What Slay the Spire can Teach About Digital Media Access Decisions

When I heard that iTunes was scheduled for destruction, I was baffled and alarmed. I have since learned that the service is being split and re-branded, in a sort of platform-mitosis. But I had several conversations in which my interlocutors were not persuaded of the merits of media ownership over streaming media. Having collected my thoughts, and faced with Google’s Stadia announcement as well as even the phantasmal threat of an iTunes closure, I hope to make a case here that media ownership reduces wildly unpredictable and uncontrollable elements of media consumption.

Slaying The Spire, With Just a Little Luck (Or a Lot of It)

Slay the Spire is a rare case in which combining a lot of ideas into a game doesn’t make the game feel chaotic and confusing. The game consists of progressing through the levels of an eponymous spire, each level consists of some encounter or event—very, very often, a combat event. Combat in this game is a resource-management card game: using a limited pool of “energy,” cards are played that either deal damage or prevent damage from being taken. Each card costs a different amount of energy, so strategic choices have to be made to optimize offense and defense. At the end of a combat, the player is presented with three choices for a new card to add to the deck. The same deck is carried through the spire, so each completed combat presents an opportunity for new cards for future encounters.

Slay the Spire gets its replay value from the unpredictable factors that permeate the game. There is randomness within the combat encounter, as a player’s options are defined by the cards that are drawn from the deck on any given turn. Then there is further randomization in the events themselves (what enemies you fight, if any, on any particular level of the Spire). Slay the Spire adds randomness in the building of the player’s deck: there are no guarantees that you will even have the option to add a certain card to your deck in a particular run of 50 levels in a Spire. (I once spent an entire run through a Spire trying to assemble a deck centered around one specific card that would greatly amplify my defensive capabilities—I never even saw that card, and inexplicably still got to the final level.) And I haven’t even discussed the role of Relics in the game, which can provide small bonuses or fundamentally alter game mechanics. All of these unpredictable, randomly-generated chances and choices give the game replay value and make it interesting, fun, and challenging. Putting choices out of a player’s control can be an element of a great game, but it’s not a part of a great day.

 

Unpredictable Elements

There are a lot of components involved in the everyday digital tasks that fill (and sometimes sustain) our lives. The device has to work properly, it has to connect to a network, the network has to function, and we also rely on the server that hosts the data we want. Anything from dropping a cell phone to a power outage to an unplugged cable somewhere in a distant city can cause the entire process to fail. It is really amazing and awe-inspiring that the entire system works as well as it does. Of course, sometimes, something goes wrong.

For purposes of today’s discussion, I think it’s helpful to divide the possible problems into two categories: those in the user’s control, and those outside of the user’s control. So, whether I charge my cell phone, whether I spill water on my computer, whether I use a program correctly—those are, practically speaking, in the domain of the user. However, the city’s electrical power grid is not something a user can single-handedly maintain or repair. Similarly, the user cannot control conditions at a distant server farm, or control the telecommunications network that links the user to those servers.

This, it seems, is where I diverge from so much of my demographic cohort. I don’t want my access to media to rely on these two additional components (telecommunications and data-holding servers). Maybe I would feel differently if I had better experiences, but I have repeatedly been unable to play games or watch movies because at least one of these components has failed. I have encountered this setback for over a decade- in some cases, I have experienced it daily, over the course of months. In contrast, when I think back to those halcyon days in which I owned my media, the only obstacle was a scratched DVD or a VHS tape that was just too-well-loved (we all have a childhood story of the tape that we watched so many times that the playback became warped and distorted).

Conclusion

The unpredictable nature of the available choices in Slay the Spire keeps an otherwise repetitive game novel and engaging. By forcing the player to consider various probabilities and possibilities, the game creates challenge and the kind of frustration that invites a player to learn, try again, and do better next time. I cannot understand the kind of person who willingly invites this kind of challenge and frustration into the process of trying to listen to music or watch a movie. Conversely, if a player had control over any of these random elements in Slay the Spire, the game would be easier. For both Slay the Spire and media access, generally, the same rule applies: the more control one has over the variables, the less challenging the experience.

