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The video game industry is undergoing the same concerning changes we’ve seen before with film and TV, and it underscores the need for meaningful digital ownership.

Twenty years ago you owned DVDs. Ten years ago you probably had a Netflix subscription with a seemingly endless library. Now, you probably have two to three subscription services, and regularly hear about shows and movies you can no longer access, either because they’ve moved to yet another subscription service, or because platforms are delisting them all together.

The video game industry is getting the same treatment. While it is still common for people to purchase physical or digital copies of games, albeit often from within walled gardens like Steam or Epic Games, game subscriptions are becoming more and more common. Like the early days of movie streaming, services like Microsoft Game Pass or PlayStation Plus seem to offer a good deal. For a flat monthly fee, you have access to seemingly unlimited game choices. That is, for now.

In a recent announcement from game developer Ubisoft, their director of subscriptions said plainly that a goal of their subscription service’s rebranding is to get players “comfortable” with not owning their games. Notably, this is from a company which had developed five non-mobile games last year, hoping users will access them and older games through a $17.99 per month subscription; that is, $215.88 per year. And after a year, how many games does the end user actually own? None. 

This fragmentation of the video game subscription market isn’t just driven by greed, but answering a real frustration from users the industry itself has created. Gamers at one point could easily buy and return games, they could rent games they were only curious about, and even recoup costs by reselling their game. With the proliferation of DRM and walled-garden game vendors, ownership rights have been eroded. Reselling or giving away a copy of your game, or leaving it for your next of kin, is no longer permitted. The closest thing to a rental now available is a game demo (if it exists) or playing a game within the time frame necessary to get a refund (if a storefront offers one). These purchases are also put at risk as games are sometimes released incomplete beyond this time limit. Developers such as Ubisoft will also shut down online services which severely impact the features of these games, or even make them unplayable.

DRM and tightly controlled gaming platforms also make it harder to mod or tweak games in ways the platform doesn’t choose to support. Mods are a thriving medium for extending the functionalities, messages, and experiences facilitated by a base game, one where passion has driven contributors to design amazing things with a low barrier to entry. Mods depend on users who have the necessary access to a work to understand how to mod it and to deploy mods when running the program. A model wherein the player can only access these aspects of the game in the ways the manufacturer supports undermines the creative rights of owners as well.

This shift should raise alarms for both users and creators alike. With publishers serving as intermediaries, game developers are left either struggling to reach their audience, or settling for a fraction of the revenue they could receive from traditional sales. 

We need to preserve digital ownership before we see video games fall into the same cycles as film and TV, with users stuck paying more and receiving not robust ownership, but fragile access on the platform’s terms.