When Free Is No Longer Free…

When Free Is No Longer Free… after the break…

When Free Is No Longer Free…

Remember back when publishers would release their games as freeware?

I’m not talking about a small one-person company who makes their smartphone “app” free after a year because no one is buying it or they made a better version and now the ‘old’ one has been reduced to being a glorified demo of the new app… I’m talking about an AAA-title game, something that was once sold on a shelf for $49.99 (or higher) that the publisher/developer decided one day to just say… “You know what? It’s been [fill in any number of years here]… We’re not going to make anymore money off of this. Here it is for free.”

Thanks to Steam & GOG (Good Ol’ Games), I’m pretty sure those days are now gone.

“But, wait!” You respond, “What about all of these deals on Steam and GOG where the games are released as free?!”

Those aren’t free. They’re free with an asterisk next to them.

“Free” means that I don’t have to sign up for anything to get it. “Free” means that I don’t need any background copy protection in order to play it.

I’m not a freeloader. I pay for my games. I’m not looking for handouts. Every week, I go to thrift shops and tag sales and library book sales and flea markets hoping to have to make a choice over whether to pay for a PC game or not. At the very least, being presented with such a financial quandary would mean that there are still tangible PC games for sale. I want to spend money. I want to spend a lot of money… Yet I’m not a fool. I’ve got my proverbial ‘Holy Grails’ as much as the next player/collector but everyone has a limit. I’d love to see someone scrounge up the gold master copy of “Ultima VIII: The Lost Vale.” Would I pay $15,000 grand for it, though? I might not but I know a whole host of Ultima fans who would be tripping over themselves to pay that sum and plenty more. I’d love to get my hands on the supposed beta of “Bioforge Plus” (which, according to myth and legend, was mostly complete before being shelved indefinitely) but at what price? The original version of “TimeShift” that was only a few bugs away from a gold master? Of course I’d love to play that game but I’m not going to drain the bank account for it. The same with the supposed 90% complete “Sam And Max Freelance Police” that LucasArts shelved during its final stages of production (the only thing supposedly missing is the voice track).

If publishers are so eager to give away these games, why not just give them away? Why the silly time limits and copy protection barriers and other gimmicks, like “Ad-supported software”?

We’re living in an age where the new business model is the lack of ownership. Cars that can only be leased; Houses and apartments that can only be rented; E-Books that can be erased from your tablet on the whim of a legal team or a publisher; “Apps” that disappear because Apple decided otherwise… And now software that is ‘bought’ in name only.

What’s the definition of ‘free’ if it can never be owned to begin with? Apparently, the definition of ‘free’ has changed according to the latest group of publishers.

I often wonder if I’ll live long enough to see the fifteen year olds of today become the forty year olds of tomorrow. Will they reminisce about “Call of Duty: Black Ops” like we reminisce about “Quake 1”? Will they yearn for the simpler times of “Dead Island” the same way we look back on “Ultima Underworld 1”? I own both Ultima Underworld 1 and Quake 1; I’ve got the box and the manual and the CDs. With ownership, I attributed an additional level of value to those games that people who merely ‘rent’ them do not.

In our brave new disposable world of rented games, does ‘free’ even matter to the generation of gamers who snatch up digital downloads for pennies on the dollar?

‘Free’ used to mean free… But not anymore.

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