As a Ubisoft boss says consumers need to “feel comfortable with not owning your game,” here’s a counter-argument: if we buy a digital product, it should be ours to keep.
Even the biggest luddite in existence would concede that there are advantages to downloading entertainment, whether it’s a book, movie or videogame. There’s convenience for one thing – no trekking down to the dwindling pool of shops that still sell physical books, movies or videogames, and no anxiously waiting for a delivery driver to turn up (and possibly leave your precious new book/game/film in your recycling bin, which once happened to me).
And, unless you have a house the size of the Library of Alexandria, it’s all but certain you’ll eventually run out of shelf space at some point. With digital media, the only limit is the amount of storage at your disposal. Then there’s the ecological aspect to think about – the world is undoubtedly better off with fewer pieces of plastic and paper inlays produced and shipped to and fro every day of the year.
At the same time, there are a number of disadvantages to reducing media to a bunch of zeroes and ones. For one thing, it’s extremely difficult, at least legally, to lend them to friends – unless you hand over your phone or PS5, that piece of media is pretty much stuck where it was downloaded. Nor can you, say, trade a game in to offset the cost of a new one – something many people did and still do in order to temper the cost of an extraordinarily expensive hobby.
The other big disadvantage – and it’s one you’ll have noticed we bring up a lot on Film Stories, and for good reason – is that a piece of digital media is never truly yours.
There have been instances where Amazon has withdrawn books from people’s Kindles. Digital stores like TalkTalk have shut down, and the purchases people have made then vanish with those closures – no refunds offered. Sony was even talking about removing Discovery TV shows from its users’ consoles following the lapse of a licencing agreement with the channel; the announcement was only later reversed following an online outcry.
It’s something Christopher Nolan – who is almost as good a salesman as he is a filmmaker – half-jokingly brought up on the promo trail for Oppenheimer: buy a physical copy of my movie so “no evil streaming service can come and steal it from you”, he said.
Media companies have every reason to love the all-digital future that lies on the horizon, meanwhile, not least because of all the reasons already outlined. They’re free to set prices without fear of them being undercut by the second-hand market; if they want to make a change to a piece of entertainment, or withdraw it entirely, they’re free to do that, and there’s nothing legally the end user can do to stop it.
There’s almost a shred of glee detectable in a recent interview with Philippe Tremblay, the director of subscriptions at videogame publishing giant Ubisoft. He spoke to GamesIndustry.biz as his company unveiled a newly regenerated subscription service, Ubisoft+ Premium (one of numerous rebrands we’ve seen from the firm over the years), and said, in essence, that consumers need to be “comfortable” with no longer owning games, just as those who’ve downloaded games and films already are – at least in his estimation.
“One of the things we saw is that gamers are used to, a little bit like DVD, having and owning their games,” Tremblay said. “That’s the consumer shift that needs to happen. They got comfortable not owning their CD collection or DVD collection.
“That’s a transformation that’s been a bit slower to happen [in games]. As gamers grow comfortable in that aspect… you don’t lose your progress. If you resume your game at another time, your progress file is still there. That’s not been deleted. You don’t lose what you’ve built in the game or your engagement with the game. So it’s about feeling comfortable with not owning your game.”
There’s a counter-argument to this, however: if we’re to truly embrace the all-digital future that media companies expect us to be as ‘comfortable’ about as they are, then we as consumers deserve rights and protections. If we buy a piece of media with our hard-earned money, then it should be ours – no questions asked. There should be legal protections in place which safeguard consumers from, say, having media suddenly deleted from their drives by media companies – or at the very least, the expectation that the consumer would be compensated for its withdrawal.
Let’s face it, the technology to assign a digital item a unique number already exists, with the blockchain – a kind of append-only ledger – being used to underpin everything from novelty currencies to collectible monkey JPGs to in-game items like hats and trousers. Why couldn’t a similar technology be applied to, say, a movie, allowing the user to transfer it between devices, and perhaps even ‘lend’ it to a friend like a physical disc? If your console dies or becomes obsolete, or one digital platform suddenly closes, why shouldn’t you be able to redeem a code and ‘move’ the piece of media you’ve purchased over to a new venue?
In an ideal world, governments in the UK and elsewhere would be working with media and tech companies to ensure that any all-digital future is fair to consumers. After all, there are laws to protect companies from the theft of their property through piracy or copyright infringement. Shouldn’t there be something for the little people at home? Something that ensures that they get to keep the things they’ve spent and appreciate, rather than pay to merely borrow them?
Sadly, governments are probably too overawed and cowed by tech companies to even consider something so radical. Without intervention, the world’s biggest and richest firms will almost certainly carry on as they are – which is all the more reason, we’d argue, to support physical media for as long as it still continues to exist.