On ArsTechnica, today, I read the following in defense of XBox One:
“This is a big change, consumers don’t always love change, and there’s a lot of education we have to provide to make sure that people understand.”
…a lot of the way people have responded to Microsoft’s moves was “kind of as we expected.” But the implication … was that this temporary confusion and discomfort among the audience would be worth it as gamers and consumers adjust to a console world without game discs.
“We’re trying to do something pretty big in terms of moving the industry forward for console gaming into the digital world. We believe the digital world is the future, and we believe digital is better.”
[Microsoft] made a comparison to the world of home movie viewing, where inconvenient trips to Blockbuster Video have been replaced with Netflix streaming on practically any device instantly. On Xbox One, having all games exist as cloud-connected downloads enables new features like being able to access your entire library at a friend’s house with a single login, or loaning games to up to ten “family members” digitally and remotely.
Immediately, I want to point out that Netflix (and Hulu) didn’t replace owning a copy — my copy — of a movie. They replaced movie rental and scheduled broadcast television — with something better and that eliminated inconveniences.
With Netflix and Hulu, you don’t have to program a DVR, or go to a store, or deal with rental returns and late fees. And assuming you only want to watch a thing once or twice, and don’t care to own a copy of it for all time, it’s great.
But online streaming on-demand services cannot replace certain aspects of owning a copy. And those things are very important. Users of these services know already that what is available today may not be available tomorrow. If the copyright owner decides to stop licensing the programming through the service, it will not be available any longer on the service. But a physical copy that you own can always be played, whenever you want to, as long as you own it. So if you want to guarantee availability of something forever, you can only do so if you own your copy.
And the copy you own will remain the edition you bought forever — no 1984-style “memory hole” for the old edition when the producers decide to release a new cut as the canonical version. No forced upgrades pushed over the network, eliminating or changing some scene that some group found objectionable for some reason, and managed to successfully pressure the studio into changing.
Video productions are re-cut and re-edited all the time, and for the most part people don’t notice it, or care. But sometimes the changes can drastically change the meaning. In the 1990’s, singer Sinead O’Connor once made an appearance on Saturday Night Live, during which she unleashed a storm of controversy by tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II on live television. NBC and SNL immediately distanced themselves from the incident and claimed to have had nothing to do with it, apologized for the offense it may have caused Catholic viewers, and claimed that it was something that O’Connor did on her own without informing the producers of her plans. This act of protest was never rebroadcast, and to my knowledge cannot be seen in any format today. Today, apart from viewers memories of the incident, it may as well not have happened. Unless someone with a VCR happened to tape that episode and kept it, as I’m sure many may have done, it would be lost forever, imprisoned in NBC’s video archive, if it exists at all. O’Connor’s act was an act of political speech, and whether you agree with her message or not, she had a right to say what she wanted, in the way she wanted. Of course, NBC and SNL own the rights to the video of the event, and have the right to not to make it available if they want, or edit it in whatever way they choose. But it was also broadcast to millions of homes over the public airwaves, and those who witnessed it own their memories of the event. And, for those who have have their own copy, and because you can own and control your own copy, NBC is not able to suppress it completely, or to compel holders of copies to surrender or destroy them. If need be, it could be proved that the incident happened, and, although they haven’t gone so far as to deny that the incident never took place, they certainly don’t like to bring it up, and if NBC wanted to pretend that it never happened, people can contradict the official histories, not just with memories and eyewitness testimony, but with evidence. Owning your own copy can help save The Truth from the memory hole. It gives you the power to own a little bit of the The Truth, outside of your own skull.
If you’re not a political person, you’re probably thinking “Whoa, you’ve gone off the deep end. This is just entertainment we’re talking about. Movies, TV, and videogames. We’re not talking about the news, or matters of public record. Surely this isn’t important stuff, get a grip.” But games do get censored, or pulled from the marketplace, and this can effect people who already own them, if they give up control of the copy that they purchased to DRM. Moreover, wherever DRM technologies make inroads, it tends to result in their becoming more accepted and likely to be used elsewhere. If we accept DRM for television, movies, and games, the technologies are then already in place, and may be used by hard news and official government content providers. Even if they were only used for entertainment, this is our culture — do we really want it to be completely controlled by corporate copyright holders?
Microsoft’s XBox One distribution offers to replace ownership of a physical copy with something worse. It might beat rentals, but it sucks compared to buying. It’s not the digital distribution and decoupling from physical media, it’s the DRM and the licensing vs. owning a copy.
There are pros and cons to decoupling software from physical media, but on the whole I am fine with owning my copy of a computer file, vs. owning a disc or ROM cartridge that came in a box. But de-coupling need not be accompanied by artificial limitations of use imposed by DRM and the need to authenticate a license to a copyrighted work. A license-to-access model is inferior to a model of owning a copy.
