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The gaming industry may be killing off the idea of a backlog

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Why the backlog itself may be on the way out

Microsoft Announces Its Latest XBox Games At E3 Conference Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The idea of a “backlog” is based on the thought that people will buy multiple games with a beginning and an end point, and those games either go unfinished or are never played to begin with. One day, we tell ourselves, we will return to these games and finish them, which would allow us to remove them from our backlog. These might not even be games we’ve purchased; many people have backlogs made up of games they’ve always meant to buy and play but have yet to do either.

That might have worked when games were discrete chunks of story and action that could be played whenever you liked, which tended to stay static once they were purchased or installed. And certainly there are still plenty of games that fit into the idea of a backlog very well, thank you. But the whole concept of the backlog is starting to feel as anachronistic as episodes of The X-Files that were recorded on VHS tapes.

Which is a good thing, because there were times in my life where it felt like my backlog was a weight around my neck. Getting downtime would mean being frozen in front of stacks of games, trying to decide which one from the past I should tackle in order to remove it from the shameful pile. The backlog can make video games feel like homework, and that’s a crappy thing to happen in a hobby that’s usually meant to be relaxing.

And that feeling is going away, or is at least being lessened, but the latest shifts in how games are made and sold. The industry continues to move toward the idea that as many games as possible should be ongoing services, and publishers are open about their plans for subscription models so you could pay a monthly fee for many, if not all, of a publisher’s games.

Having so many games available to play at any time might drive completionists out of their minds, but it’s also possible we just ditch the idea that we’re ever going to have the time to go back and play the games we’ve missed. After all, there’s always something new that might be free to try, and publishers who dump every new released onto their subscription services will give us plenty of incentive to always move forward, not backward. It’s easy to imagine feeling less guilty about games you don’t finish if you didn’t have to pay for each one as a separate purchase.

Think about it this way: when I buy a Blu-ray and don’t watch it, the purchase feels like wasted money. What good does a movie do if it’s just sitting on your shelf? The pressure to make time for the movie builds until I give in and watch it, even if I’m not particularly in the mood. But I’ve never opened Netflix and felt bad about the thousands of shows and movies on the service that I’ll never watch. The value of each individual piece of entertainment changes when you’re paying for everything at the same time.

There’s also the fact that you can’t go back and play many games if you’ve missed the initial release. Fortnite is already one of the biggest games in the industry’s history, and there’s no way to go back to the game that existed in the first few seasons. Grand Theft Auto Online has the same issue; it’s a game that might have surpassed the staying power of the single-player portion of Grand Theft Auto 5, but that’s because it never has to end. Rainbow Six Siege is another game that has found its audience by continually moving forward and adjusting itself while slowly building up a critical mass of players.

Legions of young Fortnite fans are growing up with the reality that games change and shift, and if you miss things that happen in a game, those moments are just gone. Gaming is becoming something you schedule and make appointments for, and the ephemeral nature of these games is almost a relief. If you weren’t there, there’s no way to go back to it. These games cease to feel like an obligation because you either played them, or you didn’t.

When people play these games for the first time, they’re not doing it to remove games from their backlog, they’re doing it to play the game that exists now. It no longer feels like going back and finishing your homework, because you’re paying for the latest release of a game that has changed extensively in the time between launch and your purchase.

These are multiplayer games, sure, but what isn’t these days? Fallout 76 will be taking the franchise online, and when Bungie had to create something after the Halo franchise, it went with Destiny; a game that’s constantly evolving every few months, and hinges on limited-time events to bring players back. The future, for better or worse, is going to be online in some way.

Having a backlog made sense when the games you bought as a cartridge or on a disc stayed on that medium without being changed in the time the game sat on your shelf, but those days are over. There will always be narrative games, even if the big publishers mover away from them, but the big bets these days are going to be put on ephemeral online experiences that have no end in sight.

And it’s great. It feels like a weight has been lifted from the gaming community, and the shift toward games that either don’t or can’t exist in a backlog is a big reason that things feel so differently now. If you have kids or younger people in your family, ask them how they feel about things; they’ve grown up in a world where Fortnite is bigger than Mario. And they’re likely not going to understand the concept of a backlog in the way we discuss.

Good for them.