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Rent to Never Own

It has been a long time coming, but I have fully surrendered into post-ownership mindset.

The transition is largely semantic. Nobody “owns” a Steam game in their library and never have – just a non-transferable, revocable license… unless you lucked out and live in a sane country that allows resellable digital goods. Nevertheless, a game library was a thing that had value and meaning, you know? It was exciting seeing Steam sales and bargain hunting so you could accumulate stuff.

At least that is what it felt like.

The final, frictionless step was seeing Final Fantasy XV appearing on the Xbox Game Pass. I was already a bit crestfallen seeing how Kingdom Come: Deliverance was on the Epic Store free-game docket, but FF15 just flipped the metaphysical lights off. It’s not that I felt like a chump for spending $12 on the Humble Bundle that included Kingdom Come or, well, however the hell I acquired FF15. It just became increasingly obvious that I don’t need to do anything anymore. Games just happen.

I beat The Outer Worlds on the Game Pass, and I will never play that game again. I also beat Children of Morta, and I will never play that game again either. I just started on Metro: Exodus, and it’s possible I don’t even bother getting through the tutorial. Why force myself to? The game cost nothing other than download time. Compare that to Outward, the first game I purchased in the Epic Store, and how getting my $5.99 refund request denied made me very salty (bought during the Winter sale and first played much later than 14 day limit).

It’s rote to say Netflix obliterated any desire of mine to own physical movie DVDs. And not even really all that accurate – it was Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go and Disney+ that obliterated all desire. Your favorite movie might have fallen off one service, but likely landed on another. Or perhaps the sheer number of choices, which would keep you busier than any free time you had available, simply made the concept of “favorite” meaningless. Who is rewatching movies anyway?

I will, of course, still be purchasing games on occasion. Probably. Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn’t going to just show up Day 1 on PS+ or wherever. Probably. But what I’m getting at is that if my Steam library just up and vanished – which is entirely possible, and unable to be appealed – I don’t know if I would be mad. Or even really notice. The last time I played something on Steam was December 8th. And damn near everything I would play is already on the Game Pass.

Moving and Ownership

All this week I have been in the process of packing up my apartment in preparation for a move in meatspace. It is just a move across town, and there isn’t too much stuff, but the process always feels exhausting. Packing up the essentials feels really easy, but then you get to all the miscellaneous stuff that you hardly ever use, but would likely miss if it were discarded. For example, how many of your pots and pans do you use on a weekly basis? Do I really need a colander, much less two of them?

What really struck me though was when I packed up my PlayStation 2. Both the system and the games didn’t take up all that much space, but I pretty much turned on the system once in the last year, during an abortive attempt to play FFXII. I kept the system around because at some point console designers decided backwards compatibility wasn’t a priority, and why get rid of it if I still have all my classic PS1 gems?

It was at that point that I realized that I didn’t really need these things anymore. In fact, why I had physical media of any type was a hold-over from what feels like ages ago. I am pretty sure that all the PS1 games I own are also on the PlayStation Network, or even on Steam. All the games and systems and movies I own could easily fit on the external HD the size of my hand. I should be finished packing by putting on a backpack, minus that behemoth of a PC I use.

At the same time… it’s hard. First, you have to fight against the feeling of conservation. Why throw anything away? It’s something that still has use, still has value, albeit diminished by the passage of time. Second, there are all the what-if scenarios and general optimism. Maybe I’ll suddenly find myself on a retro-gaming kick, yeah? Playing old games in 640×480 resolution blown up on my wall via 100″ projector screen… that’s the life. And what if I suddenly drop everything and go teach English in Japan? Surely I’ll want to pack… err… uh.

The interesting thing to me about this whole experience is my evolving concept of ownership. Back in the day, I fought hard against “all-digital media” and the notion that nobody ever really owned anything, they just licensed it. I was there jeering at Microsoft along with everyone else during the Xbone E3 reveal. The curbing or removal of the secondary game market was an existential threat in my mind.

Now? In the middle of packing up my life, I feel I’d be better off owning less. I’m not going to play Kagero: Deception 2 again. Or any of the Tenchu games. Even if I felt like I had the time and inclination, it’s tough going back to anything less than 720p at this point. The game discs might have retained some value – I certainly made a few hundred dollars selling my SNES classics a few years ago – but is that value worth the time and eBay headaches? When I finish a Steam game, I delete it and then set the Category to “Finished,” which I keep minimized. I don’t think I have ever gone back and played any Finished games.

Games are largely experiences and experiences only. Some have replay value, sure, and others (like MMOs) can keep you entertained and experiencing them for weeks/months/years to come. The vast majority though? One and done. The more time passes, the more I feel these accumulation of games are no different than old newspapers; the hoarding of which is something less deserving of a nostalgic nod and more of a questioning eyebrow.

