It was bound to happen sooner or later. Valve’s online gaming distribution website Steam has removed what appears to be the very first game from user libraries. Many games have been removed from the Steam store, but have remained in user libraries. Individuals have had games removed for various reasons as well, but this appears to be the first game, in its entirety, removed from every user library.
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Square Enix shut down the servers for Order of War: Challenge and instead of merely removing the game from the storefront, Valve erased its existence altogether. For customers who purchased—and I’m tempted to write this as “purchased”—it’s like a game that never was.
To be fair, with the servers shutdown, the game would have been impossible to play anyways. This isn’t simply because it’s an online-only game. In fact, Order of War: Challenge has 18 single-player missions as well. But due to always-online DRM, even the single-player portion of the game requires the servers to be up and running.
So here we have the confluence of two modern phenomena in the video game industry. First, there’s the hazy concept of digital ownership—or “ownership” as the case may be. Second, the growing peril of always-online requirements for games that have single-player components.
When the two collide we get a very clear picture of just how transitory your ownership of a video game truly is.
It’s actually quite fitting that on Steam we have a “library” of games as opposed to, say, a digital shelf. The games purchased online have no physical copy and are, in effect, simply leased to us rather than actually owned by us. So if Steam decides to pull a game from our libraries, that’s well within Valve’s right (and all of this is, of course, in the Terms of Service, or TOS.)
But this somewhat risky proposition is hedged against by the fact that Valve has absolutely no reason to pull games from our libraries whatsoever. The incentives to keep games in user libraries, on the other hand, are clear: it keeps customers happy and paying.
Always-online DRM throws a wrench into the gears. Here Steam, or any other distribution outfit, has no choice in the matter. They could, theoretically, leave games broken by server shutdowns in user libraries, if only out of principle. But the games wouldn’t function and customers would still have no way to play them. At least by pulling the game there is some way for customers to theoretically request a refund.
So while digital ownership, or the lack thereof, is a real concern that hasn’t been properly addressed in our legal system yet, the much bigger story here, to me at least, is the problem with always-online DRM. The two are related to a degree. If Valve went out of business tomorrow, what would happen to all of our games? If Steam shuts down, will we have some way to access our libraries? Would we simply lose our collection?
But by far the biggest concern is what happens to these games when the lights go out. A game with no online requirement can be played ad infinitum. A game that requires accessing a server that can be shut down has no such guarantee of perpetuity.
When a game is solely online multiplayer (think MMOs like World of Warcraft) this is understood going in. We all know that if Blizzard shuts down WoW we won’t be able to play it anymore. There’s an agreement and an understanding from the get-go that at some point this may come to an end, and we’ll stop paying our subscription.
But with games that include single-player components, that implicit agreement doesn’t exist. Nor should it.
None of this is unique to video games, of course. We’ve already seen Amazon pull books from Kindle libraries. Should Amazon or Barnes & Noble go out of business, what would happen to our Kindle and Nook libraries? I suspect they’d remain intact since some other firm would likely buy up the Kindle business, but who knows?
Order of War: Challenge was not a hugely popular title, obviously, and Square Enix chose to no longer spend money supporting it. Valve pulled the game from user libraries since it no longer functioned as the product people paid for. It all makes sense from a financial standpoint, but the uncomfortable fact remains that some people paid for a product and then one day woke up and found that it was gone.
There’s something unsettling about that. I imagine purchasing a TV. It works fine for a couple years and then one night the manufacturer breaks into my home and sabotages it, and then a couple of hours later the retailer who sold it to me breaks in and hauls it off. I wake up in the morning and my TV is gone. A note explaining that the TV only functioned so long as the manufacturer wanted it to is sitting on the entertainment stand. Thank you for enjoying our product, we hope you go out right now and buy another one.
A television set is obviously a much larger and very different type of purchase, but I consider both the TV and the game to be my property. I’m wrong to do that, of course. The game isn’t and never was my property. The question is whether or not it ought to be. Whether or not consumers are selling themselves short by agreeing to this state of affairs.
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