ASCII by Jason Scott

Jason Scott's Weblog

Life in the Time of No Box —

I stopped by the store today because I needed more disk space. I walked out with 1.5 terabytes of disk space. Perhaps this is a sign the world is not the way it’s always been.

As I wandered around the aisles looking at other crap for sale, I found myself in the various sections that sell “software”, that is, stuff you shove into something else to make that something else do something. That includes computer programs, CDs, DVDs, console games, and HD-DVD/Blu-Ray. And I think it was then that it really hit me: this is all going away.

Packaging serves two purposes, maybe three. It provides protection for the product inside from rot or abuse or water or whatever. It can function as enticement for people walking by it or seeing it somewhere. And, I suppose, it could also make it easier to contain lots of that object for shipping/transport.

Let’s confine ourselves to considering books, record albums and computer software, because otherwise we’ll be here all day.

Take the packaging of a book. A stack of papers, printed with words and pictures on them, bound up using a bunch of different methods. The quality can range from amazingly crappy to thousands of dollars of rare materials. In this case, you’re not protecting the stuff inside: the words and pages are not that overly fragile, although it’s nice to have them all facing in the right direction. Instead the packaging (the cover and surrounding material) is often the first line of attraction for the casual passerby, telling them that the words and pictures inside should be looked at. Thought goes into the design of the cover to make people want to pick it up, otherwise it doesn’t matter what quality the words are inside, because nobody’s going to read it. Placement within a bookstore helps sell it, but even when there’s stacks of these books with just the binders sticking out at you, they’re still designed to summon you in some way. Books have been around for hundreds of years.

We don’t do record vinyl anymore, but when we did, they were large cardboard squares which contained records inside, and the front cover would show you a picture of the band inside or maybe a nearly naked girl who didn’t know the band at all, and the back would be a bunch of words telling you how fantastic the music was or indicating what songs were located inside and how long the songs were. (Naturally, there were variations to all this.) In the stores that carried records, you’d have huge bins of the cardboard squares and you’d flip through them or ask someone who spent a lot of time flipping through them to find something for you.

Computer software comes relatively late in all this, showing up in the mid 1970s in stores. In the case of the packaging for software, you would generally get a box or a bag. Actually, at first it tended to be a bag but later it was a box and then later it was a very large box. Inside would be a cassette tape or a floppy disk or a bunch of floppy disks and a big printed manual. When computer companies had a lot of money, everything would be in color, otherwise it would all be in black and white or single-color. The box changed shapes over the years, ranging from looking like a record sleeve to a piece of folded cardboard with the manual and floppy shrinkwrapped together. Recently, the computer box has gotten small again, containing a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM and a behest to buy the hint book, and with a small flap on front so you can open it up and see someone beating the crap out of someone else, just like you will when you buy the game.

Let’s just say that this summary of packaging is a tad brisk. But for all its briskness, you have a running theme: a thing you hold in your hand that then gives you access to something more ethereal (ideas, music, the right combination of set bits in your hardware so it does something involving Pac-Man).

You’ll notice I didn’t discuss the Internet or webpages in any of my examples. That’s because they utterly and totally destroy all of these situations as being the most efficient way to get the central item to you. If you want a book, you can get a 200k textfile and that sucker can be an attachment to an e-mail. In fact, it could be in a PDF format and maintain basically 100% of the formatting, fonts, photos and structure of the original intended pages, and that can be an e-mail attachment. Music is now such a ubiquitously available item that you kind of have to make an effort to avoid it while web browsing. If licensing issues annoy you with MP3, OGG format or FLAC format are hanging around to pick up the slack. An awful lot has changed in the past 10 years, when 56k modem access was the champagne elite for the home user and now people regularly get megabit speeds if they live even vaguely near a city center. People who make books, music and computer software have ranged in reaction from “See You On the Net” to “Hurble Burble la la la la la I hear nothing”. But at a point when nobody, no magazine, newspaper or television show, has to explain what a webpage is and often merely gives a domain name and leaves it at that, you know this Internet thing is pretty much ubiquitous.

People play the “Oh, the Big Bad Media is out to misunderstand us computer users” game, but in point of fact the big bad media uses computers as much as everyone else. We’re set.

So, boxes.

The trend is obviously away from using boxes of cardboard and plastic to pile software up at local stores and carry them home. You’ll still occasionally do it, just like occasionally you buy a black and white TV or take a gas can down to the local station to fill it, but this won’t be the way you generally acquire this “stuff”, and at some point, some big name in software/music will not put a new album out in stores and that’ll be that for really big releases. The only big question is when, and how long before the general populace is trained not to get things the “box” way. Once that happens, the “box” way will be the “old” way and not thought of as how you get the stuff.

