here.

It’s dead for the consumer because the disc itself rarely includes a complete, polished experience without an internet connection— meaning the game becomes the console it’s attached to. If the service that delivers that patch dies tomorrow, your physical disc is on life support. If that patched machine goes, the complete game goes with it.

It’s dead for the collector, too. You can exchange physical media all day long — but without that patched device, you’re likely receiving damaged goods. The near-equivalent of a scratched disc or knackered cart.

This can be offset, of course, by streaming services, backward-compatible hardware and continued patch availability for the foreseeable future — but it all feels a bit naff, really. An inevitable, tragic dependency on our technological overlords.

It’s simply not enough to simply exchange some green for a disc— not anymore.

It’s baffling how any product can possibly omit the words Internet Connection Required in the modern era. The Division 2 has to do it, and so should Mario Tennis Aces— a game that was considered content-starved and unstable at launch. Street Fighter V is another example. Mass Effect, another.

Mario has knocked it out the park since, with new characters, quality-of-life changes and single-player content — provided you connect to their live service via another live service: your internet connection.

Most of these aren’t technically ‘live service’ games — but they are dependent on a service continuing to be live to work as intended. The mere purchase of a disc is not too dissimilar from the purchase of a loot box: a gamble as to whether or not you receive the thing you actually want.

This isn’t the only service we depend on, either. We rely on an internet connection to get those updates, which then depends on the console’s service being live. It’s not impossible to envisage a future where this ‘patched device’ dependency becomes its own secondary market, a future where a second-hand game is only worth as much as the device it comes with. A device with patches for rare and sought-after games could become a needle in a haystack — a golden goose for those savvy enough to exploit modern game dependence on post-sale updates.

It’d be easy to blame consumers for the adoption of this practice — but rarely is it clear which games need extensive patching. Ergo: it’s difficult for the average consumer to actively boycott offending titles. It’s a strategy so widely adopted that you’d be forced to boycott virtually everything to avoid it.

This timeline brings us to the ultimate embodiment of games as a service: streaming. You’re dependent on two-services being live — and without the latter, you have quite literally nothing.

Game preservation also goes out the window. In an all-you-can-stream future, you can’t delve into pre-patched games — that game with the fascinating bug can’t be accessed anymore. Those emergent narratives unique to games, such as running games on original hardware or playing pre-patch for a particular advantage or quirk, die too. For speedrunners, that could make or break the scene. The chance of a connection failure at any moment could simply make the hobby not worthwhile for games offered exclusively on streaming.

And in this timeline, that could be all of them.

Access to older experiences depends solely on them. They control the history of games going forward — that old version of the game that used to be stream just isn’t available anymore, replaced by a remake two generations later.

It also presents another possible problem: games deemed acceptable today, such as ones rife with violence, can later be vanquished from reality if such violence isn’t considered acceptable like it once was.

In other words, streaming lets games live forever — allowing them to live on because they’re no longer tied to a particular set of hardware. But it allows them to be cast into oblivion forever, too. It’s an historian’s nightmare — a world where a game wasn’t released on a particular day on a particular year, but a world where a game was made available on that day, that year, and later revoked. Each game with a gravestone documenting when the game lived — only to be killed and replaced by a remake, remaster or sequel.

And it also doesn’t help that, like Netflix, games might simply come and go. This isn’t a million miles from Microsoft’s GamePass, of course, which sees games temporarily appear on the service. And like Netflix, content might pass between services — meaning you may need multiple services to follow a particular game. Not good.

This isn’t to lament game streaming entirely. It could become a gateway to modern gaming without the massive price tag upfront. It could also takeaway from the pressures of meeting release dates, as massive distribution engines don’t need to be ramped up months in advance. Not ready? Don’t turn the game on until it is.

It’s more to mourn the possible loss of owning the box that holds the disc, and the other box that plays it. To lose that intangible physical experience — and know that, to an extent, you’ll have access to that thing for years to come.

And to rest easy in the knowledge that nobody can truly take that experience away from you — at least in its complete and final form.

As of right know, there’s still infinite unknowns. If developers are paid per-hour played, it only makes sense that service-providers would be inclined to offer higher pay-per-hour to new titles to attract fresh content. The issue: developers remove previous entries in the franchise to avoid competition with the new version, as they might receive lesser pay per hour.

That works fine, if you make the automatic assumption that the newly released sequel is better — with no guarantee that it’s not.

It’s an onion, a Russian doll — a Russian onion — of unknowns, and layers upon layers of services. This is only compounded by modern-day games’ tendency to veer towards the live service model, even with the game running on the box as a single-player experience.

Fundamentally, though, you could argue that digital storefronts are closer to this model that we care to admit. You’re paying for access to the content — not for ownership of the content itself. It’s still a step or two removed from an all-streaming future, but it’s not a country mile off.

And with that comes a strong nostalgia for owning the box and the game. Not half the game, or a beta version. The actual, shipped, finished game. A work of art its developer might have said was never truly finished — but we loved all the same. Its glories and its flaws forever cemented on disc.


All about games

Adam Meadows

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All about games

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