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Wii U could be dying, EA kills support for classic games ... what are you owed when a purchase goes bad?

You can argue about Nintendo’s long-term prospects all day long, and the company’s giant stack of cash will keep it safe from any real danger for years even with giant losses every quarter, but the Wii U is more or less dead in the water.

It’s weird to think about, but Nintendo may find itself pulling the plug on the system to stem the flow of losses and to try to focus on other ideas that could be more profitable. I’m not sure what else the company can do to attract customers and, without customers, developers won’t support the hardware and without developers, the customers won’t come … you begin to see how gaming consoles end up in a death spiral.

Let’s leave the question about what Nintendo could do to save its hardware for the time being and instead think about what the company owes customers who purchased a Wii U. If the system is discontinued, what happens to the core Nintendo fans who are now sitting on a Wii U that will no longer receive any games?

This is just part of a trend, however: In gaming, nothing gold can stay, and even fresh new ideas may be put out to pasture. It's time to start asking what that means for how we spend, and what consumers are owed when their purchases are no longer supported.

The ugly truth of modern gaming

The unpleasant reality is the modern gaming industry feels more rental than retail. EA has just announced that it’s dropping online support for a large number of games, including Battlefield 1942, Crysis, Crysis 2 and Crysis Wars. If you liked to play these games online? Well, tough breaks for you. The money it costs to keep them going isn’t enough to justify the game’s existence, so down they go.

In the past we used to be able to simply run our own servers, but gamers like linear progression, unlocks and XP in their modern shooters, so the publishers and developers like to keep a tight lock on the servers. If they don’t want to support the game, it goes away.

Does EA owe anything to the people who bought these games and would still like to play online? The answer is probably yes, but it’s hard to know how that should be quantified, or how the company would pay out. It’s also hard to know if there’s any actual outrage about any of this. The games would likely still be supported if the demand was there, so we’re already talking about a small, although possibly hardcore, group of fans who are getting their games taken away.

The things we purchase aren’t supposed to be there forever, they have a finite life. Remember that the next time you play Titanfall; that game is likely also a few years away from a sort of permanent death.

We saw the same issue during Fanfest in Iceland when CCP all but announced that it was pulling support from Dust 514 to begin development on Project Legion on the PC. It’s hard to know the size of the Dust community on the PlayStation 3, but my gut says it’s not large, and we were told that the game will likely go away if the players move on. CCP is also trying to focus on the Eve Universe games on the PC, so moving the focus of future first-person shooter titles to that platform makes sense.

So what does CCP owe the small but loyal fan base that is still playing on the PlayStation 3? How should Crysis players feel about most of the series losing its online play? What will Nintendo fans think if the company decided to pull the plug on the Wii U?

There are no easy answers here, but these questions will likely be argued endlessly as these issues become increasingly common. But the takeaway for the consumer is clear.

Don’t spend any money on online games or consoles you’re not willing to lose

Before you buy any console, ask yourself how it would feel if support was gone in a year. Does it change your purchasing decision? What would happen if Microsoft really did spin off its Xbox division? Will you still be happy with your launch Wii U if there are no more games made after a certain date?

I’ve personally spent around $50 on Hearthstone since the game’s launch, and I’m very much aware that the money goes away if the game is ever discontinued. I don’t look at the money I spent on building decks as purchasing real product, I see it more like buying entertainment, something that I know is ephemeral. I walked in with my eyes open.

I feel the same way about spending money at casinos, something I enjoy once or twice a year. You’re paying to have a good time, and you know the money isn’t buying anything of lasting worth or value outside of memories.

I see it more like buying entertainment, something that I know is ephemeral

If you’re uncomfortable with this idea, or if you’re already itching to move to the comments to tell me why this is the wrong attitude, it’s probably a sign that you shouldn’t be spending money on online games. It’s a gamble every time, and there’s nothing physical to hold or any object that you carry with you if the game goes under.

It’s nice when something is offered, such as your Dust 514 character potentially moving over to Project Legion, but that’s a bonus, not an expectation. If you’re uncomfortable with losing money to online games, and particularly free-to-play games, don’t spend it.

The days of games that always work the way they were intended are long gone, and not even Nintendo is immune to the idea of a completely failed system. Online support is pulled, development attention goes someplace else or a game goes free-to-play. Games change, they shift focus and sometimes they die.

The question of what this means to the people who supported the product throughout its life is a good one, and no one has a good answer yet. It's important to understand exactly what you're paying for, and to remember that in game, as in life, nothing is forever. You need to decide the length of a tolerable life for your potential game and system purchases and plan accordingly.