For the past 25 years, console gaming has brought together friends to enjoy games like “Mortal Kombat,” has energized parties with games like “Super Smash Brothers,” has retained the individual appeal of consoles with games like “Final Fantasy XII” and has allowed older games to hit the used-game market for thrifty gamers to buy them at lower prices. During those 25 years, gamers have been able to rely on these qualities. For the next generation of consoles, they all might go out the window.
Digital rights management, which is a system that helps companies and studios control the distribution of intellectual property, has shoved its way into video games during the past five years. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo each have forms of digital rights management on the Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Wii (Wii U, too), but they also may be investigating technology to expand digital rights management to bar consoles from playing used games, a dramatic shift in console gaming that would alienate many gamers accustomed to saving money on high-priced new titles by waiting for the price to drop. On top of that, console gamers would not be able to bring over games to their friends’ homes to play them.
Navigating around digital rights management is far from impossible, but the problem for the big three will be gamer perception. These companies are trying to nudge their way into the freedom gamers have enjoyed for more than two decades just to squeeze more money out of them. That gamer-console relationship has existed harmoniously for a long time, but within the next 18 months, that relationship will spoil because if used games become off-limits for the next-generation consoles, gamers may find themselves attracted to PC gaming and, more specifically, Steam.
Valve Corporation’s Steam is itself a form of digital rights management. All purchased Steam games are bound to one Steam account, and players have to be logged in to Steam to access them. Steam accounts cannot share games with other Steam accounts, and there is no selling used games back to Steam. For all of Steam’s perceived shortcomings, Valve does things the big three wouldn’t dream of.
Every five or so months, Steam offers sweeping sales of games in every genre, including new games. During any 12-month span, many big games on Steam will be sold at half-price, and a bunch of games reach 75 percent discounts. Another upside to Steam is the number of free games. Both “Dota 2” and “Team Fortress 2” are developed by Valve, and both are free to play with no strings attached. No console or developer would dare offer triple-A games at no cost. There are many other free-to-play games, too, including online role-playing games.
In the past, some Steam games were bogged down by digital rights management, like “Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood,” but it’s rare, and the few games that do have digital rights management are not at all intrusive. The game companies know they don’t need to be intrusive because all the licensing is taken care of by Steam.
So as Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo expand aggressive digital rights management systems for their consoles and content — further restricting the consumers — console gamers should look to the greener pastures of Steam, in which the gamer-developer relationship is more balanced.