On physical copies, bonuses, and Google’s Stadia

This was originally going to be a review of Stella Glow: Song Magic, a five-track album (really more like an EP, clocking in at 22 minutes) that came as a bonus with the initial release of Stella Glow, a tactical RPG for the 3DS developed by the now-defunct Imageepoch and published by Atlus.  Storywise, Stella Glow seems to be Imageepoch’s take on Ar tonelico, because it shares a few themes with Gust’s series (“witches” who can control the elements through singing, and naturally, the witches are cute girls instead of your typical Macbeth old lady witches, because of course they are.) [edit: as user Mamahama very kindly points out below, Stella Glow takes inspiration primarily from other games the developer made before the AT series started.  My most sincere thanks for the correction.]

Note to Hollywood: if you ever start putting witches in movies again, this is what they should look like.  I know you won’t listen, just throwing it out there.

The problem is that I don’t have a whole lot to say about Song Magic.  All five songs on the album are ballads with some nice orchestration, and that’s about all I’ve got, though I do like the closer Ice World a lot.  Nothing here approaches the best songs on the Ar tonelico II albums I reviewed a while back.  That’s not a criticism of this EP, however – both of those albums set an extremely high bar to clear, and even if Song Magic doesn’t quite clear it, it’s still enjoyable.

After not being able to think of anything else to write on this subject, I started thinking about the very idea of owning a physical copy of a game, as well as the bonuses that come with special editions and preorders.  And then Google came out with more news about Stadia, the soon to be released streaming game service that people have been both praising and cursing, and so my thoughts turned to that.  Google recently released some Q&A material that’s meant to answer everyone’s questions about access to and ownership of games bought through Stadia, stirring up even more talk about it before its release.  It makes sense that people would have concerns about ownership in this context.  Unlike the movies hosted by Netflix and other streaming film services, games are interactive, and the right to return to a game months later with an old save file is one that we’ve been able to take for granted for over thirty years now.

While Google says they recognize this right in their latest Q&A, the fact is that they, not the end user, hold the keys.  Just give it a few minor changes to the terms of service, and then a few more, and a few more still, and dedicated Stadia subscribers could find themselves in a situation they didn’t realize they were bargaining for when they signed up.  This is what we lawyers call a contract of adhesion: the kind that you agree to when you click through the typical ToS boilerplate legalese that you don’t bother reading, because the language is insanely dense and convoluted and who has the time?  There’s no room for negotiation; it’s a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, and it’s almost always enforceable in court save some really unconscionable term of the “you owe us your firstborn child” variety.  Naturally, Google’s lawyers know this, and they will make sure they cover their employer’s ass by giving it all the leeway it needs. And if that ass-covering is at the expense of the end user, so be it.

When Google changes the ToS and you can’t do anything about it

And what about those bonuses I mentioned?  You might be thinking that digital bonuses are just as good as physical ones.  After all, a publisher can easily package a digital copy of a game soundtrack or a digital artbook with their game.  They do it on Steam all the time.  I’ve bought those packages on occasion.  Still, nothing beats owning a physical CD, and the same goes doubly for an artbook, one you can hold in your hands and read even when the power goes out (by flashlight or candlelight in that case, but still.)  Also, while digital bonuses are great options for indie developers and small publishers who wouldn’t necessarily be able to send out physical bonuses to everyone, the big guys presumably don’t have that problem.

This is part of the reason that I don’t believe the Stadia will kill traditional console and/or PC gaming as some people have suggested.  Stadia is a nice concept for casual gamers, and I don’t think it’s presuming too much to say they’re a big part of its prospective audience.  Maybe some competitive gamers will also find something to like in Stadia.  However, there are three massive subsets of the gaming population that all the pundits and sensational clickbait hack content creators are ignoring as usual.  First are our friends in economically developing countries and countries with government-mandated telecom monopolies, many of whom have garbage internet connections and can’t obtain the bandwidth necessary to use Stadia.  Second are those who want to mainly play singleplayer games without being forced to connect to the god damn internet the entire time.  And third are those who want to own physical copies of their games and get physical bonuses with those games as often as possible.  For these groups, I don’t think Stadia holds much interest, if any.  I should know; I’m part of both the second and third, and I have relatives in the first who have to deal with their shitty governments’ attempts to stop them from using Skype.

