“Do we truly own our digital game libraries?”
This is a question that is constantly asked throughout all facets of the gaming community, especially with the focus of most systems to digital-based games and services. One that many believe to be answered with a resounding “NO”. Considering that we have to download from a service’s (Steam, PSN, GOG, Xbox Live, etc.) server to access the game in the first place, and if we don’t back up every game we own to a hard drive we could lose them if we lose access to the related service. We have seen many games disappear from platforms, yet as gamers we still were granted access to those games. Deadpool is a prime example of a game that has left and returned, only to leave again.
But what happens when a developer or publisher doesn’t want you to have access anymore, regardless of if a game is still available for sale or not?
I found myself in this very scenario, losing complete access to a game I added to my steam library in 2015. While sitting at my PC as I tend to do while at home, I was suddenly greeted with a message from Steam letting me know that “A Steam Product code you activated has been removed from your account.” The game in question was a small indie game which I didn’t even remember owning, titled Butsbal, developed by Xtase Studios. After researching the game, it turned out I had redeemed it from an indie game bundle from the now defunct site, Indie Royale.
This didn’t make any sense, because it wasn’t like Valve was shutting Steam down and removing the vast library of games with it. It brought about a fear that I hadn’t even thought of, and one that had nothing to with the game that I just lost. What scared me was the thought of ‘how does a game I redeemed via a legitimately purchased steam key over three years ago, suddenly find itself removed from my account?’ The baffling part was how this could occur, and even more so how it is even allowed after so much time has passed. I contacted Steam Support on Twitter prior to submitting a ticket, and unsurprisingly, they never responded. I decided to check the community pages, and it was being flooded with hundreds of others having the same issue. The state of confusion was growing, with many trying to remember where they purchased their games to find a place to turn to for support.
As I was prepping this article to discuss the issue I decided to contact the developer for comment, and realized that the developer had already responded to the situation. According to the developer Xtase Studios, they were looking to turn off access to unused steam keys being sold on shady third-party sites after Indie Royale and IndieGameStand had shut down. Allegedly the owners of those sites had started illegally selling the unused keys instead of returning them to the developers. In trying to rectify the illegal sales, the developer made the mistake of revoking all keys, even those already redeemed. Realizing their mistake and seeing the community suddenly active, they quickly responded by taking responsibility. Xtase Stuidos have been working with people to get them new keys so they can get their game back on Steam.
While this was a small independent developer with a game that many may not have heard of, it made me wonder what would happen if this scenario occurred with a game of a larger scale. What if an independent developer made a game that went viral and became hugely successful? They could theoretically make their money, shut off all keys, and then disappear with the money. Even worse, what if a AAA studio decided years down the road you no longer own their game since you’ve had plenty of time to play it, and that it’s time to renew that “license” for the digital media you bought. Is it likely that either of these scenarios occur? Probably not, but the power that Steam has given the developers to be able to revoke keys years later sets a dangerous precedent. It also makes me worried about not just my Steam library or any other digital games I own, but about all of my digital media libraries which include movies, music and more.
I never did hear back from Steam Support when it came to how this could happen, but based on how poor their customer service has always been, I wasn’t surprised. It was really heartening to see the developer in this instance work quickly to make things right, but next time those who lose access may find themselves left with the short end of the stick. I’ve lost digital libraries (one particular site went down and with it hundreds of dollars of manga) before with platforms shuttering their virtual doors. We all accept this risk to some point buying digitally, but no one expects it to happen on a healthy digital platform. After this most recent case it may be time to have an open discussion about how much power that some platforms give to the developers and publishers concerning access to their games post-purchase.
Let this be a reminder that going digital may make things easier, but we should continue to remain vigilant of what games we buy and just where we are purchasing them from. We love to say that we own these games, but the reality that comes to light in situations like this, is that we really don’t.