“Digital Distribution” is the technical term to describe the process of selling a digital file to somebody over the Internet, rather than bundling it in a box and shipping it to a brick-and-mortar store. Now, it’s no secret that I love digital distribution in ways that most people would consider unnatural. Sometimes it can be a sordid affair, when people don't do it right, but for the most part I’m a big fan. Let me tell you why...
As a customer, the most noticeable difference is convenience. Some people will argue this point, because while I – a notorious nighthawk – may find it convenient to be able to download a game at three in the morning, another person may think it’s a hassle when they can simply go to the Game Shack downtown in the same time it takes to download a 9GB game.
So while I do enjoy the convenience of digital distribution, it’s really the indirect benefits which interest me. But before I get to the indirect benefits seen by customers, let’s talk about the single biggest benefit seen by developers:
I know, I know, it seems tawdry to talk about finances when I’m trying to convey why I’m so passionate about this subject. It sounds like something Robert Kotick would proudly vaunt, explaining how he can increase profit-margins and decrease operating-costs, all with the same fervor and zeal he would use to pitch a new logo for laundry detergent. Believe me, I know how it sounds. As a games-can-be-art hippie, it’s as hard for me to say as it is for you to swallow.
But it’s really important! Sure, the savings are an obvious win for developers and publishers, and if they’re nice they’ll pass those saving on to you, the consumer. But it’s so much more than that.
Consider movies. Think of any film. Now walk into your local video store, and see if you can find it. Chances are you can, even if it’s terrible.
But what about video games? Head over to GameStop and see if you can find any classics like Psychonauts, Planescape: Torment, or even Halflife 2. These are fantastic games – every bit as good now as they were when they were released – but there’s not a trace of them in game stores. And I’m not even going back that far for these titles. If you start talking about the real classics, like Super Mario Bros., Ultima, or Wolfenstein 3D, you don’t even stand a chance! A game store that doesn’t carry these titles is like a video store that doesn’t carry any Hitchcock films, but this is the case everywhere you look!
So why the grim situation? Well, shelf-space in a brick-and-mortar store is expensive, and after a game has been on the market for a few months, its sales die down, so those games are removed from the shelves and replaced with newer games.
But space on the Internet is so cheap it’s nearly free! Finally, there’s a place where we can buy The Incredible Machine, Double Dragon , The Longest Journey, or that classic breakout game, DX-Ball 2 ;)
The other big benefit that comes with lower costs is that it opens the door for niche and experimental games. Many have sung eulogies for the graphic adventure game, a genre which proved it was no longer worth selling on store shelves when you can replace it with Halo and make 100-times more sales.
But if there was a way to reduce the cost of selling these games, they could be revived! And that’s just what happened. Whether it’s the impressive work of small (by comparison) development studios like Telltale Games or Hothead Games, or excellent indie titles like Time Gentlemen, Please! or the Blackwell series, the graphic adventure genre is alive and kicking!
And then there’s the experimental games, like The Path, Blueberry Garden, or Love which would never have made it into retail outlets. This is the biggest reason I feel so passionate about digital distribution, because these games explore the medium of video games in a way which has never been explored, and digital distribution is what makes it all happen.
Vive la digital distribution!