I don’t hate Google for offering up this service, mainly because I don’t believe it will change the face of gaming as we know it.  If you drew a Venn diagram of potential Stadia subscribers combined with the above-mentioned groups and weirdos like me who cared about getting that Stella Glow: Song Magic CD along with that bonus pinup of Hilda, the Witch of Destruction, it would look like an 8.  And despite what the clickbait-writing hacks would have you believe, there are a lot of us out there.

Or maybe I’m just a dumbass who refuses to adapt to this glorious new world that Google is about to show us.  What do you think?

Is this how I came off the entire time? Be honest

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16 thoughts on “On physical copies, bonuses, and Google’s Stadia

  1. I myself tend to gravitate towards digital copies for handheld devices or the PC and physical copies for consoles. Having to carry around something that holds game cards is decidedly annoying, but it’s not really an issue at home where you have immediate access to the library.

    The way I see it, Google’s service is either going to be a gigantic success or a complete disaster. Unless there end up being good exclusives released for the service, I’ll probably end up avoiding it.

    • Digital copies can definitely be convenient for handhelds. Almost every game I had on the Vita was in digital form. And I buy more than my share of games on Steam as well.

      I agree with your prediction. A lot of people think Google’s new service is going to kill every competitor because Google is just so massive and powerful. While Stadia could be successful, it could just as easily crash and burn.

  2. You’re absolutely spot on with all this; I fall into the same camps as you on this, as you probably know. Digital bonuses absolutely are not comparable to physical bonuses, either; a PDF of an artbook, however nice the artwork is, is absolutely no substitute for having a lovely book you can proudly display on your shelf.

    Stadia won’t kill “traditional” gaming because it’s completely unclear who it’s for. It won’t be for the hyper-competitive multiplayer addicts, because they’re super-concerned about framerate and ping and that sort of thing, and consequently will dismiss a streaming service out of hand. It’s not for the casual gamers, because the lineup of games it’s focusing on seems heavily skewed towards the 100+ hour triple-A monstrosities rather than the soccer moms who play Candy Crush. And it’s not for those who enjoy niche-interest stuff like indie titles or Japanese games because… well in the latter case at least, there just aren’t any.

    Let it fail. It’s good for a company like Google to get a slap in the face every now and again. And I speak as someone who uses a lot of their services on a regular basis! 🙂

    • You make a good point about the competitive gamers. I can definitely see the pros, at least, avoiding Stadia, and they contribute to the popularity of new multiplayer games by streaming on Twitch, so their influence has to be considered. As for the casuals, I would have sworn that they’d be the key demographic for Google to capture, but as you say, the opening lineup of games suggests otherwise. Maybe Google figured they would never be able to peel those moms away from Candy Crush.

      It would be nice to see Google get a black eye for once, I agree. At the very least, I can say for sure that I won’t be getting a Stadia subscription – all my weird niche indie and Japanese game needs are fulfilled by my PC and consoles.

  3. I’m glad someone else criticizes Stadia. Since I like owning physical games myself, I don’t really care about it. However, if it does well and other companies follow it, the game industry will encounter new problems. People have already shifted from physical to digital since games tend to be cheaper, doubly so on sales.

    There already is a big problem with ownership of digital media. I don’t know if you heard, but Google closed their E-Book store. I heard customers got their money back, yes, but they intended to read the books. If you buy them physically, you don’t have to worry about this and truly own the product. There are platforms like GOG which did a lot of good but they are few and far between. More people need to see that digital only games come with a huge drawback. It’s that much worse when you’re forced to be connected to the internet constantly. Video game preservation will be impossible on the Stadia.

    Also, since input lag is obviously going to exist, fighting games will take a huge hit in playability. I just don’t see how fighting games are going to work well on Google Stadia. Local play is possible in all fighting games at the moment which nullifies this issue

    • I hadn’t heard about the Google e-book store closing, but that just goes to show Google’s true attitude towards ownership of digital media, despite what they claim in that Q&A. And the issue of game preservation is definitely a problem that’s being made worse by projects like Stadia. Maybe Google thinks most gamers are fine with treating games as temporary experiences, items to be consumed and then forgotten, but I’m not so sure about that.

