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