During the last console generation we saw a leap in the prominence of online connectivity in games; one of the major things to emerge from this shift was the rise of digital games and storefronts. It became easier than ever for Indies to reach larger audiences as the barriers to console development were significantly lowered, while games could be expanded and improved after release with DLC and patches. Stock shortages effectively became a thing of the past as a conceivably unlimited number of copies of a game could be pulled off the servers. The advancement of online technology has certainly made things more convenient, but it would be wise to remember that this convenience comes with certain implicit costs.
Let's take a minute to observe a recent example that took place on the PS4. A short, free demo named P.T. was released in August last year to promote the then upcoming new instalment in the Silent Hill franchise, called Silent Hills. Although it was only a couple of hours long and based around a simple concept; P.T. made massive waves throughout the industry and was seen by many as a big innovator and game changer for the stagnating horror genre. Hype around Silent Hills was at an all time high, and then suddenly the unthinkable happened: Silent Hills was cancelled.
While the cancellation of Silent Hills was an unfortunate circumstance, it ultimately was something that had little to do with P.T. Even though it was meant as a proof of concept to precede another work, P.T. had gone on to become something more, something that could stand alone as its own experience. Yet after Silent Hills' cancellation, P.T. practically vanished. First, Konami took it down from the PlayStation Store. Then, the user licences were revoked, meaning that any of the over one million people that originally downloaded it would no longer be able to do so if they were to delete it. Then, Shareplay support - a feature that had previously worked, even after P.T. was taken down - was removed. All of this happened in the span of roughly two weeks, and there was absolutely nothing that players that owned the game could do about it - aside from keep it on their hard drives if they'd had the foresight to do so.
While the case of P.T. may have been relatively minor event in the big picture, it serves as a harsh illustration of a bigger question: how much control and ownership do we actually have over our games, even if P.T. was a free game? The real answer is: not much. Here's what Nintendo's End User License Agreement for the Wii U has to say on consumer ownership of software:
"The Software is licensed, not sold, to you solely for your personal, noncommercial use on your Wii U. You may not publish, copy, modify, reverse engineer, lease, rent, decompile, or disassemble any portion of the Software..."
The 3DS agreement is nearly identical and it's all stated right there, clear as crystal: consumers own only a licence to play the game, not the game itself. This has also been the case in past generations, though most people just weren't aware of it.
The reason why this lack of ownership has become more of a problem in recent times is because, in an age where consoles are nearly always connected to the internet, companies have more direct control over how their products are used. While this manifests in good things such as DLC, patches, and digital copies, there's also another side to the coin. Think about problems such as Season Passes that must be bought to obtain day one DLC, and games disappearing from a digital storefront with minimal or no explanation. Download games are more susceptible to the whim of the companies that make them than ever before.
While Nintendo has proven that this heightened sense of control isn't always a bad thing, it's still guilty of some unsavoury practices that other companies have fallen into. Let's not forget how the Donkey Kong Country trilogy was removed from the Wii Virtual Console for a lengthy period of time without any prior notification - likely due to licensing issues - or how Commodore 64 games were removed indefinitely from the service. Valve was guilty of recently trying to implement paid mods; not only forcing creators to charge for the content they made, but refusing to pay them the profits until a certain milestone was passed and even then only paying them thirty percent of those profits. This policy may have been revoked quickly after massive consumer backlash, but it demonstrated an obvious lack of respect for the community. Sure, the ultimate goal of a company is to turn the biggest profit it can, but there comes a point where it crosses into unethical territory.
Increased control over products isn't just a problem in the game industry, either. When it comes to eBooks, Amazon is well-known for taking down books from the storefront without any prior notice, then taking it a step further and actually deleting those books from customers' Kindle devices. Or, in the other direction, there's the rather strange case of when Apple added U2's latest album to every single iTunes account around the world, regardless of whether or not the customer actually wanted it. Nintendo is also known to push out games, demos and other content over SpotPass occasionally, but at least the user is given the option to opt out.
Another problem to consider is the preservation of user licenses when it comes to digital media. Simply put, the future is unwritten and subject to change, and this could have worrying consequences on the futures of today's digital game libraries. The Wii Shop examples we cite above only saw the products taken off the store, not away from existing owners, but we're only a small step from these issues affecting our leases.
Think about it like this: for those of you that still have a retro system, you can still insert and play games that you bought thirty years ago. However, it's a different story with download games. What if the company goes under in ten years and the servers are shut down? What if you lose access to the account the licences are tied to? Digital games may be subject to the same agreement between company and consumer, but the licence being leased out is much more vulnerable and subject to jeopardy.
Unfortunately, there really doesn't seem to be any sort of solution to this issue of companies holding more control than the consumer; internet connectivity will likely only increase with future generations. However, that's not to say that we should all don tinfoil hats and shy away from embracing all that the gaming industry has to offer. Rather, a shift in perception is needed and a cautionary pause is advised. Gamers need to stop seeing buying download games as actually buying games and view it more as something akin to a relatively low risk investment. Let's be real, in most cases the current structure works smoothly, offering gamers a hassle-free, convenient experience. However, every time a new game is bought from the eShop, perhaps it'd be wise to bear in mind and make peace with the fact that we live in a time where nearly any game can be altered or revoked at just about any time, and for any reason.
At present companies limit their meddling to patches and improvements due to fears of consumer reactions, and that balance may hold for many years to come.
As always, we'd like to hear what you think. Have you been pleased with Nintendo's DRM policies so far? What do you think of other companies' treatment of consumers? How would you go about fixing these issues of download game ownership?