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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How Pirates Change Games (It’s Usually Not An Improvement)

Sea Of Thieves: It’s Not Called “Sea of Cool Guys” – Mike Krahulik

Sea Of Thieves is a game where people who want to be pirates can be pirates. Some players really, really  get into the role. Every online game community has experienced some trolling and griefing; there are always players who invent their own game, though it’s always the same game, in which the objective is to make other players unhappy. The developers of Sea of Thieves specifically designed space for that kind of player—unlike other games which seek to curtail negative behavior and ban players who ruin a good time for others. In a game about pirates, wanton aggression has a place.

 

When You’re a Professional Pirate…

It took me a while to understand how copyright infringement (and counterfeiting) came to be called by the same term that was previously reserved for attacking a ship, killing the crew, and stealing their stuff. The two crimes don’t really look similar: copying a digital file rarely involves a cutlass or a flintlock pistol, taking barrels of rum or chests of gold, and typically doesn’t involve boats at all (except when moving a lot of counterfeit goods internationally, I guess).

I think the term makes more sense from the perspective of the owners of the rights. Pirates of the 15th-19th centuries were hard to find, hard to predict, and hard to pursue. Sometimes their attacks wouldn’t be noticed for months, as it was hard to get good cell phone reception in the mid-Atlantic in the 1600’s. So, when music, movies, books, and games started getting copied and distributed, and rights owners struggled to identify who was doing it, where they were, or what they might do next, as they completely disrupted the industry’s ability to sell and distribute their wares, I imagine pirates came to mind.

 

Countermeasures

Media industries reacted to piracy differently, as best fit the particular medium. The music industry moved away from physical goods and into the digital marketplace. The iTunes Music Store was, in many ways, like the P2P networks that had threatened the industry, except that Apple was the only one seeding and they charged for each song.

The video game industry took a different approach. After a short-lived effort to encrypt physical copies, the industry moved to a digital distribution system. This was easy enough, and platforms like Steam and the Play Station Store were already moving the industry in this direction. The next move, however, was for the internet to start shaping the way games were played: online gaming became increasingly popular, and developers and publishers realized that it was easier to keep track digital copies if devices had to connect to the company’s servers. It was a natural fit: the games already involved internet connection, so it wasn’t much more work to have the serves check to see if players had authentic copies of the games. Because the game required player to be always online, this method became known as Always-On DRM. When it worked well, it was something that honest players would never notice or think about. But it didn’t always work so well.

Rebellion

The new system worked well for some games. Other games… well, suffered. Sometimes, the online connection requirement was obviously completely artificial and frustrated players because the setup made no sense. This exacerbated problems in cases of poor execution: when a server couldn’t connect, it was even more frustrating when the server wasn’t necessary for the game experience. Even today, not everyone has a consistent, stable, high-speed internet connection (especially in the US). Many players just wanted a simple, single-player experience, and Always-On DRM interfered with that. The method created an environment that only allowed players to play when the company was able to facilitate it; if the server was down, or the connection was slow, the game was unplayable. This upset people who paid for a leisure product and then found out they could not use it at their leisure. By increasing friction and fuelling resentment against the game industry, some game companies suffered as they tried to implement Always-On DRM. The artificial inclusion of Always-On DRM to the reboot of the incredibly popular and successful video game SimCity is credited with its failure (notably, the execution of the Always-On DRM was sub-par, as the server was frequently down or buggy).

 

Pirate By Design

Sea of Thieves found success as a game by embracing a certain attitude that the rest of the industry had been fighting for decades. The developers made a space for people who want to undermine the work of others. So far, it’s been an interesting experiment that I can only predict will culminate in the coagulation of that particular kind of trolling, griefing player. I see it as a kind of prison in which the inmates believe they are at a theme park. Maybe the game will eventually give us some kind of data about trolls who revel in ruining the joy of others. Maybe it will teach us something about pirates.

There is already a lesson about piracy for video games. In the early 90s, piracy was built into the business model of some companies. They called it “shareware,” and the idea was that people would copy and distribute a portion of a game. The developer hoped that this would serve as a sort of advertising, and people who enjoyed the shareware portion of the game would then purchase the full game. In 1993-4, idSoftware proved that this model was feasible with one of the most popular games of the 90s: Doom was distributed widely as a shareware product and the company made enough profit for the head programmer and the lead level designer to each purchase a high-end sports car. This year, idSoftware released Rage 2; unsurprisingly, the new parent company, ZeniMax, did not opt for a shareware distribution model. The video game industry has changed over the last 30 years. It takes a special combination of product, customer, and ecosystem for it to be a smart choice to give away a third of your product for free—but it’s not an impossible dream.