There are other issues implicated in this debate that I didn’t touch on: the data privacy questions that come with streaming and DRM protections, the reasonable efforts of artists and publishers to protect their copyrights and profit from their works, the legal status of digital goods, etc. Those issues deserve consideration (which is why I have written about them before and will do so again), but I wanted to keep my focus narrow for the sake of clarity. My perspective on this question can be distilled to one personal point: I do not feel that there is evidence to support the claim that US telecommunications networks are more reliable than I am. I simply trust myself more than I trust those corporations, their services, and their infrastructure. Likewise, I trust myself more than I trust the media companies that provide the platforms and media. This is true on a day-to-day basis (for telecom), and it is true for long-term planning (media providers make no promises that they will last longer than my interest in the media they provide).

I can trust electricity providers—they have proven themselves. Power outages certainly do occur, but their frequency, cause, and duration are within acceptable parameters.* Maybe it comes down to what inconveniences, unknowns, and probabilities we are willing to accept. I can live in a world where my electricity is out for maybe 30 minutes per year. I’m not excited to choose a world in which I can access my own leisure at the leisure of so many other people.

 

 

 

 

*The fact that power failures necessarily cause network failures would be a meaningful riposte if my point were strictly confined to unadjusted uptime comparisons.

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Ownership of Digital Material: I own it, so why don’t I have it?

This topic has been well-addressed by a lot of games journalists. The 4th-to-last panel in this comic summarizes the perspectives of many: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/comics/critical-miss/8674-God-Emperor-of-Steam-Epilogue

Usually, we think owning something is having something. Even for claims to IP, which isn’t tangible, we have a unique and specific claim to the use of something. With some games, I seem to have a claim to use the software, but only at the discretion and convenience of the service; if the service is not functioning for some reason, I cannot play the game. I also cannot transfer the claim to play the game, as I could in the olden days of 2001 when we bought video games in physical format. One might argue that even buying a book was never an absolute claim over the book’s intellectual property. A copyright means that a bundle of rights are reserved for the author/artist/publisher/developer/creator/whoever owns them, and as such are off-limits to everyone else. Yet there is something different here: I could always resell my single copy of the book after I finished enjoying it. I cannot pass on the joy of a used copy of some games managed by certain species of DRM (or at least, with nowhere near the ease one might expect).

It seems that 99% of arguments about rights to own physical vs. digital objects are centered around the right to republish and redistribute (in one way or another). With only circumstantial evidence, I speculate that the overwhelming impetus behind software developers’ decisions to use digital rights management procedures and mechanisms is to curtail the economically harmful practices of the reproduction of their works.

While some may argue the business practices of EA and Blizzard are not economically sustainable, my question is about the legal sustainability of DRM: “Do practices like ‘always-online DRM’ violate fundamental legal principles of ownership?” While they seem to violate some ethical and cultural notions of ownership, they do seem legally permissible.

One of the early lessons in first year contracts in law school is that you can contract out of, or around, almost anything. If you sign (or click accept) a contract that says you agree to limited circumstances of ownership, there isn’t much of a case that you are entitled to more than your contract permits. For example, Steam’s EULA reads: “All… ownership rights … to the Software and any and all copies thereof, are owned by Valve US and/or its or its affiliates’ licensors.” (Section 2, paragraph E: Ownership). Valve owns the software; we humble peons are merely licensed to play with their toys when Steam feels ok with it.

Illegal contracts are not recognized by courts, but consent to not sell a legal videogame is not an illegal contract because neither the subject matter nor the nature of the contract violates the law. So long as the publisher includes some kind of contractual agreement that you acknowledge and accept the DRM restrictions placed on your game, it seems entirely unlikely that there is any legal recourse available to fight these restrictions.

So let’s hope these practices prove economically unfeasible very, very quickly.