The future is not set

I recently forced my now adult children to watch Terminator 1 and 2. Let’s be honest, those are the only Terminator films that matter, and all others thereafter are “optional”. They didn’t really get into either and spent the whole-time picking holes in the plot rather than immersing themselves in the story. They did go a little quiet at the end when poor Arnie was being lowered into the smelting pit, but then went back to masking any emotion with more plot hole picking and humour. Sorry, did I need a spoiler alert on such an old film?

That wonderful refinery scene, for me, is full of gaming nostalgia, and a costly lesson.

The Gallaria?

Back in the early 90’s, one bright English summers day, my older brother John said, “Let’s go to Hastings for the day, to play on the arcades.”

I had no money. He had plenty. So, I agreed.

I recall very clearly, the very first arcade we walked into after getting off the train was a small one in a back alley. It maybe had 20 games tops. Near the entry was Pac Man and a line of fruit machines, but we made our way to the back. There, standing pride of place, we found Terminator 2: Judgement Day. An upright unit with two fixed light guns mounted on the cabinet in an Operation Thunderbolt style setup.

The game was of course based on the then recent movie, of which we were both huge fans. It featured scenes and movie style graphics which, from memory, really gave a sense of playing through the main plot of the film. Play through it we did. We considered ourselves crack shots at light gun shooting games back then, and with my brother bank-rolling our efforts, we played through credit after credit until we reached the end. Almost.

Is it dead?

We made it to the gantry where we were emptying round after round and grenade after grenade into the ever morphing T1000, but try as we might, we could not force him over the edge.  John (whose last name is not Connor by the way) was running out of change. He’d piled up £1 coins on the cabinet for me to feed into the machine as and when needed, but the pile had all but gone. With one hand still on the gun, his other dived into his pocket, pulled out another fiver, and instructed me to “go get some change”.

The change booth where the old, fat, smoking owner of the establishment sat like some west end crime boss was right behind us, so my quest was easy. And it remained easy for the next coin dash, and the next, and the next.

Within no time at all, and in the very first arcade we’d walked into that day, we’d unloaded £25 into one game, and walked away defeated. “Insert Coin(s)” at last, being left ignored. And we left with nothing.

Insert more coins John!
(Screenshot used and adapted with permission from J. Abbitt’s review of T2 arcade)

Let me remind you that this was back when perhaps I’d have saved for four weeks or more to amount such a fortune, and probably used it to buy an Amiga game for my collection.

This was different of course as it was my brothers treat. We went to many other arcades that day and played lots of games. After lunch and a go on the dodgems, we ended the day by finding and playing Outrun which is my all-time favourite.

We walked away that day with memories and nothing more. Nothing tangible. We, well, my brother had spent lots of money, but as a result, we owned nothing.

We’re not gonna make it, are we? People, I mean

It was a choice, I guess. Spend money fast in an arcade and have a few moments of memorable fun, or spend the money on a game or a device that you could own, keep, upgrade, and cherish. Should you find the need to move on from that initial investment, you could on-sell it, re-cooping some of the cost and re-investing it into the next technological “must have” item.

Downloading is for people with not enough shelf space

Maybe that is why, to this day, I’d much rather buy a physical hard copy of a game than a digital only equivalent. The immediacy of the online option is a good thing, but I don’t feel a sense of true ownership unless I have something in my hand. I wish PSN and Steam and all the others would offer an “order disk” check box to be honest. But they don’t. Digital only, to me, just feels…temporary. Especially with the systems that use digital rights management as opposed to just letting me download and backup an executable installer. (i.e. most of them). Worse still, digital only is also frequently more expensive than the shop bought alternative, even though there are no copy, print, or distribution costs. Explain that one to me!

