“When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much,” says Ryan. “That, and I was at a Gran Turismo event recently where they had PS1, PS2, PS3 and PS4 games, and the PS1 and the PS2 games, they looked ancient, like why would anybody play this?” – Jim Ryan, Sony Interactive Entertainment CEO from Time.com
This quote from 2017 has been making the rounds once again after the news came out yesterday from TheGamer, according to reliable sources, that by the end of the Summer, Sony will shut down the digital storefronts for the PS3, PSP and PS Vita. While physical games for all three platforms have been produced, many titles for these machines exist only as digital files, essentially meaning that entire libraries are on the verge of disappearing forever. This is just another sign that companies, like Sony, care little about preserving their own history and it goes to show that the pivot towards an all digital future could spell trouble for the medium.
Up until the seventh console generation, games on dedicated hardware could only be distributed on discs and cartridges, but the advent of internal storage on devices like the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii meant that players could now conveniently buy and download games from digital storefronts. Anecdotally speaking, as someone who grew up in a very small town, this technology was a game changer.
For me, I was at the mercy of whatever my local Wal-Mart deemed worthy to house behind their locked display cases. If they decided to not get a game like Tomb Raider Anniversary right away, I either didn’t get it, or had to sneak into the city with my parent’s car and hope they didn’t find out. That’s when I could drive, mind you, when I couldn’t, my options were even less. With the advent of digital distribution, all I would have to do is click a few buttons and play the waiting game while I waited for that download bar to move to the right.
This also didn’t change how players accessed games, but the types of games that could be sold. Indie developers were no longer at the mercy of publishers and navigating the angry seas of retail, with titles such as Super Meat Boy providing success to garage based game makers. Even properties from major publishers that were once deemed outdated for the traditional market found new life thanks to digital distribution. In the GMR magazine issue that housed the review for Mega Man Anniversary Collection, it stated that Mega Man 9 would never happen. But in 2008, it did, because it was a less risky proposition as it didn’t need to get pressed on a disc. In that same year, Capcom also gave us the wonderful Bionic Commando Rearmed using that same strategy.
This console generation also saw the return of beloved games from the past. It was simply a joy to go to sites like 1UP to see what new offerings were coming to the Wii Virtual Console, only to then have them on your console without needing to hook up, or even buy, older hardware. Classics from the original PlayStation were also sold on PlayStation 3, and could even be transferred to the PSP and PS Vita to play on the go. Not only that, but expensive games on the secondary market, like the wonderful Mega Man Legends spin-off The Misadventures of Tron Bonne, were sold at a fraction of what they were on eBay, allowing curious players to try them for the first time with little financial risk.
Arcade games that never got home releases, like Konami’s X-Men and an arcade perfect version of 1989’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, similarly found second life while fulfilling the wish of many who grew up in that era and always wanted to have those games available at home. New modern features, like online play, also became game changing additions for 2009’s rerelease of Marvel vs. Capcom 2: New Age of Heroes and 2012’s Marvel vs. Capcom Origins. Now players could test their skills against those around the world instead of being locked to their own geographic region.
It didn’t take very long, however, for problems to arise in this bold new era of downloadable games, with a big one of course being licensing. If you want to buy Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Marvel vs. Capcom 2 or Marvel vs. Capcom Origins right now, you can’t, because they all use the intellectual properties of other companies. As this trio of titles never saw a physical release, they’re gone forever unless you already bought them. If Sony shuts down their storefront permanently, it may come to a point where you may not even be able to redownload them too.
There’s perhaps no greater example of this than 2010’s Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game. Released in 2010 alongside the film, it was only sold for four years before it was pulled, leading to outcry for years from fans to get it back up for sale. Thankfully, it did get remastered for release in 2021 and Limited Run Games, a company that specializes in doing prints for digital only games, made a deal that would see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game get its first ever physical version. Not all games, unfortunately, are so lucky.
2019 would mark the first true culling of digital games. It was early in that year that Nintendo was not only robbing players of the catchy Wii Shop Channel music, but the entirety of the games that were on it. Of course, virtual console games from retro devices still exist for those machines, provided you can find them and get them working on modern displays, but the same cannot be said of original titles. Konami had a line, dubbed ReBirth, that included new entries from their Contra, Castlevania and Gradius franchises. Neither, of as of this writing, have been collected for any other platform and are to this day, gone forever.
It was in that same year that a first-party platform holder announced that digital game sales had eclipsed physical. Sony, when celebrating the landmark 100 million consoles sold for the PlayStation 4, publicly stated that digital games made up 53 percent of games sold in the April-June quarter. In the coming year, this statistic would only grow, but a new, troublesome problem was also about to arise for the digital marketplace.
In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world hard, forcing the closure of public venues like cinemas and crippling many businesses. The video game industry, however, thrived. Games could still be produced, albeit less quickly as game makers shifted to at home development, and consumers didn’t need to leave their homes to download games. From the period of April-June in 2019, the ratio of digital to physical sales on the PlayStation 4 was 26.4 to 23.4 million. In the same period in 2020, this shifted to 67.3 to 23.7 million. With these numbers, it was easy to see exactly why both Sony and Microsoft would introduce digital only consoles for their next-generation hardware.
The fall of last year saw the release of both Sony’s PlayStation 5, with and without an optical disc drive, and Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and S which utilized the same strategy. The issue facing both, outside of people not being able to buy them, is the file size for modern games. The PS5 hard drive space is a terabyte, however only about 667 GB’s are usable for game storage. Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War robs roughly 200 GB’s of that space. Right now, there are no options to buy expandable storage for the PlayStation 5 – though the option will be available in the future – while you can buy easy to insert memory expansions for the Xbox Series consoles. The caveat being the price: $219 USD per card which is just $80 less than the Xbox Series S digital only box that has a paltry 500 GB’s of space.
Compared to Sony, Microsoft seems far more concerned with preserving their catalog of games. Though not every single Xbox original and 360 title will work on the Series X, many of them do, with some even being included on the Game Pass subscription service. This is in stark contrast to the PlayStation 5 where you can only access some PS3 games via their PS Now streaming service and PS2 titles that were sold on the PlayStation 4. The only way to play any original PlayStation games are from compilations or select titles like Final Fantasy VII-IX which were remastered.
Digital distribution, an exciting new technology that among other things opened up a new channel for indie developers and studios, allowed projects to once seem impossible to flourish and provided a way to relive classics now threatens to end whole sections of the industry. Even if Sony doesn’t decide to shut down the stores for the PS3, PSP and Vita, we’ve already lost the entirety of the Nintendo Wii’s digital library plus many licensed games.
By closing off this portion of their library, all Sony will really accomplish is driving up the prices on the secondary market for retro titles that were once cheap to buy, cutting off a revenue stream for many smaller studios who rely upon income brought in this way while also increasing piracy. Emulation is always an option of course, but for those who enjoy the simplicity of console games, it’s not always easy to figure out, plus the burden should not be placed on players to preserve games when companies like Sony should be doing it themselves.
To support the preservation of classic video games, consider donating to the Video Game History Foundtation, plus the works of companies like Digital Eclipse, Nightdive Studios, Code Mystics, Hamster and M2 among others who craft wonderful collections that honor the history and legacy of the industry.