Licensing agreements are ruining cloud gaming and developers aren't helping

Geforce Card Tools
Geforce Card Tools (Image credit: Nick Sutrich/Windows Central)

Are you a fan of The Long Dark? Do you want to play it at odd hours of the night from the comfort of your bed? Or how about when you're on vacation or otherwise just not at home? How about on your phone while you're on your lunch break at work? Cloud gaming makes all of these realities possible. Still, developers like Hinterland Games, Activision-Blizzard, and Bethesda have shown that they don't seem to understand cloud gaming. Whether this is a result of sheer ignorance or simply short-term thinking, customers are finding themselves left out in the cold.

But first, let's rewind and discuss how services like NVIDIA GeForce Now work. When you subscribe to GeForce Now, NVIDIA essentially rents you a virtual machine that you can use as a vehicle to play games. This Windows 10-based virtual machine (VM) looks just like your desktop computer, and you simply sign into Steam or the Epic Games Launcher with your existing account and play any games you legally own through these services. This VM works exactly as any other Windows 10-powered computer works with one big exception: NVIDIA only allows users to play games it has certified to work with the technology it developed.

Commentators have described NVIDIA's service as a redistribution scheme, which may be "legally" accurate but is technically incorrect. While NVIDIA (and other similar companies) charge a monthly fee to access its platform, the money spent is designed to pay for the server infrastructure. No games are included, and NVIDIA doesn't run a store where it sells games, digital or otherwise. It simply rents you a virtual computer with the ability to log into your Steam or Epic account. People say this is a disingenuous way of describing the situation, but in reality, this is precisely what's happening, and it's those people who are being disingenuous about the situation.

Education is the key

NVIDIA GeForce Now

Source: NVIDIA (Image credit: Source: NVIDIA)

Part of the issue can be attributed to NVIDIA's rather forward-thinking platform (opens in new tab) that's seemingly ahead of its time, and part of it can be attributed to NVIDIA themselves for not handling communication with developers better. When GeForce Now went from a free beta to a paid service, they removed the games of publishers like Capcom, Konami, Rockstar, and Square Enix because these publishers expressed concerns over the platform.

NVIDIA has been forthcoming about how they're handling these types of requests and says it'll honor any that have been made. So far, that's turned out to be 100% true, and it shows that NVIDIA is willing to play by the silly and antiquated rules that are in place, regardless of how legitimate or sensible they are. In the recent case of Bethesda, Activision-Blizzard, and Hinterland Games, NVIDIA was asked to pull said publisher's titles after the paid service went live.

GeForce Now isn't a platform; it's a service. Miscategorizing it is hurting gamers and developers.

The problem is that developers and publishers are treating GeForce Now as if it were a platform in the same way as Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, or even Stadia is. It's not a platform. It's a service. GeForce Now runs on existing platforms called Steam and Epic Games. There's nothing new or even different about how NVIDIA is providing games to players.

It's simply a service to access those platforms, and, as such, there's a deep misunderstanding and miscategorization of services like GeForce Now that are ruining the chances to make them a gaming mecca. It's also throwing away the opportunity to attract new players who otherwise couldn't afford a gaming PC or don't want to deal with the technical crap that PC gamers sometimes have to deal with. Personally, I'm sick of fixing my PC or spending money and time on upgrades and troubleshooting.

So how about this week's news? Founder of Hinterland Studios, Raphael van Lierop, took to Twitter to announce that The Long Dark wouldn't be available on GeForce Now for the foreseeable future.

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This post has received many responses, both on Twitter and on popular gaming forums like ResetEra. The response has been overwhelming. Many gamers have cited their displeasure with the move and have refused to either play or purchase anything more from Hinterland Games until this decision is reversed. People don't like being told what they can or cannot do with something they've purchased with their own money, and games are no exception.

It's frustrating when gamers clearly speak their mind about what they want, yet developers and publishers take no heed. Worse yet is when a developer or publisher won't accept their mistake or misunderstanding and, instead, digs their heels in. I'm using Raphael van Lierop as an example because he's at the root of this week's conversation surrounding cloud gaming, not because I'm picking on him. But he and Hinterland Games are wrong, and they're not keeping their own customers in mind with these types of decisions.

