Mass Effect 3 'Expiration' Raises Questions About Our Digital Future

Two years ago, BioWare released Mass Effect 3: Extended Cut, a free alternative ending for the controversial sci-fi role-playing game. Last Saturday, that offer technically expired.

According to the fine print on the Extended Cut press release back in 2012, the offer of free content was to expire three days ago, on April 12, 2014. Don't worry, though: BioWare tells us they've got no plans to stop offering the Extended Cut. You can still download the free DLC, which was developed and released in response to Internet outcry about Mass Effect 3's ending. It's still online.

But when the Extended Cut was first announced, the legalese implied otherwise:

Mass Effect 3 'Expiration' Raises Questions About Our Digital Future

"[That] is a legal disclaimer that our other free packs also had," a BioWare representative said in an e-mail. "As long as the platforms are working and things can be downloaded [the Extended Cut] will be there for free."

In other words, all is good for ME3. For the time being. But this sort of disclaimer raises a whole lot of questions about the future of video game preservation. If it's standard operating procedure to add legal disclaimers on digital content just in case, what happens when publishers can't afford to keep the servers running as long as they'd like? Could we be looking at a future where digital games and DLC are obsolete, and where it's literally impossible to play a digital piece of content unless you've already got a copy?

Ten years from now, will gamers still be able to buy Mass Effect 3 and download the Extended Cut? What about 20 years from now? Is this stuff ephemeral? As more and more games go digital-only, and as consoles continue to support disc-less games and add-ons, do we have to worry about expiration dates? EA, the publisher that owns BioWare, already regularly shuts down their online servers for older games. When will they start shutting down DLC stores? If DLC isn't put on a disc, will it just stop existing?

Extended Cut is something that could have never happened 15 or 20 years ago, and a testament to the weird, fascinating collaborative status of gaming today: BioWare released a game, took fan feedback, then wrote themselves a whole new ending. At the time, it was strange and awesome and unprecedented, and I'm sure every developer at BioWare hopes all of their fans and future fans get to see it. But fifty years from now, will they still be able to?