Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Games as Services: Will you never be allowed to own a game again?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 31, 2014

Ben Kuchura at Polygon ventures the opinion that – in light of a very obvious trend in the industry right now from certain major publishers / platform holders (particularly EA) – in the future, nobody will own video games anymore. It’ll all be a rental. Or at best, owning a license for indefinite access to a game which is treated as a service, rather than a product. But – like canceled MMOs – the lights will eventually go off and the game will disappear into the mists of time.

We saw hints of it with Diablo III and Sim City. Even playing a game solo, with no intention of interacting with anybody, required logging into a server which might not be there in a few years (and often wasn’t functioning very well at launch). EA Access on the XBox One is a major step in that direction.

It sounds like s a big publisher’s paradise. You lock customers into your particular service pretty much forever. You can force people to play your new, hot games by phasing our their predecessors, without needing to make any major improvements to encourage the migration. You insulate yourself from hit-driven economics… you need the hits to attract new customers and increase retention, but it’s no longer a live-or-die affair. Without having any actual sales, there’s no such thing as royalty rates, which means they are allowed to structure bonuses to hit-making dev teams and studios in a far less open-ended fashion… basically screwing over dev teams without resorting to creative accounting practices or obviously lousy contract points. And, of course, it finally allows them to combat piracy in an effective way.

As a player – or potentially as a third-party developer – there is nothing but depending upon the publishers to be “nice guys” about i. Meanwhile, the publishers can just keep ratcheting down the bar on what constitutes being a “nice guy” to earn that good will.

Furthermore, Kuchura argues that most gamers won’t care. We’re already being programmed that way now, smoothly sliding down that slippery slope. The entirely predictable losses and frustrations won’t happen until we’re too far down the path to turn back. That’s how these things are done. Always.

I want him to be wrong. As a gamer, I desperately want him to be wrong.

But he’s probably not. This depresses me.

Now, as a developer, I admit there are some kinds of games – even primarily single-player games – for which this kind of model makes sense and the ol’ Idea Fairy keeps hitting me with things I’d love to try. So it’s not like I reject the entire concept. Just the idea that there’s a push to stuff all games in that particular box.

After all, I’m a retro-gamer, and I’m still playing games from companies that have long since disappeared. I’ve still got frickin’ floppy discs in my closet (and a drive on my computer to read them!).

All I can say is…  the free market can work wonders, sometimes.

Don’t like it? Vote with your wallet. Support the indie games and publishers that don’t treat you like a wallet with an email account. Buy games direct and download them. If given a choice to buy a game either directly or from a place like GOG.COM that allows you to own and download the product, do that instead of a service that controls your access to the game (*cough*Steam*cough*). Maybe it won’t reverse the trend, but it will help make sure that there will always be alternatives.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 10 Comments to Read

  • Tesh said,

    I don’t think the whole industry will ever be completely service-based, but it’s certainly a direction the publishers prefer.

    Meanwhile, I buy my games at GoG.com and without DRM of any sort whenever I can. MMOs as services make sense, but that’s about all I’ll put up with.

  • Califer said,

    Single player that requires internet is a big no for me. I was very interested in Diablo III when I heard it was in development, but once I found that I couldn’t play it offline at all… well, I still haven’t played it.

  • Xian said,

    Right now, I think the industry is too fragmented for this to work. Maybe for EA, since most of their sports games yearly changes are just incremental and roster updates, but how many people would want to have an EA subscription, an Activision subscription, a 2K subscription, and so on.

    It seems similar to PS Plus in a way. They have free games every month, that you can only play while your subscription is active; let it lapse and they are no longer playable.

    In theory, an all-you-can-eat gaming buffet is appealing, but I think I would find that the selection is too limited. I prefer to own my games, I generally choose GoG over Steam for instance.

  • Felix said,

    “most gamers won’t care”

    Sure… that’s why indie game developers have most of the mindshare now. And since you mentioned EA… let’s see… how did the Dungeon Keeper reboot work out for them? Oh wait… about as well as the last Sim City — disastrously.

    The dumb white male teenager the industry still targets as the only kind of customer out there is in fact an endangered species. Everyone else has a limit, and take it from someone who’s been through a revolution: it’s the quiet ones, the soft ones, the placid ones whom you never ever want to push past their breaking point.

  • Daniel King said,

    I buy my games on Steam or GOG mostly, if one day in the future I was to be denied the ability to play the games I bought I would certainly be annoyed. I would also have no qualms at that point in seeking out a pirated copy as I did pay for the games after all.

