Reimagining the Future of Digital Games Distribution

By  |  Tuesday, September 8, 2009 at 5:45 pm

xbox-games-on-demandWith Sony launching the download-only PSP Go next month and Microsoft recently launching premium game downloads over Xbox Live, the seeds are planted for a fully digital future.

For the most part, I’ve viewed this as a good thing, but an editorial by Jim Sterling at Destructoid today gave me pause. Entitled “Fearing the future of digital distribution,” Sterling argues that digital distribution, for all its convenience, will come at a price. Game publishers will dominate the marketplace, Sterling writes, offering no refunds, no used game sales and “no accountability whatsoever,” merely because they can. I disagree.

The current behavior of Microsoft and Sony make for inviting red flags in Sterling’s argument. The Xbox 360’s Games on Demand — downloadable games that also sell at retail — are often more expensive to download than they are on disc. And Sony will sell downloadable PSP games that cost more than their boxed counterparts. “The games industry will set its own price at whim, and without any more alternatives, consumers will have no choice but to pay whatever they’re told to pay or simply stop buying games altogether,” Sterling writes.

The problem with this is that it’s based on limited examples. Though Sterling acknowledges that doom-and-gloom is only one possible outcome, it’s hardly the most likely.

Downloads won’t dominate unless consumers endorse the idea, and that requires incentives. Without a reason to go digital — for instance, better value over a hard copy, or rewards for loyalty — consumers will stick with Gamestop. Publishers, in turn, won’t fully commit to digital because there’s no market for it.

Even if console makers slowly grab more market share with downloads, to the point that physical media is out of the equation, it won’t mean the end of competition. In fact, it’ll create more of it.¬†I see a future where a gaming console isn’t only about the best graphics and most exclusive games, but how much value exists in the digital marketplace.

The store that treats its customers the best and offers the most incentive to shop will prosper, while the oppressor will find a smaller audience overall. That’s nothing to be afraid of.


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2 Comments For This Post

  1. Backlin Says:

    The day that downloads are cheaper is the day I’ll switch; as I have faith in Microsoft and Sony keeping a purchase record (they’ve been pretty good about it so far with me, I can go back and download a few things that I bought and downloaded already for free). If they lose my record, I can always bust out the credit card bill.

  2. Terry Robinson Says:

    The author seems to imply that there’s something the consumer can do to stop a firm from taking away the hard-copy option. Publishers are entirely within their prerogative to not offer a hardcopy which would instantly remove room for comparison. A player cannot exercise a choice that is not given and I won’t be surprised if a triple-A title is released as digital-only soon to nudge consumers into accepting this.