Google made news on September 29, 2022, when it announced the impending shutdown of Stadia, its game streaming service. I noted in a Leaflet post that I only learned about Stadia (it was apparently much-hyped) from the shut down notice. As I understand it, Stadia required a subscription to play games via stream but also required subscribers to purchase the games on top of a subscription. While only the daring would buy games for a Google service when the maintenance of said service by Google is required to play the games over the long-haul, the news must have come somewhat as a surprise given Google’s insistence on July 29, 2022, that Stadia was not shutting down.
(Before continuing, I note that Google is offering refunds to Stadia customers for games that they purchased to play with their Stadia subscription. Some of the major publishers who offered games on Stadia have indicated that they are looking for ways to help their customers redeem their game purchases on other platforms.)
In my Leaflet, I discussed how the Stadia shutdown story ties in nicely to articles I have written advocating ownership of our game purchases. In one post, I praised Nintendo for prioritizing physical game sales. In another post, I discussed how DRM-protection turns many digital purchases into indefinite rentals, which came on the heels of an article examining DRM-free games on Steam. One bright side of the Stadia news (for everyone who has not purchased content locked into the dying platform, that is) is that it should prompt people to think carefully about what it means to purchase something in today’s landscape. One of the best examples I came across was in a very thoughtful piece by Mr. Devin Coldewey of Techcrunch titled Stadia died because no one trusts Google.
From the outset, I note that I am not particularly interested in why Stadia failed. Stadia, like many Google services before it (see my post on Google Bookmarks), had the shelf life of an emergent cicada (it wasn’t that bad, but it was close). Thus, I will leave the analysis of Stadia’s rise and fall to Mr. Coldewey and skip to where he contrasts the Stadia streaming approach to genuine ownership of video games:
I still have my original Super Nintendo, which plays as well as it did the day I brought it home. My Mario Kart and Super Metroid cartridges have been working for … my god, 30 years now.Devin Coldewey
The longevity of the Super Nintendo hardware and its games is notable, and Nintendo deserves credit for building such high quality products. But another point to highlight is the value of owning something tangible. That copy of Super Mario Kart which Mr. Cowedery obtained close to three decades ago is his today just as much as it was when he obtained it in the first place. It is physical, tangible, and can be played so long as there is hardware to run it – just like my 27-year old copy of Kirby’s Dream Land for the original Game Boy.
The current situation, wherein the video game industry is trending toward selling digital products which are tied to an account or, in some cases, an account and a service, is in many ways a downgrade from the days when the vast majority of video games were sold on physical media. This is precisely the reason that I praised Nintendo for maintaining a focus on physical media while it attempts to improve its presence in the digital media space.
(Aside: I will add an aside that old hardware, including both consoles and games, only has usefulness so long as it works. Many of the classic consoles such as the Atari 2600 and the Mr. Cowdery’s Super Nintendo had outstanding build quality, which has allowed a great number of units to work as good as new decades after their release. But things break, batteries decay. We must carefully consider how to preserve the games on physical hardware before they all decay.)
While I have made my sentiments about physical media known, it is not that digital media has no utility. For example, while expressing my qualms about Steam games which are tied to a Steam account, I opined that Steam has a good reputation for protecting its users’ access to games and is in no apparent danger of going the way of Stadia. Mr. Cowedery favorably (and accurately) compared Steam to Stadia:
I have games on Steam I bought a decade and more ago that I can load up and play as easily as I did then.Devin Coldewey
So do I. This highlights that there are many factors to consider the extent to which a particular service, platform, or product is pro-user, heretofore defined as empowering the end-user by supporting his or her ownership for personal use of that which he or she purchased. Steam games which are tied to a Steam account fall short of DRM-free Steam games and all of the games on GOG, but Steam is certainly decisively superior to a short-lived game streaming service which required users to purchase games which they could never play on their devices on top of a subscription to the streaming service itself.
Mr. Cowerdy also noted digital games on the PlayStation 3: “There are digital copies of games on my PS3 that would boot right up if I felt like digging it out of storage.” I personally think that digital game purchases tied to game consoles is an area of concern presenting far greater concerns than those I noted about Steam. But to be sure, I have a couple of digital games on my Nintendo Wii which I can still play.
The fall of Stadia is a dramatic cautionary about our relationship to the digital media which we ostensibly purchase. It is a garish example of the phenomenon of re-defining purchases as rentals that I noted in my earlier essay. I hope that it causes video game consumers, including the vast majority of consumers who never used Stadia, to think critically about where they buy their games and the nature of their ownership of those games. We need not stop at games. The lessons can readily extend to other popular forms of digital media such as music, e-books, audio books, and the like.
The issues presented by Stadia is far narrower than the issues I raised in my discussion of game DRM, having noted that Steam’s model, even granting its flaws, is vastly superior to what was offered by Google. Stadia’s demise should encourage consumers to contemplate two things with respect to digital purchases. Firstly, are their purchases portable, meaning that if a specific service is discontinued or collapses, will they still have access to their media? The answer is almost self-evident in cases where the media itself is not tied to a specific platform. In cases where the media is tied to a specific platform, for example a Kindle ebook to a Kindle account or a Steam game with a Steam launcher requirement to the Steam platform, the consumer should consider the stability of the platform itself, the underlying company’s commitment to its product, and, to the extent practicable, what the user purchases on the platform and whether there exist more pro-user alternatives for the same product.