Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's wrong with digital distribution?

It's all the rage in music, movies, and now, video games. Digital distribution allows publishers to cut costs by reducing physical components, eliminating retail middle-men, and giving them more control over price. It also makes shopping more convenient for the consumer by allowing customers to make purchases from their own home. It saves time and money for both the publisher and the consumer. It sounds like a win-win situation.

So why, you may ask, am I opposed to digital distribution? I am very wary of what comes with it. Yes, it is more convenient, and in most cases, cheaper (especially if you take traveling expenses into account), but it also takes a lot of control away from the consumer:

  • The lack of a physical disc means if you are unhappy with the product you purchased, or simply done with it, there is no chance of either getting a refund or trading in your used games.

  • Digital Rights Management can get in the way of how you can use what you have legally purchased. You can't usually share, copy, or loan your media if it's DRM-protected. For example, if I bought 'Splosion Man on XBLA, it is tied to both my Gamertag and my system ID number, so I can't loan it to my friend like I did with my Ghostbusters disc. Same goes with Rock Band DLC. I can't go over to my friend's house with a memory card loaded with songs and play them on his system. Lame.

    DRM also limits other media. iTunes songs and movies I downloaded prior to iTunes Plus cannot be played on my Xbox or PSP because they are not approved or registrable devices.

  • Then there are future compatibility concerns. Remember all those maps you bought for Halo 2 on your original Xbox? The only way you can use them now is by hooking up your old Xbox. You cannot transfer them to the 360, even though the game itself is backwards compatible. Do you think all those PSN, XBLA, or Wii Shop Channel games and add-ons you've spent real money on will work on the PlayStation 4, third generation Xbox, or whatever Nintendo creates to follow the Wii? Maybe if they're feeling generous, but they're under no obligation to do so.

Digital distribution also creates a storage issue. Whereas an infinite number of games can be stored on individual removable discs, internal hard drive space is limited. The average Xbox 360 game takes up about 4.5GB. If all you have is the basic 20GB HD, you'll be lucky to fit four games on it after the drive is formatted and NXE installed.

My biggest complaint with digital distribution is over-all support. While companies like Valve promise that games purchased online will always be playable, even if the company goes under, not all game publishers are so kind. I've been burned by digital distribution before, and left with a worthless collection of ones and zeros. It was an iPod game by Rock Band developer Harmonix called Phase. Phase used a special playlist in iTunes to create gameplay tracks with your own music. At some point in the past year or so, probably following a software update, that playlist disappeared, and Phase stopped working entirely, even though the game still appears in iTunes and on my iPod. I paid $5 for a game I can no longer play.

Retailers hate digital distribution too. No one makes money on hardware sales. The profit is in games, especially used games. Some retailers are already refusing to stock the PSP Go because of its unreasonable price and download only game distribution. If the game industry wants to switch to digital distribution, they're going to have to start selling consoles to retailers at an even greater loss than they do now so the hardware profits for the retailers will make up for the lack of tangible software sales.

While downloadable content has helped define this generation of gaming by prolonging the lives of many games, and digital distribution could have a lot to offer both publishers and consumers, right now there are too many obstacles to overcome; and with Blu-ray starting to become an industry standard, I don't see physical media being completely replaced for quite some time. I, for one, have no problem with that.

1 comment:

  1. i will continue to support physical media so long as it's still coming out.

    For example, i download songs from artist i like off of itunes and then hand the list of artists off to my holiday shopping. This especially helps me in that i can't tell one genre from another.

    Good post btw, just figured i throw in my 2 cents.