Oh look! You’ve returned! Back for some more of my bleak visions, are you? They grow on you, don’t they? An acquired taste you might say. Very well then, who am I to withhold from an appreciative reader? You just caught me with a moment to spare in my very busy schedule and I’m feeling generous today, so let me tell you about how ownership is over… or, “canceled” or whatever term you prefer for something being done.
This is a game site, so game ownership is really the focus here, and game companies doing away with it. (They aren’t the only companies ushering ownership into the past, but we’ll get to that later.) For now, let us just consider the harrowing proposition that game ownership is going the way of the dinosaur. Now, you may point to your library of cartridge games and say “Poppycock!” or something similar, but then I would assume you’re a fresh piece of meat who hasn’t had the pleasure of indulging in my other articles where I have pointed out that physical games are going the way of the dinosaur as well. By all means, feel free to submerge yourself in the murky waters of those dismal wells of prophecy. I’ll wait.
It began with MMOs…
Back? Excellent. Now that you’re looking a few shades paler than before, let us turn now to the history behind the decline of game ownership, starting with MMOs. To my mind, they were the very first type of game to reach a mass audience that introduced, subtly, the concept of not actually owning a playable game. To be clear, I’m defining “game ownership” as: having a game that you paid for once, and could play through entirely without ever paying for it again, as many times as you liked, for as long as you wanted, without fear of anyone making it unplayable to you or taking away the functionality of that game because you didn’t make a follow-up payment. Expansion packs don’t jeopardize this in my mind, because you would have the original game—which you paid for—and could always play that entire game, all the way through, and it was a complete product in and of itself, without the expansion pack. The expansion pack, if you wanted it, you paid for once, and could always play all the way through that expansion pack as much as you wanted for as long as you wanted. Following the logic that you pay for a game product once, and were able thereafter to experience fully the entire content of that particular product (barring rare exceptions) for as long as you liked, expansion packs did not usually violate that premise.
But then MMO’s came along, starting with Ultima Online in 1997. Costing $65 to buy for the game and the first month of play, you were required to subscribe and then pay $9.95 for each additional month thereafter. In other words, you never owned the game in a way that allowed you to play it indefinitely after you paid the initial $65 dollars; you were basically renting it, paying your $9.95 every month like a good little tenant if you wanted to keep playing that game that you had already purchased. Other MMOs followed suit, such as Everquest and World of Warcraft, and it wasn’t until Guild Wars and other “Free-to-Play” (FTP) games hit the market that MMO’s (including existing franchises like some of those I just mentioned) offered an alternative to the mandatory subscription model, and even then, these FTP games almost never made the entire game available after the initial purchase, even if only “soft caps” and “soft ceilings” are imposed, which technically don’t limit your experience, but in actuality, effectively do.
Enter Online, Exit Ownership
And yet, not too many people raised a fuss over that whole subscription requirement MMOs had. In fact, they opened the door to a whole new viable profit-stream for companies who were willing to develop them, and thus, following those early entries, the industry poured hundred of thousands and even millions into developing their own MMO’ss for many franchises and genres. Gamers were transitioning to the subscriber model with enthusiasm, rather than rioting. MMO’s provided ample evidence that gamers would pay a monthly fee, provided there was a sense that it was somehow part of the game design.
But what was it about MMO’s that made them different in terms of game design, and more to the point, what was it about them that seemed to make the idea of paying for a game over and over again worth it enough to do so with very little resistance?
Two big factors stand out: 1) The possibility for online multiplayer experiences with people not in the same room and 2) the design of the game itself as being exclusively online, and thus able to be patched and worked on and added to by the developed by the developers in a persistent way that physical releases self-contained on cartridge did not allow. You knew I was coming back around to that shot I took at the beginning the article at those of you with physical games libraries, didn’t you?
Those two pillars seem to have guided game companies since then to take advantage of one or both in their slow march to turn every game owner into a perpetual game renter. Observe the shift in single player game franchises like Diablo, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and countless others with an increasing number of new entries requiring internet access and logging into an online service. Taking this one step further, game companies are now requiring that same online access increasingly to play their older games that didn’t originally require it, such as can be seen with the recent Doom fiasco, where players were being required to log-on to Bethesda’s “Bnet” service, their online account service (similar to Battlenet for Blizzard, Origin for EA, and others), in order to play Doom 1-3. Why do this? Well, one possibility is…
Games as a Service
There’s an argument to be made that companies have shifted their model of game development from product to service even with physical releases over the past several years, and that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Mitch wrote an article about this, explaining a few different methods that CD Projekt Red, Capcom, and Nintendo utilized to maintain the value of their digital releases, which included incremental free updates as well as the addition of content without charging the players, adding more (or maintaining) intrinsic value to their game as it aged. Pointing out that these methods generally served digital releases, Mitch highlighted one way that Nintendo maintained the value of its physical games:
“Starter editions serve as a method for Nintendo to increase the value of their games by not dropping their prices. Nintendo is always concerned about its brands and how they are perceived. Making sure that they still sell at full price is an essential part of that perception. However as games age in the immediate future, they decrease in value. Instead of decreasing the price, Nintendo can simply re-release the game at a later date with an added set of items such as a guide and other items, while also keeping the price the same. Using this method Nintendo can check all the boxes they are seeking to check, maintaining the value of the game without lowering the price.”
