Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Death of All Media

As the world becomes ever more interconnected, we are slowly but surely seeing the death of the media.

Not the NEWS media, of course.  There will always be some political conflict, celebrity misstep or minor household hazard to blow out of proportion at 6:00 every evening on the local news.

I'm talking about the physical media, and the historical need to convert to new formats every decade or so.  The record industry started out on wax cylinders, progressed to vinyl discs of varying speeds and qualities, was supplemented by magnetic tape in at least three different containers, gave way to the CD, and has now transitioned primarily to the digital realm.

Video and computer games have seen even more variety and rapid turnover.  Every early console had its own proprietary cartridge format, and early computers utilized a wide range of similar technologies -- cassette tape (at various baud rates), 5 1/4" floppies (single or double-density), 8" floppies, 3" floppies, 3.5" floppies, the Sinclair microdrive, the ADAM wafer tape, and more cartridges of unique and varied formats.

The 3.5" floppy started a positive trend - it was fairly robust and reliable, and the Atari ST could read and write MS-DOS format floppies, at least.  When CD-ROM came along, the home computer world became much more standardized -- while the Macintosh and PC might require different executables, the core data files could be distributed on the same disc and used on both platforms.  CD-ROM evolved into DVD-ROM, with a high degree of backward compatibility, and aside from a few videogame offshoots like the Sega GD-ROM and Nintendo's mini-DVD Gamecube format, the shiny little discs have established a workable standard spanning a couple of decades now.

But the game industry is rapidly going the way of the music industry -- digital distribution drives the hardcore PC market now, and is making serious inroads on the XBox 360 -- just this week, retail titles Virtua Fighter 5 and FIFA Street 3 became available for download.  The Wii's limited storage capacity can't handle full-size games on a downloadable basis, and Sony isn't yet doing this with retail PS3 titles.  But the writing is on the wall.

And of course, physical media do die out on their own; they are only reliable for a short period, measured in human timeframes, not historical or geological terms.  For retro gaming enthusiasts, digital transfer and archival is becoming critical -- those old cassette tapes and 5 1/4" floppies from the late 70's and early 80's are not very reliable 30 years on. The only way the industry's history can be preserved is by transferring the data to more robust storage technologies as the originals become obsolete, and fortunately many rights holders from those early years have granted permission to store and distribute their work online. We'll need to get around to scanning the manuals, boxes, catalogs and other ephemera too -- paper lasts longer than mylar will hold its magnetic state, but it doesn't last forever either.  The long-term repository for this information has to be in the digital realm, or it may be lost altogether.

As a fan and semi-collector, I have mixed feelings about the transition.  There's something geekily reassuring about having the retail package in your hands, a ritual in going to the store to pick up a new game or browse the library for something worthy I've missed, a deep pleasure in finding an old game in good condition with its box and manual intact.  My personal experience of gaming involves physical boxes being made and stuffed and shipped and stacked and bought and shelved... devoting real-world resources to transferring a collection of bits into an electronic device somewhere far away from their point of origin.  The Internet does this exceedingly well, very quickly at very low cost, but also removes the process several degrees from our human approach to doing things.  Call it nostalgia, but I will be saddened when videogames start to disappear from the retail environment.  (It's already happening with the PSP Go, although some European retailers are reportedly boycotting the idea.)
But I'll get over it, and the generations that come after me won't care any more than I care that wax cylinders are no longer on the market.  The CD sections in stores are much smaller than they used to be, and I miss the liner notes on occasion, but I'm happy to listen to the music itself on iTunes or Live365 or whatever mechanism presents itself.  And the same applies as a gamer -- it's ultimately all about the game.  And whether that experience is delivered on a disk, or a cartridge, or over the Internet, the end result remains the same.  The economics of digital distribution are helping to keep older games alive and available on a number of platforms.  That can't be bad.

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