Why is digital ownership a disaster for gamers?

In less than a week, Sony has given us two timely reminders about how dangerous digital “ownership” can be — and both reminders involve stuff on PlayStation.

Sony said last week that due to content licensing “provisions”, users will no longer be able to watch Discovery content they have purchased and that the content will be removed from their libraries as of December 31, 2023. The list of shows that will suddenly disappear due to corporate agreements is very long. Shows disappearing from streaming services is a common thing, but in this case, people lose access to shows they purchased to watch on-demand whenever they want.

Then on Monday, several users were unexpectedly locked out of their PlayStation Network accounts, meaning they were not only banned from playing multiplayer games or using cloud streaming, but they were also locked out of games they had purchased digitally from the PlayStation Marketplace. Sony. Affected users, who may have spent years building a robust digital library, suddenly found themselves denied access to content they had purchased through no fault of their own. Sony has apparently since restored account access to people who were accidentally banned, but the company has not explained what happened or explained how it can prevent similar unexpected bans in the future. (Sony did not respond to our multiple requests for comment.)

The demise of digital “ownership” is not a new problem. Although downloading and accessing digital content is often easier than going out and purchasing a physical copy of the game in a store, you are putting your trust in the platform owners to maintain their digital storefronts, the content on those storefronts, and their account systems so your access Always works.

The recent closure of the Nintendo eShop online stores for the Wii U and 3DS was a stark reminder of the power of companies to decide when you can buy digital content. While you can always re-download Wii U and 3DS games you’ve purchased, it seems inevitable that Nintendo will stop letting you one day. (It does plan to shut down online services for those platforms, after all.) And do you remember when Google shut down Stadia?

However, these recent PlayStation incidents are all the more infuriating because of their suddenness and seeming unfairness. With Discovery Content, Sony gives users a few weeks to watch their purchased shows one last time before removing them from their library. Sony does not offer any compensation for titles you have already purchased or a way to transfer those purchases to another store. The PlayStation account ban was unexpectedly quick, and while most cases were resolved within hours, Sony has yet to share any public communications about what happened or why users should continue to trust the platform.

I’ve been fully invested in digital content for years. I don’t like the bulk of the actual boxes, and I like being able to change games and movies without having to get up from the couch. But after seeing more examples of companies removing “purchased” digital content — making my digital purchases a long-term rental — I’m seriously considering going back to buying discs and cartridges.

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