Expect the Death of Backward Compatibility Next Year
There might be a way to save that money in the meantime, though, and it comes from the rise of digital distribution on PC. Sites such as Good Old Games have created huge libraries of titles that are compatible with current hardware and software but released years ago. We’re seeing a lot of that on Steam, as well. Part of the trouble is the same — rebuying stuff you already bought years ago — but at least on PC, there’s a degree to which you future-proof your collection by buying it on a computer. It’s much more likely that old PC games will work on newer PCs in the future, especially if GoG and Steam are able to persist as game sellers for years to come; in theory, actually, those DRM-free games you can buy from various outlets like GoG should last you forever.
But that’s a big if, and it begs the same question that digital distribution, backwards compatibility, and buying games at all do: What happens next time? In five years, when we’re talking about the next next generation of consoles, will the Virtual Console games you bought on the Wii or the Xbox titles you downloaded to your Xbox 360 still work? It may be highly cynical, but I highly doubt it.
Even “future-proofing” your games library by buying from Steam and GoG, as I’ve been known to do, doesn’t really guarantee anything. If Valve goes out of business, all those games I have saved on the cloud are likely gone (I should note that Valve has said before that if the end is nigh, it’ll release the DRM on its games so players can get at them — I just wonder if I’ll have time enough to download everything and back it up before it all disappears into the ether). If Microsoft drastically changes its operating system (and remains dominant), the same problem occurs. Really, the biggest threat to the whole enterprise with PC games comes from the inevitable mutations of advancing technology, and we’re already seeing a move toward that sort of walled-garden mentality of Apple with Windows 8 that could speed up the process. The fatalists I know are already predicting the death of PC gaming as we know it, or at least something of a tectonic shift in the landscape.
Where does that leave us players? Hoping for a reprieve, really. DRM-free solutions like GoG are a solid alternative for the moment, at least. Of course, the future is fairly uncertain when it comes to games and hardware, and a shift in platform could make all those games we’ve been accumulating obsolete. It seems likely that we’re destined to pay and pay again for games as they become older.
But then again, there’s one big question to ask: Does anyone even care? Is backward compatibility an issue players even care about, or are they on to the next hit as soon as the last one starts to cool off in the disc tray?
I leave that question with you. For my part, while I might not play my old games often, I definitely don’t want to pay for the privilege.