You don’t actually own the games you buy on Steam

Yesterday Steam announced that they would not be accepting class action lawsuits any longer. Of course most of the media and the public did an about-face saying “wait, you can do that?” Apparently this type of legal clause has been making its way around several other large companies looking to avoid the perils of class-action lawsuits that are admittedly never very fun to watch. Nobody ever seems to profit from the cases except for the lawyers who orchestrate them, which appears to be the outlined reason for Valve’s change in the first place.

But what if those lawsuits are sometimes necessary? What if we as customers just want to opt-out of this clause and keep all the games we purchased through the old terms of agreement? Most disturbingly, what most are not going to wake up to when they agree to this is that their games, all of those wonderful titles they have bought over the years and on those awesome Steam Sales are pretty much locked up on Steam.  If you don’t like what Steam is cookin’ then tough, your games will be locked away from your personal use until you do.

Something consumers take for granted is the concept of ownership.  For awhile now I’ve thought this concept has been very warped when it comes to digital purchases.  Steam is a closed platform for better or worse.  A lot of games go into it and you’re welcome to register outside keys inside of it, but nothing ever comes out.  You can’t take your copy of Quantum Conundrum out of Steam and install on your new laptop, you’ll need to install and run and login to the Steam service first.

Let’s step back for a minute and consider alternatives and what sort of options you *do* have when buying a game:

  • DRM-free: Sites like will let you buy games DRM-free and install them anywhere.  The only catch is that you need to install it through GoG, not anyone else.  Sure, you don’t need to login to GoG to play the game, but there’s no game-only installer you can easily move to another PC, it needs to be done through the source.
  • Truly DRM-free: Often buying indie games from the developer themselves will let you get the real-life DRM-free installer that you can take anywhere.  This is one of the areas that indie devs shine, but don’t expect to find the same thing from big name publishers.  This is also an area that bundles exceed, they have always provided me with an installer that doesn’t require Steam or Desura.
  • Subscription and time-based: Sites like OnLive offer a service where you pay to rent a game from their servers either for a limited time or forever.  Hopefully it is obvious to people that since you are playing directly on OnLive servers, you never own the game outright, its just a really good lease.
  • Online-always: And here is where services like Steam and Origin live.  Technically you can setup Steam to work offline, but you still need to run Steam first to run most of their games. From my experience, Steam prefers you to be online and will make you jump hoops to get it to work otherwise. Individual games like Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 on Blizzard’s service would fall under this too.
  • In-store purchase: This option used to be so simple. You got a disk and it was yours and nobody could tell you otherwise. But these days even that isn’t true. Expect to install services like Steam and Origin to get access to the game proper after inserting that shiny new DVD disk.

Is this fair? Probably not. But its the nature of the modern digital world. Technically if you truly owned the software you would be able to modify it as you please. But in this case I also think that distribution services like Steam would be able to tell you to take a hike if you wanted to download it more than once. Might sound crazy, but as someone who’s owned and installed Microsoft Windows as well as many other MS products over the years, I know that true software ownership does come with its price. To the credit of Steam, they have traded in some of the benefits of real ownership for great consumer convenience, which I think is fair.

Just to switch gears and play devil’s advocate I’ll give an example of why limited ownership may be a good thing in today’s world: About a year ago Spotify hit the US. I was a very early adopter and actively got friends and co-workers to try the service out. Easy-to-find music when I wanted it without going through the trouble of buying songs through Amazon or iTunes was a huge step forward for me in music discovery. I even started paying for their premium service (still do). But many saw that this service gave up the benefits of owning the songs directly. After all, if Spotify gets hit with a huge lawsuit from music producers or just plain flops altogether, all of my cataloged songs go down with the ship. Critics loved to point this out, but I saw the obvious truth: if they go down, I’m only out for the time and money spent for using it. I don’t pay for anything up-front and I get a ton of value for when I’m using Spotify right now. This was the point many were missing: you don’t always need to own to enjoy digital media. Ownership does not imply some hidden value that you’re missing out on by leasing it otherwise.

All of this could apply for Steam except, well, you do pay for things up-front and you do pay large amounts of money with each purchase (except on Steam Sales I guess). You often trade purchases of the same price you could have made at the store for the convenience of not going to the store. But if Steam yanks the plug because of some publisher dispute or just because Steam doesn’t plain like you then there are no retributions because you never owned the software to begin with. This is what I’d like people to understand: Steam is basically a subscription-style service in the vein of Spotify or Rhapsody, but with a far different pricing structure, one that matches brick-and-mortar shops. It gives the illusion of ownership when it isn’t there.

My prediction is that our concept of video game ownership will slowly fade. In the not-so-distant future we won’t buy disks to begin with and everything will be digital. Publishers will have created many brand-new ways to sell you the games on a subscription or free basis, while buying more digitally fake things within the game. Before long the idea of owning a copy of a game may just pass into memory, but before any of that happens we need to realize what we get for today when we purchase a fully-priced game on Steam: A digital rental and not a tangible copy.


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About Ryan Saul

Hailing from Portland, OR I work by day and blog by night. I like to consider myself a video game connoisseur, playing as many new things as I can get my hands on. Its hard to hold me down to one game for very long before I move on to the next big thing. Luckily, that works pretty well in terms of video game blogging.

3 responses to “You don’t actually own the games you buy on Steam”

  1. giantsbane says :

    If steam ever goes under, there will be such an uproar it will be out of control. Steam gets away with charging prices comparable to retail because of how stable the service is. Your “rental” is so long for most purposes you “own” the game.

  2. fateamenable says :

    Spotify only appeared in the US last year? Been around in Europe for quite a few years now!

    I think you make the essential point – if Spotify goes under, there’ll always be some other service to listen to music free, and all you’ve lost is your subscription, that you would have ‘lost’ or spent anyway. I find it baffling that the world’s reached the point where we can have literally any media we want on a screen nearby/in our ears in seconds, without any need to actually own a CD, or a DVD, or a tape, or whatever, and yet we still seem to think it’s a weird viewpoint when somebody forsakes that…

    PS See Charlie Brooker also loves Spotify; this article’s up to his usual brilliant standard and worth a read, and his playlist is definitely worth a listen :D

    • Ryan Saul says :

      Yea it only went live here last year, but we knew about it pretty well through our Euro tech friends. Lot of licensing hurdles to get over in the US. I asked for an early entry and got in when it was still in beta, pretty much have loved it since.

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