Rory Galvin looks into how tenuous game ownership really is
This past month, Nintendo shut down their digital storefronts for both the 3DS and Wii U. With this, you can no longer purchase any more titles, DLC, demos, themes or anything from the store. The only thing left running is the ability to download what you have already bought. These kinds of stories are not uncommon, and true video game ownership becomes murkier each day.
The only real way to access games on these Nintendo platforms now is through piracy and hacking your consoles, and that’s a slippery slope. Thanks to preservation efforts (such as YouTuber Jirard The Completionist spending over €20,000 on the stores before closure), these games are hosted online and are free to download. And while it’s great to see the online community putting these safeguards in place, it should not be necessary. The inability to go on the store from the console easily means so many people who don’t even know about this option are left unable to play.
The only real way to access games on these Nintendo platforms now is through piracy and hacking your consoles
In some cases, we can’t own games because of the closure of storefronts, but in a few cases access to games will be removed entirely. Hideo Kojima’s PT (an acronym for Playable Teaser) was a small game developed to announce a new entry in the Silent Hills series. Due to a complete falling out with parent company Konami, the game was cancelled - and ties were cut with the famous developer. One outcome of this was PT being removed from the PlayStation Store where it was exclusively held, not entirely uncommon, but eventually Konami blocked the ability to redownload the title. If you deleted it from your harddrive, you would not be able to get it back. Because of this, there was an influx of people selling their PS4’s for crazy prices online just because it had the game - similar to when Flappy Bird was delisted from the App Store. This whole situation shows that we as the consumer are at the mercy of companies deciding whether or not to allow their games to be played. It was a free demo, but it was attached to peoples’ accounts, unavailable to play. Since then, also because of hacking efforts - it is possible to sideload PT onto a PS4 system with custom firmware. Another way you can lose access to your games is if your account is deactivated for some reason - whether that be a ban or you simply being unable to log in. Since all of your purchases are tied to one account, there’s no way to move that certificate of ownership. It’s a bit more complicated than owning the game on a disc or cartridge on your shelf.
Companies are leaning towards subscription service offerings on their platforms. You have both Sony's PlayStation Plus memberships and Microsoft's Game Pass service. While these can be a good deal in the short term, once your subscription lapses, you lose access to all of those games - similar to a kind of rental system. In that case, you obviously don't own the games you are playing, just leasing them. As those subscriptions get more and more popular, you will see large swaths of gamers become attached to these plans in a similar sense to Netflix, paying monthly because you don't want to miss out or lose your games. Even Nintendo engages in this kind of practice: Virtual Console titles (emulated versions of older games) are no longer sold individually, instead being stuck behind a subscription service. On top of that, the prices of these subscriptions could rise as the number of subscribers increases. Rather than choosing what we want to pay for and physically or digitally having something permanently on our account, we can get completely stuck in the membership mud.
We as the consumer are at the mercy of companies deciding whether or not to allow their games to be played
Cloud gaming is another hit towards video game ownership. Even worse than downloading the games temporarily - you instead connect to a console or computer many miles away from you, as it gets streamed to your screen. Depending on how good your internet connection is, it can be a viable option for certain games, but at this point in time the technology isn’t truly there yet. There are still issues with lag and image quality that bar many people from being able to play. In this case, you don’t own the game, you don’t own the console - and they’re usually locked behind subscriptions services too. For all of these kinds of services, you also have very little choice in regards to their offerings, and one big issue is when games are taken off the service. It’s not like a movie, where you could probably find it elsewhere without much issue. You could have time, save data and DLC invested into these games, so when they are removed with little warning, you have no choice but to buy it outright - and at that point you wish you did that in the first place.
The best way to “own” your games is to have them physically at home. With this, you will never be affected by games being removed from digital storefronts, as long as they have physical releases. On a very technical level, you never own a game - just a licence to play it, but this is the closest thing to it. Many valuable games are only valuable because they are now solely available through hard copies: many Marvel games developed by Activision were taken off the stores after they lost the licence - I own a copy of Deadpool on the PS3 that costs almost as much as it did when it came out in 2013. Spider-Man Shattered Dimensions along with other titles in that series go for more than their original price; my disc-only copy isn’t far off either. To get these games you would have to go to second hand shops or resellers online, where prices can be inflated due to demand and limited supply - and none of that money goes to the developer.
Some things are just out of our control. Many games that are online only are rendered completely unplayable when their servers are closed down - discs become nothing more than something that takes space up on your shelf. MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games) are a huge victim of this; you technically own it, but it practically loses all value and use. It’s up to you to decide how to play and own your games. Digital games are convenient, but come with their own downsides; I prefer physical games, but I would be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to keep everything organised and simple when keeping them. Sometimes, it’s nice to just press a button to start a game rather than getting up from the couch.
Whether you stream, rent or buy your games, in a lot of ways we never truly own the games we, well, own. I recommend physical copies, but as most of the gaming community goes towards a digital-only future, you might be inclined to hop on that train rather than sit by the tracks. At this point it should be common knowledge that as the passage of time continues digital storefronts and servers left in the past will go away and we will lose access to more and more titles - that’s why preservation and knowledge is so important. Either way, video games are cool, but it’s important to know the limitations of everything. Good luck with how you play!