A Farewell to Ownership: Game Streaming and the End of Physical Media

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Assuming the world of video games continues down the path it is on, physical media won’t be around for much longer. It’s not just the prevalence of digital storefronts like Steam or the PlayStation store that lead me to believe that. No, now we’re looking at a pure “games-as-a-service” model, with companies like Google jumping into gaming with their Stadia product. And that’s not to mention the Xbox Game Pass, which is, essentially, the same thing.

If you’ve read my pieces here in the past, you know I’m a video game collector. However, I promise this isn’t another “physical releases for every game or else!” sort of post that pops up among the collecting community. This is, more or less, a resigned acceptance that digital is here to stay, along with some thoughts to chew on around the idea of ownership, both as we normal humans understand it, and as giant companies like Google understand it.

When you purchase — excuse me, “purchase” — a digital game on, say, the PlayStation store or Steam, what you are actually purchasing is not the game, but a license to play it. You possess no rights of ownership to the product itself. You’ve merely paid for the privilege of playing it. In your day-to-day life, what does this mean? Typically, not much. You can download the game to your device, play it, delete it, redownload it, and all is well. Companies like Valve and Sony have a vested interest in doing as little as possible to tick off their fanbase, so they’re working hard behind the scenes to keep those games you bought active and available.

Now, that’s with games that you can download. For example, I downloaded the game P.T. to my PlayStation 4, and even after it was “delisted,” so long as I don’t delete it, I can play it as much as I want. But what about Google Stadia? You’re not downloading, you’re streaming.

Google sticks this pretty important question down near the bottom of their FAQ:

What happens to a game I bought if the publisher stops supporting Stadia in the future? Can I still play the game?

Yes. Once you purchase the game, you own the right to play it. In the future, it is possible that some games may no longer be available for new purchases, but existing players will still be able to play the game. Outside of unforeseen circumstances, Stadia will aim to keep any previously purchased title available for gameplay.

A few things to note here. One: “you own the right to play [the game].” By purchasing a game on Stadia, you aren’t purchasing the game. You are purchasing permission to play it. For many, that will be just fine. It’s a perfectly valid choice to not be a collector, to enjoy games in a more open and passive way — you’re there for an experience, and once you’re done with that experience, the game could float away into the ether and you wouldn’t care one bit. Again, that is fine. For anyone who thinks they’ll become even a bit nostalgic in later years, however, this is a risky gamble. The business world is complex, and at any point companies could sue Google to remove their games from Stadia.

This brings me to point two: “Outside of unforeseen circumstances, Stadia will aim to keep any previously purchased title available for gameplay.” There are innumerable “unforeseen circumstances” that could cause games to disappear. It’s only happened a few significant times so far — some notable examples being Konami’s pulling down of P.T. from the PlayStation store, and Order of War being removed from users’ Steam libraries because the publisher didn’t want to maintain their servers. But as games become more and more ephemeral, I worry that rights and licensing issues will cause more and more games to disappear from digital storefronts. For games that have physical versions, this isn’t the end of the world — you can track down a copy at a used game store. For digital-only games? That game is, essentially, gone.

I lament this fact to my game-playing friends, and very few of them feel my pain. “That’s fine,” they say with a shrug. “If a game I like disappears, there’ll be another game I like coming out.”

For whatever reason, I simply cannot get myself into that mindset. I develop something akin to a relationship with my favorite games. The idea that someone else could take them away from me drives me nuts.

It does seem, however, that I’m in the minority. So I guess I’ll just strap in and hold on tight as the digital-only revolution gets underway.