Give Me My Digital Future
This is (probably) the only time I’m going to say this; Bruce Willis inspired these words. Not because I loved Die Hard 4.0 or Moonlighting, but because of some legal action he’s taking against Apple. You may have already heard this news story, but in short Mr Willis is taking Apple to court over just who actually owns the music he’s downloaded. He says that he owns it and should be free to pass it on after his death, while Apple say he’s only actually borrowed it, and that he can’t pass it on. Anyway, it got me thinking. Will gamers accept a digital-only future where we never actually own games outright? I often hear gamers say that it’ll never happen, and we’ll always be able to buy physical copies, or that they wouldn’t be happy with only being able to download things, but I’m not so sure. I think there’s plenty to suggest that gamers are ready for a digital-only brave new world right now, they just don’t know it yet.
My first piece of evidence is the use of Online Pass codes. I realise this may be a bit of a tangent, but in a way the online pass code does suggest that gamers would be fine with the concept of borrowing games. This month many of us will be buying the latest FIFA game from EA; the disc we buy will contain both single player and multiplayer modes, but only a portion of that is available to us just by dropping the game in the disc tray. EA withholds part of our content until we jump through the extra hoop of inputting a code. Sales won’t be impacted by this, and I doubt any of us will be demanding a cheaper, offline only version of the game, so it seems only natural to conclude that gamers are at least willing to let publishers tell them what they can do with their content. Many of us might not like these codes, but we do put up with them.
Every game we buy that has a pass code attached to it weakens our resolve until eventually we accept it as a reality. Sure, forcing us to accept online codes is a pretty heavy-handed way of going about things, but it does train us to accept having less control over our content.
Now that I’ve sold you the gateway drug that is the Online Pass, it’s time to show you the good stuff; PlayStation Plus. For those of you not familiar with PS Plus, it’s a subscription service offering PSN account holders a host of small quality of life type improvements to the basic account. Things like cloud storage and background downloads for example. The key bullet point of PS Plus however has always been “free” games. I used quotations marks there because this “free” isn’t the “yours to keep forever“ type of free, it’s the “books from your local library are free” type of free. Sony only allows you to play these games whilst you’re a paying subscriber, stop paying and you lose access. Just like your local library, eventually you have to return what you’ve borrowed.
I’m fine with that though, and based on comments from friends, a lot of other people are fine with it too. I know that PS Plus also offers (slightly) discounted games to buy outright, but Sony doesn’t make a big deal about those. Both at E3 and Gamescom, Sony talked about expanding the free offer. Gamers like this kind of “free”, that’s why we’re ready for the digital-only age.
Of course, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that gamers won’t go for this whole idea, and I can blow a massive great hole in my piece with just one word; OnLive. If gamers were at all interested in this, OnLive wouldn’t have just imploded. Yes, the company is still in business, but only after letting a huge chunk of its staff go and selling up to an venture capitalist. Clearly the company isn’t a commercial success. OnLive was already offering the kind of thing I’m talking about, and by and large, gamers didn’t go for it. Sure, there were latency issues involved with the multiplayer side of things, but users still had access to large number of games with great single player content, so OnLive’s failure can’t be entirely about the technical issues. Almost everyone I know who tried the service said something similar when reviewing it; “It’s OK”. If there’s one thing we can conclude from OnLive regarding a digital future, it’s that if the delivery isn’t absolutely perfect then paying to rent games is always going to come second best to actually owning them.
I’ve always thought that a console with only digitally delivered content was an inevitability. Both Netflix and Apple have shown that consumers are willing to pay for content without actually owning it, and gamers can’t be far behind. We’re halfway there as it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the next generation of consoles take us the rest of the way there. Ask yourself, how often do you specifically go shopping for a DVD or CD these days? Not very often I’m betting. If I want to watch a reasonably recent film, I stream it. If I want to buy an album, I download it. Unless it’s some kind of special edition boxed set, I never buy a physical copy. The digital-only business model already works outside of gaming, it won’t be long before Sony and Microsoft make it work within gaming.