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Game Ownership in the Digital Age: Who Owns Your Games?

Subscriptions, streaming, and what they mean for your money


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Nate Ansari

3 years ago | 7 min read

I have too many games. Games I haven’t played. Games I didn’t even know I had. But you won’t see many of them if you came to my place. I don’t have a massive collection I can show off on YouTube. I don’t even need any space to put most of them.

Sony takes care of my games for me.

Like most gamers, my game collection transformed from physical to digital. It’s all in the aether. This has turned out great from a clutter-perspective. I don’t have things to organize or dust anymore. It’s all in a databank somewhere deep in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Probably.

Who Owns Your Games?

The conversation over ownership is not new. With every technological advancement comes new methods of consumption. Books, movies, music, games, all these are disappearing from our shelves. From a cleaning perspective, that’s great; fewer things to dust!

But, as I look at my empty shelves, something occurs to me. Do I own my digital library? I paid for those things, after all.

The answer is, no, I don’t own my digital games.

Source: Push Square.
Source: Push Square.

Sony Take My Money

Note: my primary gaming platform is the PS4 Pro. So, my observations stem from Sony’s offerings.

Buying digital games is easy. It’s convenient. I can boot up my PS4 Pro, go into the PlayStation Store, and pick from an astonishing number of titles. As a PS Plus subscriber, I get two games a month (three now, with PS5 titles) and plenty of sales. That’s an annual subscription payment of $59.99 for twelve games. Some hits, some misses, but always value for my money.

I don’t have Sony’s streaming service, PlayStation Now, but 2.2 million people subscribe to the service. A survey by SVG indicates roughly 56% of gamers use PlayStation Now. What’s clear is streaming services will dominate the industry in the coming years. It already has.

And who could blame gamers? With PS Now having around 700 games, a $59.99 subscription seems like a bargain. With about $120 (PS Plus and PS Now subscriptions are separate), you can get the most out of Sony’s gaming platform. Not bad. From a consumer perspective, we’re living the life. We have endless options all from our couches.

But with convenience comes a price.

Losing My Subscription

What if, for some reason, I wanted to end my subscription to PS Plus? All the games tied to that service are gone. I can’t play them. Subscribing to PS Plus for years now, half my digital library would disappear. The other half are games I’ve purchased through the online store and I would still be able to play them. Assuming, of course, the game didn’t need PS Plus for online multiplayer.

Digital backlog. Source: Medium.
Digital backlog. Source: Medium.

But what if I had to sell my console?

I’d lose all but seven titles.

For most of my library, then, I couldn’t sell them to a friend or store. That might not sound like a major deal but breaking down the used value of each game I own, I’d lose about $1,600. That’s only digital games with physical formats I could buy at GameStop.

To break it down further, if I wanted to sell that same collection to GameStop, I’d get about $300~$400 back in-store credit. Cash would be around $200~$250. That’s infinitesimal to the money I put into buying the games, but there’s a key takeaway here.

It’s an option I’d have.

If I had those physical copies, I could sell them to GameStop. I could sell them to a friend. I could loan them to a friend, or trade for a different game. I could keep them on a shelf to play years later. I would have that choice.

But I can’t do that with digital games. Because when I buy a game in a digital market, I don’t buy a game.

I buy a license.

Licensing For Your Attention

That’s the issue with digital purchases: you don’t actually own the product. You only own it as long as you have a way to use it. Look at the Kindle. Get rid of your Amazon account, say goodbye to your books. Without saying it, companies incentivize you to stay with the company.

Your purchases depend on it.

No matter your method, subscription impacts you. Source: Wccftech.
No matter your method, subscription impacts you. Source: Wccftech.

Forget to Remember

Subscriptions are ubiquitous in our daily consumption. Every major company has subscription services. Think about all the subscriptions you have and I guarantee you forgot about one or two.

In the gaming industry, we’ve been in a phase of free-to-play and subscription (or cloud)-based gaming for quite a while now. It makes sense from both sides of the transaction, as a consumer can pay little to no money for access to a massive collection of games.

The company can in turn refine its live product, make adjustments, and patch bugs with minimal risk. Never before could we have that kind of quality assurance.

Annoyed by Tidus’ laugh from Final Fantasy X? What’s the bet that a patch would have fixed it if the original released today?

