In my column this week, I talk about Google’s plan for Stadia, their new streaming games platform. This was a hard one to write because on the surface it looks like Google is being stupid or foolish. I’m comfortable second-guessing EA and Activision because they’ve perpetrated a lot of stupidity and foolishness in the past. But Google doesn’t have a history of this sort of behavior, which makes me think I must be missing something.
My favorite part is this bit from the Stadia website:
I know I just said that Google isn’t dumb, but I have to admit this doesn’t rank very high on the Smarts-O-Meter.
INT – GAME INDUSTRY – DAY
Shamus Young and Robert Google are standing in a trade show booth beside a screen proclaiming “STADIA – THE FUTURE OF GAMING IS NOT A BOX”. Shamus is frowning at this screen. Bob is glad-handing people and inviting them to watch a video of a simulation of a Stadia proof-of-concept demo.
Shamus: What’s this about? The future is not a box?
Bob: (Grinning, animated.) Yes! Your games will no longer be limited by your gaming hardware. Instead, these digital dreams with come to you through the cloud, providing an innovative new experi-
Shamus: By “the cloud” do you mean, like, a data center?
Bob: (Somewhat deflated) Well, yeah. I guess. But these are very advanced machines!
Shamus: But no boxes?
Bob: Google’s Stadia technology can’t be limited to something as pedestrian as a simple box. This is pure gaming, delivered through a cutting edge network of fiber opt-
Shamus: Yeah, yeah. I get that. So in these data centers, you just have a bunch of circuit boards piled up in the middle of the room?
Bob: (Trails off, frustrated.) Well, no. Obviously. This is cutting-
Shamus: Cutting edge, right. But what do these machines look like? How are you storing them?
Bob: I guess they would be… on… racks.
Shamus: So you’ve got naked circuit boards on racks? Just all piled up?
Bob: Don’t be silly.
Shamus: So they’re organized somehow? Maybe you keep these parts in some sort of container?
Bob: I’m not at liberty to reveal the technological secrets we use to house our groundbreaking Stadia architecture.
Shamus: So what’s this container shaped like?
Bob: I can’t really…
Shamus: Is it a sphere?
Bob: (Frustrated, clenching his teeth.) No. It is not a “sphere”.
Shamus: Is it some other shape?
Shamus: How would you describe that shape?
Bob: It’s… boxy. A boxy kinda shape.
Shamus: (Pointing to the display screen.) So the future is a box!
Bob: Not just any box, though. With Google Stadia, the future is a box that is very far away!
I get that they’re trying to get us excited about the notion that we no longer need to buy expensive gaming machines, but even the Star Trek holodeck hasn’t transcended the need for a box. You still gotta put all of those fancy electronics somewhere.
The Fading Concept of Ownership
I didn’t like it when the world moved from disk-based games to content platforms like Steam. Sure, it’s more convenient. But I didn’t like the idea of paying for single-player games that depended on a third-party server giving me permission to run what I supposedly owned. I eventually accepted it because it was either that or find a new hobby, but cloud-based gaming threatens to erode the concept of ownership even further.
Shamus, have you not checked a EULA lately? You’re not actually buying software. See, you’re actually buying a license that just grants-
Yes, I know what a software license is, thanks. We’re dealing with two different concepts here:
- I own this ranch because I have a piece of paper that says I’m the owner.
- I own this ranch because I live here, I have the keys, and I’ll shoot any trespassers.
One type of ownership is concerned with morals, laws, and notions of property. The other is based on practical matters like control and physical access. The EULA is an attack on the first kind of ownership, and DRM is an attack on the second. This can get to be pretty complicated, since changes to one can be used as a justification for a change to the other. The DRM is excused because the user supposedly accepted the terms of the EULA, and users breaking the EULA is used as an excuse for why we need stronger DRM.
