What Happens When the Curtains Close? Xbox Live, PSN, and the Next Generation

At some point in the not-too-distant future, there will be successors to the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii. Okay, so I'm hardly a psychic making a statement like that, but such is the march of progress that new consoles will inevitably replace the old. We know Nintendo will show something off at E3, and the rumors are starting to rumble that Microsoft may have something up its sleeve this year, too. But one question that has never faced gamers before will be an issue when looking at upgrading from one console to the next this go-around: What is going to happen to all the content I have on my current system?

This is the digital era. I have 85 gb of content stored to my Xbox 360's hard drive and, while much of that is game installs, the rest is made up of the "arcade" games available on Xbox Live Arcade and PSN, downloadable add-on content for games, and digital downloads of full retail games. Some of the downloaded games also have their own DLC, which strikes me as a real through-the-looking-glass sort of moment.

These are games I've bought and, in the case of the digital versions of games also sold at retail, are indistinguishable from hard copies. Yet I'm worried. I'm worried that these games could be completely worthless or, at the least, feature-handicapped in the future should Microsoft (or Sony for PSN) decide to flip a switch and shut off some servers. In the case of the Xbox 360, though the detachable hard drive means it's possible to take your content on the go, you can only make use of DLC and full versions of games if they're authenticated by Xbox Live; if I want to take my hard drive to a friend's and make use of my Rock Band library, their 360 must be plugged in.

The authentication and access to games isn't just a worry in cases like that, but for more practical reasons as well. The 360 has proven itself to be a bit fragile; my current 360 is my fifth, and I'm hardly an edge case. If you suffer a Red Ring of Death or any other kind of 360-killing malady, you have to migrate your account from the old console to the new one's serial number. While it's an annoyance during the 360's life span, what happens in another five years? If your old NES or Genesis or even PlayStation 2 died, you just buy a new one; the games were kept within a physical medium and plug right in without a problem. But what happens in five or 10 years when my 360 inevitably dies again and I have to track down a replacement? Will Xbox Live still allow me to do what it does now in 2011?

While content on the current console is a question, what about taking content on to the next generation? Though few games had DLC on the original Xbox, you could previously download it on the 360; now, though, since the original Xbox's Xbox Live servers have gone offline, it's left you high and dry. While I doubt people will want to buy new content, even for Xbox 360 games in the far-flung future, what about retrieving what you've already purchased? Plus, as established, content delivery digitally is a much bigger deal this generation; that will be important to keep in mind, but it's still Microsoft or Sony's ball to take and go home with.

I'll admit it's all speculation and worry at this point, but admit it: a best-case scenario where everything still works, like in PC gaming, is probably a pipe dream. This is the point where I shake my fists at PC gamers sitting up in the cloud on Steam at this moment. But this is an issue that will be wider than gaming within the next 10 years; seeing the gaming industry's reaction is going to be fascinating and, potentially, vital to digital rights beyond our favorite little corner of the entertainment world.