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Say hello to the brave new world of console gaming

New game console rumors are piling up -- and they're painting a pretty bleak picture. Is the future of console gaming something out of an Orwell novel?

Jeff Bakalar Editor at Large
Jeff is CNET Editor at Large and a host for CNET video. He's regularly featured on CBS and CBSN. He founded the site's longest-running podcast, The 404 Show, which ran for 10 years. He's currently featured on Giant Bomb's Giant Beastcast podcast and has an unhealthy obsession with ice hockey and pinball.
Jeff Bakalar
5 min read

Blake Stevenson

The next evolution of home console gaming is shaping up like a dystopian Philip K. Dick short story. Refueled by the latest PlayStation 4 rumor, signs continue to point to a future in which games are no longer really yours to own, instead being just something you have a right to play -- as long as you're connected to the Internet, have a unique ownership ID, and aren't playing a used copy.

This isn't the first we've heard of this either; a January report says Microsoft's next machine will attempt to thwart used games too.

Of course, Sony hasn't confirmed any of these supposedly leaked details, but is it really out of the realm of possibility? The Vita is a prime example of the company's piracy paranoia. It's locked down and vacuum-sealed, made painfully apparent by how tedious it is doing trivial things like transferring files between device and computer. The reason for all the red tape? To combat piracy.

Given this recent display of aggressive protection, a rumor about a PlayStation 4 that's just as meticulously locked down isn't too hard to swallow.

Think this worst-case scenario is that far off? Think again. It's already starting to happen. Every EA game sold for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 now has anti-used-game components built in. New games ship with one-time use codes that give the original owner access to online gameplay and features. If you try and play one of these titles without the code on a different console or gamertag, it'll cost you extra to get online.

The most infamous anti-used-game controversy came with the release of last year's Batman: Arkham City. Players who bought the game used missed out on the entire Catwoman campaign, as it required a unique code upon playing the game for the first time. Game reseller GameStop eventually made good on the incident by including codes for those who bought the game preowned.

Speaking of GameStop, I can't imagine the company is too thrilled about the recent rumors surrounding the PS4 and its anti-used-game tech. Gamesindustry is already suggesting the game giant could theoretically refuse to sell PS4 games simply due to the fact that they would be "unresellable." Now I'm not going to lose sleep over the death of a company that makes money off buying used games at a low price and then selling them back just $5 less than retail, but GameStop isn't the only entity that could potentially see an impact from the elimination of used games.

Look at the game rental business with services like GameFly and sites that organize game trades between consenting players. What about those guys? It all funnels into a core concept that used games are ingrained in the entire video game marketplace and ecosystem.

But perhaps the most overlooked element of this entire conversation is that the idea of selling a game back has become such an integral part of the psychology of game buying. Customers feel much better about buying a brand-new $60 game that turns out to be awful because they know there's a safety net in place that will most likely get them at least half their money back -- or more if they sell it in the right marketplace. In a world where selling back games is no longer an option, will games sell as well as they do now?

And what about the social ramifications of eliminating used games? Does this mean kids won't be able to go to a friend's house and show them the great new Portal game they just bought? That was half my childhood, for crying out loud. But in this brave new world, that act may be considered trying to play a used game.

This week's PS4 rumor suggests that all games would be tied to a single PSN ID -- so could you sign in to your ID on a friend's console, thus allowing the "sharing" of the game? We just don't know yet.

Watch this: The 404 takes on PlayStation 4 rumors

So what does the future of gaming look like? I think a good indication of what might come to be is how Activision has approached Modern Warfare 3. Encouraging gamers to hop on board a subscription-based gaming experience not only shifts focus away from those who might want to sell a game back, but also increases overall play value.

Modern Warfare 3 offers a one-year subscription price that includes any and all downloadable content over the course of a calendar year. It's cheaper to buy the membership up front rather than picking and choosing which DLC you want.

What this really boils down to is the end of physical media. We lost a possessive right the second physical discs and material items like books, games, and music became nothing more than 0s and 1s on a drive. Sure, they might consist of the same data you'd get on an actual disc or book, but once they were made intangible, an unwritten sense of ownership was severed. There doesn't seem to be a used-game epidemic plaguing Apple's App Store, does there?

So why is this the trend? Why does every little rumor and bit of news that leaks out indicate that the next generation of game consoles will be fashioned this way? It can't be because console manufactures actually believe it will increase revenue, when I just explained how, if anything, it might even lead to fewer sales.

Is there a silver lining here? Perhaps. Maybe this will drive the cost of games down. The push toward the elimination of physical media does remove a number of middlemen from the equation, bringing overhead down. It'll also light a fire under those who can help improve the state of broadband connectivity in this country because not everyone is lucky enough to have a high-speed connection that will deliver a 50GB game in a timely manner.

Will Sony unveil details about the next PlayStation at E3 2012? Microsoft has already preemptively announced that an Xbox 360 successor will not be a topic of conversation at the big show. If the rumors are true and we do see a PlayStation 4 in 2013, Sony would also trade places with Microsoft in being the first to market with a new console, the opposite of what happened with Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in 2005 and 2006 respectively (not counting the Wii U, of course).

Whichever way the chips fall, we'll be the first to let you know as we'll be covering E3 2012 live from the show floor this June.