author: Jakub Mirowski
Star Wars Jedi: Survivor is Another Proof That Internet Broke Games
Physical versions of Jedi: Survivor and Hogwarts Legacy spell doom for installing games from physical media, while players are both losing right to their purchased products, and lower their expectations of quality of new releases.
It seems that a decade after acquiring the rights to the Star Wars brand, Electronic Arts has finally discovered how to create a decent series set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Jedi: Survivor has been buzzing with outstanding combat system, substantial content expansion from its predecessor, and the captivating ambiance of the familiar universe – these elements are so well-executed that reviewers could overlook the mediocre storyline and flawed PC optimization. It's impossible to remain indifferent to the high-quality interactive Star Wars experience – and it also seems impossible to fit it on physical media.
This information went almost unnoticed, as downloading patches weighing gigabytes on the release day is a sacred tradition for major high-budget productions by now, as long and proud a tradition, in fact, as complaining about political correctness and hunting for bugs. The fact is that these patches are often not so much improving the games, as they're allowing you to even experience them in a form resembling a finished product. But let's take a look at Red Dead Redemption 2: everything you need to enjoy this vast open world, with breathtaking landscapes and hundreds of hours of content, fits on two Blue-ray discs.
You can buy the game, take your console into the Appalachians without any internet access and complete the entire story without connecting to the network even once – although, you probably won't avoid numerous errors that wouldn't be there otherwise. Jedi: Survivor does not offer such an option, just like the second great single-player hit of recent months, Hogwarts: Legacy. Apparently, 2023 is the year when we finally hit the wall in terms of how much stuff we can fit on physical copies of video games.
The latest work by Respawn Entertainment can, of course, be obtained in a plastic box with a disc inside. Funnily enough, this only contains mere 60 gigabytes out of the whopping 150 required. Without downloading the rest of the data from the network, you can only play the first mission and fight one boss – similar to Hogwarts Legacy, where only the tutorial was accessible from the disc.
Of course, 150 gigabytes requires at least three Blu-ray discs. But that would mean juggling discs, just like on PCs in the old days, before the era of digital distribution. You could also try finding solutions to reduce the game's weight so it fits on two disks. It was much easier, however, to assume that every player has access to fast internet nowadays, and to place the vast majority of the game behind a wall requiring the download of a gigantic amount of data.
Disk limitations are not only their capacity. When in the times of PlayStation 2 games started without the need for installation, it happened because the amount of data was so small that it could be read on-the-fly from the spinning disc. Contemporary productions have long since crossed this boundary: even Blu-Ray discs offer data streaming speed that's definitely too slow to work in a similar fashion. Therefore, the vast majority of content is installed on the console; the disc in the drive is needed occasionally, more as an anti-piracy protection than data medium. A potential alternative would be to replace discs with cartridges, as Nintendo does: they read data faster and are less susceptible to wear and tear. Even with a 64GB limit (though, for example, the content-rich Breath of the Wild weighted ridiculous 14GB), Switch cartridges have higher production costs (hence the "Switch tax") and they taste awful.
I'm willing to bet that for Microsoft and Sony, the solution to the problem of disc capacity won't be any physical alternative, but rather a move towards offering exclusively digital versions of games.
In just over a decade, physical copies of games that were once essential for console gaming have started to become obsolete, making way for digital versions. Today, interactive entertainment gets less than 10% of its revenue from the sales of physical copies. PlayStation 2 did not have a dedicated network service; three generations later, the Xbox Series S hits the market, which does not have a drive at all and without network access can only serve as an element of decor.
Of course, rebelling against the digital revolution now, at its final stages, seems as justified as getting upset about additional paid content in games in 2023. Anyway, the "networking" of interactive entertainment has a substantial set of advantages:
- Immediate access to the library of installed titles;
- opening the market to smaller, independent developers;
- no need to carry a pile of boxes with you every time you move or travel with a console;
- less plastic.
And yet it is hard to avoid the impression that widespread access to the internet has led to corrosion of some aspects of the industry, not so much in terms of the quality of games (although this too – more on that later), but in terms of business practices and consumer rights.
Borrowed forever* (*additional terms may apply)
Let's start with the most important thing: at the moment when the biggest productions do not fit on discs and a significant portion of them needs to be downloaded, and the two largest platforms offer platforms without drives, a complete departure from physical versions of games is inevitable. I won't be surprised if the next generation of consoles will work exclusively based on digital distribution. But instead of looking through rose-colored glasses of nostalgia at the cultural aspect itself and rejoicing at the sight of cabinets bending under the weight of colorful boxes, it's worth noticing the fact that such a move is another shift of power from the side of consumers to the side of publishers.
Physical versions are actually needed primarily for installing data on the hard drive – in the case of large games, little content is read from the disc. But for players themselves, they guarantee that even if Microsoft or Sony declared bankruptcy tomorrow, they would always have access to their library. In the case of digital copies, such certainty isn't granted: in practice, we do not buy the game, but a license to download and use it at any time.
This material mainly concerns consoles, primarily because PCs have been almost completely digitized a even earlier. Boxes with games for personal computers are collectible items with negligible utility value; physical copies currently account for about 2% of the PC market. Here, no major launch can take place without activation through Steam, Epic Games Store, or another platform. Moreover, it is not uncommon for the box to contain only the activation code. For PC game developers, such a solution is particularly useful: not only do they avoid the costs of production and distribution of discs, but the external platform also provides them with protection against piracy. Abandoning complete digitization is out of the question.