Learning from history
I have, in my personal game collection, consoles from Atari, Mattel, Coleco, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft. The oldest of these systems were built in the 1970’s. They are still fully playable, barring hardware failure.
Even back then, there were very early attempts at online play and distribution of games. They were ahead of their time, but from the earliest days the game industry tried to figure out ways to get people to subscribe to a service that would allow them to sell games directly to customers, replacing traditional retail distribution with digital download over a modem connection.
These services are long gone. Any games that were distributed exclusively via these means are exceedingly rare. If they exist at all, it’s only because someone who downloaded the game never erased it from their media (typically an audio cassette tape, or possibly a floppy disk), and because the game didn’t depend on the online service in order to run. This last bit is absolutely crucial. If these games could not be played if they depended on the continued existence of servers which were closed down by the vendor when they were no longer profitable, these games could not be played today.
“Well, who cares? Who cares about these old games?”
It turns out, a lot of people. Everyone who owns them, and would like to continue to be able to enjoy them. Anyone who wants to introduce their favorite games from their childhood to youngsters today. Collectors. Historians. Game designers.
“But popular games get re-packaged and re-sold with each generation!”
I suppose they do. Nothing wrong with that. It’s a good thing.
But what if your favorite game isn’t one of the few lucky popular games that gets chosen to live on? What if you want to play the games on the original hardware? What if you don’t want to have to re-buy games that you already own in order to play them again on your current-generation console?
“But you can’t go out to a retail outlet and buy a traditionally distributed game that isn’t being made anymore. So why should it matter that you can’t buy a digitally distributed game anymore?”
Because, the games that were sold while it was available are still available. They are tangible, transferrable, resellable goods, and as long as they remain physically intact, and someone in the world wants to enjoy them, there is a market for them. It might be garage sales and flea markets and eBay, but it’s possible to find and buy a videogame that was made in 1977. It might not be easy in some cases, but it’s possible, and it’s no more complicated than finding the game, plugging it in, and playing it.
I guess it may be starting to become more difficult now that old-fashioned NTSC CRT TVs are disappearing, along with their antequated analog signal input jacks, but the point is that there’s no need to negotiate the right to play the game with the copyright holder. If you have it, you can play it.
Digitally downloaded games could be just as transferrable — far more transferrable, in fact. Files are easy to share and copy. Compared to making a copy of a printed circuit board and ROM chip, it’s dead simple. The future should be making it easier to do things, not harder.
But if games have dependencies on network-based resources that the player does not control in order to function, this all changes. It seems likely that game companies will sell the client, but not the server. But when the company no longer sees value in maintaining the servers, and decides to take them down rather than sell them to someone who’d become a competitor, or release the source code so that the player community can host their own servers, that will be the end of that game.
The level of dependency may vary considerably, from simple license/subscription validation, to enabling multiplayer features, updates, and downloadable content, to online leaderboard and achievement data. From the gamer’s perspective, the possibilities are rich, but they all disappear when the servers go offline. Nothing can compel a company to release the server software as a product or as a freebie once they decide to end-of-life an obsolete title, but without the server side, the clients are potentially useless, and at the very least are diminished.
Furthermore, servers can be used to killswitch the client, or to force unwanted upgrades. What if you liked the 1.0 version of your favorite game, but hated what they did with 1.1? If you can’t roll back, if you can’t decline an upgrade, there’s not much you can do. Game companies that serve the player’s interests well should design their upgrade systems to allow the player to play the game in an earlier version mode if they desire. And server code should be made available (whether for free or as a product) once the parent company decides it’s time to shut things down, so that players can continue to have full access to the complete experience indefinitely, as long as there’s a community who wants it. Of course, security concerns will mean that any code running on a network node will need to be patched, so it would be best if the source code is available to enable patches to be made.
Obviously, many of those requirements for libre software are too much for most game companies in their current thinking. “Allow our obsolete products to continue to be sold so that we have to continue to compete with ourselves? Release our server source code, are they mad?” While it’s difficult to imagine many companies doing anything like this in today’s market, these are the sort of things that gamers need as consumers, and the culture needs from the vantage point of the historian. Some companies, notably Id Software, have opensourced their older game engines, so it’s not unthinkable that the same could also happen with server technologies, though there are certainly many obstacles, such as software patents, and the fact that many game design studios license third party engines.
Still, even if it’s a highly unlikely ideal, it’s important as a point of comparison, to know just how much you “own” the things that you “buy”, and a target for the consumer to strive to push the market toward. Consumers do have power when they act collectively. It is only for us to realize this, and seize the power that is within our grasp.