The idea that the future will be digital for gamers is a notion that's gradually gathering acceptance. After all, companies have been showing how effortless it is to download a game day one, online. Memory is getting cheaper, and consoles and handhelds alike offer options to effortlessly increase available space. Plus, Steam's been proving for the last 10 years that we can trust in at least one digital distribution platform.
Yet, every once in a while, there's a setback that shakes up the whole system. The most recent is due to a scuffle between Lab Zero Games, the developers of Skullgirls, and Konami, the former PS3 and Xbox 360 publisher of said game. When ties were broken, Konami decided to rub salt in the wound by asking Sony and Microsoft to delist the fighter from the PlayStation Store and Xbox Live Arcade (which both companies are doing this month).
The problem is what happens to PS3 and Xbox 360 owners in the process. When a game is delisted from the PlayStation Store or Xbox Live Arcade, it's gone. Not only can you not buy it, but you also can't redownload it if you've already purchased it. If it's already on a console's hard drive, a user is safe, but if anything happens to that hard drive or console, it's gone.
Case in point is a little known game by the name of Yakiniku Bugyou. I'll forgive you if you've never heard of it. It's a PS One Import from Monkeypaw Games. Well, it was a PS One Import. While it was briefly available back in 2011 on the PlayStation Store, it was eventually delisted. Those who purchased this barbequing simulation probably just noticed one day that it wasn't there to redownload anymore. I only realized I couldn't enjoy one of my favorite, silly imports anymore after my backwards compatible PS3 died. I headed to my list of purchased games and spent 15 minutes scouring it, and the PlayStation Store, before I realized it was just gone.
Which is exactly what will happen to Skullgirls users. It will be gone from the PlayStation Store on December 17, and from Xbox Live Arcade on December 31. If it isn't on a hard drive, it's gone forever, or until Lab Zero Games finds another publisher. Everyone who bought it and doesn't have it backed up will be out $14.99.
Yet, it really isn't about the money. It's about what the delisting represents. In an all digital world, all that players own are licenses, not games. If an agreement changes or the balance of power shifts, everything can be lost.
The players themselves are then left with little or no recourse. We sign the agreements whenever we update our firmware or make our accounts. Our lot is cast, and we're left to trust that the companies won't screw us over. Even if they seem trustworthy, sometimes the circumstances are beyond even their control. Lab Zero Games is a forthright, well meaning developer, but all they can do in the wake of Konami's decision is scramble to find another publisher and hope Skullgirls can get relisted with little delay. In the case of the aforementioned Monkeypaw Games situation with Yakiniku Bugyou, they're simply a middleman, working with Japanese companies to get import games released overseas.
All this proves that we aren't quite ready for the digital revolution on consoles. Too much is still uncertain, and the potential for disaster is still too great. If a proven, popular game like Skullgirls can be upended, so can others. It can only work when stability is guaranteed.