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Dear Publishers, Ownership Matters

There is great potential for video game companies to use this digital future to promote better-preserved products, but they must choose to respect the consumer’s right to ownership.

Moe Revel

February 12, 2024

5 Min Read
Image via Fauxels/Pexels

The days of walking into Game Stop or Best Buy and purchasing a physical version of the newest video game are soon to be a distant memory. Digital marketplaces have become increasingly popular since the seventh generation of gaming with the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 leading the charge. At a glance, the digital future does, admittedly, make a great deal of sense from the business perspective. In an all-digital gaming landscape companies would incur higher profit margins since they would no longer have to manufacture physical copies of their games. They would no longer have to pay for shelf space at retailers to hold their games nor pay factories to produce the physical product to be sold. One of the longest-standing battles of consumerism has been the battle of ownership. Who holds claim to an idea that leads to the invention of a good/service? How does ownership transfer to said good/service during manufacturing? What happens when it is purchased by a consumer? Answers to these questions seem apparent when applied to physical (tangible) goods such as car engines, but are much less apparent when applied to the digital landscape. What role can ownership play digitally, especially with the ease of piracy and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI)?

Sticking with the example of car engines, think about the process from creation to purchase. You can clearly see the transfer of ownership from the initial inventor to the manufacturer down to the consumer. Yes, the inventor of the product will (or at least should) always retain certain legal and creative ownership through protections such as copyright and patenting, however, once the physical end product is purchased by the consumer they are well within their legal right to use the product in whatever way they see fit. This includes repairs, modifications, and the use of the product for future inventions. If you buy an engine for a car you are working on, you cannot sell that engine as your own, but you can use it as a part of an entire vehicle that you intend to sell, it is all about creating unique value from the product. Many of the distinctions in ownership are evident in physical production processes because the United States has enforced legislation protecting ownership at various levels since the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. These distinctions and protections are not as prevalent in the digital age due to the infancy of this era. In 2024, the vast majority of us would most likely argue that internet service is an essential utility on the same level as water and electricity. A survey conducted by Consumer Reports in 2021 found that 76% of those polled agreed with this sentiment, a 15% increase from 2017. The need for clarification on digital ownership is evident, and legislative action is urgently needed before corporations take matters into their own hands, setting the precedent that best serves them before considering the consumer.

Various video game companies have already shown their intent to use the future of digital gaming as a means to increase their control over how video games are consumed. Probably the most personally painful example is the original Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game. Released in 2010 for the Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 as a digital-only release, the game was delisted from the marketplace in late 2014, meaning no one could purchase the game again. While this title did get a physical re-release in 2021 thanks to Limited Run Games, at the time of its delisting it raised many questions about video game ownership and how the digital future would affect it. Just months before the Scott Pilgrim game was removed from digital storefronts, PlayStation announced their newest project with Hideo Kojima, Silent Hills, and released a playable teaser (P.T.) to further drive market engagement. Despite talk of this project booming throughout the gaming community, Sony removed Silent Hills: P.T. from the PlayStation Store in April 2015, leaving fans lost and hurt. In an ironic twist, Sony announced a new Silent Hill 2 game during my writing this article. These examples show exactly why legislative measures must set a new precedent for digital ownership. Without legal ramifications looming over them, businesses will continue to take away games as they see fit to increase profits or, even more heinously, prevent the archival/preservation of titles they deem unworthy. One of the few positives of the digital future seen by game enthusiasts is that of archival/preservation. Too many games have been lost to time due to improper data backing, broken media formats, and just plain lost files, leaving most retro gamers reliant on digital gaming practices such as emulation to preserve what games they do still have access to.

While I cannot say for certain what the future of gaming will hold, I do know that there is a great sense of deja vue from the physical media to the streaming era of music distribution (and I still hate Spotify if that tells you anything). There is great potential for video game companies to use this digital future as a means to promote faster, higher-quality, and better-preserved products, but they must choose to respect the consumer’s right to ownership before they ever see the true revenue potential of said digital future.

Consumer Reports. (2021, August 3). Broadband in the U.S.: Consumer reports’ new survey reveals challenges for consumers. Product Reviews and Ratings - Consumer Reports. https://www.consumerreports.org/media-room/press-releases/2021/08/broadband-in-the-us-consumer-reports-new-survey-reveals-challenges-for-consumers/

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