The Big Switch
Unlike most of society — which blindly accepts the trend towards centralized ownership and renting — gamers have already noticed that “games as a service” is a trap. Although promoted as a healthy way for developers to stay in touch with their customers and make them happy, the reality is exactly the opposite: companies become completely out of touch with their real fans and instead cater only to the loudest, whiniest, and most financially irresponsible “whale” customers. If you can make a billion dollars off of 5% of your audience, you can justify pissing off the 95% who are quiet and simply want to support good ideas.
In the gaming world, publishers are more to thank for the greed of services than devs themselves, but now we’re seeing platform holders trying to get in on the scam. Instead of buying things and owning them, you’ll have a subscription service that gives you access to a storefront where you can rent a license to stream a game. This is what investors prefer.
Obviously we can look at the music and video industries for the clearest example of how owning entertainment has changed. Here’s a good article from Forbes on how the changes that have swept over the media landscape may end up hitting the IT industry, as privately-owned business computers will get replaced by centrally-owned cloud services.
A long favorite author of mine, Nicholas Carr, wrote a book called “The Big Switch” about cloud computing and the movement away from physical ownership and made the case even better. It’s a fantastic study of the history of machinery, technology, and how the transfer of ownership changes things. A brilliant parallel is made between the Industrial Revolution factories versus the old method of farms, family trades, and so on. The same goes for power generation, which was once privately owned or locally controlled, but has since become national utilities with paid metering of usage.
Cloud storage and cloud computing are just one more step towards total central control over all technology. Instead of hiring an expert to fix your own stuff, you’ll just rent everything and live at the mercy of services, which must be sustained at all costs if we want to keep our precious access. Even if we hate something, like YouTube, nobody is willing to ditch it because we can’t access the stuff we want without their survival. This is how a monopoly works.
Paying for every megabyte you use and hour you spend playing (all while giving away your data and allowing intelligence agencies to harvest your personal information) is much more sexy to the investor class than trying to make grumpy customers happy in a highly competitive market. Thankfully we’re not there yet, but the push is constantly happening.
Forcing a compromise
Due to the effectiveness of gamer backlash against anti-consumer policies (ie. totally destroying the original plan for the Xbox One to be an always-online surveillance machine) we have seen companies begrudgingly cater to what we want. The current battle may be censorship, but the greater fight for ownership and consumer rights is just as important if not more so.
The fact that the next Xbox is promising to be four times as powerful as their current hardware shows that they’re not risking everything on another “games as service” debacle. They’re still required to “answer” the Google Stadia — a laughingstock to everyone except investors and corporate boardrooms — and so they have announced big partnerships to push cloud gaming on the PlayStation 5 and the next Xbox, but I would be astonished if physical media went away next generation. The painful lessons of the past decade seem to have sunk in, finally: gamers are tired of the bullshit business models, and they’re not as gullible as Steve Balmer and the rest of the corporate vultures believe.
It may be the last bastion of consumer backlash mattering, but I think gamers can still force a compromise these days.