There's a worrying aspect to digitally downloadable games that I haven't seen anyone else discussing. While there are a number of concerns I have for the medium - such as the loss of ownership of the game, and the loss of investment - these have been discussed on forums, in magazines, podcasts and the like. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages for either side of the argument. But the one thing I haven't seen people talking about is the potential loss of the original product.
We all love the fact that our games can now be patched at will and expansions and extra content a few button presses away, sometimes for free too. But what about when something important gets changed that twists the tone or a story element in the original just to serve, for instance, an upcoming sequel. What happens when our games become advertising devices for the next product, sometimes designed by a different team of people, and in turn tarnishes an otherwise perfect original game?
I think we can all easily relate to the Star Wars films and the three prequels that have lessened the experience of the original three films. But remember they not only created three new films that failed to live up to the original works, they re-released the original films with added scenes to facilitate a smoother transition into the new ones. Some scenes were added that were originally meant to be in there. Then others changed to better reflect the original intention of the director, to better reflect the intended characters. But, 'better'? Well, no, and we all know why.
The furore - or internet nerd rage to be more precise - over the 'who shot first' scene change of Han Solo and Greedo is the perfect example. The director thinking he was doing something with good intentions and in the interests of the original script. Instead changed an important aspect of Han Solo's character and fans of the movies were in an uproar.
There was a second release of the special edition movies in 2004 that had a few more things tweaked and other changes still (including Han and Greedo firing simultaneously), but it wasn't until 2008 that George Lucas caved and released the original versions on DVD.
Recently there is much discussion and excitement over Portal 2 and the methods for which Valve seeded the announcement. Starting with an achievement added to the game, people quickly found radios within the game that could be decoded to image data and a BBS that held yet more information. A spectacular campaign and one that I don't think any sane individual could argue to be anything otherwise. But they also modified the ending and no matter how slight the change may be, it's here that I start to become concerned.
I don't have Steam (I'm a Mac, so this will be coming soon) but from what I've heard people may receive these updates automatically. One member of a podcast I listen to spoke how he wondered if he had received the update and found it had already been installed. But this isn't a criticism on Steam by any means. I mention this because we are getting closer to no longer having control over the content we purchase. As digital distribution continues to march on and take over physical media, we are quickly reaching a level of our treasured games no longer being our own and potentially becoming an advertising space for yet more games to come. And worse, losing the original content entirely.
Many make the argument that there will always be offline play, and in the worst case emulation. But is anyone archiving these original copies other than the company who made them? What if, like George Lucas, they decide the new product is better in every way and to love it or lump it? And as everyone is most likely aware, offline play is starting to become a far less than guaranteed part of the product you buy. The time trials in Mirror's Edge for example can't be played without going online and connecting to the EA servers. What happens when they switch that off? I'm left with a quarter of the game I used to have.
Digital distribution is a wonderful aspect of gaming today. It has brought back the indie game and in my opinion has made gaming much more exciting than it has been for a long time. But there are aspects I'm worried about, and one of those is losing the experience that I loved so much when I first experienced it. No one wants Greedo shooting first, the same way no one wants GLaDOS presenting cake.