Sunday, 16 October 2016

Entertainment isn't what it used to be

As a child I grew up with the best sources of entertainment the 1980s and early 1990s could offer, as well as the extensive collection of mostly music from my parents dating back to the 1960s. This meant vinyl, compact cassette tapes and VHS tapes. To play video games on the Commodore 64 we had cassette tapes as well, and a single game on a cartridge.

With our first PC we moved on to 3.5" floppy disks, and gaming was done on a Super Nintendo (SNES) with cartridges. Like moving from vinyl to cassettes, loading programs from a floppy instead of painstakingly waiting for the counter on the tape drive to reach the right count made things a lot easier. Ditto for just shoving a cartridge into a SNES, turning it on and starting playing.

Moving to audio CDs made things even easier for listening to music, removing all the fun details of vinyls (dust, skipping audio, flipping records, etc.) and cassettes (sticky rollers, switching between side A and B, audio quality, etc.) and making it almost boring to listen to music.

Move forward a few more years into the early 2000s, and the VHS tapes have been replaced with DVDs. Audio is still largely CDs, but MP3s and other digital formats are beginning to take its lunch money. As PCs and the internet become faster, so too does the exchanging of music, movies and games via sharing networks increase, regardless of its legal status. There's just something to be said for having access to virtually all popular and many rare pieces of content for virtually free.

Not having a significant source of income over the past years I admittedly didn't do a lot of content buying, so I only experienced the next batch of changes in media formats from the sidelines, including the demise of HD-DVD and the rise of Blu-Ray. This experience void ended when I decided to purchase my very first Blu-Ray movie, receiving it earlier this week. That's when things went south.

My experience over the past decades has been that new formats make life easier, removing issues like degrading audio quality with playback, stuck and broken tape, flipping sides, rewinding after playback or arcane knowledge of C64 BASIC just in order to load content from a floppy disk. DVDs had the questionable encryption thing (CSS), but after it was revealed that it was extremely easy to crack people soon forgot that DVDs even featured encryption.

This in contrast with Blu-Ray movies. Its version of CSS (AACS) has not been cracked yet. This means that without the proper decryption keys the bits on the disc are useless. Worse, to get those decryption keys you need to have an official license from the BluRay organisation ($$), or pay someone who has made a Blu-Ray player (hardware or software-based) which can retrieve the appropriate keys.

All of this led to me putting my new Blu-Ray movie into the Blu-Ray player of my PC and then spending nearly an hour finding out that neither Windows Media Player, nor MPC-HC, nor VLC (even with libaacs and current key database) could decrypt this particular disc. Without shelling out more money (more than the movie disc had cost me), it was clear that I wasn't going to be able to watch this movie.

Except for one detail which led to me watching the movie after all: browsing to a certain popular site, searching for the movie title, clicking two links and waiting a number of minutes until the movie had finished downloading. Open it in MPC-HC and then I was watching the movie, same quality as if I was watching it from the disc which was lying uselessly on my desk.

I'm not sure I see the point of buying movies on Blu-Ray discs when I'm at the mercy of those holding the decryption keys. I'm not sure I see the point of paying a monthly fee for a streaming service either, when they're unlikely to have the content I want to see or listen to, not to mention not always having internet available.

All I want is to buy content on physical media which is not burdened by encryption and which I actually own, not merely license or have access to as long as I pay the monthly fee. This is sadly similar to what happened to video games.

Back in 1998 I bought Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. It cost me a smack of money, along with the console itself, but I knew that after plunking down all of that money, the game console was mine, and the game cartridge which I was holding was the entire game, for now and all eternity.

Now that I'm mostly buying games from online services like Steam and Good Old Games (GOG), the concept of 'ownership' is a bit more nebulous. I know that for the cartridge games I buy for my Nintendo 3DS portable console I can simply claim that they are 'mine', but if any of those online services were to vanish tomorrow, what would you be left with? With GOG you at least have the lack of encryption meaning that you can just copy the game installer to a safe place, but with Steam?

Then there's the point of games with online features, or which are fully online-based. They turn into useless bits as soon as the company maintaining the servers turns them off. Even something as widely popular as World of Warcraft, but also for online multiplayer features, downloadable content and so on. If someone were to want to play a SNES game twenty years from now, the game cartridge should still just work in 2036 and functioning hardware can be found or assembled as well.

Some days I depress myself with the thought of just how many of today's games will be unplayable ten, or even five years from now. In a time when even buying a game disc for a Playstation 4 or XBone doesn't guarantee that the title will work without massive patches (downloaded from a server which won't exist any more in ten years), it's questionable in how far it makes sense to even buy game discs any more.

Others have said this before, and I find that I can merely agree with them; if we aren't careful, we may end up with an entertainment 'dark ages', with movies and music locked behind unbreakable encryption and games too fragmented or too reliant on long since vanished online services to be even worth a look any more.

All of this is a fairly depressing thought, regardless of whether one feels that most of this content is truly worth saving. It means that we're moving backwards in some ways, not forwards.


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