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Gaming in the Late Stages

So you’ve reached the final level of your game, maybe even the final boss. Or you’ve just hit level 20 in your D&D campaign. Congrats! Those are all fantastic accomplishments. While we do mean the sentiment, that isn’t what we mean by Late Stage Gaming though. So what do we mean by Late Stage Gaming? Like other media before it, it looks like games are starting to push to the subscription only model. A path where you’re not just paying for extras, but paying to maintain access to the game itself. What exactly is happening? What does this mean for us as gamers, both tabletop and digital? When should we really start to worry? Is there anything we can do about it? Won’t somebody please think of the children?!? Sit down with Never Say Dice this week as we try to cover some of those questions in today’s post. - A

B: “Late Stage Capitalism” is a term describing the commodification and industrialization of every aspect of life, especially once the profit motive overtakes even elements of basic sustainability ("this quarter has to be more profitable than last quarter, even if it puts future profit at risk"). If it feels like big corporations are constantly trying to find ways to squeeze every penny from you, that’s because they are… and now you have a name for it. Any description of capitalism is be centered around capital’s acquisition of wealth, of course, but modern technology and decades of regulatory capture under neoliberalism allow for extraction to a degree unimaginable even by legendary plutocrats like John Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, or Mr. Moneybags from the Monopoly box. For a concrete example, take any piece of (non-game) software: your Acrobat, your Office Suite, your preferred lottery number tracking and prediction system. Remember when you bought a copy, installed it, and didn’t have to pay again until you upgraded to another edition - even when there might be years (or multiple computer generations) between upgrades? All of those are on subscription models now, where you pay a regular fee for the right to use it… or even not use it, if your projects tend to be staggered. Before long, you end up paying far more than you would have when you were able to just buy the product outright. But what choice do you have, particularly if your job or community requires you to use the “industry standard?” And how many times have you subscribed to a whole streaming platform because it had one or two shows you wanted to watch? There might not even be a physical release for you to buy as an alternative, meaning things dropped by streaming services are often essentially erased from existence.

Electronic gaming has been bouncing against the “subscription model” for a while now. Games with massive hosting requirements (like MMORPGs) were subscription-based from the beginning, but this could be seen as a sort of “membership fee” to access a shared social space alongside other players. Valve’s Steam launched in 2003 and showed how an electronic storefront could be successful: it would be the same for the consumer as if they had purchased a game at the store, installed it on their hard drive, and they threw the original CD in a cupboard… except there was no original CD, and you’d launch the game through Steam instead of directly on your computer. But you still “owned” the game to the same degree you had a physical copy, and you could install it across multiple generations of computers - as long as you were able to access Steam. XBox Live Arcade brought the concept to consoles just a year later, and by the next console generation, digital storefronts quickly became the standard way that people buy electronic games. The PlayStation Plus service would add a wrinkle with it’s “free” games - if members claimed these titles, it treated them the same as those they had directly purchased… as long as their PlayStation Plus account was active, and this approach, something between a subscription and a rental, has become the way many of us acquire games. As our libraries grow, so does our incentive to remain members and maintain access to the piles of games we acquire.

But a long anticipated wrinkle in the system finally appeared as the first generation of consoles with online stores were phased out: the online storefronts began shutting down. The official stores for the Wii, Wii U, 3DS, PSP, and XBox 360 are all no more. The concept of “buying” a game digitally has been thrown into question as titles people are told they “own” become unavailable. Are all digital purchases just rentals, in the end? What does "ownership” even mean?

Today’s post is inspired by two recent comments made in the gaming space: one being the statement from Ubisoft’s Philippe Tremblay about gamers “needing to feel comfortable with not owing [their] game[s],” and the other a mini-essay by D&D historian Ben Griggs about the potential negative effects on tabletop gaming from both the next upcoming edition of Dungeons & Dragons and the balkanization of fantasy gaming across competing systems created in response to the OGL fiasco last year. Both these statements remind us that the media we love so much, the media we create our own stories in, are controlled by massive corporations that want to extract as much from us as possible, in more ways than ever before, with little recourse to the consumer. Andy, what do you think about what these statements say about the status of gaming as a hobby and as an evolving artform?

