Tobold's Blog
Thursday, October 01, 2015
Virtual non-property

Recently I tried to play one of my many Steam games in the evening, and the Steam servers were down. As this particular game needed some Steam network component, I couldn't even play in offline mode. Of course a lot of people work on keeping the servers at Steam up and running, and the problem didn't last long. But it was a poignant reminder that I do in fact not own many games any more, I just have licences to temporarily play them.

I get a lot more of those reminders when I play mobile games on my iPad instead of Steam games. It is now years ago that developers discovered that "games as a service" with always online requirement was a good copy protection, and started using that as a basic principle in the majority of games. But "games as a service" also means running cost. Now that there are 400,000 games in the app store, it happens more and more often that games that aren't rather new any more don't earn the company enough money any more to justify the continued expenditure for that service. And thus the game is officially pulled and shut down.

Besides the relatively simple case of me now being unable to play a game that I paid for, I also run in the far more complicated case of being unable to play a Free2Play game that I have spent money on. The very concept of "virtual property", paying for a sparkly pony or the like, is revealed as an illusion. Now personally I have spending limits on any individual game, I'm not spending more money on a "free" game than what I would have been willing to pay for it if it had come in a box. But for those often-discussed "whales" who spent a lot of money on virtual property in a game it must come as quite a shock to find out that they have in fact no property rights at all.

About ten years ago, my home internet had a fairly prolonged outage.

I was all about WoW at the time, so this was quite distressing.

"I can handle this," I thought. "I'll play a single-player game. I'll replay Half-life 2, that was fun!"

Nope. No internet, no single-player game. Thanks Steam!

On that day, I swore I would never, ever play anything via Steam unless it was an always-online title, e.g. Marvel Heroes. I've stuck by that resolution ever since.
"Games as a service" copy protection is one of the more morally-repugnant influences on game design to emerge of late, and something I personally would like to see legislated against, such that 'offline provisions' must be made so that things purchased can be accessed once the game servers shut down, or restored and maintained by dedicated public curators.

We have a wealth of art that's going to waste, lost to the whims of corporate policy. Historically we haven't looked kindly on when vast swathes of art and culture get destroyed by the powers that be, but games aren't afforded that respect (unfairly) in the cultural pantheon.

Imagine history losing WoW forever if Blizzard made too many investment gambles and had to turn off those lights. The cultural impact of that one title is far greater than many if not most books and films.
(Addendum: I have no doubt that the source code would leak and dedicated private servers would be set up underground, but ultimately it would be illegal. Cultural preservation is something that should be enabled and encouraged, not outlawed.)
@Cam: most of WoWs art was already lost when Cataclysm reworked it. Also, lot of art was lost over the centuries when the artist didn't like it and reused the material or burned it in anger. It's just how it goes. Except if someone took a copy and saved it. My girlfriend made a complete library of screenshots of pre-Cata WoW and sometimes watches them exactly as that: art.


As always you provide insight and wisdom - we appreciate that!

There should be checks and balances on virtual property versus GAAS (Gaming as a service). MTGO, EQ, EVE are all over 10 years old yet still alive - your cards or characters are there (for now).

I lost access to a mobile robot game when I couldnt access it from my old phone. Digital virtual "cards" lost. Learning point means be careful where you put REAL money into a Virtual game.

@Gevlon That's as may be, but I see a big difference between a handful of artists choosing to destroy their own work in a fit of artistic frustration versus a corporation choosing to burn an entire library of the stuff because it's no longer profitable.
Age of Empires Online (using LFW/live for windows) shut down and that hurt folks who could not even play online.

Now Microsoft has redone a new AOE online but zero credit for previous AOE online buyers of DLC etc.

Virtual items/stuff = can virtually go dead/worthless overnight...

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