Today, piracy remains a problem for the video game industry, but new legal challenges (some with more legitimate basis than others) have proven more urgent: legislation of loot boxes, esports contracts, prosumer sponsorship deals and disclosures, copyright infringement within the game, and copyright infringement for streaming and video uploads.

Maybe that’s the best reason to keep the term “piracy” for copyright infringement that involves copying the entire work and distributing for consumption as a counterfeit or inauthentic product: there are so many ways copyright can be involved in a video game in the current digital ecosystem, have different terms for the different infringements is nice.

Software [Non-]Ownership: EULAs and Thinking About Property

We don’t really own most of the software we buy. As one writer put it a few years ago, “the software on my computer may as well be tied to a long piece of elastic, just waiting for the publishers to give it a tug.” That “piece of elastic” is a license, as in “End User LICENSE Agreement.” Almost all of the software we buy- especially what we download rather than physically purchase- is licensed to users by publishers and developers. These licenses vary from one piece of software to another*, but for a lot of games, the licensor (publisher or developer) has the legal right to take the game away from the licensee. Usually, the licensor will include specific reasons why they might do this, but will often round out the list with something like “or for any other reason.” There are not many limits on what this license cannot contain, must include, or how it has to be structured.

This model has been around for a long time, but I think it is fast becoming a serious problem. The core of the problem is that almost all users think, feel, and act as though they do own the software they have purchased. The American concept of property is still fundamentally rooted in John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (a text that was a tremendous influence on the Founding Fathers and early US statesmen, politicians, and writers): if you work on something (or pay for it, or both), you have a claim of ownership on that thing. It is how we understand all of the other ownership paradigms in our society, and makes it easy to determine where ownership begins and ends. I cannot think of a single instance where one might purchase a physical object and not have full ownership rights over that object. Any arrangement where something is transferred with some kind of “elastic string” still attached is not called a “sale.” It is called “renting,” “leasing,” “borrowing,” or possibly “putting under mortgage.”

For most American minds, the concept of a “sale” includes the concept of a complete ownership transfer. I think it is easy to consider this one of the central reasons why there is so much resistance to copyright law, digital piracy laws, and other abstract controls on ownership of non-physical property. The laws that guide physical property do not apply to digital property, even though the only model we have for thinking about digital property is our history of thinking about physical property (Locke). A key point of contention is whether the legal concepts underpinning physical property must be different from the legal approach to digital property. The fact that US law does take these two different approaches does not mean that US law must take these two different approaches.

It may turn out that changes in net neutrality will affect how publishers and developers rethink this business model. As internet use becomes a worse experience, especially for data-intensive games, it is more important that companies ACTUALLY sell the product, not just license it. A data-choked internet will increase the need for offline gaming. It will create a whole new level of challenges for always-online DRM and increase the potential for server-crashing launch fiascos (e.g., Diablo3 and SimCity). A big reason that companies went to online-DRM models was to combat piracy. If net neutrality slips away, the ISPs might make piracy difficult enough (intentionally or unintentionally) to make developers feel more comfortable with moving to a sale-not-license model.

The only games currently practicing this kind of model are “abandonware” games: games whose developing companies have closed up, or have simply allowed their works to pass into the public without fuss. It is not clear that all presumed “abandonware” games are actually “orphan works” according to actual US copyright law. Indeed, a lot of games I’ve seen peddled under this banner are decidedly NOT orphan works and are not subject to the same freedom of transfer that the seller implies. But the videogame world operates on the legal principle of developers declining to enforce their civil rights against consumers as heavily as its programmers rely on the principle of “last in, first out.”

*I think the analysis is different for different software. Stricter license make sense for, say, reduced-cost versions of editing, publishing, or creative suite software for “Academic Use Only.” My position in this post is certainly not that “all licenses are bad,” or anything remotely close to that sentiment.

 

EDIT/ UPDATE:  Another recent blog post on this subject, from a slightly different angle.