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What's bizarre is that van Lierop thinks this decision is "innocuous," as he put it. There's nothing innocuous about telling gamers they need to purchase another license to play a game they've already purchased, especially when the gamers in question aren't asking the developer to do any more work. No one is asking to port the game to another platform, or any other number of ridiculous and unreasonable requests often made by forum dwellers. No one is taking control away from developers, despite what the original Tweet says. This action is harmful to the industry; there's absolutely nothing innocuous about it.

Greed is at the heart

GeForce Now Dashboard

Source: Android Central (Image credit: Source: Android Central)

While some folks are blaming "the system" for causing developers to pull their games from services like GeForce Now, licensing agreements are only part of the problem. I wholly expect giant corporate entities like Activision-Blizzard, Bethesda, and EA to treat their customers and developers like dirt. There's plenty of historical proof of this happening and, while it's not a surprise anymore, it's still basically expected at this point. But I expect better from smaller indie developers like Hinterland Games.

Some folks say these types of moves are to control the distribution of software better, to help guard against piracy, and to help secure exclusive licensing agreements, but, honestly, that's a load of nonsense. It shows a deep misunderstanding of how distribution models work. When a developer chooses to sell its games through a platform like Steam, there's an assurance that Valve's distribution model and anti-piracy measures are reliable.

As a developer, I'd be much more wary of companies like GOG, which offer 30-day return policies on digital licenses. Now that's scary.

When I log into my Steam account, I can only play games in one location. There's no exception to this policy, no matter if that sign-in is from a virtual or a physical machine. If I share my account with a friend and they're playing one of my games, it kicks them off when I sign in. There isn't a market where people are playing dozens of Steam games they don't own. The model doesn't allow for it.

The majority of Valve's business relies on Steam being as solid a platform as possible, and you can bet they're not going to let users abuse your software in a meaningful way. As a developer, I'd be much warier of companies like GOG, which offer a literally insane no-questions-asked 30-day return policy on a digital license. Now that's scary.

What NVIDIA is doing with GeForce Now isn't scary. It's not breaking any sensible agreements between companies, and it's not somehow making revenue off developers without giving them a slice of the pie. NVIDIA's design is akin to you remoting into your home PC to play Monster Hunter while at work. No developer would bat an eye at a user doing this, and no developer should be questioning how users play their games in the first place.

If I want to play the games I've paid for on a VM, no matter who owns that VM or runs the hardware, it's my right to do so. NVIDIA's model is far more developer and consumer-friendly than services like Stadia, which both require developers to develop a Stadia-specific version of their game (effectively, another console port to create and maintain), and it requires consumers to purchase yet another copy of a game (which most people won't do).

If I want to play the games I've paid for on a VM, no matter who owns that VM or runs the hardware, it's my right to do so.

GeForce Now lets consumers purchase a single copy of a game through Steam, which can be played and enjoyed on a variety of screens. It gives them the power to enjoy the game at higher resolutions and detail settings with higher framerates than their laptops or aging home PCs might be able to handle. Effectively, it's a way to get consumers to purchase more games since they won't be spending money and time on hardware purchases, technical troubleshooting, and other irritations of PC gaming.

It's also a way to bring more gamers in that will play a game for longer. That's the path to getting gamers to purchase expansions, invest in in-game items by using real currency, subscribe to "plus" packages that offer incentives, and other ways for developers to increase revenue. Relying on simple one-time sales is one thing, but bringing more gamers into the fold that will stick around for a long time is a better goal, and platforms like GeForce Now allow that by breaking down barriers that used to exist.

I thought we were past this era?

Broken Pc

Source: Nick Sutrich/Windows Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich/Windows Central)

As for the exclusivity argument, that's also utter nonsense. If a company like Hinterland Games signs an exclusivity agreement with Epic Games to distribute its next game through the Epic Games Store, for instance, it can then only be purchased and played through Epic's store. If I launch the Epic game launcher on my home PC or a virtual machine, there's literally no difference in how Epic manages my account or the licenses in use.

