Recently, Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello stated that revenue for game downloads will overtake traditional box copies in 2011. In my eyes this sets a worrying trend in which we’ll eventually lose out.
With a thriving second-hand games business, it’s not too hard to see why gaming companies might find the prospect of digital distribution enticing.
As our recent research highlighted, there’s lots of money to be made from pre-owned physical video games, but the game companies don’t see a penny of it.
Making games digital-only absolutely removes the second-hand market overnight. That’s great news for the game publishers, but a raw deal for the consumer looking for a cheap bargain.
We’ll lose control with digital-only games
Of course, another aspect of digital downloads, for consoles at least, is that there’s only one retailer. If I want to download Halo 10 on the Xbox 720 in a few years time, and it’s a digital-only platform, my only choice of retailer will be the Xbox Marketplace.
This means that all prices will be dictated by Microsoft (and the games’ publishers), eliminating the sort of prices we see online and on the high street thanks to healthy retail competition.
This was one of the issues we identified with the PSP Go when we first reviewed it. Removing the PSP’s physical disc drive meant you could only buy games from the PSN store – a bit frustrating when we often found the same games at a much cheaper price in a physical format.
There’s also the question of what happens to all this digital content in the future. Will everything I buy digitally now be supported and accessible in five years time? There’s no guarantee, but I do know that my old Nintendo cartridges will still be going strong twenty five years after release.
Steam shows how it should be done
That’s not to say that digital distribution in gaming is always a poor deal. Steam on the PC is a fantastic example of how digital content should be handled, and regular sales mean users can bag themselves real bargains, often cheaper than retail.
However, whilst Steam works ok for PC gamers, it’s hard to imagine PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo following a similar model, given each of these lack competition on their own platforms.
The benefits of digital distribution seems wholly weighed in the manufacturers favour. While such services are no doubt valuable (Xbox Live Arcade and the PSN store have given us some fantastic original titles, and Steam has revolutionised PC gaming), digital and physical should exist alongside each other.
Otherwise, as far as I can see, the only winners in the race to digital-only platforms are the manufacturers themselves.