      I have no problem with the idea of a digital marketplace like Steam, but Stadia is another thing altogether. As you say, if it succeeds, it will cause problems in the future.

  4. You raise a good point on the telecom companies in developing countries, but I’d even say they are a barrier to game streaming in first world countries. I can’t speak to the situation outside of Canada, but the cost of a high speed plan here + an unlimited data cap (which would be required for this) is a tremendously monthly expense. As it stands one can feasibly get away with cheaper, slower, or limited data plans, but streaming lacks that flexibility.

    Plus we also have to deal with ISPs throttling when they decide that we’re using too much data on unlimited plans. Imagine not being able to play your games because your ISP decides you’ve been using too much internet.

    Game streaming still seems like a “pie in the sky” idea, but it’ll be interesting to observe how Stadia does over the next several years.

    • That’s true as well. Here in the US, data plans are way too expensive, and most of us live under effective telecom monopolies anyway. And people in rural parts of the country have even fewer options than the rest of us. The last thing we need is for Google to force gaming into a place where we’re stuck under the telecom companies’ thumbs.

      • That’s a bit funny that even in their home turf Google still has the obstacle of telecom companies to overcome.

        Doesn’t Google Fiber at least, partially, help out those in rural communities by providing some kind of competition to those companies which previously held an iron fist over a region?

      • Maybe Fiber is part of a bigger strategy that includes Stadia and Youtube. It would make sense; if any company has the power to build a media super-monopoly it’s Google.

  5. I don’t see Stadia succeeding. Other companies have already tried the streaming games idea and it wasn’t popular. Lag is a big turn off and I can imagine such a service would prove costly for people who has ISPs that enforce data caps.

    Right now the infrastructure is just not there. In the future streaming may take off, providing that there is no lag and people can just pay a monthly fee to access an entire catalogue. From what I understand Google expects people to be a sub fee and then buy the games individually too.

    When it comes to buying games I usually go digital. I am not fussed about bonuses. The convenience, discounts and not having to physically store games is a great plus. If Steam were to go bankrupt (for example Epic Store beats them out of the market) I can imagine physical sales going up. A lot of people will be pissed if they lose access to the hundreds of games they bought from Valve.

    • That’s nuts. If Google wants users to pay both a subscription fee and to pay for individual games, they’ll either have to offer some amazing exclusives or massive discounts on games. One of the reasons I think Netflix and Steam are so popular is that they either only charge a sub fee and allow unlimited access or offer the service itself for free. All these writers saying Google can do no wrong haven’t thought the problem through. Or else they have, but they’re hoping for some direct or indirect benefits from Google for shilling.

      As much as I like my physical library, I do have a big digital one as well, especially on Steam. Those sales get me every time.

  6. You do know this series is actually taking much “inspiration” from their older games right? Games that precede Ar Tortilla.

  7. I, likewise, have no interest in Google Stadia. I always prefer to own my games physically. While I don’t live in a country with a horrible government and bad internet, I live in a small community, and the internet here’s not exactly great. If I wanted to download many of our current gen games, it’d take a full day of waiting, at least. And yeah, I’ve got trust issues. I still go back to games 10 or 20 years old, and if the service is not going to be there in time, I’m not going to be able to do that. The Nintendo Wii Shop went down and took a number of the games I ‘bought’ but couldn’t fit on the console with it.

    I still do own a lot of games digitally, however. Affordability is the big driver there, given how easy and how deep digital sales go, as well as how many games are thrust at me for free digitally. Steam also helps by having a fantastic game downloader that let’s me pause and restart things as I need to use the internet. And frankly, I trust Steam, GOG, and oddly, Sony given their continued support of the PSP store even after that console went waaaay obsolete, to continue keeping the games available should I ever need them in the future. Just, when they’re new or the prices are similar either way, it’s always physical for me.

    • There are games I would never have bought or even had access to if it hadn’t been for Steam or GOG, but i’ll also go for physical if I have the option. I agree that trust plays a large part here as well. I think a lot of us don’t trust Google’s promises about the player’s ownership of these games, some of which don’t even stand up to close scrutiny themselves. Just look at how they manage Youtube. I know it’s a huge operation, but I have heard how their screwups have caused problems for creators. How will they treat mere consumers then?

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