A little over a couple of weeks ago, Ubisoft announced that starting September 1st, Assassins Creed Liberation HD, will be pulled from sale, alongside a few more obscure titles. More importantly, they have also announced that they’re shutting down all online features for a ton of their older games(full list here). What this means is that, in addition to no longer being able to play these games online, you will also lose access to all DLCs, regardless of whether you own them or not.
Which means that, yes, at Ubisoft’s request, Steam is going to remove products people have bought from their libraries, with no refunds.(This has turned out to be false. The DLC in question will be completely unavailable to play, but will not technically be removed from your library) When the news first came out, this turned a few heads, but the backlash has been minimal at best. Perhaps most people don’t care about these particular games. Maybe you don’t even play Ubisoft games. But this deserved to be big news. And if you are a PC gamer, you should care about it. Here’s why.
You wouldn’t delist a car
You would think that ownership is a fairly straightforward concept. You buy something, and it belongs to you. You own something, and if someone else takes it, that’s stealing. In the real world, that’s very much the case. If you buy a car from Toyota, they’re not suddenly going to come take it back in the middle of the night. You paid for it, you use it, therefore it’s yours to do as you please. In the digital world, however, things are a bit more nebulous. Most of you probably believe that you are the owners of your video game collections, but, if Steam is your platform of choice, that’s not entirely true. Technically speaking, according to the Steam TOS, you don’t actually have the right to claim ownership over anything in your library. You’re merely paying to be granted access to a product, and said access can be taken away whenever the platform desires.
Many users know that Steam can ban you from accessing your library forever if you break their Subscriber Agreement. That’s a caveat that Steam’s user base is okay with, for obvious reasons: the rules are simple and straightforward, and they’re also sensible enough that the platform would be worse without them, if it could function at all. So even though you don’t technically own your games on Steam, it’s not like they can be taken away from you unless you do anything wrong. Right? Not quite. In addition to restricting your personal access to your game library, Valve are perfectly within their rights to also remove a game at any time, without even giving a reason. Obviously, if this was a common occurrence no one would buy games on Steam anymore. And Valve themselves take this kind of stuff very seriously. It’s not like they randomly go delisting games from people’s accounts. In fact, in the entire history of Steam, this was only done once, for a game called Order of War: Challenge, a multiplayer title whose servers were shut down. You probably haven’t heard of that particular game, which is probably also why Steam agreed to remove, and why no one really cared about it. That’s also the reason why Ubisoft started their announcement with two of their most negatively reviewed games. After all, who cares about not being able to play stuff no one was playing in the first place, right?
Pushing the boundaries
Wrong. Let’s talk about microtransactions. Today, they’re so commonplace, that you can’t possibly play a video game without being aware of their existence. People groan about their existence and mock them, and sometimes, once in a while, a developer steps so out of line with their greed that they actually get some pushback. But in general, the gaming community is fine with microtransactions. In fact, they’re so ubiquitous today that it’s hard to imagine a video game landscape without them. But it did exist. Once upon a time, the concept of buying a game piece by piece didn’t exist. You paid for a game, bought a disk, brought it home, installed it, and you had access to the whole thing. Sure, there was the occasional expansion pack, but those were giant lumps of content that sometimes even rivaled the base game in size, and were always developed after the base game had already released. Then came the microtransactions. At first, they appeared in free to play MMOs and other multiplayer games, particularly Korean ones. Back then, they were considered a more consumer friendly alternative to paying a monthly subscription. But as the market grew, and microtransaction monetization became more and more predatory, it became apparent that they were no longer consumer friendly, and were, in fact the best way to make a boatload of cash. And soon enough, AAA developers took notice.
The first ones to test the waters were Bethesda. As the first official piece of DLC for their new game, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, they released the Horse Armor Pack, a $2.5 one time transaction which unlocked some purely cosmetic armors for your horse. At first, people were outraged. A cosmetic asset in a single-player game, selling for real money? This was unheard of. Then, it became a joke. Sure, Bethesda tried to sell horse armor for real cash, but all the other Oblivion DLCs were really cool, and after that reaction, surely they weren’t going to pull that again. And for a bit, they were right. Fallout 3 had DLCs, sure, but they were all decently sized expansions. But as everyone was laughing off the Horse Armor Pack as a one time screw-up, it was making money. By 2009, everyone forgot about the controversy, but it was the top selling Oblivion DLC. And the AAA industry was once again taking notice.
When Skyrim: Special Edition released in 2016, it came bundled with it’s own dedicated microtransaction store, the Creation Club. It even came with an Easter egg: not one but two separate Horse Armor Packs, and everyone laughed like they were in on the joke. Of course, what they were forgetting was that the joke used to be on Bethesda, but it was now on them.
In today’s market of loot boxes and XP boosts for single player games, something like Horse Armor would not only be acceptable, it would actually be considered a good deal. It’s easy to forget just how much the standards for what’s acceptable have fallen, and it has happened right under our noses. The reason I’m recapping the entire story of microtransactions is pretty simple: it’s incredibly easy for companies to normalize what used to be considered abhorrent.
It will happen again
Large developers aren’t your friends. They’re companies that exist for one reason: to make as much money as possible. They have no shame, no ethics and no boundaries that we don’t force them to have. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile, and if you let them take a mile they will sell it right back to you inch by inch. If there’s money to be made, or costs to be cut, they will stop at nothing.
You may not care that Ubisoft is removing access from DLCs from these specific games. But trust me, it won’t end here. Soon enough, they will be removing the DLCs from the games you care about as well. Then, they will be taking away the base games too. Maybe sell them to you for a monthly subscription instead. Gamepass is already a thing, right? AAA developers are always testing the waters for new and worse ways to make money, and every time they get away with something, they become more brazen. Allowing a company to get away with literally taking away a product you paid for, with no justification beyond simple cost cutting, is unthinkable, and if these are the standards consumers will put up with, things are only going to get worse. A line needs to be permanently drawn at some point, and I’d say the concept of permanently owning the single-player content you buy is as good a place as any to draw it. You may not think this is a big deal now, but neither was Horse Armor.
So, what can you do to let them know this is unacceptable? Make noise. Tweet. Write a Reddit post. Don’t buy the next Ubisoft game and let them know exactly why you’re not doing it. I’m not optimistic(or delusional) enough to think that whoever reads this article will make a dent in their bottom line, but maybe if all of you make enough noise, it will reach enough people to actually matter. At the very least, I can say that I tried.