In a recent interview with Pretty funny, Xbox boss Phil Spencer talked about game preservation, and how “I really hope as an industry we’ll come together and help preserve the history of gaming, so we don’t lose the ability to go back.”
Raise Paley Center working by archiving television programs, Spencer went on to say “As an industry, I would love it if we came together to help preserve the history of our industry, so we don’t lose access to some of the things that make us where we are today.”
Which, cool, same! Just, hrm.
The increase in subscription services in the last decade, from Netflix to Disney Plus to Spotify to Microsoft’s own Xbox Game Pass, is driven by value and convenience. These large companies assume, rightly, that people are far more willing to pay a small amount each month for many items than to sometimes spend more to own just one item.
The facility bears the cost: ownership. Buying cartridges and CDs and DVDs is (relatively) expensive compared to the cost of a subscription, but once you buy the item, at least you have it. And there is almost no preservation of the game as there is now without that ownership.
Every box in your mom’s attic, every stack of PS2 games you have in a box in your closet, every bundle of 3.5 -inch discs sitting on a shelf, that’s how people love Game Preservation Association have managed to do their remarkable work, because ordinary people own the game, and are able to keep it, and most importantly transfer their property yet they are very happy.
Subscription services cover this concept. When you subscribe to Disney Plus, and get access to it all Star Wars movies and Pixar shorts, you can access them, but only as long as you pay for them, and as long as that’s all that Disney thinks is appropriate (or can legally) provide them.
Xbox Game Pass is no different. You pay for it, you can play a lot of games, sometimes new ones appear, sometimes old ones are gone. Its popularity exploded for the same reason as services like Netflix exploded: because video games are expensive, there are a lot of people who want to play them, and therefore people would rather pay $ 10-15 a month for access to hundreds of games than pay $ 50 one time for one.
The service had more than 23 million people using it at the time of posting, up from just 10 million in April 2020, which is a barrier. They are transformative growth levels, which threaten to completely change almost every aspect of the video game industry, from how games are made to how they are “sold” to how we budget for them and pay for them.
I found Spencer speaking in person here, and he even asked the industry itself to come together in some way to help sustain the game. This can even be read as an acknowledgment that, yes, Game Pass will change the world, just as Netflix and Spotify have fundamentally changed their industry, and this will make publishers come along with special preservation to fend it off.
Which, of course, is cool, but it’s still not a bigger picture. You cannot lead movements that contribute to erosion very much the idea of owning something, then say you care about the preservation of the game! There’s no industry, anywhere, that can be trusted to defend itself from the inside (What would they choose? Will they leave bad things behind?), And that assumes the video game business — which can’t even work together to get the crossplay right — is even be able to manage the scale of that collaboration from scratch. The fact is that the more people who move to Game Pass the fewer there will be games purchased, and the longer this lasts, and the more influential the idea is, the fewer games will be sold, and the fewer games there will be out there that people actually have.
Which might worry you considering there are still a lot of people who buy games, but who else buys CDs? You also won’t buy a DVD any longer.
Plus everything I said has to do with ownership of the disc itself! There are other challenges associated with preserving modern games that are not related to Game Pass, but are still the responsibility of executives (like Spencer’s), such as online DRM, digital sales and reliance on servers that will one day shut down. These things don’t make up for the preservation of the game impossible, but they make it harder. So even if we still buy discs from GameStop, preservation remains a bigger challenge; having to face that and an attack on ownership itself is like fighting on two fronts.
This isn’t entirely a critique of Game Pass, or the subscription service as a whole (or Spencer, who at least discusses this!). I’m far happier with Spotify subscriptions than I’ve ever bought – or let’s be real pirated – CDs, and TV services like Netflix and even Amazon Prime are the biggest improvements over the usual junk we watch on TV. I know there are compromises and shortcomings to be made here, I am aware of them, and I am willing to accept them in the name of value and convenience.
Just like tens of millions of people with an Xbox Game Pass. Know that, as you use it, and despite Phil Spencer’s best hopes, you’re participating in a movement that has its own shortcomings, some of which are shared with other media, and some that are unique – like preservation – to video games.