Netflix subscribers will find their movie selection gutted tomorrow, as the service removes thousands of movies and TV shows due to the end of its contract with the premium cable movie network Starz, which, while providing only around 5% of the overall Netflix library, just happens to offer some of the more popular content.


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The same thing happens to online game providers, from Netflix-like streaming services like OnLive, to more traditional digital distribution platforms like Xbox Live or Steam. With all this uncertainty one might be tempted to simply stick with physical media, but despite what its ardent defenders will tell you, the physical media sold by normal retail channels comes with a finite lifespan. Regardless of whether you stream, download, or buy optical discs, no game you purchase will last forever, and any streaming service will face periodic mass delistings like Netflix as contracts change every few years. Meaning downloadable game services may offer you the best chance of playing your favorite game thirty years from now.


Though OnLive hasn’t shaped the way we play games in the same way that Netflix changed the country’s viewing habits, the game-streaming service will one day have to cope with losing valuable content like Netflix. The value of the service to customers changes with every contract signed or partnership ended. While the same could be said of more traditional digital distribution services like Xbox Live Arcade and Steam, which allow users to download their purchases, those platforms utilize a set of robust policies that minimize damage done to their users — when a title disappears from either of those providers, those who previously purchased the game can still download it at will. Some may choose to wash their hands of digital distribution all together, but data degradation on physical media may very well render your disc-based games unplayable long before they’re removed from Steam’s catalog.


The ever moving pace of technological development turns the simple act of playing an older game into a trial. How many players purchased Chrono Trigger in 1996 and still have their SNES ready and TV connected? Does anyone still keep a 5.5-inch floppy drive connected to their machine just in case they just so they can play the original version of The Secret of Monkey Island at a moment’s notice? In principle, purchasing games stored on physical media means that one will have access to that game anytime and anywhere in perpetuity. In practice, it means hunting down the right hardware in the attic or basement (assuming you still have it) and overcoming numerous other challenges like how to hook a SNES or Genesis up to a modern TV. Even after one goes to all that trouble, the media, be it cartridge, disk, or CD, which stores the games has a very finite lifespan. Most NES cartridge batteries died years ago, along with most floppy discs, and a good portion of CDs or DVDs. Steady and perpetual data degradation cannot be stopped. A small number of hardcore gamers may choose to jump through the hoops necessary to preserve game data and maintain hardware, but most won’t. The troubles don’t justify the gain when we live in age where five or six dollars will allow you to play most (but by no means all) classic games on modern hardware via digital distribution.


The systems worked out to serve Origin or Steam customers after a delisting may not function for every title. In all likelihood, our collective Steam libraries are unlikely to make it to the end of the decade or beyond without losing playability on a handful of titles, but the convenience is worth re-buying old favorites on the cheap once a decade or so. Though critics of digital distribution make a fuss about the ability to play a game indefinitely, standard industry practices already place a de facto time limit on all games purchased. Meanwhile, the supposed “long-tail” of streaming services is subject to the whims and desires of individual publishers and their relationship with service providers. Maybe you won’t be able to download the same purchase of Dead Space 2 from Steam in twenty years, but will you jump through the hoops of finding a non-red ringed 360 capable of interfacing with a futuristic 4320p display, or track down whatever streaming service happens to host the game for the time being and subscribe? Players shouldn’t be forced into making a decision like this, but the business realties of the industry are more than enough to surpass any pro-consumer idealism, and they heavily favor downloadable digital distribution.

By Ryan Winterhalter