But that’s not the end of it. You see, I was able to educate my boys in the ways of the Terminator because I have it on DVD. Yes I’m old school enough to still regularly buy movies and TV shows on shiny scratch-able disks as well. Oh, I know full well that if I paid a monthly fee to an online protection racket like Netflix or Stan, I’d probably have access to these titles and more. But only for as long as I keep paying them. Repeatedly. Forever.

Easy money

This brings me to the real point of this story. With things like Geforce Now, PlayStation Now,  Jump, Xbox Game Pass (which does download the games but you still don’t own them), and the apparently almighty but yet to be proven Google Stadia either out or emerging, we have a wonderful future of potential for high end gaming on low end hardware. And once all our dodgy internet speed issues are magically fixed, we can play a limitless library of games. Well it won’t be limitless of course, because there will be “exclusive deals”, probably forcing us to subscribe to several “affordable services”, or miss out. As is the case with the TV equivalents.

Am I a crazy grumpy middle-aged man, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, not wanting to let go of the past? Well yes but that’s not the point. I am also learning from the past and the present, to warn us of one possible future. I buy and own DVD’s because otherwise I’d have to subscribe to Netflix, and Stan, and Amazon Prime, and where does it stop? And when does it stop? The movies I subscribed for today, are missing tomorrow because that service drops the licence to screen them.

Maybe my original PS4 will spit the money back out randomly. It does with discs after all.

Going back to the arcade analogy, we had a choice back in the day. We could play the ultimate version of a game in the arcades at an almost per-minute cost, depending on your skill. Or we could purchase, own, and keep on a shelf, the downgraded version of the same.

I believe we’re returning to that model. Where we’ll again be convinced that it is just too expensive to build a machine as capable as the streaming arcade of tomorrow, and that the only way to play games in all their glory, is to pay the piper by way of ongoing subscriptions.

By the balls

I have nothing against the march toward online game streaming services. I don’t think gamers will be stupid enough to jump on board with the services threatening a performance tier system where you literally pay to upgrade your virtual PC so that your unseen machine will run the games better. But then again, what do I know? I didn’t think anyone would be stupid enough to pay for cosmetics in Fortnite. How wrong can a man be?

But my warning is that if it stops being a choice, and it becomes the norm, the future of gaming is in serious trouble.

They will literally have us by the balls, and they’ll keep squeezing and squeezing until there is nothing left to come out. But not in a good way.

I have detailed files

This week I re-installed Unreal Tournament 2004, because I still have the Special Edition DVD version in box on my shelf. Not only did I load up and play the game, but I loaded up the custom user levels I’d created in UnrealEd around fifteen years ago.

I also installed DOS Box and loaded up Duke Nukem 3D, and again, resurrected the custom maps I’d created in Build. The very map in fact that I wrote about to PC Zone Magazine #72 back in 1999, winning me letter of the month on page 12.

My old desk. Not even kidding. I used to actually be Duke Nukem. Ok now I’m kidding. Although there was that time I dressed as Duke, and the wife dressed as Lara. Anyway…

Because hardware is currently local, as is storage, we have games, installs, save states, progress, and customisations all at our finger tips. For as long as we own compatible hardware or access to emulation, no one can take that away from us.

If you’ve read my first story, you’ll know that I’ve re-purchased a 1989 Amiga 500, and my collection of legit boxed games is already growing. Why? Because I can. And that is just the beginning of my planned collection. (Don’t tell the wife.)

No fate but what we make

In one possible gaming future, all of your titles, progress, and customisations will be held to a ransom masked as subscription. Everything you’ve paid for, and worked toward, will be owned and held by the machines, and accessible to you only if you keep paying and if they keep existing. We all know how even the biggest companies fall, or terminate unprofitable services.

What will happen 20 years from now, when nostalgia hits but all you’re left with is an unoriginal controller, that connects to…well…to nothing? To a memory of a service now dead and gone, and to content now lost because you finally chose to no longer “Insert Coin(s)”.

Seems I’m not the only one fearing the future. And this guy isn’t even nearly middle-aged. And he’s an American. So, yeah!