So the Playstation Network is down. What does this mean? Well, for most, this simply means that their online features of their console are unavailable. That's a bummer, and a major part of many games' functionality is cut out - but there are still other options, right? Grab a nice singleplayer game, like Uncharted, or Heavy Rain, or Mass Effect (2) - they're all fun with just you, the couch, and a controller. Right?
Maybe you want to sit down with something a little less ponderous. Oh! Try one of the nifty games available through the PSN store. No, of course we can't buy them now, but we bought some before. How about a nice, quick playthrough of Bionic Commando Rearmed. That's a fun game, right? It did okay, yeah?
What? You tried it and couldn't? Isn't it a single-player game? Hmm... this seems problematic.
Now, there's a lot that could be spun off of this. I won't dive into the whole piracy/DRM talk - which is a good way to approach this, but it's a horse beaten to death by those more educated and more knowledgeable than I (not to speak of the further floggings of it by the gaming public as a whole).
I think a more interesting way of looking at this is seeing why it is what it is. Frankly, it's a real bummer to need to validate a game online before starting to play it - Ubisoft tried something similar (if not more invasive) with Assassin's Creed 2, and was met with a resounding "no thank you" from its public (it later killed that particular feature on a later iteration of its Assassin's Creed series).
That said, it's actually a pretty smart way to enforce what it has in its EULA - that is, that the game is a license, and not a sale.
This is of course a tricky issue with consumers, since they are trained to believe that, for the most part, when they pop down money for something that they are then able to use on their own schedule, that they own that thing. This comes up of course when we look at things like the right of first sale and all its repercussions, but what customers really want is to believe that they have the ability to use their thing at their own leisure. And what publishers really want is to believe that they are leasing copies of their work for use, but maintaining some form of control over it anyway.
Neither one is expressly legally right, of course - as these disagreements often do, this falls into a bit of a legal gray area.
But guess what? I don't want to address that either. (I did want an excuse to throw in a reference to first sale doctrine, though, because I think it's an interesting topic on its own in relation to video games). I do wonder, though, what this sets up, as far as a future video game landscape goes.
Do video games get produced like those mentioned above were (Bionic Commando Rearmed, et al.), and when their online infrastructures disappear, so too do the games? That's a little alarmist, I know, but I think it's a valid question, even if it happens to only a small handful of games. One of the best things I think that the video game industry can do, as a fledgling art medium and/or method of expression, is to make sure that its history is preserved. In the past, the presence of a physical medium would ensure that at the least a work wasn't dependent on anything but itself to survive the test of time. In the current age, the digital realm provides its own sort of immortality, since there's nothing physical to preserve and no effective limit on copying or backing up.
Things that rely on a separate service to exist or work, though? That's a little bit of a different picture. Services can and do shut down all the time. Are we in danger of damaging a historical record in service of ensuring EULA validation? Maybe. Maybe it's worth it. Maybe not. Time will, as it always does, tell.