Publishers Can’t Be Trusted In A Digital-Only Future Yet
Digital distribution is the future. Had you asked me whether I believed this or not a few months ago, I would’ve promptly put up my nose and said with exuberance, “Why yes, of course. We can trust these massive corporations to keep our best interests at heart and not eventually bleed us for every cent they can. Oh most certainly not.” Well, I’m not someone who is used to being wrong, but I can’t deny that we, as a gaming community, are not ready for the digital age. Not because of infrastructure. Not because of convenience.
Purely because in order for a digital future to become a reality, we have to put our trust into the massive companies that keep us entertainment happy year in and year out. And you know what? They can’t be trusted.
Yesterday, amidst all the hype (or lack of it) for the PlayStation 4 exclusive Driveclub, something rather interesting happened. To keep a short story shorter, Sony is offering a watered down version free to PlayStation Plus subscribers, which is a sweet deal for those still on the fence about the game when it launches later this year. Should you find it entertaining in the slightest and decide to splash down some hard earned money, you have three choices. The physical copy, which is the way you’ve been purchasing games your entire life. Then there’s digital, which costs the same as the retail copy (because that has always made sense) and offers the exact same product. The third, and more interesting choice, is a $10 cheaper version which is, at first glance, the same game.
The problem arises when you try and discern who the game belongs to. You see, this cheaper version, exclusive to PS Plus subscribers, doesn’t actually belong to you. Yes I know, you’ve paid a slightly subsidised amount for a game, surely it must be yours. Well Sony doesn’t think so, which means you’re going to have to continue paying your subscription to PS Plus if you want to continue playing. Again, a game that you paid for. Yes.
Now if you cast your mind way back to May of last year, this is exactly what Microsoft was trying to pull with all of their games. The catch here was that there wasn’t a subscription fee. Instead, any game that you purchased got tied to your account, and required online authentication once a day. Much like how Sony deals with free PS Plus titles on a monthly basis. If you’ve ever tried to play one when your subscription ends, you’re met with an unwelcome screen that asks you to reinstate your monthly letting of dough, reminding you once again that these games aren’t yours. But that’s fine, because Sony is giving them to you for free each month. And as long as the quality of the games continues, no one is going to have a problem.
Microsoft, learning from their mistakes, goes one step further. With their similar, although vastly lacking in quality, equivalent Games with Gold, you get two free games every month. The advantage here is that these games are yours to keep forever, meaning that your subscription status never affects whether or not you can play Halo 3 digitally or not. The sour part here, as everyone knows, is that the games on offer are more often than not extremely old or just plain bad. Something which Microsoft is slowly rectifying.
Now these are two examples of where this type of practice is allowed. Microsoft has always demanded money for Gold, so giving users free games just sweetens the deal. PS Plus has now become a requirement for online play on the PS4, but way before then Sony was dishing out free games for a monthly fee back on the PS3. Essentially, what one needs to understand here is that you’re paying a substantially reduced fee for games that, all together, cost a lot more than your monthly subscription. So should you get your underwear all tangled and over your head when you realise that they’re not yours? No, of course not.
Driveclub, and whatever Microsoft had planned for the Xbox One originally, defied this one simple rule though.
Microsoft, before the whole “whoops people aren’t liking this, U-turn time” were essentially telling everyone that they no longer owned the games they bought. It’s a tricky business, because at the end of the day you’re paying for a piece of software. Software that you have no right to replicate, distribute or rent out for money without the proper permissions. We’ve come to accept these “conditions” as ownership, which seems fair to both parties. So when one party decides to take it a step further and claim that you can no longer share with your friends, then suddenly ownership is being stripped away. At least with physical copies, you’re basically free to do with them as you please. Sell them off, get some trade value at a store or lend them out to anyone you wish. As long as digital systems infringe on that freedom, physical games will never, ever die. And right now, that’s the best news this industry has to offer, because the other side of the coin is a much darker future.
The beginnings of this are already evident on Steam. No matter what you might think, you do not own any games you’ve purchased on the digital distribution service, or any of the games that require its authentication. If the Steam servers had to up and walk off the face of this earth tomorrow, you’d be left with a decidedly massive hole blown in your gaming collection. We choose to ignore this because of the convenience and security that Steam offers, not to mention the incredible deals they have on a regular basis. We’re fine with having our ownership rights taken away from us because we’re getting something in return. Not something small, but something substantial enough to trust the corporation known as Valve with everything we hold dear.
Now, Sony is trying to replicate this, much like Microsoft aimed to last month, but the problem here lies with the return. We already need a PlayStation Plus Service to play online. We’re on-board with that because every month we get a handful of free games as well. Now, digital games need to start becoming cheaper because, hell, why are they the same price as a physical copy in the first place? With Sony only offering that to subscribers, you’re already pissing people off. Then, on top of that, you’re telling them that this slightly discounted version actually isn’t theirs but rather only there if they continue paying said subscription. Unlike Steam, which is 100% free. And it doesn’t matter if you plan to pay your PS Plus subscription for the foreseeable future. The fact of the matter is, if you ever decide to stop, you lose something that you paid good money for. That, dear friends, is the exploitation and robbery of your rights as a paying consumer.
And it’s for this very reason that a digital only future is far from becoming something that everyone will get on-board with. If the companies behind the hardware we buy, the ones that have the least reason to make digital gaming purchases this darn off putting, are trying their luck with purchasing options such as this, then what’s to say publishers won’t follow suit. Imagine for a second now that the first year of digital gaming is grand. Physical copies slowly fade away and everything is looking all unicorns and rainbows. There is literally nothing stopping behaviour such as this rising through the cracks and slowly taking hold. Much like the practice on online passes, or post-launch DLC that could easily have been included into the game itself. These types of things arise when the other option no longer exists, and should we take on a digital future that’s exactly where we will find ourselves.
I know, it’s very speculative and gloomy to consider, but just consider how many times you’ve questioned a publisher practice in the past, only to be relieved that an alternative exists. A digital-only future right now strips that option away from us, and robs us of a refuge to seek shelter while the men in suits are fighting over what direction to take the industry. We shouldn’t be mere years away from a digital-only future, we should be decades. The state that most major publishers are in right now is not conducive to rational and fair decisions, and until then we should not allow them to take away our only other turn when things go sour.
Keep buying those physical discs when you’re getting the wrong end of the digital stick. Do not allow yourself to become complacent with crap like this.