The Short Lifespan of Hand-me-down Gaming

I’ve got some good news and some bad news.

The good news is, something awesome is happening right now. Video games have reached the age where the first commercially successful examples of the medium are becoming heirlooms. The generation of kids who grew up playing Atari 2600 and the original Nintendo are grown-ups now, and that means some of them are having kids. For the first time, parents are able to pass down some super cool video gaming history to their kids. They can dust off that box in the attic and have their kid fire up some Mario or Sonic, just like they did when they were kids.

This is great news for a bunch of reasons, but the one that comes to mind most prominently is this: The kids growing up right now are being raised by the first generation that grew up playing video games. It can only help the general acceptance of the medium, to have kids growing up without being told that video games are going to rot their brain or similar such nonsense.

Now for the bad news. This might also be the last generation that gets to enjoy this unique privilege.

The great thing about the consoles I mentioned at the beginning of this post is that they’ll be the same forever. Assuming you keep it in good shape, you’re always going to be able to fire up your NES or Genesis and play the games you have for it, in the exact same fashion you did 20 years ago.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of modern consoles. When’s the last time you put a game in your Xbox 360 or PS3 and  were able to play it right away? Without downloading a launch day patch, or a firmware update? I honestly can’t answer this question. I don’t remember the last time that happened.

So what does this mean for the future of hand-me-down gaming? Ten or twenty years from now, are we still going to be able to do with our Xbox 360s what we can do today with our Super Nintendos? All signs point to no.

There’s little chance of online services like Xbox Live still being functional on the current-gen hardware ten-plus years from now – Xbox Live for the original Xbox was shut down in early 2010, less than nine years after the release of the original Xbox. With the absence of online services for the console, gone is a large portion of the content that was available in its prime. Online multiplayer is obviously no longer possible, and even more saddening is the death of any DLC, patches, hotfixes etc. In the case of games that have been released with major bugs and quickly patched, this could render them completely unplayable in the future.

So what can we do about it? On a personal level, we can make sure we get any content updates that come out for our favourite games while it’s still available, and make sure we keep it on our console hard drives. Depending on the size of our collections, however, this may prove to be prohibitively storage-intensive.

On a larger scale, the gaming community is going to have to do some serious thinking about what we can do about this. Is it possible for a third-party network to arise, containing all the content that was originally found on Xbox Live and PlayStation Network? Could this system also allow for online multiplayer? Who’s going to pay for it?

These are all questions we’re going to have to consider, if we want to be able to play Assassin’s Creed and Call of Duty with our kids and grandkids. I sincerely hope the fine tradition of video game hand-me-downs, that is just beginning to emerge, doesn’t become impossible in our near future.

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