Listen. Can you hear it? Those faint whispers?
They’re the faint whispers about a new generation of home games consoles. Whispers that are starting to become steadily more audible; driven by rumor, speculation and internet job postings. When people start to talk about such matters, conversation often moves swiftly on to guessing what features the eventual successors to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will bring. Digital distribution, proven to be a hit on PC but with mixed results in the console space, is one feature that consistently appears in such discussions.
For those of us who aren’t particularly keen on the all digital future, it’s nice to know that Microsoft is all too happy to oblige in proving why it’s currently a terrible idea.
Back in August 2009 Microsoft launched the Games on Demand service for Xbox Live, offering the exciting prospect of downloading three year old software down your int0rwebz pipes for twice (or thrice) as much as a used copy would cost you in your local brick and mortar. Minus a case, manual, disc or the option to trade your game once you’d finished with it, obviously. The gaming public didn’t exactly jump for joy at this news, although lord knows why. I mean, £19.99 for Kameo: Elements of Power sounds like terrific value to me. Arf.
At a similar time, Sony too decided to experiment with digital distribution by launching the PSP Go. That… didn’t go well. As I’ve spoken about before, I don’t believe the failings of the Go are limited to Sony’s backwards, archaic and sometimes baffling take on a pricing strategy, but it certainly hasn’t helped. Like Microsoft, Sony have been reluctant to reveal much information about specific sales figures for their digital only hardware or software. In an industry where the major players will blow their own trumpets harder than a marching band given the opportunity, it’s safe to assume their silence on this issue is deafening.
The prospect of a Steam-esque revolution for consoles certainly seems like an idealistic pipe dream at the moment, one which appears no closer to becoming a reality. Despite this, rumors of an all digital console future persist, and this makes me a sad panda. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a pretty big fan of Steam. Valve provide a service that gets the concept of digital distribution right in so many ways. Be it the outrageously awesome sales initiatives or their smart attitude to making life easier for the end consumer, there’s plenty of evidence there that a digital model works.
Most of my gaming time however is dedicated to my consoles, and digital distribution is something I’m much less accommodating with here than I am on the PC. I like clutter. I like having stuff around. I like walking into a store, browsing the shelves and holding a physical copy of something in my hand. Something real, something that has words and pictures on it. Something with cover art and a disc to protect from dust and scratches. I particularly like the point of a generation that we’re at now with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, when I can find a nice independent store and pick up awesome old games that I missed the first time around for less than the cost of a pizza.
I’m not alone in this thinking, right? I guess it’s similar to music aficionados who just can’t let go of vinyl (or even CD come to think of it, even if the thought of letting go of CDs makes me feel really old) and move on to MP3s and digital music. Just like digital music however, download only games are becoming increasingly huge. PC gaming seems to shake off the latest fallacy that it’s in decline just about every year, and mobile developers such as Rovio are taking over the world with games like Angry Birds and Cut The Rope, which are sold and distributed entirely through digital stores like Android Marketplace and Apple’s App Store.
When people embrace digital distribution, there is always a compromise. That physical product disappears, along with it your rights and freedoms to trade, sell or exchange your product as you please. Yet for the millions of people who have moved on to services such as Steam and iTunes, none of this seems to matter. Why do console gamers largely continue to struggle to make these comprises towards an all digital future?
Maybe it’s because when consumers use Steam or iTunes, they generally don’t feel like they’re being shafted in the process. It might help if when Microsoft and Sony ask you to download full games from services such as Games on Demand, they didn’t also ask you to pull your pants down, bend over and take one for the team at the same time.
When Mass Effect 2 appeared on PlayStation 3 back in January this year, EA and Sony turned heads by also providing the game as a digital download the same day it released on the high street. Unfortunately, they also made some heads explode by charging £47.99 for it; a full £8 more than in the stores and a good £30-£40 more than a used copy would set you back for the Xbox 360 version. £47.99? Nobody pays £47.99 for anything these days unless it comes with an obligatory art book, plastic figure and has “Limited Edition” stamped on the box. But you get physical stuff with that. Stuff to look at, hold and lovingly clean when it gets dusty.
Earlier this week, Microsoft went one better. They added Halo: Reach to Games on Demand, and they want you to pay £49.99 for it. Woah. £49.99. That’s more than the regular game on the high street. That’s more than the Limited Edition, which comes with some multiplayer armor and an “Artifact Bag…” whatever one of those is. £49.99 is how much the Legendary Edition currently costs, and that comes in a huge box with a load of free crap, and has the word Legendary on it. That’s a five minute check on one online store, by the way. The standard game is as low as £19.99 elsewhere. And you get a box, a disc and some cover art to look at.
Now obviously this is a total nonsense on Microsoft’s part. It’s just silly. I don’t know under what circumstances somebody would turn on their console and think downloading a six month old game for fifty big ones would represent a good deal. Who are you? Perhaps you’re a Tap-Repeatedly reader. If so, explain yourself.
Eurogamer asked Microsoft directly about their pricing strategy for the digital version of Reach, and as you might expect their response featured about as much common sense or reasonable thinking as their decision to charge £49.99 for Halo: Reach did in the first place.
