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Why digital distribution needs to evolve

Retail

Two thousand and ten. 2010. It’s overwhelming to think we’re here already – we should all be crossbreeding with aliens by now, according to 60s propaganda.

This year was meant to be the year that digital distribution finally became the go-to format when buying a new game. Sony wired its new console with an at-the-time huge 60GB of hard disk; Microsoft held the consumer’s hand and took baby steps by giving us a limited choice in storage, whilst Nintendo buttered up the dedicated with a huge back-catalogue of classic games to download. This gentle lubrication prepared us for the market’s inevitable thrust towards digital distribution. Five years later, there’s a desperate feeling of anticlimax and empty promise; but why? There are two simple reasons. Firstly, the western world isn’t as digitally endowed as expected. Secondly, we’re not ready (yet).

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It’s fair to say that the promises of faster broadband connections throughout the western world, have thus far been unfulfilled. The concrete jungles of the U.K. are slowly being converted to fibre optic broadband, but this is the minority of the country. Complementing this, only the heavy internet users are reaping the benefits of 20MB+ connections; the mainstream market is yet to embrace it. Japan and much of the Eastern world may have the resources to unleash such a system whenever they deem society ‘prepared’, but in the western world we simply don’t have the required standard yet. If Sony holds true on its threat of removing physical media from its next console, then it could be playing Russian Roulette with itself. The PSP Go!’s failings against the traditional model is only testament to that.

“The PSP Go!’s failings against the traditional model is only testament to the failures of digital media.”

For argument’s sake then, let us take a hypothetical scenario where connection speeds have increased tenfold throughout the western world. Our hypothetical minion in this hypothetical world wants to buy a new hypothetical game. He can either log on to Xbox Live/PSN and purchase the said two-year old release for £19.99 (or $30), or take a short (hypothetical) bus into town and buy the same title for £8 from his local retailer. He can also then sell this game on once he has completed it for £5. The gaming industry may have been hit less hard by the global economic crisis than others, but the consumer has endured months of watching where every penny goes. Without any way of purchasing a temporary licence, or re-selling it then the consumer will nearly always opt for the physical copy. All this is without any hypothetical sentimental value to a beloved collection.

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As yet, nobody is truly pioneering the digital age, but the likes of Xbox Live and PSN would do well to look at Steam’s success. Over the pat six years, Valve’s service has evolved from a means to avoid piracy with in Half-Life 2 and to make Counter-Strike more accessible, but it has slowly developed itself into the go-to platform for digital releases on the PC/Mac. Steam is renowned for their incredible sales, with classic games often available for as little as £1. We’re tempted into buying games that would usually pass us by, whilst developers (particularly the independent) are finding weaknesses in the market, as well as seeing more of the final sale price. These seem revolutionary in contrast to Xbox Live’s embarrassing ‘sales’ that occasionally offer a third off of a handful of Arcade titles.

The frustrating thing about temporary licences in digital distribution is that the facilities are in place. Thousands of people rent movies from their consoles and digital T.V. boxes every day. Consoles urge us to buy our games straight off of their services, so where is issue in merging the two? Games such as Bayonetta that feature a straightforward 10-hour single player mode constantly litter the preowned sections of gaming stores. Surely it would therefore be beneficial to road test such a service with a similar release. This way the developers would see revenue from every player, whilst reducing publishing costs. If you want us to go digital, then give us a reason to. The worst mistake a company can make is to underestimate the intelligence of the consumer.

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We also need a reason to buy digital instead of physical. As we’ve discussed, the price of a digital product should be considerably lower than the physical by default, simply because it costs far less to produce. If there isn’t going to be a compromise on the price, then we need to see more for our money. What’s to stop the offering of free additional content with a digital purchase? I’m not referring to the insults of a free themes and gamerpics, but extra single player content or download codes. The likes of Halo could offer free map packs, whilst a digital copy of Bioshock 2 could have included the original for no extra cost, or an MS point rebate. Steam has seen success with such methods – consoles are naive to not follow suit.

“The worst mistake a company can make is to underestimate the intelligence of the consumer.”

The day that we can go online and download our brand new releases at a respectable price faster than it would take to go into town will be a better game for gaming. Millions of pounds will be saved on the production of plastic cases, gaming will be greener and the smaller developers will be on an even footing with the studios that give birth to AAA titles. Xbox Live Arcade and Steam showed us exactly why it is set to take over, but has since hit the fork in the road. Sony said the PS3 would be its last console to support physical formats. If that remains the case, releasing its successor within the next three years would be commercial suicide.

Time to put your money where your mouth is.

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in November 2007. Get in touch on Twitter @StuartEdwards.

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