Nothing truly goes away, of course. Remember, you can still buy Model T parts, new. But trends are trends, and worth keeping up with.

Especially if, for example, you’re in the process of sinking a lot of money into a movie.

I suspect that GET LAMP will be able to go out in a package, but that ARCADE will not. I might be wrong, but that’s the horse sense I’m getting, observing how things will go. One goes out in a box, the other will likely be distributed online in some fashion.

But since the era of the box isn’t 100% over, I am dedicating a lot of effort into the box for GET LAMP.

There’s a contingency of people who like the aspect of boxes and the artwork/artifacts associated with them. Downloading a piece of software is nice, but they want the original manual and floppies and stuff that came in the box, and will pay dearly for that. Therefore, you can imagine how my friend Trixter felt when the Post Office destroyed a box he bought. It wasn’t that he could download the software program a thousand times over or even get a PDF of the manual; he wanted the material, the artifact. But Trixter, like myself, comes from the time that this was the way commercial products were acquired, so I think that’s a good part of it.

Record albums are a good example: a lot of folks really liked the artwork and design of the packaging of records, but as has been seen in the past 20 years, record labels have had absolutely no hesitation in putting together horrible reissues of old albums, and blowing a massive “IF YOU PIRATE THIS, YOUR BUTT WILL TURN PURPLE AND FALL OFF” warning sticker into the back of a CD, even if it obscures the original art. Even though that’s probably the only thing that defines the work from a .ZIP file, it’s treated like you really need a pile of boxes in your house to be a real consumer. It’s the quality of the box at that point, not the music itself.

The BBS Documentary had a nice box, the nicest I could do, because I knew that’s what people were partially paying for. GET LAMP’s box is going to put the BBS Documentary’s box to shame.

I will likely sell it in two forms, the “standard” box (which will still be nicer than the BBS Documentary box) and a “deluxe/special edition box”, which I am very simply going to have to take pre-orders for, it’ll be so nice. After that, when ARCADE is done somewhere in the 2009-2010 timeframe, I just don’t see these boxes being the way things will be done. So, why not have a really nice send-off?

Categorised as: Uncategorized

Comments are disabled on this post


  1. tyger says:

    We don’t do record vinyl anymore

    This is completely not true. I will grant you that in general they are
    no longer the pretty packages they used to be, but records are still
    produced and used around the world.

    As to the boxes going away, I think the type and the style in which
    things are packaged will continue to change, but I don’t believe that
    packaging and physical products will be going away entirely any time
    soon. At least, not for the majority of people.

  2. Robb Sherwin says:

    There is another side to this coin! That side is: “Do you trust those bastards?” And the bastards can be the developers, musicians and so forth, but probably the publishers. Sometimes, like in the case of a company called Shifting Suns, it’s a combination. Regarding that:

    There is a game that was made by very talented people over the Internet a couple of years ago. This process almost never works, so that these guys (Shifting Suns) actually accomplished what they set out to do is pretty amazing. That the game they developed is really good is astounding. The game is a Bard’s Tale-style adventure called “Devil Whiskey.” They offered a boxed copy but boxes being what they are, the more frugal gamer probably chose direct download. I certainly did. It was my first exposure to direct downloading.

    (An aside: pricing things out, boxes are like the most expensive part of a release, as nobody will talk to you unless you’re ready to print a thousand, at minimum. I think there’s a hole in the market that somebody should plug. But then, I’m biased, as I’m making text games for 200 old guys and Adam Thornton’s beard.)

    The direct download of Devil Whiskey worked great, until it suddenly did not work great, in which case people were giving their money to the company that had abandoned the game and received no product. This made all their new customers angry. The last time I checked, their forum was not on-line, but when it was it was pretty much all rants by people who felt they got ripped off. Trying to write them about it had you encounter their spam traps, which inexplicably tell you to “Piss off.”

    Additionally, the direct download software invalidated your account after a year, thus angering the people that were previously happy. I am personally of the belief that companies that offer direct downloads should allow indefinite downloads — a more reasonable person might say that, no, indefinite is too long a time, let’s cap it somewhere. I would hope that most people would agree that a year is too short. Shifting Suns tied patches to the account, so the early-adopters were not allowed to re-download their game, download or even look at patches after a year.