  • TheBuzzSaw said,

    Right now, I put my faith into Steam and GOG. I trust Valve. The promise is there that our games (which are stored on the client) would be set free if something were to happen to the company. We’ll see if that faith is misplaced. In the meantime, I like buying games from GOG. I am excited to know that my purchases will work forever.

    Big publishers will certainly push this idea of games as services, but I doubt it would ever permeate the entire landscape. Microsoft made a big push in this direction with the Xbone, but the reaction was severe. Methinks Microsoft merely shelved the idea and will try it again later. With each rising generation, gamers are less knowledgeable about technology, and eventually the uneducated consumer will swallow these absurd requirements.

    I support digital distribution. DD took off because it was cheaper/faster/safer/better for everyone. I do love my physical boxes, but they are collector items more than anything. They are wholly unnecessary.

    What are the gains for games as a service? Any way you slice it, I feel like they only benefit the publisher. GOG gives me all the benefit of “games as a service” while maintaining the benefits of ownership. It cracks me up to see services like OnLive boast about the lack of download/install. Is that a major pain point for people? They would rather add network latency, downgrade the picture quality, and vaporize the ability to mod the game?

  • Anon said,

    > It seems similar to PS Plus in a way. They have free games every month, that you can only play while your subscription is active; let it lapse and they are no longer playable.

    When you subscribe again your account gets reactivated and you can play these “free” games again.

    If you regularly paid for a download game you can of course play that anytime, even if you aren’t online.

  • Anon said,

    > Right now, I put my faith into Steam and GOG. I trust Valve. The promise is there that our games (which are stored on the client) would be set free if something were to happen to the company. We’ll see if that faith is misplaced.

    While I actually believe that Valve wants to do exactly that in the case they go bust I think it’s much more likely they will eventually get bought by Activision, EA or some other giant (not that there are that many anymore). In this case their promise could fly out of the window quickly…

    That’s why I have a completely different purchasing strategy:

    – On the PC-platform I only get DRM-free games. Yes, this means I miss out on practically every mainstream release right now! I can live with that as most mainstream games are only more of the same with better graphics. Why I know that? See next bullet point.

    – On the Playstation platform I pay for being a PS+ member. This is even more of a service than Steam and that means I’ll lose every “free” game when I cancel my subscription. As I’ll likely get a PS4 in the future it’s practically a given that I continue to subscribe (as PS+ supports the PS4 already) so I don’t worry too much about losing access.
    I think the price is OK for PS+ (it’s not super cheap but it’s also not expensive), especially if you have the patience to wait for the annual 25% rebate to prolong your subscription. I really only need to play one of the newer games thoroughly to get my money’s worth.

    About the “free” games: Many major mainstream releases come to PS+ sooner or later (and lots of indie stuff) and I register absolutely everything, even if I suspect that I won’t download it. You’ll never know!
    I also register PS4 games even though I don’t have a PS4, yet. The moment I get one I can begin downloading the games I want from that pool!
    The trick is simply to not forget registering the games every month – and I do that from my comfy PC browser as Sony has a regular web shop.

    Note: While you can play multiplayer online games on the PS3 without PS+ you do need it for multiplaye PS4 games (like with Xbox). However, as I’m no multiplayer gamer I’m completely free to decide if I stay a subscriber.

    When I eventually cancel my subscription (and that moment will come when I lose interest in the Playstation/games consoles) I will have played all the games I wanted and only tested all the games I don’t.
    The few good games I really want to keep I can still buy in the PSN store and play offline as long as I want and the console isn’t dead (I have two PS3s). The later you buy a game the cheaper it gets, naturally…

  • The Old Farmer said,

    If given a choice I will always choose the DRM free option, but Steam has become tolerable because of the ease of updates. When GOG gets thier Galaxy service up and if it allows easy updates then there will be no reason to not always buy there as the first option.
    As far as the big publishers they pretty much have already lost my money anyway so they can shear as many sheepeople as they figure they can get away with.

  • Cuthalion said,

    It seems like there has to be something fishy about the legality of, “Pay us a lump sum up front to be allowed access to this thing for as long as we feel like providing it.”

    What are you actually buying, in that case? It’s like getting a lifetime pass to a theme park that doesn’t even have to go out of business to decide to stop accepting your pass. It’s not a subscription that you stop being charged for it if goes away. It’s not a purchase, because it’s still in their hands and not being transferred to yours.