As the final instalment of this week's topic, I find it important to mention how the players are going to be effected by the potential change to completely digital media. This change is something that a lot of people wouldn't even be thinking about most of the time, but is a potentially huge one to the way we look at games. A comment on the first part of this series already brought part of the concern to light -- the idea of rights of ownership -- and while I plan to talk about that, it's equally important to delve into something that we might end up hearing a lot more about in the future: the End User License Agreement, or EULA for short.
The EULA, alternatively known as "that bunch of text that no one ever bothers to read when they install things" is something that we as a society have to be paying more attention to. Hell, arguably we already should be paying more attention to the EULA, but when the media we get no longer comes in physical format is when it goes from being important to being absolutely crucial to have at least a basic grasp of what they're throwing out there in those walls of text before you check that little box that says "I agree". Technically even physical games can come with a EULA that basically states that by buying the game you've agreed not to do things like crack it for piracy or hack the online components if any are present and generally just respect the copyrights.
It's the same deal with games or other software that you download online as well (as an aside, this is how a lot of less than reputable companies dump crap like endless tool-bars and stuff on your machine, by saying that you have to download them in the EULA in order to actually access the software in the first place). The major difference is that if you violate an EULA when you buy the physical copy of a game, then you're generally not going to have agents from the company knocking down your door to take back the disc or anything; on the other hand if you say, hack in Left 4 Dead and the company actually takes notice, then you might be saying goodbye to that copy of the game that you bought upon your next log into Steam.
Now, you might not see this as a problem, because you don't hack or pirate or generally do anything else that might be seen as grounds for any company to strip you of the game that you bought. The thing is that in some cases people have at least had their abilities to play games or access certain features of games withheld due to activity that is deemed suspicious, and in some cases that can be anything from the credit card company calling the retailer up to say that the charges might be suspect, to someone accusing you of hacking in an official server without any real merit or proof.
I will grant you that the above scenarios are somewhat unlikely -- although not impossible -- but there's going to be something that I believe is inherently off-putting about this system. I'm not a betting man, but I'd lay good odds that at least once in your life someone has given you the "privileges and rights" speech: that certain things are privileges and thus can be revoked. Now, I'm not here to argue whether or not gaming itself is a privilege, but currently, our access to games -- specifically the physical copies of games -- is a right that we have. Once we buy a disc we expect to be able to access the data on it whenever we're inclined to do so; in this case that means playing a game whenever you feel like it. That idea might be going out the window though, because without hard copies of games, you aren't really buying a game so much as you are buying the privilege from a publisher or developer to play the game, a privilege that can be revoked with a lot more ease than that copy of "New Game X" that you bought at Best Buy or Wal-Mart or wherever.
There's a lot more potential for problems in these kinds of scenarios. If a company server goes down, people could lose access to attributes they need in order to play the games they've bought. It's not a case where once it's out of the publisher's hands there's no longer a need to worry about the product. Companies are going to have to become a lot more responsive and take greater steps to ensure that potential disruptions of service like the hacker induced PSN outage and other high profile network foibles are addressed quickly, or else have the irate gaming community breathing down their necks demanding to play the games they bought.
There's no easy solution to this problem, but it's one that's going to have to be addressed, and addressed quickly, if companies expect people to fully embrace a disc-less tomorrow.