I’m going to lug around my box of historical gaming debris this time around – there’s no sense to unpack what I’ve already packed – but the odds are good that this will be the last trip they make in my possession, one way or another. And I am becoming increasingly okay with that.

Post-Ownership

I am a big fan of digital games. In fact, I am having a difficult time remembering the last actually physical game I have purchased. The Greatest Hits version of Final Fantasy XII (still shrink-wrapped)? Or… yeah, probably Fallout 3 for PC – unless Wrath of the Lich King counts, anyway. As you can imagine, I skipped this entire console cycle and plan to continue holding out until I at least see if the Xbox 720 and PS4 are going to be backwards compatible.

At first, my purchasing habits were driven more by pragmatism than anything else. With the exclusion of a ridiculous find of Fallout 1 & 2 bundled for $15 and Planescape: Torment bundled similarly at a Media Play (anyone remember those?), computer games had always seemed stuck in the realm of permanent MSRP or mislabeled bargain bin treasure. Meanwhile, the local used game dealership offered a nice selection of $25 titles that you could eventually turn around sell back for $10 or so. Between the cheaper games and the likelihood of four-player split-screen shenanigans, there really was no contest.

Then… Steam happened. And cable internet. And WoW too.

Over time, I realized I no longer felt the need to “own” my games anymore. Keeping track of all the cartridges and discs started being a chore, and god help you if you misplaced the registration code for a PC game that you still actually had the disc(s) for. If legally all we are buying is a license instead of an actual good, then why could I not play Diablo 2 for a three-month period when I couldn’t find the case? Between that nonsense and how frequently I found myself downloading no-CD cracks for games I bought, it was really just a matter of time until I started eschewing gaming packaging altogether if I could help it.

What brought all this up to me again is that I am moving to a new apartment this week. While rummaging around in long-forgotten closets, I came across my NES and SNES collections; the wave of nostalgia nearly rendered me unconscious. While I did act on the daydream of plugging the consoles back up in college one time, these pieces of electronics haven’t otherwise seen the light of day for almost a decade. Was I really going to pack them up and move them to a closet in the new place? Would my theoretical future child have the slightest bit of interest in daddy’s ancient consoles in 2020’s era of (mobile) games? Hell, would these things still even work?

Holding onto the Chrono Trigger and Super Metroid and Secret of Mana cartridges impacted me more than I thought it would, even as I was cataloging their condition to sell to a website. It is pretty well understood how ownership of a physical good can influence your perception of its value, so that should not have been a surprise to me. However, I could not help but think: in a post-ownership world, is anyone going to feel this way again?

Maybe our kids still will. After all, I never held onto a Mass Effect disc, but still choked up a bit after uninstalling. A digital version isn’t the same as holding onto a piece of plastic that has been in your life for 20 years, but… well, it will likely be easier to play again than any of my N64 games which are permanently MIA.

P.S. The website I am using is DKOldies.com, whose prices seem pretty reasonable. If you know of a better place, by all means let me know – I simply don’t have the interest in playing the eBay game when I could ship everything to a single location

Ownership

How important is it for you to own your movies and books and videogames?

I am one of those people who fills with righteous indignation on hearing stories about how EA or Steam can (allegedly) ban people from playing the games they paid for based on what they did on the forums. And yet I endeavor to only buy games on Steam – if there is no Steam version and its not an MMO, it doesn’t exist to me. The last console I owned was a PS2.

As I was reflecting on this seeming dissonance, I glanced over at my bookshelf. And what I saw were a lot of DVDs I had not touched in nearly a decade (or more), and unlikely to touch ever again.

What I realized I wanted was:

  1. the ability to play a game, watch a movie, or read a book.
  2. the ability to do so again, at some later date, without paying again.
  3. paying a discounted price for the loss of ownership.

To be clear, by “ownership” I am referring to my ability to resell or gift the item.

My Steam library is sitting at 205 games. There are exactly two titles out of those 205 that I paid full MSRP for, and they were Fallout: New Vegas and Portal 2. At $40, Skyrim was the next highest amount of money I was willing to pony up for the Steam service for an individual game since I first downloaded the client with the Orange Box.

So when people ask that “what if Steam shuts down?” question, a large part of it is moot: there is no scenario in which I’d miss Singularity or KOTOR or Far Cry. I might want the possibility of booting up Portal or Half Life 2 (like when Episode 3 comes out, cough) years down the line, but in all likelihood they would share the same fate as my pristine copies of Xenogears, the Tenchu series, and FF7-FFX in indefinite shelving purgatory.