Digital downloads have supplanted the sale and distribution of physical copies of video games, at least on the PC, where digital distribution platforms have helped to popularize the medium and become the only way of getting video games.
Platforms like Steam, Origin, and GOG allow for publishers and developers to more easily bring updates and new content to the games they create, and fix issues as they crop up. Furthermore, smaller publishers and independent studios don’t have to worry about competing for shelf-space with big releases from Activision and Electronic Arts.
There are many benefits to this digital age of video games, but there are also downsides. The same terms and conditions that allow developers to alter their creations and add more content also allows them to remove content. Furthermore, it allows for publishers to get away with publishing buggy, incomplete, or otherwise unoptimized games on the PC like Batman: Arkham Knight, and essentially get away with it by patching it at a later date.
Some of these platforms, including Steam, do not even offer DRM-free versions of the games they carry.
Of those digital titles, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, released ten years ago, recently received an update on Steam that removed more content than it added. In spite of adding native support for controllers to the PC version of the game—a feature long-requested by players—the update removes 17 songs from the game's soundtrack. The update also removed high-resolution support for resolutions 1080p and beyond and support for mods.
This was done to bring the game in line with the Xbox 360 version of GTA: San Andreas, which is in fact a high-resolution port of the inferior mobile version of the game rather than of the PS2, Xbox or PC version made a decade ago.
While it shouldn't be too much of a problem for Rockstar to reimplement the missing resolutions, the studio's removal of those 17 songs is unlikely to be reverted as the license to play those songs in the game expired.
This isn't the first time Rockstar's removed content from one of their games. In 2013, Rockstar removed GTA: Vice City from Steam to remove songs with expired licenses, but allowed owners of the game who had purchased it prior to the removal to keep their untampered version of the game, replete with the original soundtrack. Unfortunately, this is not the case with GTA: San Andreas.
We're likely to see similar updates done to Grand Theft Auto IV and V a few years from now, when the licenses to the soundtracks in those games expires.
The digital-only environment means that PC gamers are unlikely to ever experience these games in their original, as-intended-by-the-creators forms ever again.
It might not seem like a big deal, but it is, especially games where the soundtracks define a good portion of the experience. You'll no longer be able to cruise through the streets of San Andreas while listening to the following tracks:
- "Critical Beatdown"
- "Running Down A Dream"
- "Woman To Woman"
- "You Dropped A Bomb On Me"
- "Yum Yum"
- "Running Away"
Radio Los Santos
- "I Don't Give A f*ck"
- "Express Yourself"
- "Killing in the Name of"
- "Ring My Bell"
- "Don't Let It Go To Your Head"
- "Express Yourself"
- "Rock Creek Park"
- "Soul Power '74"
- "The Payback"
Will we have to worry about the digital version of Red Dead Redemption not having the iconic Jose Gonzalez song, Far Away, that plays when you enter Mexico? Absolutely.
Similar things have happened on the PlayStation 4, where P.T., the interactive demo for the now-cancelled Silent Hills, was removed from the PlayStation Store. Even users who added the game to their accounts are no longer able to download the title, which has been permanently removed.
And it’s a problem that is not limited to video games. Music licensing issues routinely delay the release of content on digital streaming platforms, most notably Netflix. In some cases, fans have felt the entire tone of their favorite TV show shift due to the absence of key songs that had become as much a part of its identity as the characters and writing. Scrubs, a show that relies heavily on an obscure but distinctive and well selected soundtrack, is among the many whose quality has suffered as a result of music license butchering; some fans have even taken to painstakingly listing out the music changes in each episode (a task only complicated by the fact that some of the music was already altered from the original version in the process of releasing on DVD).
Fortunately, it's not all doom and gloom, at least not for PC gamers, who have choices when it comes to selecting a digital platform. There exists GOG and its client GOG Galaxy, which allows gamers to download titles DRM-free and update them only when they feel like updating.
Will we as customers continue to submit to the whims of publishers or reclaim our right as consumers to have some manner of ownership over the games we spend money on?
It seems strange to allow video game publishers to remove content and mod support from their titles. It would be a very big deal if movies were stripped of their soundtracks due to licensing, yet no effort is made to preserve the music from other equally important mediums. Beyond their existence as products, video games deserve the same protection as movies and other forms of media. In order for that to happen, music licensing contracts need to catch up to the digital era.