Are Digital Copies The Best Choice? Part One: Licensing
Digital distribution has gone from novelty to industry standard in the last five years. Although physical copies are still available for many games, gone are the days of colorful manuals and additional goodies. In most cases you just get a case, the media, and a link to an online manual, leaving little incentive to make the trip to purchase what you can get online in the comfort of your home.
The internet is almost ubiquitous in the first world, with almost everyone having access to it in one form or another. Surely this makes digital distribution a no-brainer when it comes to the future of content delivery, right? During normal everyday usage, most people love the convenience. However, in the fine print there are some disconcerting concerns that may come up in the future, especially with handhelds and mobile gaming.
Who do these games belong to?
In the olden days, before always-on internet connections, all you had to worry about was having a physical copy of a game. Once you had that, you could rest assured that you "owned" the game. You could install it as many times as you want, and all was good. However, as digital copies become more prevalent, it's becoming more and more appearant that the end-user infact doesn't own the game. End User Licence Agreements have always been a part of software. I'm sure if any of you have played PC games, that you've hastily clicked through the giant wall of text that appears when installing many games. The fact is, games have always been licensed, but it was easy to ignore the "you may only have x amount of copies installed to x amount of computers" and "violations of these terms will result in forfeiting your license." There was simply no way for companies to enforce this other than lawsuits.
With this new model though, restrictions abound. I've had some very frustrating personaly experiences with how digital licensing is handled on both the PlayStation Vita and the Nintendo 3DS. On the Nintendo 3DS, if you buy digitally, all content is tied to the Nintendo Network ID that is registered to the console.
I recently purchased a New Nintendo 3DS XL, and I had a original 3DS XL and 3DS that I wanted to move licenses from. The problem was, each was registered under a different Nintendo ID, so I could pick only one handheld to transfer games and saves from. I contacted Nintendo and they said simply, they cannot combine Nintendo ID's so I would basically have to leave a few hundred dollars worth of digital games on my old console.
The biggest problem I have with this whole thing is physical copies of games for the 3DS don't have this limitation. They'll work in any handheld, no matter what ID is associated with it. Further more, they're the exact same price as a digital copy. The problem is, especially with the latest hits The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask 3DS and Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, find a physical copy in stores can almost be impossible due to supply issues and low print runs. For some Nintendo games the only choice for some people if they want to play the game the day it comes out is to purchase the digital copy and be stuck with the limits.
The PlayStation Vita has similar problems, but it's got an extra issue that is extremely odd given its much touted connectivity with the PlayStation 4. I was at a friend's house, and they wanted to try out the Remote Play feature. I tried to connect to their PS4 and was met with a message that I couldn't use remote play because the PlayStation Network IDs didn't match.
I figured it must have been a glitch, since surely Sony wouldn't limit such a travel friendly feature to one account. I tried with a separate account on my home system, and found that even with a PlayStation 4 that was set as my primary console, not even another account on it could use remote play. I had to be signed into my account, on my system, or it simply refused to work. Additionally, the PS Vita has no ability to have multiple accounts. If you sign into another account, all your content is deleted. Yet another limitation not found with the physical media.
The ambiguity of ownership is a huge concern for me when it comes to digital content. Especially with Sony's uneven support for the Vita, and Nintendo's still not quite there online strategy, it makes me a little uneasy.
In part two of the series, I'll be taking a look at availability of content. How long will these titles be supported by their content services? Is buying digital a safe bet? We'll look at all these questions and more next time.