The challenge comes when a given title disappears from the distribution platform. Microsoft and Sony do introduce security measures that allow players to download previously purchased titles removed from sale, but this doesn't always ensure proper consumer protection. Example: In 2013, X-Men: The Arcade Game and The Simpsons: Arcade Game disappeared from digital stores, and people who had previously purchased and not installed them were unable to re-download both games afterwards. It probably comes down to licensing issues, but after all, both Hogwarts Legacy and Jedi: Survivor also operate within someone else's intellectual property – and if they should shared the fate of the mentioned titles in a few years, even having a box with a disc would not be of much use. Hence the indignation of a small, but vocal part of players at the practices of EA and Warner Bros. Moreover, it seems to me that it's not even about the fear associated with such dark scenarios, but about our position as consumers: the prices of games are rising, the industry is bringing huge profits, and we are losing more and more rights to own the purchased product.
First impression, version 1.07
But even putting aside – important! – ideological issues, it's hard not to notice that the widespread, constant access to the internet has allowed publishers to adopt a very liberal approach to what they consider a "finished product."
In the days of yore, about a dozen years ago, before the internet became firmly established on consoles and computers, games had one chance to make a good impression. High-budget productions were therefore carefully polished to high gloss, because showing a title full of errors and shortcomings to the audience could prove fatal for sales results – no one would buy something broken with the knowledge that patching, if it would happen at all, would take weeks to months.
Of course, this did not completely prevent spectacular failures: Daggerfall (The Elder Scrolls II) is still nicknamed "Buggerfall;" Daikatana was released in such a rough condition that it single-handedly took away John Romero's status as the messiah of interactive entertainment, and articles about bugs making the legendary UFO unplayable could practically constitute their own literary genre. But these were exceptions, not the rule: creators usually tried their best to refine their productions and eliminate at least those errors that took away the joy of playing. When the game really hit the market unfinished, the publishers bended over backwards to fix the errors. For example, in the case of Metroid: Other M on Wii, which had a bug that prevented some players from playing, Nintendo covered the costs associated with shipping and repairing the memory cards with saved game states. Another interesting case was Gothic 3, which was delayed in Poland by a few weeks by CD Projekt (then publisher there), who preferred to release a version with an installed patch removing at least some of the errors, rather than risking facing the flak from players.
Today, a game without a patch on release day seems something unnatural. Indeed, they're often required to even have the game working. An exceptionally spectacular example was Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, a 4.6 gigabyte game with almost twice as big release patch. It quickly turned out that the disc only allows access to the tutorial, and the files to download are the entire rest of the game. I am reminded at this moment of a letter sent by a reader to ArsTechnica, in which the author admits that in the 1980s, in order to buy additional time to complete a certain software, his company shipped empty boxes on deadline to the client. They had to go through the return procedure, giving the developers an extra two weeks to finalize the works.
The difference with Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 is naturally that in the story from ArsTechnica, the consumer eventually got the product they were happy with.
Of course, I wouldn't want to go back to the times when glaring glitches remained a part of the game forever, or when developers had to individually fix and send memory cards with saved game states by mail. Easier access to patches and new content is definitely a plus of constantly keeping our consoles connected to the network. However, this also has side effects, and the increase in our tolerance for substandard products is one of the main ones. In no other field of art would we accept similar situations; we would feel cheated if we bought a movie on DVD with the greenscreen still visible in the background and an additional need to download appropriate textures – absurd. Games are able to get away with it, as we acknowledge their complexity, and this understanding is frequently taken advantage of.
Worst of all, the victims of this are the players who have shown the greatest trust in the developers by buying their works at the premiere or just after. They were the most disappointed lot after the releases of Cyberpunk 2077 in December 2020, Fallout 76 in November 2018, or No Man's Sky in August 2016. Continuing the movie analogy – it's as if people who bought a cinema ticket for the latest blockbuster were watching a secretly recorded version on a phone, while those who watched it a few months later on a streaming service or VOD, received a director's cut in Ultra HD – with a discount. Again, absurd.
No Man's Sky is a unique case of the forbearance that players show towards game developers. Let us remind you: this title hit the market in 2016 in a completely unfinished state and without some of the core, promised features, then disappeared from the radar for a year and only after that time returned with a huge update, which finally allowed it to win the hearts of the recipients. Currently, the title from Hello Games' is a really great sandbox in the spirit of space exploration, and we must admit that its creators acted with more decency than many gigantic companies... But the reaction of the players who, in a gesture of gratitude for the delayed delivery of the finished product (for which they paid $60 a year earlier), crowdfunded a billboard on GoFundMe to say thanks to the studio, seems somewhat bewildering.
Mud up to the ears
This is by no means a call to disconnect consoles from Wi-Fi and chew off the Ethernet cables; it's too late to rebel against the advancing digitization of consoles (let alone PCs). And just by the way, the concept of greater possibilities for improving and enriching games with new content is a great thing. The problem is that in many cases, this concept remains unrealized. Instead, we have the ideology of "that'll do-ism": defective products debut alongside patches of several gigabytes, fixing only a small percentage of the errors, because the release date and the actual completion date are months or even years apart. And what's worse, we considered it the status quo.
We have a strange approach to our consumer rights as a gaming community. When someone is worried about the fact that Jedi: Survivor and Hogwarts Legacy increasingly establish the precedent for physical versions of games without the option to play without an internet connection, we say: "Well, everyone with a console has access to the network, it's an imaginary problem." When someone complains publicly about being disappointed with a pre-order, we say: "Well, they should know better than to buy on release day." When a game doesn't work properly on a platform other than the one we own, we sing praises about the supremacy of PCs or consoles. We show greater compassion towards creators of games worth hundreds of millions of dollars than towards fellow players. Perhaps because of this, it was so easy for us to get used to games debuting in lower quality and coming with a higher price tag, and maybe that's why when the last bastion of physically owning video games falls, we practically don't even notice it.
Jakub Mirowski | Gamepressure.com