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Are Digital Downloads the Future of Gaming?

No matter what system you own or prefer, you have likely been in its respective storefront to buy a game, purchase downloadable content, or do some other business. With e-commerce becoming an increasingly prominent form of business and consumer purchasing, digital downloads seem to be becoming more popular. With minimal distribution costs and the ability to create smaller games at lower prices, this side of gaming has attracted many indie developers. With this increasing popularity for both fledgling and indie developers and increasing sales due to the rise of bigger storage media and faster internet speeds, will digital downloads become the future of gaming?

There are reasons that I can see this form of distribution increasing in growth in the coming years. With the popularity of indie games on the rise after recent classics such as “Journey”, “Limbo”, and “Braid”, and the ability for other prominent developers to offer high-quality games with shorter-than-retail lengths (i.e. “Ratchet and Clank: Quest for Booty” and “I Am Alive”), digital downloads will always have a market. The low costs associated with development and release allows these kinds of games to be offered at low prices, ranging from, say, $5-20. Further, these low costs also allow for experimentation, and the release of kinds of games that would be “too risky” for a retail release. For these reasons, I will always be supportive of digital releases by these types of developers – groups like thatgamecompany push the boundaries of what is possible with the medium, and being able to release games this way allowed them to produce some of this generations most wonderful experiences in “Flower” and “Journey”.

Digital content is also becoming extremely popular due to the rise of downloadable content (DLC) and the ability to get the latest games without leaving your house. DLC allows developers to support games after release by adding additional content for player to experience. This content ranges from high-quality to abyssmal, but when it is good, DLC can help extend the lifetime of a game and enhance the player experience. Yet, the rise of DLC has also led to developers trying to nickel and dime players for add-ons that bring nothing significant to the table, and the introduction of “Day 1 DLC” where content becomes available for download on the day the game is released. This is something that many, including myself, see as a money grab, with content that should’ve been included on the disc (in many cases the content is actually on the game disc, and the player just pays for a code to unlock said content).

Yet, in spite of the benefits of digital downloads, there are a few key reasons why gaming will not fully migrate to all-digital formats. The biggest reason is that without physical media, many issues pop up. First, the ability to buy and then sell or trade-in games is gone. There is a large market for this business (as evidenced by the growth of Gamestop), and many players – myself included – like to be able to minimize the amount they pay for each gaming experience, as opposed to having shelves full of games they will never play again, and in the process, allow them to buy and play more games. Second, with the lack of physical media, there is an insecurity as to if the player will actually be able to play their game in the future. Say a new console generation comes out and the prior generations online commerce system is abandoned to make room for a new generation. What happens if that download you had stored becomes corrupted, or your hard drive needs to be restored. Ordinarily, you can re-download that game, but now with its online storage shut down, you’re lost.

Along with a lack of physical media and a move to digital comes increased security and restrictions. If you buy a physical disc, there’s nothing stopping you from taking that game to a friend’s house to play some co-op, or allow someone to borrow it to see if they’ll enjoy the game (Online Passes keep the online multiplayer restricted for some titles, but the majority of the game remains open).

The second biggest reason is cost. In many cases, digital downloads cost the same or nearly as much as their retail counterparts. To lose the benefits of the freedom of having your own physical copy, you are given a measely 10% discount, or 0% in many cases. Further, with sales occuring all the time for physical media, digital downloads often cost more than their physical brethren – a fact that completely undermines the idea behind lower production and distribution costs.

Another small issue is that major releases are becoming bigger in scope and graphical requirements. As these increase, so does the game size. This leads to longer download times. Once again, this negates a supposed advantage to digital downloads – the player does not get a game “instantly” if they have to wait a few hours for a 10-gig download and install. While some may say that you can just download the game overnight and be ready whenever you’d want without causing a major wait. I say that I can just as easily take 10 minutes to stop at a store on my way home from work to get that game I wanted with minimal effort, and avoid the lengthy download times.

Lastly, there is an unusual sounding reason, though if you’ve been playing games long enough, you understand. There’s just not the same gratification in downloading a game as there is buying or receiving a new game. Unwrapping the plastic, waiting to pop the game into the system and play, and that “new game” smell (the push towards digital manuals has limited this satisfaction) all are missing from pressing a download button and seeing an icon pop up on your home screen.

It is for these reasons that I feel digital distribution will not become the future for gaming. While the system has its pluses, without some major overhauls to the system, it will always trail retail sales. I think it is a nice supplement to standard distribution (especially when it comes to releasing some more unique titles, such as Journey, that may never see the light of day otherwise), but it will not take over the industry.


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