    (When the developers abandoned the project, that ended anyone being able to re-activate your account. An amazing game has been sullied by the neglect of developers. And I can’t even blame them! They are coders, artists and musicians, not Publisher Guys. And it bears repeating that Devil Whiskey is one of the best games ever made.)

    However, most of this would have been avoided (well, except the patch thing) if everyone just bought a boxed copy to begin with. This is just a single incident, but it ultimately drives people away from direct downloads and I think that this problem, more than bandwidth, needs to be solved before this is process is widely adopted.

    Along the same lines: Steam works great in 2007, but there is a very small, very tiny portion of my mind dedicated to being in favor of the survival and prosperity of Steam, so I can continue to put Half-Life 2 on my computers, through upgrades and crashes. This creates a bit of a conflict of interest, in so much as video gamers are expected to have an adversarial relationship with game producers, i.e., this.

    (Of course, to be totally honest, I simply like having the hard, physical media around. It is even extra-wonderful to surround yourself with the realized, creative ventures of your friends and those that you admire. If the Arcade Documentary DVD case came all lopsided like the game “Wacko” that would be the greatest thing ever, and just not something you can get out of a direct download. Er, unless the download dialogue box was lopsided, which would be stupid like so much Kosmic Krooz’r. Picking the right game in that franchise to be inspired from is critical.)

  3. Rowan says:

    “GET LAMP’s box is going to put the BBS Documentary’s box to shame” — but of course; Infocom set the standard with intricate packages and “feelies” accompanying many of their flagship games. Anything less would simply be inappropriate.

  4. The current generation of gaming consoles (PS3/Xbox 360/Wii) are trying to sell us on the concept of “box free” purchases. They’re testing the water with lightweight games (you can purchase Sudoku for $2.99 from Sony’s online page with your PS3; the Wii has dozens of retro games available for $5-$10), but the writing is on the wall. Think how much time, effort and money will be saved when Nintendo (or whoever) can market and deliver games directly to your console with you ever having to leave the house (or put on pants, for that matter). And now that the groundwork has been laid, they are beginning to test full releases being delivered the same way. The full version of the latest Tekken game can be purchased for $20 and downloaded directly to your PS3 — compare that to the $60 price tag games have at your local videogame retailer. The writing is on the wall.

    Consoles have the advantage of forcing you to one particular website. When I go online on my PS3, I’m directed to the PS3 store, where I can download demos and (I’m sure they hope) purchase games. The problem those other types of media you mentioned (books, movies and computer games) have is there is no one source to check for those things online. Books might be the closest with Amazon, but even that is not a forced, captive audience.

    At least the videogame companies seem to realize that the “virtual” version of a game isn’t worth the same price as the boxed version of a game. iTunes at .99 cents a song isn’t that bad of a deal, but when you start talking about a 12-song album, what’s the incentive in going digital versus just buying the “real” thing?

    And that’s one big difference — to my generation, the boxed copy equates to “real” while the virtual copy is somehow “less than that.” I think people expect a big discount when buying virtual products.

    The other big difference between real and virtual is that throughout our entire lives we’ve been trained that whatever we bought was ours forever. There’s no lease on my Twisted Sister albums — as long as that vinyl remains scratch free, they’re mine forever. In virtual-land, it becomes trickier — especially when you throw DRM into the mix, and all of a sudden you have companies telling us what we can and can’t do with the things we’ve downloaded. I can’t take a DRM protected e-book to work and read it off my thumb drive. I can’t copy my DRM protected MP3s onto my MP3 player. But the biggest thing is, if I change computers (or buy a new PS3) I might not be able to get those “virtual” things back. I’ve lost them, and that’s not fair. I paid for them and I want to own them forever.

    It’s more than just a technical issue; they’ll have to ease us into this one (and they’re doing it). Then again, I know people who got burned by divx the first time around and those people will never, ever trust e-delivered goods again. And I don’t blame them. They paid for that stuff, and now it’s gone because someone somewhere turned off the switch.

    On a gaming forum I frequent I recently read a thread about people making DVD boxes to put on the shelf for the virtual Wii games they’ve downloaded. We’ve got a long way to go before everything moves to digital delivery — especially to “collectors” such as myself.

    I’m not saying I won’t download Arcade in 2009-2010, but if I do, you can pretty much bet I’ll be making my own case cover so I can burn the movie and store it with my other “real” DVDs.

  5. eponymous says:

    I love the packaging that all the old games used to come in. You’d buy a game in a big box that would include a couple big fat manuals and possibly maps and other stuff. Those days were awesome.

    I hope you change your mind and create a box for the arcade documentary.