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Microsoft’s Phil Spencer explains why digital games are more permanent than discs or cartridges

Microsoft’s Phil Spencer explains why digital games are more permanent than discs or cartridges

Phil Spencer is the corporate vice president of Microsoft Studios, and we sat down for a few minutes yesterday to talk about the first party software coming to the Xbox One.

The game library for the system is already impressive, and it includes a variety of interesting first-party games; the game aspect of Microsoft’s E3 presentation was very well done. Still, the Xbox One is aggressively going after the digital consumer, the gamer who doesn’t mind getting rid of the idea of games as a physical product.

But if games are digital products, can we still collect them? How do you convince gamers of the permanence of a digital product?

Spencer thought about it for a few seconds. “I won’t be snarky,” he promised. I told him he could be as snarky as he’d like, but he actually went into a long, passionate speech about the ability of digital platforms to create a permanent product.

Microsoft wants to make your bits last forever

“One of the advantages of a digital system that knows what your library is, is that we can guarantee that your library is always pristine,” he told the Penny Arcade Report. “There is no aging of my original Conker cartridge as I yank it out of my Nintendo 64. There’s no scratching of my disc. If I lose my disc, it actually doesn’t matter, because you have access to the game in any device you go to, your device or any device you can redownload and play the game based on your account.”

“I think your content is going to be permanently backed up if you want to think about it that way. Take Killer Instinct on the SNES. Killer Instinct on the big cartridge on the SNES, I actually think is less permanent than a digital copy of that game that you can redownload any time you want to,” he continued. “I think the permanence of the digital is why people back up their photos and their videos and their financial data online, because it is one of the advantages of the system, the permanence of the digital locker of your content that you have. Then there is the advantage that you can roam, you can take that data with you wherever you log in.”

Wherever you go, whatever Xbox One you’re playing on, you can access your games using your account. It all lives online. “These are distinct advantages of a digital licensing system that frankly don’t exist in the physical media,” he explained.

Keeping you games digital is actually an attractive option in many ways. You don’t have to worry about your discs being scratched or lost. If you have to replace your system, you can simply redownload all of your games. You can play any of your titles at a friend’s house, as long as you import your account. On the other hand, what happens in 20 years? Do we trust that Microsoft is going to keep our games online for as long as we’d like to play?

“We’re at Microsoft, it’s a big company, well financed. We’re in this business in the long run,” Spencer explained. “If you look at the 360 lifecycle, you’ve seen us invest… we’ve just introduced our third hardware ID, at the launch of Xbox One here we are introducing a new 360 platform. We’re continuing to invest in content, we’ve kept Xbox Live growing and evolving over the last eight years as that system’s come onboard.”

“I think if you look at the stability of Xbox Live and your ability to log in and get your content, the team’s done a nice job running that service. We’re committed to Xbox One customers over the long run,” he stated. “I get that you think we should state a policy around how that’s actually going to work a decade from now, and I’m actually taking the feedback, I've had a couple of people ask for that.”

Spencer argues that going digital in this way will allow you to collect and keep games in a way you can't with physical releases. “I think going back to the digital content that’s available to you, the library associated with your account is actually a way for us to ensure that your content is going to stay with you,” he explained. “Because who knows what happens to those cartridges and those discs over time?”

“If the disc does get lost, it was just a way to get the bits onto your hard drive anyway. You can give the disc away, frankly, afterwards. It’s not an issue. So you can give it to someone else, they install it, and then they go buy the game,” he said. “It’s a way to distribute the copy of the game. The content is with you wherever you go, and that’s a commitment we’re making to people for years.”