It's also not available on another platform, despite what some might claim about exclusivity agreements. The fact that developers are trying to control what screen we're playing on should affront us as gamers. It's not their choice where or how I play. It's mine. Here's another less-than-ideal take on the same situation we've been discussing.

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Yes, a company operates the GeForce Now VMs in question, but, as a subscriber to the service, it's my right to use content that I own as I see fit. The problem is that, legally, I can't do this, and that's what's so astonishingly ridiculous about the entire situation. When you buy a digital license of a game on Steam, for instance, there are restrictions to where and how you are allowed to play that game. Seem absurd? It is.

It's absurd that I legally own a game yet cannot play it where or how I want

I've been reading a lot about this today, whether it's the responses to Raphael van Lierop's Twitter post or views from other sites on the matter. This is a big deal primarily because cloud gaming is seen as the future of gaming. Dedicated consoles that are more powerful every generation are becoming a less sustainable business, and companies want to move away from those models, just as the server market has seen a significant shift from owning hardware and software to licensing VMs, operating systems, and other software.

Developers, at large, need to be more forward-thinking about this process. Are developers going to continue creating games for single platforms like it's 1996 again, or are they going to realize that distribution platforms like Steam and Epic are around to help bring these games to more people than ever before? Cloud gaming is designed to give more people access to games and, ultimately, that's what developers want. It's time the naysayers took a step back and realized that.

Nick started with DOS and NES and uses those fond memories of floppy disks and cartridges to fuel his opinions on modern tech. Whether it's VR, smart home gadgets, or something else that beeps and boops, he's been writing about it since 2011. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram @Gwanatu

