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The concept of software as a service (SaaS) has been around for several years and is used in many industries. The basic idea of it is that the programs are stored on a remote server and maintained by a third party while users access the software through some kind of interface, such as web-based applications. It has many benefits, including easier updates and maintenance on the server end so that the users don't have as much work to do on their end. In large corporate networks, this is greatly helpful because it saves the IT department the trouble of having to update every machine.
While this idea is well suited for the business world, should game software as a service be something that should be available? Many PC game developers now sell their games as a service instead of an actual product. When you buy a PC game like Call of Duty: Black Ops, you have to register it through a service called Steam, and the developer (Electronic Arts) grants you a license to use the game. You can't resell the game or let someone else borrow it, either. While this isn't exactly the same as SaaS, it's very close. What's troublesome is that all this is found in the fine print during installation of the game. You think you are buying a physical disc that can be moved around, but in reality you are paying for a limited use license to use that game software and the DVD inside the box just helps speed up the install process.
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Game Software as a Service
The idea of selling PC games as a service would be a disaster, in my opinion. The problem is that pirates would figure out how to crack the games to work outside of the service. It's already happening now with some Steam games. The pirated games might not be able to access certain online-only functios like multiplayer levels, but not all PC games have online multiplayer support.
Right now, the bigger problem is that many PC game developers are already treating their games more as services than products. This is coupled with the fact that the same games made available on console systems are initially sold at the same price despite them being very different in terms of usability and the ability to resell. When companies like Ubisoft require users to maintain an online connection in order to play offline games like Assassin's Creed, it essentially turns the game into a sort of service.
I read a lengthy discussion on a Tom's Hardware forum where users discussed problems with the PC game industry. Piracy usually gets blamed for the decline in PC game sales, but it also has a lot to do with technical issues and hardware requirements. For example, how many people can afford to spend $50-60 on a new PC game when they'll also have to spend another $100 or more for a better video card to run it? If you can get the same game for the same price for your PS3 or Xbox, why bother spending the extra money, especially if you can't resell the game?
(Image credit: Steampowered.com)
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Are PC Games Too Technical for General Users?
A good example of the kind of technical issues that PC gamers may encounters is when a friend of mine tried to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare on his HP brand Windows PC. Every time he tried to play the game through online multiplayer, it would throw a weird error. He had installed the latest patch from the developer and had all the drivers updated on his system. Ultimately, I figured out it was an issue with the sound card that HP puts in their desktops and the fix was to plug something into the Microphone jack on the back of the PC. How weird is that?
One of the major benefits that console gaming has over PC gaming is that console games and simple to configure. In fact, you really don't have to configure anything more than the screen brightness or perhaps the controller scheme. On a PC, you may have to tweak the audio and visual settings to get it running smoothly, or you may have to update drivers and other things. I have personally spent hours just trying to make some commercial PC games run because of weird issues like the one previously mentioned with the microphone audio port.
These sorts of technical issues will go over the head of most casual users. It's why you're seeing less and less PC games on store shelves because of product returns from customers demanding their money back because the game didn't work properly. In many cases, it's probably the fault of the user not reading the system requirements or having a properly configured computer. On the other hand, should it really be that much trouble just to make a game work?
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Find a Better Way
Stopping pirates from making illegal copies of games has been a concern for years when it comes to computer gaming. Going back to the 80's there used to be copy protection coding built into 3.5" floppy disks. This was long before anyone had ever heard of the Internet and people just copied disks to give to friends. One of the more creative companies, Sierra Online, got around that by waiting until you were about an hour into the game and then asking you to look up a word on a certain page of the instruction manual. Since then, we've gone from basic disk copy protection to full blown system intrusions with hidden software like SecuROM that piggybacks itself along with the game installation. It seems to me that there is no good way to stop piracy that doesn't end up being more of a hassle to the paying customers.
Another problem I personally see regarding piracy is that going all-digital only helps to devalue the product. When game companies sell you games in boxes with paltry instruction manuals and discs you can't use again, it's like the thing you purchased was intended to be thrown away. Why sell disposable products? It cheapens the product to the point that some people may not see much of a problem pirating something that was never really theirs to own in the first place.
(Image credit: WikiMedia Commons, Creative Commons License)
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Author's personal experience
Tom's Hardware, http://www.tomshardware.com/forum/252579-28-console-losing