This isn’t the first time we’ve written about the problems associated with our looming, all-digital gaming future, but once again, we have a new incident providing hard evidence it won’t all be happiness and smiles if/when publishers finally push retailers out of the equation. More than ever, IP is the backbone of our entertainment industries. In video games, it’s nearly as powerful as in Hollywood. Nothing is as sure of a bet as licensing a multimedia property for your project. But with licensing comes expiration dates, and when those dates come up, things disappear. If rights holders and buyers can’t figure out a better way to compromise with each other, we’re doomed to a world that sees the fruits of labor constantly disappearing from marketplaces, which will only grow worse if physical media drops off.
Digital purchases of video games are continuing to rise. This is especially true in the world of AAA games. Companies like EA are steadily approaching the 50% mark, and the numbers shoot up every year. The game of tug-of-war between publishers and retailers grows more violent, and there is a losing side. Publishers stand to reap all the rewards, and everyone else involved will lose out. Especially the people making purchases and the people on the frontlines actually making the games.
What’s the fuel being dumped on the fire this time? Surprise! It’s another Marvel game. This time, the surprising re-releases of the Marvel: Ultimate Alliance series were in the cross-hairs. Indeed, these games have had a rocky past. Developer Raven had steadily built a reputation for doing great things with bringing Marvel Comics and isometric action-RPGs together, starting with the (still missing) X-Men Legends series. But sadly, Raven would eventually be moved over to working on Call of Duty content, while Activision used its Marvel licenses on annual Spider-Man releases of wavering quality. In the meantime, rights expirations kneecapped Ultimate Alliance, forcing DLC content to be removed from marketplaces.
But, somehow, the right things behind the scenes happened. Marvel: Ultimate Alliance came back. Both games appeared on modern platforms, albeit awkwardly ported. These were definitely easy, quick ports, but the games came back after fading away into obscurity. Around this time, other surprising moves were made – Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3 was also re-released, and Marvel vs Capcom Infinite was made. But we saw what happened with the latter – it was a disaster, and the game never recovered. One might suspect these were all related, some quick promotional releases to keep the Marvel brand buzzing to fuel ticket sales between movies.
But alas, the RPGs went on deep sale all of a sudden, and savvy fans recognized what was happening. It’s all too familiar of a pattern now, especially with games licensed by Activision. It was a similar fate shared by the like of games like Tony Hawk Pro Skater HD, and Transformers: Devastation. These two examples show that nothing is safe from licensing agreements with expiration dates – regardless of how well-received a game is. Not long after the deep sale, the game vanishes from marketplaces without a single word from the publisher. And that’s it, unless the game can make a comeback sometime down the line. It’s especially bad if the game in question, like Marvel: Ultimate Alliance and its sequel, only released digitally. In that case, players who missed out can’t even resort to the secondhand market. The game is lost to time, with the only hope of it being preserved being emulation.
It’s a troubling precedent, especially when games aren’t even relegated to only physical media anymore. It’s almost like game preservation has somehow gotten worse, despite digital media, on paper, being more resilient than physical media. There isn’t a whole lot we can do about it, especially as giant corporations continue to merge and consolidate control over entertainment one deal at a time. It’s doubtful Disney cares much about preserving the work of video game developers unless there’s piles of profit to be made. Some companies are putting effort into keeping classics alive, but some is far from all, and the unfortunate reality of a large sect of older games is that Marvel used to toss its rights around when it was less of a media giant. These games are destined to phase in and out of existence, and as consumers the only think folks can do is snap them up when they’re available. Especially when there’s a big sale.