  • Nothing else to really say, except well put.
  • I see why you might want to adopt a pro-consumer stance here, but by focusing on the technical implementation instead of the practical effect, you are missing the legal issues with NVIDIA's scheme. NVIDIA is not renting you a virtual machine, even if that's how it works behind the scenes. They are providing a redistribution service for a digital license that they are not a party to. That is illegal (whether you personally like it or not). Unless NVIDIA can solve these legal issues, then this will probably fail much the same way that the defunct Aereo TV redistribution service failed.
  • Very good point. I remember Aereo saying "we just rent you an antenna!" Uh huh. Right. The fact is, you can NOT make money by distributing copyrighted material without the consent of the copyright holders. Period. No exceptions.
  • Aereo's copyright issue wasn't distribution, but "public performance" of a copyrighted work. SCOTUS found that Aereo's business model was the same as a cable company, therefore were subject to the 1992 Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act which required cable companies to acquire a license to rebroadcast. Distribution requires transfer of ownership. There is no redistribution with GFN, because the license is distributed from the developer to Steam to the Consumer. Nvidia isn't involved in the licenses at all, just the virtual hardware.
  • This is probably the best response I've read to this situation and it explains a LOT. I feel like things like Stadia, and xCloud (outside of streaming from your own console, which is a separate thing), don't need to worry about this as the distributor of the service (Google/Microsoft) would be considered a party to the licensing agreement as they are seen as the delivery method, how they choose to deliver the product is their decision to make.
  • Microsoft may very well need different agreements, but they've got infinitely more leverage in getting them. Stadia is a platform, so if something is there at all, Google's good to go.
  • These developers chose to license and distribute their games through Steam. That's not changed with GFN. Nvidia uses Intel hardware running Windows and Steam.
  • Maybe, I'm not overly aware of how the US laws work.
  • Yes, that's how it's sold that makes it a redistribution service.
    You want a VM to play any game you own ? Go for Shadow.
  • > They [NVIDIA] are providing a redistribution service for a digital license that they are not a party to. Erm... no -- Valve does the license distribution and, hopefully, they have a right to do that and, hopefully, they pay developers in the process.
  • Legally, (re)distribution requires the transfer of ownership, which is not happening with Geforce Now. Nvidia is not transferring ownership in any way. When you launch a game on GFN, you have to log into Steam, where your license is validated, before you can play.
  • Microsoft allows you to play/stream Xbox games on a Windows 10 laptop. How do game publishers feel about that?
  • As I understand it Xcloud is different. As with Xcloud it's simply running the actual Xbox Console version. Xcloud is Xbox. Therefore any game made for Xbox Console will automatically be on Xcloud. No? As I understood any agreement for a publisher to put the game on Xbox Console means its automatically on Xcloud with no work at all from the developer.
  • I am a big fan of digital media, but now I can see why people still prefer to own a physical copy. I use PS remote play on the go and I don't see how Geforce now is any different than remoteplay. Why should I have to buy a expensive gaming laptop, when I can use the tech I have already. This is just insane! Then all these developers and publishers, should refund us the money and take there game back. Because if I cant find a legal and alternate way to play the games I paid for. Then take your digital games and refund people their money.
  • "Yes, a company operates the GeForce Now VMs in question, but, as a subscriber to the service, it's my right to use content that I own as I see fit. No, that is NOT your right. No commercial software license includes the words "use as you see fit". I suggest you become a game developer. Games have historically ALWAYS been the most pirated software on the planet. Developers are not going to allow a 3rd party to run a commercial service, providing copyrighted material without paying royalties to the copyright holders. This will only work one way: GeForce Now needs to enter into a licensing agreement with the developers in question. What do you think Microsoft would do if I started a business that "essentially rents you a virtual machine that you can use as a vehicle to run Windows and Office" for people who already own Windows and Office, without paying anything to Microsoft? How quickly would that be shutdown?
  • > What do you think Microsoft would do if I started a business that "essentially rents you a virtual machine that you can use as a vehicle to run Windows and Office" for people who already own Windows and Office, without paying anything to Microsoft? Plenty of commercial enterprises do just that, including (gasp!) Microsoft -- I can spin Windows VM on AWS and Azure (provided that I own the license to do so), install Office on it (provided I paid for the license for that) and happily use it. And oh, by the way, I can login to Steam on that VM and play games that I own... not that it would be pleasurable. Just sayin'
  • Microsoft would love that idea. Here, check this out: "Windows Virtual Desktop is a comprehensive desktop and app virtualization service running in the cloud. It’s the only virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) that delivers simplified management, multi-session Windows 10, optimizations for Office 365 ProPlus, and support for Remote Desktop Services (RDS) environments. Deploy and scale your Windows desktops and apps on Azure in minutes, and get built-in security and compliance features." You still have to own the licenses to the software you run, just like with Geforce Now.
  • OMG yes this! A 100% perfect description of the issues at hand and a correct take about how GeForce Now just lets people play games essentially on a VM using the same platform they would on their own home PC whether it be Steam, Epic, whatever. Nvidia is just providing a service (the VM) that lets people play games without having to buy expensive hardware. This will equal more sales and more people playing more games. This has nothing to do with piracy, exclusivity/licensing agreements or anything else. This just lets people play games that they've already legally purchased more easily/more often. Get a clue devs and get your content on Nvidia Now and other similar services. I literally am going to stop supporting devs that try to control where I can play my legally purchased games. Let me break it down for you stupid devs so you don't have to pay millions in legal fees to figure out a very simple issue. You want me to buy your game. I bought it on Steam and you have my money. Why do you care if I now play it through Steam on my home PC, or throught Steam running on a VM that is supplied through the cloud by Nvidia? You have my money, I bought your game. Now let me play it how and where I want. You're not going to make more money off me from the same game. Isn't it a good thing for you if I'm able to play your game more often/easily/on more devices? You win because I bought your game, you win because I'm playing your game. You win because maybe I bought your game because it was available on GeForce Now and I don't have to spend money on new hardware to play it. Maybe I bought your FPS game only because it was on GeForce Now and I didn't have the money to buy a new PC. Your competitor has a similar game not on GeForce now and I'd be required to pay for a new PC to play their game. Which game do you think I'll buy? Get a clue! This isn't a difficult issue and it's sad that this has to be explained like you're in elementary school.