Digital distribution is nothing new. We’ve had ITunes since 2001, and the Steam platform since 2003. Even Nintendo will have an improved distribution system in the Wii-U, as an improvement to the Wii Shop. These services end offer exclusive content to keep you on their platform, and stay there. Is the competition of different services a bad thing? I don’t think so.
The rumors of the Xbox 720 early this year caused a lot of negativity. How could a console come without a disc-drive? You would download all your games from the Xbox Live service. This outraged many, as most cannot envision a world where you download all content. Microsoft making a move like this would have a serious result. No more used games. The used game market has helped gamers with lack of funds get the games that they want, and do it legally. Some of the best experiences out there are sitting in a Gamestop bargain bin. Yet the used game market is compared to piracy, as it apparently cuts out a potential source of further profit for publishers. According to publishers $50 spent for a used game is $50 stolen.
I don’t agree with this at all, as most people have no problem with other used markets. Digital distribution provides publishers an extra layer of control, that control being DRM. Many have had horrible experiences with DRM, and refuse to buy anything with it. A smaller minority believe that companies intentionally lock you from an account without any wrongdoing or company error.
So why use digital distribution in the first place? If there is any doubt in your mind that you don’t own your content, why use it? Games are a different medium. They already contain all the elements of other mediums. If you don’t physically own your games, how will you know if you own them? Once again, these programs are services. The process of purchasing items online has never been easier or addicting as it is now.
Steam offers a large variety of games. Every game on Steam is on sale at some point, with many of them matching the prices or being lower than their used game counterparts. Steam offers social networking for your games, achievements, and other minor things that add up to making a big experience. Download speeds are fast, and Steam is rarely down. Steam’s ever present problem of account DRM is also its greatest strength. It is just more convenient to buy your games on Steam than from anywhere else. The horror stories of those that get their accounts banned don’t make sense. There is no monetary incentive for a company that wants money to indiscriminately ban its users (unless you’re EA).
If you don’t use Steam, there is also Origin, GOG.com, Amazon, and Direct2Drive. There is no shortage of competition for you to choose from. With every game on GOG being DRM free, I see GOG providing the competition that Steam needs. Ironically, the very competition of these services is the worst thing about digital distribution. With game exclusivity, you may have to buy a game exclusively to Steam. Or you may want to buy it on Steam, but you have to install Games For Windows Live. I see GOG.com becoming very successful since you don’t need to have any software installed to use their service.
I envision a near future where there will be hardly any physical media at all. Physical media for music and film has become something for collectors only. Hard drive space growth is exceeding the storage needed for services. A high quality song is still only 7MB, and a game released in 2012 is still typically 9GB. Internet infrastructure has accommodated society’s data hunger, except in the rural United States. Many developers tie themselves to a publisher just so they could distribute their game. The total cost of printing game discs, manuals, and boxes is high overall. Today, you can upload your content to a website and have anyone download it for a low cost.
Digital distribution is an amazing tool for indie developers. The most recent success story was with Minecraft, as it exceeded 5 million sales, and the developers received most of the money without anyone taking it from them. If you want a middle man like Steam or Origin, they only take 30% of profit. That is the same amount that physical locations ask, and you don’t have to factor in the cost of getting your game to stores. New business models can be created. Instead of releasing the full game at launch, you can have fans buy beta access. Kickstarter has allowed all types of people to support various projects that would not have been possible without donation. I see it as a type of artist patronage. Kickstarter has its flaws as well, but I imagine that bad projects don’t get funded often. I know you guys can prove me wrong on that, so for now I consider it a step in the right direction.
Digital distribution is all the rage on your PC, but the consumer on the console is different. Most console gamers prefer to have discs for their games. Having the artwork of your game, the box, and the disc in perfect condition is a nice feeling. I miss the drive back home, as I opened up a game, and whiffing that wonderful smell of formaldehyde. I understand now why I felt strong nostalgia when I visited a mortuary.
This generation of young gamers won’t experience that. Physical games today have all the traits of digital distribution. It will only get more obvious as the next console generation begins. Formerly lush and detailed game manuals are replaced with flimsy pieces of crap. Portions of the inside box are cut out to save the publisher money. You may own multiple discs for a single game. Digital distribution for physical games is already here. Hell, you can even trade in used console games to buy Steam Vouchers! You no longer just pop the game into a console and play it. Your PC might not even have a DVD drive today. You register your $10 online pass, you log in to the publisher account service, and you register your DLC. That seems awful to me. I used to see playing a console game as ‘easier’ than a PC game. Now that the PC based services for distribution get better, I now ask, why bother with physical media?