A: Let me start by saying that I don’t think the hobby or art of gaming, whether digital or tabletop, will be going anywhere. By that I mean it isn’t going to just immediately disappear after one of these big issues comes to bear, nor will it completely fade away. These forms of storytelling are too rich and important to people to completely fall by the wayside. What is going to happen, though? To answer that, and Bugsy’s question regarding recent gaming statements, the answer is clear: trouble. It may not come for a while yet, but you can expect trouble to come to gaming as a hobby. Before I get to that trouble, one concept that should really be driven home is "ownership."

As a kid, one of my friends (likely Bugsy) might have asked me “have you seen Star Wars?” That would have been no surprise, being a cultural touchstone for a few generations now, but especially, I feel, for Gen Xers and the Oregon Trail Generation (I know, most people say "xennials," but I still don’t like that term). Of course I’d seen it, we had a tape of it at home! Did we own it though? Well, it was a series of recordings on Betamax tapes. All off of broadcast TV, with commercials that had likely been painstakingly removed during a careful watch. Although, it would have been formatted from its theatrical version to fit our screen and edited for content. Our viewer discretion was advised. But did we own it? We owned the tape, the Betamax VCR and the TV. But did we own Star Wars? I suppose we did. Later, when the special editions came out, I was super pleased to be given a box set on VHS. Even later still, I had the DVD versions which include the original non-special editions as "bonus features." We can say that I probably owned it both those times, at least. Now, mostly due to having kids, I have a subscription to Disney Plus, which includes all the Star Wars movies. The movies are just as available as they were on the physical copies, but do I just own access to them now? Can I even "own" access?

Ownership is a funny thing. I suppose a better description would be that I subscribe to access to Star Wars, but Disney owns it, and they can take away that access whenever they want. They could contract those properties out to another party for their platform. Even if a media company “owns” a movie or show, do even they own it? Take the recent Willow series, for example. A media that's now been erased from history, a fear Bugsy already mentioned above. While I had my problems with the series, I can see one reason why they may have removed it: the show frequently included covers of modern music. The contracts for songs often have very different usage rights that films and TV. Certainly, this was something most people didn’t often think about before streaming meant everyone had to learn about these rules if they wanted to know why their favorite shows were (or weren't) available. With the push towards AI and actors of all types rightfully trying to protect ownership of their own image/voices, who know sjust  how fiddly things will get.

When it comes to games, things will likely be very similar. Companies will continue to push for subscription models where we, at most, own access, whether it be digital games or tabletop RPGs. This will likely come with some benefits, such as ease of use or support for the products - features that offer greater access like D&D Beyond or that add something to the game itself, like special equipment. With digital gaming, there is likely little we can (legally) do but to play our backlogs and vote with our money. In the end, as with other forms of media, piracy will often feel like a simpler alternative to the growing complexities of legal access, and/or the hobby will simply become too difficult for most newcomers to take part in on a widespread basis. Tabletop RPGs are a bit different though. While some fears of the route digital gaming has taken will apply, it's harder to take away the stories we tell with each other around tables both solid and ethereal. Systems may change, the way to play may become more difficult or we may resort back to the familiarity of our existing books. The rising tide of players we’ve seen  in recent years may soon come crashing upon the shores of subscription doom, but all will not be lost. We will still meet around our tables, we will still tell the stories. We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

So while there's reason to fear the thievery of our methods of sharing and telling stories by commercial corporate greed, there's some hope. The pirates will ride the tides of the world wide web, and nerds all around while dust off their loose leaf and graph papers, or make new games of their own, unaffiliated with the big publishers. Games may go quiet, never completely silent. Digital gaming may be new, but games and the stories we tell with them are far older and shall live on. Take some time to think about how you share your own media collections and maintain them as well with the people you care about. Until next week folks, hold tight to those dice and enjoy your stories.

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