In a recent interview with Kinda Funny, Xbox boss Phil Spencer spoke about game preservation, and how “I really wish as an industry we’d come together and help preserve the history of what gaming is about, so we don’t lose the ability to go back.”
Bringing up the Paley Centre’s work with archiving television programs, Spencer goes on to say “As an industry I would love it if we came together to help preserve the history of what our industry is about, so we don’t lose access to some of the things that got us to where we are today.”
Which, cool, same! Only, hrm.
The rise of subscription services over the last decade, from Netflix to Disney Plus to Spotify to Microsoft’s own Xbox Game Pass, has been driven by value and convenience. These enormous companies figured, correctly, that people are a lot more willing to pay a small amount every month for a lot of stuff than occasionally spending a lot more to own just one thing.
That convenience has come at a cost, though: ownership. Buying cartridges and CDs and DVDs was (relatively) expensive compared to subscription costs, but once you bought that thing, you at least owned it. And there would be almost no game preservation as it exists today without that ownership.
Every box found in your mum’s attic, every pile of PS2 games you had in a box in your closet, every bundle of 3.5-inch disks sitting on a shelf, that’s how people like the Game Preservation Society have been able to do their fantastic work, because people used to own those games, and could keep them, and then most importantly transfer ownership of them however they damn well pleased.
Subscription services chip away at this concept. When you subscribe to Disney Plus, and get access to all those Star Wars movies and Pixar shorts, you have access to them, but only so long as you’re paying for them, and even then only so long as Disney sees fit (or is legally able to) provide them.
Xbox Game Pass is no different. You pay for it, you can play tons of games, sometimes new ones appear, sometimes old ones disappear. Its popularity is exploding for exactly the same reason services like Netflix blew up: because video games are expensive, there are loads of them people want to be playing, and so folks would rather pay $15 per month for access to hundreds of games than pay $70 a time for just one.
The service has over 23 million people using it at time of posting, up from just 10 million in April 2020, which is bonkers. Those are transformative levels of growth, which threaten to completely change almost every aspect of the video game industry, from how games are made to how they’re “sold” to how we budget for them and pay for them.
I get that Spencer is speaking on a personal level here, and that he’s even calling for the industry itself to come together in some way to help preserve games. This might even be read as an acknowledgement that, yeah, Game Pass is going to change the world, just like Netflix and Spotify have fundamentally changed their industries, and so it’s going to take publishers coming together with preservation specifically in mind to counteract that.
Which, cool, but that’s still missing the bigger picture. You don’t get to spearhead a movement that’s contributing to the erosion of the very idea of ownership of things, then also say you care about game preservation! No industry, anywhere, can ever be trusted to preserve itself from within (What are they going to choose? Would they leave the bad stuff out?), and that’s assuming the video game business — which can’t even work together to get crossplay right — could even manage that scale of collaboration in the first place. The fact is the more people who move to Game Pass the less there will be buying games, and the longer this goes on, and the more influential the idea becomes, the less games will be sold, and so the fewer games will be out there that people actually own.
Which might sound alarmist to you considering how many people still buy games, but who the hell buys a CD anymore? And the way things are going you won’t be buying DVDs for much longer either.
Plus everything I’ve said just related to your ownership of a disc itself! There are other challenges associated with preserving modern games that aren’t related to Game Pass, but are still things executives (like Spencer) are responsible for, like online DRM, digital sales and a reliance on servers that will one day be shut down. These things don’t make game preservation impossible, but they do make it more difficult. So even if we were still all buying discs from GameStop, preservation would still be a greater challenge; having to face that and an assault on ownership itself is like fighting a war on two fronts.
This isn’t a complete criticism of Game Pass, or of subscription services as a whole (or of Spencer, who is at least talking about this stuff!). I’m a lot happier with my Spotify subscription than I ever was buying — or let’s be real pirating — CDs, and TV services like Netflix and even Amazon Prime have been just the most immense improvements over the garbage we used to watch on TV. I know there are compromises and drawbacks to be had here, I’m aware of them, and I’m willing to accept them in the name of value and convenience.
Just like tens of millions of people are with Xbox Game Pass. Just know that, as you’re using it, and despite Phil Spencer’s best hopes, you’re participating in a movement that’s got its own drawbacks, some of which it shares with other mediums, and some which are unique — like preservation — to video games.