“We’re incredibly excited about what Games on Demand means for digital distribution, and will continue to evaluate and evolve the service to meet market and consumer demands.”
Hmm, thanks for that. No packaging or distribution costs plus an extra £10-£15 minimum on top of the going retail rate. No wonder you’re excited. I, however, am about as far away from excited as it’s possible to be. As a consumer, it takes me approximately 0.4 seconds to work out that £49.99 does not “meet market and consumer demands” in any way, shape or form. Ah well, at least they didn’t patronise us by mentioning convenience.
Oh wait, hang on…
“Our program is about giving people 24/7 convenience and selection when shopping for Xbox 360 games”
Argh. Why do you mock us? Why?
What remains obvious at this point is that services such as Games on Demand just aren’t on the same level as Steam, and Microsoft and Sony show little initiative to provide a viable alternative on home consoles. This is fair enough, given that they don’t necessarily have to, but it would be nice if attempts to bring a digital future to consoles were at least a little more sensible, rather than the strange, confusing and downright offensive bastard we’re stuck with now. I don’t want an all digital future at all because I like clutter, but on an even more basic level, I just don’t want to pay these sort of premiums for what Microsoft seems to think is convenience. Paying 50 quid for a game is actually a pretty massive inconvenience, as it happens.
If the current business strategy for digital distribution on consoles means charging £49.99 for software half a year after it launches, then I pray and hope we retain the physical media option for the Xbox 720 and PlayStation 4. Blu-Ray will be lovely. DVD would be just about passable. At this point, I’d even take Betamax, UMD or a 3 inch floppy.
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Great piece Mat, but I must admit I hate boxes, clutter, manuals and all that Jazz. Although I don’t own a console (the Wii doesn’t count) I really love all my games being purchasable from one place and useable from one place.
I absolutely love Steam for this: although their pricing is sometimes odd (£37.99 for Rift collectors edition, £34.00 from Rift homepage as one example) but to get the game instantly, is a joy.
With Portal 2 waiting in the wings and a version of Steam arriving on PS3, it’s surely not that far away?
Oh and I hate people who trade games and buy pre owned. Burn in hell!!!
A good rant.
Fortunately, the Xbox 360 has relatively few games I like enough to -want- to own. PC however throws some interesting meat into the dog pit of discussion – in that I have a large collection of STEAM games, but less than five of them are games I truly love, unless I already owned that game in the past and simply wanted to reacquire it years after the golden age of gaming.
I use digital distribution, specifically STEAM or GoG, to acquire all those games I either cannot acquire anymore or those that, on a sale, are worth grabbing for a few hours of amusement but that I would never bother acquiring.
My game shelves are a place of honour, a display of all that is holy in the world, an exhibition of the era 1996-2003 in which so many wonderful things were made – with a few gems that have arisen since. I wouldn’t want Overlord, or Titan Quest – Dead Rising 2, Mafia 2 or Metro 2033 there. Some of these entertained me, did their part, but they just aren’t special.
It could be seen as somewhat ignoble, but what STEAM provides me with is the means to affordably play all those games I could never justify spending real money on. I don’t buy things there outside of sale-time and mid-week madness. I can’t afford to.
Lewis: Around 80% of all the games I’ve ever played on any platform I could only afford because they were battered old used copies at GameStation. Even as a child most of my Sega games came from Rowland’s Exchange and Mart, with its grimy windows and crumbling wood-panelled interior packed with ancient recording equipment and battered old guitars..
Do you hate me? 🙁
Because if you piss Walmart off by sharing the savings, it’s all over… 😉
Nice work, Mat, a great articulation of something I think lots of people feel.
I like stuff too, owning objects. Steam’s convenience and simplicity and ease of use and immense library make it very appealing to me, to the point that 99% of the time I buy games on Steam rather than in box form, but I still like boxes. Moreover, there are little things that digital distribution still struggles with – you’ve got Gregg playing through Morrowind for the first time. If he’d bought on Steam he wouldn’t have gotten the Vvardenfell map. It’s not a dealbreaker but it’s an issue.
The digital distribution options on consoles have underwhelmed me. Hard drive space is at a premium on those things, and Microsoft especially seems intent on charging silly prices for old, mediocre games.
It’s so weird, at my age I’m just old enough to remember the small bookstores and hardware stores. Not hole in the wall or specialty places; they were just small. Then game the super-stores, which wiped out the small guys. Then the super-stores were wiped out by the internet. For books, physical internet sales are giving way to e-Books. It’s the same with games, in a way: Babbages and Egghead were wiped away by Best Buy and CompUSA, which in turn have suffered at the hands of Amazon, which in turn is dealing with the rise of digital distribution. One wonders what might be coming next, to supplant digital distribution. Or have we reached the summit?
Does people who buy pre-owned burning in hell extend to the used copy of Blur you bought the other week?
As consumers we are lucky that we have a choice of where we buy things, and we are lucky that prices aren’t dictated to us. Pre-owned is sometimes the only way to aquire older games, and it allows people to pick up games they might have missed out on before at a good price. You paid £15 for Blur. Microsoft would have charged you double that at least without flinching, and you wouldn’t have an alternative avenue to go down.
