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Free for All: The end of physical media


In my ongoing journey to find my next laptop, I have begun to suffer from tunnel vision. After all, there are only so many ways to package a processor, some RAM and a graphics card or chip. Sure, sure, I can become an obsessed overclocker and work hard to squeeze the most power out of a PC possible, but instead I would rather pay for a good-quality, mid-range device. I use the heck out of the one I have now, and it was only $500.

One thing I am noticing is that I always snicker when I read websites that brag about included optical drives, which do me very little good but cost me more money. I rarely, if ever, use a CD or DVD burner. There's just no reason to. I can upload 20gb videos to my YouTube account and use services to send larger files. I rarely have a need even for that. Now that my wife and I have Pandora and Spotify, we don't even need to worry about physical libraries of music... it's streamed to us wirelessly.

What does this lack of physical media mean for the free-to-play gaming world? Well, a lot. click past the cut and we'll discuss it.

OnLive picture
I have been online for about 12 years now. I remember that when we first got our PC, we were so amazed at how the internet could provide us with social connections, information and instant communication. Then, digital music started to show its head. We could burn our own CDs and download songs. Soon we owned thousands of tracks, and I was able to replace boxes of demo tapes of my band with better-sounding CDs. In these modern times, a person can spend well under a thousand dollars and record an entire album, make an entire game, or make a living all with that one device.

All along the way, physical storage has become smaller and smaller. Now we are being tempted by cloud computing. Cloud computing really has been around as early as people were able to log into websites to do their banking or to check their email, but now it has a fancy name! Still, we are all becoming more trusting about storing our information, pictures and music on some server that resides who-knows-where. Right now I am typing this in Google Docs, a free word processing program that is robust enough to be used by professionals but comes absolutely free with a basic signup. We take it all for granted, too. I use Google for a lot of things but always keep extra digital copies of those things floating in other clouds, and I still haven't burned a CD or DVD in a long, long time.

"Think about the last time you bought a boxed copy of any game. Think hard. Now, think about why you bought that box."

Remember MySpace? OK, OK, stop laughing. There was a time when MySpace did a lot for bands. Even though we could build our own sites and host our own files, MySpace allowed us to share our music with people who were literally all over the world, for free. This meant that fans could go on MySpace, find a new band they liked, send the band a direct email, and then post pictures of themselves onstage on their space later. Similar movements were started when the first free web hosts allowed people to own their own websites. Businesses bloomed, relationships were formed, and people got to know more about the world than they ever had before.

What does this have to do with free-to-play gaming? Well, you know I like to drag out my points. Think about the last time you bought a boxed copy of any game. Think hard. Now, think about why you bought that box. It was probably because it offered some fancy cloth map or a neat little statue... it seemed so worth it at the time. Well, we still buy overpriced cardboard boxes of software that we can download later, some of us trying to justify it by selling the plastic goodies on eBay. Other than those examples, we rarely even look at CDs anymore.

This has opened up all sorts of games to the market, much like it did with bands on MySpace or through websites. Now we have Twitter and Facebook and a good indie game can be seen just as quickly as a game that costs 20 million. The playing field has been leveled a bit more, just like it was during the first years of digitalized music. The music industry panicked, as they should have. As someone who hasn't seen the biggest and best MMO developers always create the biggest and best content, this is good. I hope they are panicking. I'm more than happy to see a tiny game like Minescraft blow the doors off of typical game packaging, distribution and development. I love doing my part to talk about new games that were made by one or two guys or girls, and I love the fact that I don't have to say "Order it off of their website and you'll get a CD soon."

While I was writing this, I asked on Twitter whether anyone still uses physical storage anymore. Here are a few of the replies:
@Beau_Hindman Not at all. USB only or cloud.
@Beau_Hindman I only use CDs/DVDs at work if we need to image a computer; at home none and don't remember the last boxed game I bought
@Beau_Hindman just flash drives
@Beau_Hindman I use a flash drive for carrying around files I need to access. As for games, I prefers the CD's/DVDs, when I can.
@Beau_Hindman floppy disks. 1.44MB YEAH
@Beau_Hindman I barely even use bluray's to watch movies. Only my relatives still use CD's and DVD's...
I know this might seem like a painfully obvious topic, but I have always been a fan of noticing those things that we stopped noticing a long time ago. Think about it: Within a few years, we have gone from being people who dump millions of golden pieces of plastic into the trash to being people who beam all of that same information through the air. Yes, we still have our hard drives, but I barely even use that. I literally have a fraction of the games on my hard drive anymore. Most of them are streamed through my browser or through a tiny client. I recently threw out scores of game boxes, as well. (Yes, even the Tabula Rasa ones.) Nowadays when I see big cardboard packaging, I just see an object that will take up space and collect dust.

"The truth is that digital media will probably have a better chance of survival, simply because you can always make that rare physical back up of it and store the digital version in a dozen places."

You are possibly reading this on a laptop right now. Even if it is a basic device, you can search on this site and find any number of titles that you can download, patch and make a character in, easily within the hour. This is due to the fact that we do not need a physical storage as much anymore. I predict that the Chromebook style of device is going to be the one we all use in the future. Games will be streamed to us wirelessly thanks to services like OnLive (with a lot of work, of course), and all of our storage will be out of our house. Wires will disappear, too. We'll have wireless phones, mice, and cameras, and microphones will be built right in. They already are.

I, for one, couldn't be happier about the possibilities of a stuff-less future. I think many of us have some sort of paranoia about the loss of information, as though physical books or papers can last forever. The truth is that digital media will probably have a better chance of survival simply because we can always make that rare physical back up of it and store the digital version in a dozen places. Gaming will benefit simply because overhead costs drop. MMO engines will become cheaper and be streamed, cutting costs even more. By the time I am elderly, I imagine that anyone will be able to sit down and make any type of game in the same amount of time it takes one of us to make a website today.

Of course, there will be plenty of crap to sift through as well. At least it won't be collecting dust anymore.

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!

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