The digital-only games we’ve lost – and those we’re going to lose

Contra Rebirth is one of the games that is set to disappear when the WiiWare service shuts down in 2019.

If you want to play an NES game from 30 years ago, it’s a simple enough proposition to track down the original cartridges and hardware. You might have a bit of trouble connecting the ageing console to a modern TV, but it’s certainly possible. And there’s always the grey area of emulation if you want to take a shortcut.

But how easy will it be to play the games of today in 30 years’ time? In particular, will it even be possible to obtain modern digital-only releases from PSN, Xbox Live Marketplace or the Nintendo eShop? Perhaps even more pressingly, post-release patches have become the norm for modern titles, but for how long will these essential fixes remain available? Even if you have the physical disc for a PS4 game, will you still be able to download all of the patches and DLC in three decades’ time?

Today, rather than, say, the physical integrity of an NES cartridge, the lifespan of a game is ultimately determined by the largesse of companies like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo and their willingness to keep servers alive. And we’ve already seen a huge number of games disappear into the digital ether, seemingly with no hope of salvaging them.

I wrote the below article for Eurogamer, taking a look at the digital-only games that have already disappeared and the ones that are set to go in the future – as well as what people are doing to preserve them:

Where do downloadable games go when they die?

The article has already generated lots of comment – clearly this is an issue that people feel passionate about. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it in the comments below.

11 Comments

  1. I hate it when digital games are pulled from stores. It really is a scary thought that a game can just disappear, part of the reason why I collect retro games, but in the future with physical media dying that might no longer be an option…

    1. True. And even if you do have the disc, you might not be able to download patches or DLC. Makes me think that in future we’ll start to see console hard drives filled with unobtainable digital games being sold for stupid money.

  2. Really enjoyed this article. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, and especially since Nintendo will be shuttering the Wii Virtual Console store.

    It’s nuts to me that I can buy a movie from 80 years go, or a novel from over a 100 years ago, but there’s no good way to get a video game running from 10 or so years ago!

    And then if you want to track down the game, often the only option is to get a second-hand console and version of the cartridge or disc.

    I’m glad that sites like GOG and Steam and others exist, and that Nintendo has made its classic games like Mario and Zelda available in the form of downloads (which will soon be going away!). But it’s not enough, and with digital content being pulled from stores without warning, as you say, it’s frustrating to think how we’ll play some of these games in a couple of years time.

    1. It’s a big problem, and it will only get worse before it gets better. I’m hoping that at some point in the future there will be some kind of universal repository where big publishers can donate their games after, say, 30 years, and allow them to be freely downloadable.

      At the moment we have amateurs doing this for certain consoles or computers, but they’re hamstrung by copyright laws – even though many of the companies that own the games have gone bust or the rights are too confusing to untangle. So as well as some sort of official repository, we need legislation changes as well.

      1. I love your idea of a repository of games! So many classic novels have passed into public domain, where anyone can publish or adapt them. This would be a great model for games.

        I can understand companies, such as Nintendo, protecting their IP and if they re-release their classic games, or remake them, then that (sort of) solves the problem.

        But as you say, for those game companies that have long gone or the rights have since passed to other firms that don’t do anything with them, then it’s really frustrating.

      2. Hopefully we’ll see something like this in the future – some companies, like Nintendo, might want to hang on to their old games, but many don’t seem interested in their back catalogue.

        Ideally I’d love to see a Netflix style subscription service with retro games, but setting something like that up would be a big job.

  3. Luckily the ‘homebrewers’ have the Wii eShop fully backed up.

    Not sure if the PSN and Xbox libraries have had the same treatment.

    1. The pirates are doing a better job than the companies that own the games! But at least someone is preserving them.

  4. I had only played a couple months of Marvel Heroes Omega on Xbox One when they unceremoniously shut the game down around last Thanksgiving and removed the ability to continue playing it offline. This after waiting years to see it on consoles–I don’t have a PC good enough run stuff like that–was heartbreaking and frustrating.

    Alas, this is the digitally-driven world we live in now. This makes me extra cautious of games that are mostly online experiences. I mean…could this happen to PUBG down the road too?

  5. I have a couple of ‘freeware’ point & click games on my phone, & am personally happy the companies ok’ed the decision… But as to digital vs. physical… due to financial difficulty (bills, upcoming eviction, general government asshattery, etc) I am currently trying to buy PS3 & Xbox360 games cheap while I cannot afford an Xbox360 or PS3 &, even if I could, couldn’t afford to play em! Same goes for my older consoles (PS1/PS2/Xbox/Wii/N64) & p.c… So for me, the argument is irrelevant, I may never have enough money to game ever again (probable upcoming eviction notwithstanding) but I’m gonna buy more PS3, Xbox360 & older games, cos I want them, for the same reason I’ll never abandon my (damn near) complete Sir Terry Pratchett ‘Discworld’ book series!

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