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The gaming retail structure used to be very simple. You’d run, your hard-earned cash clutched in your hand, to your local game store, hand the currency over to the person behind the register, and you’d have a clear awareness of what you’d receive in return. The game would be yours; a physical piece of media that you could play to completion, and then loan to your friends, trade it in for a new game or stash it away to gather dust until nostalgia inspired you to play it again.
However, it turns out that it’s not quite so straightforward today. While there is certainly still a market for physical games media, it is clear that this is becoming the exception not the rule. Downloads, online vendors such as Steam, and monthly subscriptions are blurring the lines of what it means to purchase a game. Do you own the product? Does the company have the right to remove your access to gameplay?
We’re going to take a look at a few of the directions in which the games industry sales model is likely to head in the future. What can we expect to be the prevalent platforms? How could this affect gaming culture as it exists today?
As smartphones and mobile devices have become more capable of handling advanced graphics, so too has mobile gaming become more popular. This has prompted the rise of free-to-play games that allow gamers to access the core of the game, but are charged for optional extras such as access to exclusive content, customizable extras, or advanced gameplay.
One notable example of this model is Fortnite: Battle Royale, wherein all users have access to the multiplayer arena in a battle for survival. There’s a certain sense of democracy in that the gameplay remains the same regardless of your financial status. However, by purchasing and spending “V-Bucks” players have greater access to customize their characters and make other, purely cosmetic, changes. In some ways, this helps to solve the issue of game ownership, in that the developers, Epic Games, have not sold the game or gameplay to their audience.
However, this kind of Free-to-Play game does pose the question about ownership of the additional assets gamers have paid for. Though they cannot be used outside of the game, there is still value to be had in optional extras. Epic Games themselves have been in hot water lately over the intellectual property rights associated with the dance moves used by the characters in Fortnite. In order for Free-to-Play to continue to be a prevalent model for future gamers, there will need to be greater clarification over the ownership of purchased extras, and perhaps whether these could be transferred to other games.
The way we currently consume media in various forms has been leaning closer toward streaming subscription models. We can use Spotify to stream our music and Netflix to access a wide variety of movies and TV shows. In these cases we don’t strictly own the media we are paying for, we are being charged a monthly fee to gain access to them while they’re available. But is this a model that can work for video games?
There are already a few subscription services on the market, each with its own approach to the model. For example, PlayStation Now allows users to stream any of a catalog of more than 800 games, but limits downloading to about 300 of those. Whereas Xbox Game Pass does not allow streaming, and only supports downloading. The common theme in both services is that, even though downloading a game may give the appearance that you own it, you are only able to play it for as long as you keep paying the monthly fee.
It’s not difficult to see why games companies might find a subscription platform attractive. It eliminates the idea of game ownership because it is utilizing the “rental” behavior that we’re used to. We pay a monthly fee that’s usually lower than the cost of a single game, but they retain all rights to the product — including the right to withdraw it at any time. It remains to be seen whether gaming can appeal to our streaming behavior, after all, we’re unlikely to be able to binge as many video game titles per month as we do movies and TV shows.
One of the advantages of physical media has always been the ability to pass on the item once you were finished with it. This may have come in the form of trading, in return for money being taken off the price of a new game, or out-right selling. This also had the added benefit of those who were otherwise unable to purchase new games having the opportunity to experience the game in a way that fit their limited financial means. Of course, this seemed to hold little benefit for game developers, who don’t necessarily gain financially from reselling.
Most consumers have relatively little knowledge of intellectual property law, of its nuances and how it applies to their day-to-day activities. Which could factor into the feeling of injustice that they are unable to sell and share digital games in the way that they did so with physical media. So what’s the future of reselling in our digital age?
Well, it really depends on how clearly gaming companies define game ownership at the point of sale. In 2019, a court in Paris found that games purchased and downloaded via Steam had material value to the purchaser, and therefore Steam could not prohibit the resale of games. Though, Steam is appealing the ruling, and we may yet see a different outcome, this may affect how companies distribute games in the future. Avoiding the option for downloading in favor of digital streaming, which places all rights of game ownership clearly with the provider.
Gaming is an important part of our contemporary lives, even providing opportunities for careers and creative projects. However, the way in which we consume this media in the future is likely to shift to a primarily subscription or streaming model, which places the game ownership rights squarely with the developers. While this may allow developers to maximize profits with which to create new and exciting content, it may also have the effect of pricing those who would usually primarily buy second hand games out of the market.