Licenses exist for a reason -- we just need to find a way to improve the model, says Patrick.
By Patrick Vuleta on July 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm
Last year, the EU Court of Justice found that publishers could not oppose the reselling of software licenses. On these grounds, a German consumer group decided to sue Valve to try and make the gaming giant allow Steam users to resell their games. Hooray.
However, when we reported this news story, all 61 comments revolved around whether games should be sold as licences in the first place. So that’s what we’ll be looking at today. We’ll start by examining at why licences are used in games, look at why they end up badly, and then finish with how they could be improved.
Is it about my cube?
Games are sold as licenses due to the unsuitability of selling all the different assets that go into a game.
For example, when you buy a car, you buy all its parts in their entirety. You own the wheels, the body, and everything between. You own all these parts because the person you bought it from owned them, and had the right to sell them all to you. Hence, when you buy a car, you can do whatever you want with it–even crush it into a cube.
However, a game is made up of thousands of different assets, all potentially owned by different people. The music may be licensed from someone, the art from another. A game may use a trademark, such as Lord of the Rings, or Lego. Even the game engine used to power the code may be licensed. The Unreal Engine is a good example: Epic Games licenses this engine to other developers.
When it comes time to sell the game, the publisher is not free to simply hand the game over in full. They can’t just hand you the source code (even if it’s compiled), the art assets, and the music and say “This is now all yours to do with as you want”. You simply don’t have the freedom to turn someone else’s art into a cube. As such, unless you’re prepared to negotiate with everyone involved with the game’s production, full ownership rights are inappropriate.
Licences are just contracts
Licenses are often maligned for implementing DRM, or taking away reselling rights. However, licenses are just contracts, and don’t have to be written this way.
In our recent interview with Good Old Games, GOG mentioned it sold its games with a license, but trusted that if a gamer wanted to give a game to a friend, then they could hop in their Goggomobil, give the game on a USB stick to their friend, before deleting it from their own computer.
In contrast, Ubisoft assumes that the deletion bit won’t occur, so imposes DRM to stop the world being taken over by ever-replicating copies of Assassin’s Creed. Both GOG and Ubisoft use licenses, but both have very different DRM practices. In short, licenses do not mean DRM must exist.
Removing the right to resell a license is often justified on the grounds that publishers would not make any money if games were allowed to be resold a week after release, since a game license does not depreciate in value. However, if gamers are looking to sell a license after playing a game for a week, then that just suggests the game is too short in the first place. The problems of reselling a game are game design, and have nothing in relation to the actual form of the license.
On the contrary, giving publishers an incentive to make a game that people don’t want to resell would actually improve the quality of games. They would have competition to make a better product. I wouldn’t, for example, ever want to sell my copy of Skyrim, even if I could.
How licensing could be improved
The real problem is that publishers are not taking full advantage of the flexibility afforded by licensing to find solutions that would work for both publishers and gamers.
So let’s look at a few potential solutions.
The first is to use licenses to make games cheaper, in recognition that licenses impose many costs. For example, I have a license from Adobe to use their inDesign software. I’m quite happy this is a licence, for I’m paying $20 a month instead of the full retail price of $1,000.
Games could easily use this model to garner more impulse sales. Rather than being only sold at full price, a game licence could just give access to a game for a month at half price. This would be a far better price for gamers that just want to try the game on impulse, and given the experience with the Steam sales, perhaps lead to more sales for the publisher. It would also lead to longer-lasting games, if the publisher had every incentive to have people stick around for longer than a month.
On the other hand, licenses could be more expensive. The current model for more expensive games is to market a game as a “collector’s edition” with a fancy box, statue of the main protagonist, and charge $150.
However, instead of packing the game with cheap statues, a collector’s edition could come with no DRM and the ability to resell. While some would say that gamers should not be paying more for no DRM, others would value a DRM-free game at more than the usual crap statue and soundtrack, and publishers would surely recoup any lost costs from piracy.
Licenses could allow resale rights by providing a service where the original gamer pays a small fee ($5) to unlock the license so it can be transferred to another person. The gamer would still recover some of their costs from the sale, and the publisher would be compensated for having to provide the reselling service. Nothing is wrong with having to pay the publisher to do this, since they do incur costs from having to transfer the license.
All of these are just examples. The main point is that since licenses are just agreements made up by publishers, they have plenty of freedom to come up with terms that work for everyone. This is where the discussion of licensing, DRM, and everything else related needs to go.