The Increasingly Limited Digital Release


Having the option of downloading games for purchase is convenient, provided one has a connection that can handle the increasing sizes of games, but it’s also pulled up a major inconvenience in that this increased availability is fully at the lack of mercy of publishers. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to games, but it seems to come up the most in that field. While subscription services seem to have a regular mindset of rotating out different works depending on popularity and rights expiration, the main thing about games being pulled completely from digital stores is that they’re not tied to subscriptions, therefore they’re made to be less like a service as streaming services are. However, a digital download service is still a service, whether or not someone is holding onto the data locally.

P.T. is an obvious major example, since it’s a demo for a game that won’t exist and therefore the publisher wanted all traces of it wiped. It can’t even be re-downloaded if it’s uninstalled. Being able to download things previously downloaded or at least added to a library seems like a toss-up between stores after things get pulled from sale. It was a free demo, but this happens for paid items too.

As far as games that are paid for, the biggest examples in these categories involve licensing, either for music, likenesses, or a whole movie. They might eventually get re-released, but there’s no telling if they will be, how long it will take, or how long this renewal will even last. Aside from licensing being even more of a tangle now than it was before when games tended to ship on a disc or some other media, publishers might just take down a game for any arbitrary reason, such as the game having low scores or just not selling well.

Then there’s limited-time releases. Lately, this seems to be Nintendo’s thing. For whatever reason, they’ve started having paid re-releases of their games be available for a limited time not only in physical form, but on their digital store as well. It also all ends at the weirdly specific date of March 31, 2021. Why this date? It could be a “fiscal year” thing, since those hardly ever seem to line up with actual years. Maybe they want to boost their numbers in a time with the global economy possibly collapsing, and perhaps society itself along with it. Maybe they’ll even go back on their word, like they did for another free game that was originally said to be available for a short time. Maybe that was an experiment to field having their games be limited release as well, but the difference is that was a free game that isn’t even a big download, so anyone could feel free to download it.

In the vein of more limited free games, recently Sega put four very limited-time games up on Steam for free, including one prototype that came out of a troubled studio that since closed while trying to skirt around the actual issues from its development. They were really only accessible for the weekend, but they still seem to be present in the libraries of those who at least clicked a button on their respective Steam pages. Steam seems to hardly ever remove games from libraries entirely without the user’s decision (users can request games be deleted from their own libraries if they choose), even if they’re pulled from sale, but this could shift massively if certain things went down. As well, if a game has an internal mechanism preventing play past a certain point of time, or if it updates to effectively brick the game, that’s another concern for anything meant to be played outside of some very specific beta period.

I keep mentioning games because of all the things meant to be downloaded, those seem to come up a lot as far as things being pulled from sale. I don’t follow the music industry closely, but I hardly hear about digital download albums being pulled from stores often, if at all. If the music industry with its increasingly complex rules of licensing and litigious habits to go after any video that uses even half a second of a song catches on to this, that’s going to make finding music more complicated. In the world of streaming, there was a period when the Tidal service had several artists sign to it and drop their music from all other streaming sites, but this eventually returned for at least the most part. As lawyer-happy as the music industry gets, they’ve at least made some concessions over the past many years, like allowing music to be downloaded without any DRM attached to try to curb the rampant piracy that defined the time of old Napster and Limewire.

When it comes to DRM on games, though, it seems to only be increasing. Serial offenders such as Ubisoft with increasing layers of protection have had many incidents with the group of people actually willing to go the legal route, the general public, related to DRM breaking the games. Several times they’ve also turned to cracks developed by the piracy groups to undo their mistakes. Maybe a smaller studio will relent and remove DRM if it’s been cracked or even go without entirely, but a large part of the industry seems to lean heavily on Denuvo or other technology these days, and whether or not a game will eventually remove it after possibly a year is a toss-up, possibly on how well the game does, or if they even acknowledge the idea of removing it if the game has been cracked. It’s one thing to be concerned about hacking in games, it’s another to run the risk of locking out legitimate buyers from games that don’t actually need to connect to anything to play, such as singleplayer campaigns.

Maybe the DRM thing seemed off-topic, but it’s really another way of making it harder to access a digital release, especially if implemented poorly. If a download service isn’t up to the expectations of a customer, they may be more likely to pirate, depending on how much they want to access the content. It could range from something like the game not being on a preferred store, or said store not accepting their payment methods or supporting their chosen platform, to the game itself being inaccessible because of some arbitrary code meant to prevent piracy. Either that or they ditch the PC platform entirely and stick with consoles, which is maybe what some publishers want, since it’s less platforms to develop for and it could be more difficult to hack and get away with it for the average player. Plus there’s the whole angle of it being curated and dominated by the console manufacturer, which maybe that’s what all companies are aiming towards, just having full control. Therefore, this new push toward cloud-based gaming is a concern if it’s going to be anything like Stadia where games are bought individually, but even if it’s more like Xbox Game Pass where it’s a subscription to access a larger selection of games, it’s still a concern. This goes especially for those who aren’t on fast enough connections to stream games, because then there’s a new barrier to entry, where it’s not buying an expensive device to play things, but making sure that someone is in a developed enough place to have access to high-speed connections and also afford to live there in general.

The long story short here is to know what one is getting into when they look into digital purchases. I’m not even sure if I’ve found any kind of movie or TV download service that lets you buy and keep video files like how music download services can be. Generally, the less obstacles between a user and content, the better. This goes for time limits as well. Disney’s “vault” thing was always under scrutiny, any related ideas should be as well.