Implicitly behind these value-preserving initiatives is the philosophy of treating the game as a service, rather than as a self-contained product. Digital games have facilitated this design and marketing strategy more easily, allowing for continuous patching and development post-release, but prior to digital games and MMO’s this philosophy was almost non-existent. Mitch’s example demonstrates that even with the enduring presence of physical releases, companies like Nintendo had even come around to thinking of their physical game releases with a service mindset. And so the pathway was paved to progress towards a future wherein all games would be digital and accessed through a service-oriented platform.
Digital and Streamed Games Hosted on Platforms
It’s hardly surprising then to see companies like Microsoft moving towards hosting games online through their respective service platforms. Steam is the 500 pound gorilla who really made a name for themselves doing this, but they haven’t gotten to the point where they have restricted the playing of many games in their user’s libraries to accessing their Steam accounts to do so, provided you had already downloaded and installed said games on your PC.
Microsoft, Google, and others, however, are taking another step that requires online access for every game you play: streaming platforms. I have followed the progression the industry has taken towards digital, streaming games as the new way that games will be played in the articles I wrote previous (linked conveniently at the top of the article), and with high speed internet access becoming increasingly common not just in the U.S., but elsewhere in the world, this progression has proceeded apace.
For obvious reasons, your game library and your capability to play games will be tied directly to your account with whichever big games publisher/platform owner has those games to stream, in much the same way that Amazon gives you access to the movies and TV shows you want to stream through your Prime Account, or Netflix, or Hulu…
See where I’m going here? This transformation has already occurred in the realm of music (see: Amazon, Spotify, etc), movies, and TV, and like it or not, it’s coming to video games. When it does (probably very soon), your account will likely grant you access to those games you’ve purchased, or perhaps to a range of games in a monthly selection offered to you, but either way, you’re also going to be paying a subscription fee for that access, as Google has already indicated for their Stadia system, and I would not at all be surprised to see a similar model adopted by Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, as they, too, transition to the streaming games model more fully.
Because these services will hold all of your games online, and because they no doubt will feature all kinds of tie-ins with social media (and many already do in their current form), the two guide rails I mentioned above as set out by MMO’s are aligned perfectly with the streaming online-only games platforms that will soon become the norm for future gamers. This marks a significant turning point in ownership, because even if you’ve purchased any of these games, you will still be effectively renting your access to them and your capability to play them from these companies’ platforms.
Ownership’s Disappearing Act
The reality of disappearing ownership can be seen in an even larger sociocultural and economic context that goes well beyond games. Take, for example, the solid decade-long decline in home ownership, or the initial signs pointing to millennials and successive generations following them gradually turning away from car ownership, leading to a stagnation in car sales for the first time in many years. Uber and Lyft have been right there to facilitate this turn away from car ownership, and with the advent of self-driving cars likely on the horizon of the mass market in the coming decade, the idea of actually owning your own vehicle might eventually be viewed in the same way that many people view a manual transmission and hand-cranked windows today. And this is to say nothing of the new normal for Americans of carrying a perpetual and ever growing amount of debt with them throughout their lives.
All of these factors point to a growing reality: Ownership—of the traditional kind where you buy a game, or a car, or a house (and the land it sits on) and you own that “free and clear” to use and keep for as long as you like—is in its twilight for a growing number of people, and it is fading from the public consciousness as something that one grows up expecting to be able to do. Rather than being a choice that most people are making on their own terms, the disappearance of ownership is a systemic change, like planned obsolescence, brought on by businesses and corporate leaders who want to make more money… indefinitely. Ownership stands in the way of that. If I buy a game, and I own it in its entirety, the game company has gotten all the money from me they’re going to ever get, unless I decide to buy another game from them.
Game companies have for years now bemoaned single player games, or any game without extra ways to bring in profits, as no longer sufficient in terms of generating enough revenue to keep their shareholders happy. They need to keep the revenue coming in, over and over. A similar ambition to keep generating revenue can be seen in the growing trend of wealthy investors buying up huge swathes of property and renting it out. Flipping houses? That’s small timing it. Buying up whole streets of property and continuously generating rolling income by renting—that’s where the real money is. Why let them buy, when you can make them pay, repeatedly and indefinitely? And that’s where the market is moving in almost every sector.
Ownership is now a luxury, a sign of privilege. And it is disappearing for all but an increasingly smaller segment of the population, even in areas that long championed the concept. But it is disappearing far more quickly in consumer goods like games.