Then you consider publishers. Can you imagine if games were restricted to digital distribution through a single store front, with Bobby Kotick having influence on their pricing strategy?
Clearly there a lot of pros to digital distribution.. but only when it’s done right. The problem we face on consoles is that there’s no evidence of this being done right. This idea of charging £50 for games or going day and date with both high street and digital launches, but adding £8 onto the digital cost, needs to stop and it needs to stop now. As a console gamer I absolutely dread (even if I don’t truly think it will happen) the idea of an all digital future with these policies and attitudes from the platform holders.
So far I’m keeping my old boxes because of some weird sentimental feelings towards them, but in the end I hate clutter and don’t want to buy any more stuff like that. And REALLY I don’t see any benefits whatsoever of being able to sell your physical used copy of a game with todays games’ prices.
Besides, all new games I’m interested in either don’t have any boxed versions, or have really cheap ones (which is also connected to their low prices).
Haha, shhh! I was a desperate man resorting to desperate measures! If play did next day delivery I’d have been on it! It was crisis point! In all seriousness though I really do dislike the preowned market and what it’s become.
@ Jakkar, that’s ok I don’t hate you. Affording games as children was difficult! You know better now though 😉
I dislike it too, but at the end of the day being against digital distribution in the manner that Sony and Microsoft handle things doesn’t start and end just with the pre-owned market. Competition drives down prices for new stock too. Play.com had that cheap copy of Blur brand new and sealed, but that wouldn’t be the case if the platform holders dictated things digitally either..
Steam does it right with a library that I can access when I’m ready. Or when ready again. In the last 2 months I’ve downloaded a couple of games (not Steam) that were on cheapo sale. I had to play them quickly so that I could uninstall them to free up HD space for other stuff. Then they were gone, and for at least one of them, the one download was all I get. If you don’t have HD space to store lots of games until you are ready for them, or ready again, or to save beloved games for posterity, Steam can’t be beat. But still, I want my hard copy.
You’re right on the money, Mat, as far as my preferences are concerned. Digital distribution on the big two consoles is pitiable. I have never– and will never, as long as console games come in physical form– bought a digital copy of a title that also launched physically in the brick and mortars.
The last three console games I paid to download were The Guardian of Light, Limbo and Braid. None of which had another option. And as I see it, for now at least, those are the types of games (on consoles) which are best suited to the download format.
I can go either way on clutter: I love a physical collection, but I also go through phases of desire-to-purge, and I do. It’s healthy now and then. Ultimately what you feel is special, personally to you, or held as classics will stay in your collection. Most everything else can come and go, finding a new home with new owners. An aspect of physical console games that I like very much: trading/buying/selling in the classifieds. Bollocks to doing it at Gamestop or wherever; for desperate times, yes, it’s there, but I much prefer a meeting in person with my buyer: always proud to see the look on their face when they inspect the quality of a disc that I’ve kept in immaculate condition.
A fine rant, Mat. Always a topic that can be dissected and discussed.
Its perfect when it’s after midnight and want a new game to play. That is why I love Steam…its why I liked Netflix…and once upon a time, I scoffed at both of those services.
Steam and Netflix strike me as examples of digital distribution done right (and I too scoffed at them). Noninvasive, noncreepy, simple to use, and efficient. All digital, though? That’s something I’m still not comfortable with.
Actually, I should say, “I am not yet willing to accept this cow.”
Laugh out loud funny Mat, great stuff.
I’m like xtal, I love to see all the old games I’ve hung on to over the years and love to look at all my digital games on Steam (I wish I had more time to actually play them all though). I’m not a fan of clutter but at the same time I don’t like to just throw stuff away if I can give it a better home and there are a great many physical games I’d like to sell/trade in but unfortunately they’d be worth diddly squat so they just sort of sit there. The three things I like about owning digital copies of games is that they don’t take up any physical space, are greener and can’t be sold on so I don’t feel guilty that I’ve bought another game that’s resigned to a shelf and unwanted but worthless.
As Steerpike said, I picked up a second hand copy of Morrowind and all its expansions complete with maps and useful instruction manuals from one of the many local game stores. I’m pretty damn sure that the GOTY version that retails now doesn’t have all that cool stuff bundled with it so I’d have been hard pushed to get it anywhere else and for such a reasonable price.
I agree with all of the horders – even if I don’t particularly like a case now, I know in a couple of years time I’ll be tearly sentimental about it. Man, I wish I still had the boxes that all of my C64 games came in!
I also love the extras that come in boxes and instruction manuals… the little bits of back-story that are evidence of developers who loved their baby project, and went to the effort of fleshing out a great many more aspects of the game world than you might otherwise believe. It all adds to the immersion, as far as I’m concerned.
So, in the sense of downloads lacking all that stuff, if just makes them seem soulless to me – or worse, blatant attempts of greed. I don’t give money to publishers to make them fat and lazy, I want to reward developers for the effort they put into entertaining me.