I don’t like seeing either of these two types of ownership attacked, but if I have to choose between the two I’ll take the second. I pay for my software, and I usually just roll my eyes at the various attempts at literal rules-lawyering in the EULA. “Fine. You idiots can claim whatever you want in the EULA, but I’ve paid for this software and I’m going to do as I please with it. No, I’m not going to buy a second copy for on my laptop. Piss off.” The EULA might state that I’m buying nothing more than temporary access to software I technically don’t own, but I’m still going to use it as I see fit.
But as our access and control is eroded, companies are gaining the power to enforce their ridiculous EULAs. Arguments over whether or not a EULA is legally binding are moot if the company can just press a button and make me stop owning something without needing to give me back my money. I don’t care what the EULA says, I’ll always think of that as robberyI realize this gets to be a little complicated when we’re talking about live service games. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick to single-player stuff. And yes, I realize even THAT line is getting blurry. Obfuscation and incrementalism are part of the strategy publishers are using..
I found the business model of the now-defunct OnLive to be really creepy. You were buying a game for full retail price, and yet you weren’t getting anything in return. No box. No disk. No software on your hard drive. I no longer have the keys to the ranch, and I no longer live on it. Instead I paid for the land and all I got in return was a promise from the actual owner that they’ll send me a picture of the place whenever I ask.
A Disposable Service for Disposable Games
Google’s Stadia might actually be better than OnLive. People are comparing it to Netflix. I’m not sure if this is an assumption or if Google is actually proposing a Netflix business model. I didn’t like the idea of buying a game on OnLive and also having to pay a monthly fee to access the game I boughtAgain, I realize this is how old MMOs worked, but I’m still talking about games that COULD run in isolation in the user’s machine.. But if we’re just paying the monthly fee and there’s no pretense of ownership, then I guess that’s better. Sort of.
It effectively turns the entire platform into a delivery system for the classic “weekend rental” type of games. It’s a game you launch, play through in a day or two, and never think about again. I think this is terrible for games as an art form and I’d much prefer to own a game, but I’ll be the first to admit that a lot of AAA stuff is just loud dross that isn’t worth owning.
Stadia is partnering with Ubisoft, and that seems particularly fitting. Ubisoft is working really hard to corner the market on disposable gamesEA’s annual sports titles notwithstanding.. I’ve played many Ubisoft titles over the years, but I only played them once. (And I often don’t finish them.) I think the last time Ubisoft made a game I wanted to own and revisit was Sands of Time in 2003. That works out, since Ubisoft hasn’t wanted anyone to actually own one of their games in over a decade. Their idiotic devotion to excessive layers of DRM and Uplay hassles has meant that it feels like their games have one foot out the door at all times. Everything is just one closed server, locked account, or compatibility-breaking patch away from locking you out of the game forever. The premise of temporary ownership is built into their business model.
Assassin’s Creed? Far Cry? WATCH_DOGS? Tom Clancy’s Manshoots? Ubisoft’s AAA offerings are gaming’s fast food. Bland, predictable, and disposable. You don’t get attached to a particular McDonald’s hamburger, because you know that on any day of the week you can go and get another one just like it. If Stadia is going to be selling access to Ubisoft titles for a flat fee, then I can finally treat Ubisoft game like the rentals they are.
Google has promised to reveal more about Stadia – including pricing and launch titles – sometime this summer. I guess we’ll see then.
I should probably remind you to read the article, because none of this matters if Google can’t solve the all-important technology problems. These arguments about ownership and user control are irrelevant to most consumers, particularly younger folks who have no memories of the disk-based past. Those people are the future of the medium, and Stadia will live or die based on its ability to deliver them an acceptable gaming experience.
 I realize this gets to be a little complicated when we’re talking about live service games. For the purposes of this discussion, let’s stick to single-player stuff. And yes, I realize even THAT line is getting blurry. Obfuscation and incrementalism are part of the strategy publishers are using.
 Again, I realize this is how old MMOs worked, but I’m still talking about games that COULD run in isolation in the user’s machine.
 EA’s annual sports titles notwithstanding.
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