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Published on August 7th, 2008 | by Deejay Knight, Editor/Founder

When Gaming Goes Download Only, My Gaming Days Are Done

There’s talk from multiple camps about the possibility of digital distribution digital distribution overtaking retail completely, and that doesn’t sit right with me. Take this quote for example:

Microsoft says there is ‘no question’ that the sale of downloaded games will overtake the sales of games at retail in the coming years.

According to David Gosen, Xbox Europe’s VP of strategic marketing and Live, “There’s no question digital will overtake physical. It happened in music and will happen to our industry.”

He was talking as part of his keynote speech at Microsoft’s UK Gamefest developer event in central London today.

Gosen told attendees that “convergence is happening” in the industry as consumers turn to games consoles to deliver content digitally, be that games or movies.

You can take that how you will, and I fully expect that you’d read the article yourself, but my take may be a bit different from yours. It could be implying that profits from digitally distributed games would be higher than those from retail shops, and if that’s what they’re trying to say, forgive me for blowing things out of proportion.

In my opinion though, this article basically implies a bit more than digital distribution for games becoming more popular in the future. Specifically the assurance that downloaded games will overtake the sales of retail. The idea that digital music is selling higher than classic is pretty funny, considering that recent sales put digital music sales at 15% of overall music sales:

Digital sales, however, continue to grow dramatically. Digital album sales are up 34% to 31.6 million units, which represent 15.5% of all album sales.

No, I won’t disregard the fact that downloads are rising dramatically. That’s all fine and good, fantastic even, but the fact remains that digital music isn’t selling more than physical music, which makes me wonder why the spin was attempted.

Having experienced Xbox Live myself, I fully expect that Microsoft would be pushing the service as the de facto for the idea, but the thing that worries me most about this article is the implication that full, retail games will be distributed through the service. Technically, that’s already happening with the Xbox Originals feature of the service, but for current or future generation games? I think not.

Personally, while I enjoy Xbox Live as much as the next gamer, I don’t love any service enough to give up physical copies of games that cost any more than $20. There are too many factors involved that don’t work for the consumer.

Hard Disk Size

For digital distribution to work properly, there has to be a decent amount of storage space. With current-gen Xbox 360  games taking upwards of 6 GB – with some games spread across multiple discs – and some PlayStation 3 exclusives needing dual layered Blu Ray discs to encompass all the data, a system that relies on downloaded games would need to have a pretty large hard drive. Currently, a 20GB Xbox 360 HDD costs $89.99 and a 120GB costs $179.99. Wow, I’d hate to see what the 500GB would cost, because even that amount of space wouldn’t be all that sufficient for games and all the DLC that comes along with them.

Broadband Access

This is a tricky aspect of the entire argument in my opinion, as it’s a three way argument. First off, broadband access is how these games would be distributed, which would require broadband access. Considering it’s not as widely spread as many would like, that could prove a bit of a problem.

Not only does the internet access encompass the means of accessing the games, it’s also how the Digital Rights Management works. PC gamers who use Steam already deal with this sort of thing, as the DRM requires that you connect to the service to access your content if you downloaded it initally (if I’m wrong about this, I’m sure it’ll be corrected soon). Xbox Live members have to deal with this if you have a game on a different console than the one you downloaded it on, which causes a bit of a stir for members who’ve had to send their systems in for repair. To reset the content, you have to transfer your licenses to the new machine.

With a physical disc, you wouldn’t have to worry about DRM at all, because you can just put the disc in the drive and enter a new world. Also, what do you do with your downloaded, connect-to-the-service-to-play games when ‘life’ happens, and you’re without internet for a couple days? If you can’t get online, you can’t authenticate your game purchase, and you can’t play your games. How much sense does that make again?

Mostly though, with cable providers considering adding data caps to their plans, it could also prove very costly and inconvenient for users when they’ve hit their download/upload cap for the month and can’t finish downloading the game they wanted without extra cost. That’s not very helpful!

Brick and Mortar Sales

This is where it could get even trickier than before. Without games in stores, think of the money that chains like Target, Best Buy, Circuit City, and most specifically Wal-Mart miss out on. This has no benefit to me personally, but without the games pulling in the extra profit, what incentive do these stores have to sell the hardware? There has to be some sort of profit for them to want to sell these systems!

Pricing Structures

This is one of the largest factors for me, personally. In retail chains, prices drop on software all the time to sell off the older software and make room for the newer games. Without actual shelf space to fill, what are the chances that the games will drop in price at all? Prices have been generally the same across Xbox Live and PlayStation Network without much downward price momentum for those older titles at all, which means games won’t drop in price very often. How is that going to spur sales?

Also take into account the current standard price for games is $60 each. Would these pricing structure then stay the same for the digital games? Would gamers be paying $60 for games without any sort of disc?

This isn’t looking very bright to me.

Just Give me a DISC!

Honestly, when it all boils down to it, I’m an old fashioned guy. I don’t want to pay more than $20 for a game without having some sort of physical medium that proves my purchase. With a physical disc, I have full reign over what to do with my purchase. I can sell it, give it away, hide it in a cabinet until I want to play it again, and pretty much anything else that goes along with having control over what I pay for.

If they’re basing the future of game sales on the success of the iPod and iTunes I’ll have to be a bit more critical of where I spend my gaming dollars, because the difference between a five megabyte song and a five gigabyte game is fairly massive. Those are two completely different expectations of what your download is capable of, and should be treated as such.

The day where my only option for gaming is to download the entire game over a service like Xbox Live or PlayStation Network is the day I happily put down my controller for good.

Image credit to enjoi_yourpanda5.

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About the Author

Deejay has been a gamer since the Atari 2600, has wrestled–and defeated–alligators with only his toes, and once aligned all the planets in the Solar System by uttering the words "Coo Coo Ka-Choo". In his sleep. He currently bides his time behind the scenes here at GAMINGtruth.com, streaming at http://www.twitch.tv/deejayknight and teaching.



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