Anyway, we assume a more balanced relationship between consumer and company, a relationship built on accountability, is a win-win right?

Eh, is what I say. Subscription-based consumption is a sticky business. If you’re not careful, you can end up spending more than you think on subscriptions. A remarkable 2018 article by Nicole Lyn Pesce lays out some subscription issues. Here are four major points:

  • 84% of Americans underestimate their monthly subscription expenditure. A survey found people spent on average $237.33 a month.
  • 55% of American households spend $2.1 billion a month on streaming services.
  • 1 in 10 millennials spent $200 or more on subscriptions monthly.
  • 4 in 10 adults cannot pay $400 emergency expenses.

Moral of the story: it’s easy to lose track of subscriptions.

GoG Game Library. Source: Medium.

Allowed to Play

Back to licenses.

When we buy a digital version of a game, we are not making a transaction to own the copy, but the license to use it.

Steam is a great example of this. In their user agreement, for example, it states the platform doesn’t sell games. They sell licenses. Epic and Origin are the same. The exceptions, as far as I’m aware, are GOG and Humble, who offer DRM-free purchases.

Live Games, Bloated Content

The ability for companies to sell licenses for the use of a game gives them more freedom than decades ago. The games-as-a-service model allows publishers to regularly update their games. Patches allow bug fixes, and content additions increase a game’s longevity.

On paper that’s great for gamers. They can support their favorite games for longer. At the same time, though, selling licenses allows publishers to bloat their offerings. Or rather, it incentivizes them to do so.

For example, and I’m digressing a little, does anyone else feel like Assassin’s Creed is…lost? The original games had clear storytelling and gameplay goals. The last few games have so many things added to their gameplay loop. Ubisoft, due to this licensing model, want gamer attention. So, they put whatever will draw the most users. Assassin’s Creed is like that over-stuffed turkey you see in commercials around November.

Too much stuffing loses the flavor.

Yes, I did compare Assassin’s Creed to Thanksgiving Turkey. You’re welcome. Source: Epicurious/The Verge.

The Pull of the Digital Marketplace

So back to my money issue. Since I spent it all in the digital marketplace, it became locked behind my subscription. Instead of me, the player getting the value for my purchases, my account does.

I can buy, buy, buy, but I can’t do much else.

Subscriptions make that rise further. It’s easy to get lost in digital sales because I’m conditioned to think I have more spending power than I do. This poses an issue of immersion. It’s very easy to toss a game out, even if we enjoy it, for something else. As a Whatculture article says:

“These services are all getting us comfortable with the idea of treating games less as pieces of considered art we place on our shelves and more as disposable one-and-done time-wasters which we’re invited to quickly forget about as we move onto the next one, and rinse and repeat.”

The Flip Side

It’s not like this is a shocking revelation. We’ve been giving companies permission to sell us licenses for all our media consumption. Look at Netflix or Spotify. But it’s also untrue to say these new models of subscription and free-to-play are only bad.

2020 was a great year for indie games. Source: SBNation.
2020 was a great year for indie games. Source: SBNation.

As a Spotify subscriber, for example, I have access to so much music I wouldn’t have had access to at the record store. I’ve discovered so much through the service. Digital markets are great for indie game studios.

Without the cost of physical copies, they can focus less on costs. There are markets exclusive to indie developers. Look at the incredible success of Among Us and Fall Guys. This wouldn’t have happened during the PS2 era of gaming.

To me, that’s a wonderful aspect of this time in gaming. I’m not saying there aren’t problems, but we’ve made some steps forward.

Gamer Knowledge is Good Knowledge

I don’t intend to sound bleak. That’s not what I want you to feel. Digital consumption isn’t going anywhere, and it’ll only become more integral in the years to come. My point is to build knowledge of how our favorite pastime is evolving. As I’ve said elsewhere:

How we spend our money matters.

Gamers are in a situation like movie enthusiasts and music lovers. The majority of us will not own their entertainment. But that’s okay. What matters is how we treat this new license-based consumption.

We are, after all, owners of our own decisions.

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Created by

Nate Ansari

Freelance editor and writer. A top writer for gaming here on Medium. Writer for Superjump, The Startup, and The Ascent. For inquiries, contact at http://nathanielansari.com/


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