Apparently the download revolution is coming, but I’m not feeling it

August 28, 2008 § Leave a comment

Analysts everywhere are proclaiming the arrival of the download revolution, a time when we will no longer have a need for physical game stores, when we can simply click on our desired game only to have it appear on our hard drive in moments. As much as I might like believe that this will soon be the case, several factors are getting in the way, all of which seem to point me to the conclusion that this change might be a little longer coming than we think.

Bionic Commando, the 2D remake of the original was released on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network last week amidst a flurry of praise and high review scores. In response the game enjoyed quite the commercial success, 130 000 copies downloaded in it’s first week on the market. This, I’m told, is a significant amount on the download scene, but then let’s give these numbers some context:

The Top 5 Best Selling Games this Year:
Grand Theft Auto IV–6,293,000 units sold
Super Smash Bros. Brawl–5,433,000 units sold
Mario Kart Wii–4,697,000 units sold
Wii Fit–3,604,000 units sold
Guitar Hero III–3,475,000 units sold

Somehow 130 000 doesn’t seem like that much anymore does it? In fact, it’s such a small number that it could quite easily win Gamespot’s coveted (no not really) award for best game no one played. Granted the game was probably cheaper to produce, what with the physical cost of producing disks being removed, but there’s still a very large gap between Guitar Hero and Bionic Commando.

This list highlights several points which lead me to believe digital distribution has a long way to go. Firstly three out of the five games could be described as “Casual Games,” ie games that someone who’s not heavily into games will play. This could be an indication that the only people downloading games are the so called “Hardcore” gamers, the one’s with all the knowledge of this system which may appear to be somewhat alien to your Auntie Maureen. The masses are flocking to systems like the Wii because of their ease of use: they don’t need to worry about setting up an online account or registering credit card details, they can simply plug it in, buy a game, and be on their way. When you start adding these complications the majority of people will get turned off by your idea, sure it’s ok to maybe spend an evening playing on the Wii, but why bother downloading a game when there are so many that can be bought in a shop for less hassle?

Secondly two of the games in this list come with extra peripherals essential to play the game. This point shouldn’t warrant much of an explanation, unless someone’s found a way to download a balance board to my living room.

So let’s compare what you get with a retail version of a game and a downloaded version. With a retail version you have a physical copy, and so long as you take care of it you’ll be able to keep it any play it on your system for many years to come. On top of that it’s very hard to run out of room for physical games, when the time comes you can always put them in boxes in your loft. Sure you may have had to go to a store to get it (you might have even ordered it online) but what you’re left with is a physical object, the safety of which lies in your hands.

Download a game and it’s a completely different story. You’ve skipped the time it may have taken you to walk to a store, but if you’re someone with a bad Internet connection you might not save as much time as you’d have hoped. Let’s also not forget that there’s a lot of people out there without Internet connections as well. Finally however you get your game, and it might even have the added bonus of running faster as it’s loading from a hard drive and not a disk. You play it solidly for two weeks and exhaust all possible enjoyment you may have gotten from the game. Then what? That hard drive space is precious to you, wouldn’t you rather clear some of it for a big shiny new game? Maybe you decide to keep the game on their as a tribute to your two weeks of bliss, but who’s to say your hard drive will appreciate the thought? Maybe one day it’ll just slip…and then your game will be gone.

Of course I’m using exaggeration to put across a point, and this may be a result of my love for a physical game collection, as well as a physical movie and music collection. There’s just something altogether a lot more impressive about revealing your shelf stacked full of games rather than browsing through a list on a monitor. Many of the points I’ve argued will disappear over time, broadband speeds will get faster, hard drives bigger and more reliable, and the general public more educated about services available to them.

There’s just one final point I wish to make. As I’ve said before gamers are stereotypically solitary creatures, spending much time alone, or socialising through the Internet. The games shop is very important in this respect, when you enter one you know you’re in the company of people who share you’re passion, and who can point you towards what you’re looking for. If you take away that human interaction completely communities which thrive around the physical store will wither and die, without any other meeting ground to replace them.

Also you can’t rent downloads, so count me out.

Peace out



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