Digital ownership

Do we own our games? Ubisoft shutdown and the future of digital ownership

Ubisoft’s decision to shut down servers for “The Crew” and revoke licenses from players has reignited discussions about digital ownership and its potential pitfalls. This situation offers an unsettling parallel to the concept of “You’ll own nothing and be happy,” a phrase associated with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Great Reset” initiative.

Digital ownership

You’ll own nothing and be happy a notorious quote from the WEF’s “8 Predictions for the World in 2030,” which was published in 2016 and was on the WEF Agenda blog until May of 2023. The article can still be viewed via internet archives and is just a summary of an essay written by Danish politician Ida Auken.

The phrase has been used by critics who accuse the WEF of desiring restrictions on ownership of private property. The phrase has also been used by critics of the subscription business model, and software as a service.

In itself it may seem somewhat harmless, as to date there were no real world examples as to how this would work. That is at least until now, UBisoft has shut down the servers for The Crew, which happens all of the time.

One may think that you would have the opportunity to play the game that you bought straight off the disc sans online content. No, this is not an option because this is an only online game. In previous times where similar situations have occurred, the gaming community have come together and hosted servers for what should be dead games. An example of this is Need for Speed: World.

Need for Speed: World, along with other EA free-to-play titles Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, and FIFA World, went offline on July 14, 2015. In May 2018, NightRiderz is an open-source project was started, the main goal is to restore the game in its original state, with more features and cars. It would be logical for one to expect a similar outcome for The Crew, however, the reality is way scarier especially with reference when it comes to ownership of digital content.

Digital ownership

The Crew shutdown

Ubisoft shut down the servers for their online racing game, The Crew, on March 31, 2024. This decision wasn’t exactly a surprise, as Ubisoft delisted the game from digital storefronts in December 2023, announcing the server shutdown alongside it. The reason given by Ubisoft was “server infrastructure and licensing constraints”.

Following the server shutdown, Ubisoft reportedly started revoking licenses for The Crew from players who had purchased it digitally. This essentially removed the game from their Ubisoft Connect libraries, making it inaccessible altogether.

The Crew, despite having a single-player mode, was designed as an “always-online” game. Because of the license revocation, even the single-player content became unplayable.

This situation has angered many players who feel Ubisoft is taking away a product they paid for. It also sparked discussions about digital ownership and the potential impermanence of digital game purchases compared to physical copies.

There were discussions among fans about creating private servers to keep The Crew playable, but Ubisoft revoking licenses has made that much more difficult. This isn’t the first time Ubisoft has shut down servers for older games. However, revoking licenses for a delisted game is a more recent practice that has been criticised.

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The Crew shutdown: A case of lost ownership

In March 2024, Ubisoft shut down servers for their online racing game, The Crew. While the shutdown itself wasn’t unexpected, what followed was more concerning. Players who had purchased the game digitally reported losing access to it entirely. Ubisoft reportedly revoked licenses, essentially removing the game from their libraries and rendering it unplayable, even the single-player mode.

This action sparked outrage among players who felt they were being stripped of a product they had paid for. It highlights the precarious nature of digital ownership, where purchases are tied to licenses controlled by the seller (Ubisoft in this case). Unlike physical copies, digital games can be revoked or become inaccessible if servers are shut down.

WEF’s “Great Reset” and the sharing economy

The WEF’s “Great Reset” is a multifaceted concept promoting economic and social reforms in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. One particular aspect that has gained attention is the idea of a “sharing economy”, where ownership of physical goods might decline in favour of access through subscription services or rentals.

The phrase “You’ll own nothing and be happy” is often, though not entirely accurately, attributed to the WEF and used to summarise this concept. Proponents argue it could lead to a more sustainable and efficient way of living, with greater access to goods and services.

The parallel and the cause for concern: A looming shadow of dispossession?

The Ubisoft situation with The Crew casts a long shadow on the concept of a future where ownership is replaced by access. While the WEF’s “Great Reset” might not explicitly advocate for complete digital dependence, it certainly pushes for a more “sharing economy” model. Here’s why this is concerning:

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The illusion of ownership

Ubisoft’s actions highlight a crucial flaw in the “access over ownership” model. When you buy a digital game, you’re essentially purchasing a license to access it, not the game itself. This license can be revoked at any time, as seen with The Crew, leaving you with nothing but the memory of a game you once “owned”. This stands in stark contrast to physical ownership, where you possess the product and can access it even decades later.

The fragility of access

The Crew shutdown also exposes the fragility of access in a digital world. Imagine a future where all your belongings – from clothes to furniture – are accessed through subscription services. These services could, in theory, revoke your access based on changing policies, technical difficulties, or even financial limitations. This lack of control over your possessions creates a precarious situation, leaving you vulnerable to the whims of corporations or unforeseen circumstances.

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The erosion of consumer rights

The current digital marketplace often prioritises the interests of corporations over consumer rights. The Ubisoft situation is a prime example. Players felt powerless as their purchases were essentially erased. In a future with less physical ownership, clear regulations and consumer protections become even more critical. We need frameworks that guarantee users are not just buying access, but a secure and reliable form of ownership, one that can’t be revoked on a whim.

A call for a balanced future

The “access over ownership” model has the potential to create a more efficient and sustainable world, but not without safeguards. The Crew shutdown serves as a stark reminder of the potential pitfalls. If we are to embrace a future with less physical ownership, we need a system that fosters trust and empowers consumers. This means striking a balance between innovation and user rights, ensuring “owning nothing” doesn’t equate to losing control over the things we access and value.

The road ahead: Charting a course for digital ownership

The Ubisoft shutdown of The Crew serves as a stark wake-up call. As we hurtle towards a more digitalised world, it’s imperative to address the critical issue of digital ownership and consumer rights. Here’s what needs to happen moving forward:

1. Redefining digital ownership

The current model of digital ownership, where purchases are merely licenses, needs an overhaul. We need to establish clear legal frameworks that define digital ownership as something more than just revocable access. This could involve concepts like digital property rights or transferable licenses, ensuring users have a level of control and security akin to physical ownership.

2. Consumer protection in the digital age

The digital marketplace needs robust consumer protection mechanisms. Regulatory bodies need to establish clear guidelines for how companies can handle digital goods after purchase. This includes limitations on license revocations, transparent communication regarding server shutdowns, and potential refund or compensation options for affected consumers.

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3. User empowerment and transparency

Consumers need to be empowered with clear and concise information about what they’re purchasing in the digital space. This includes details about license terms, server lifespans, and potential consequences of platform or service closures. Empowering users with knowledge allows them to make informed choices and hold companies accountable for misleading practices.

4. Fostering open communication

Open communication between developers, publishers, and consumers is crucial. Developers should be transparent about the potential lifespan of online features and the availability of offline modes when designing “always-online” games. Early communication regarding server shutdowns allows users to make informed decisions about purchasing the game or potentially seeking alternative options.

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5. Innovation with responsibility

Technological innovation should not come at the expense of consumer rights. We need to encourage innovation in the digital space but ensure it happens alongside responsible practices that prioritise user trust and long-term value. Finding a balance between these two aspects will be key to creating a sustainable future for digital ownership.

The road ahead for digital ownership is complex, but by fostering open discussions, enacting strong consumer safeguards, and redefining ownership models, we can navigate a future where “owning nothing” doesn’t equate to losing control. By working together, we can ensure a digital world that empowers users, promotes innovation, and fosters a sense of trust and security in the digital marketplace.

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