It’s coming, whether we like it or not.
The future of gaming will rely less and less on proprietary hardware and physical discs, become more and more about the content offered through their digital service, whatever that may be. Currently for the two big console giants, Microsoft and Sony, it is Xbox Live and PlayStation Network respectively. The former is a premium paid-for service with a more sturdy infrastructure, also making it easier for developers to adapt their games to (they literally “plug in” Microsoft’s online code and their game is Live enabled). The former, PSN, is free which is always a good thing but took years to saturate the marketplace and mature into a fully functional online service that eventually included an appealing storefront. Developers had to work very hard just to make PSN work for their games. Sony clearly didn’t have the online thing down, at least nowhere near as successful as Microsoft. However, now Sony offers it’s own premium service which will soon be required to play multiplayer games online with the next iteration of Sony’s hardware, the PlayStation 4. Sony has reassured customers that all other online freatures, such as video streaming, Netflix, YouTube access and firmware and game updates are still free with PS4. Playstation Plus, as it’s known, is actually quite a bargain. Each month, Sony uploads exclusive content for it’s user base, heavily discounts existing content for PS Plus users, adds new full PS3 games as digital download every month for FREE that you can keep and even includes online storage space. Not bad for $50 a year. If I had more disposable income, I would already be PS Plus member myself.
However, as next-generation approaches us this fall it is quite clear that both companies want to transition to a more digital-oriented landscape for games, and content overall. When I said before that the proprietary h/w each company unleashes on the salivating gamer-hungry hordes every console cycle may be a thing of the past quite soon, I’m not the only one with this mindset. But for digital downloads and furthermore, the services that deliver the content to our homes to be a success AND welcomed instead of maligned and seethed by the general public, several things have to happen first….
The Internet must be vast and fast
This is fact. The backlash against Microsoft’s recently unveiled Xbox One was primarily because of it’s stringent and tedious internet requirements. The console required an internet connection to work, period. Yes, it could be disconnected after the “check-in”, update or whatever period was complete for 24 hours and used offline (unless of course, the game you’re playing requires a permanent connection) but it then becomes a countdown to being nothing more than a brick. I can already see the headlines now “Hundreds of Parents return the Xbox One this Holiday Season because their kids can’t connect to play their games”. From a technicians standpoint, here’s a typical scenario that could have played out for MS next-gen hardware:
Mom or Dad buys son or daughter a new Xbox One for Christmas or whatever holiday they celebrate, kid plugs it in and then the family meanders their way through a setup which necessitates the need for connecting the box to the internet. Maybe the parents are affluent with connecting devices to their wifi router or LAN cables, maybe not (if not, they are already reaching for the phone to contact MS Tech Support). However many minutes later, the setup is complete and the child happily chugs away at Titanfall until…. *uh-oh*… the console is either disconnected accidentally by an unstable wifi connection or poor internet stability or the kid, god forbid, moves the console to another part of the house or takes it to a friends house to show it off and it gets severed from the connection. When little Johnny or Suzy go back to play Titanfall the next day, 24 hours later, everything comes to a screeching halt and the system won’t let them play because they disconnected before the console could authenticate for it’s next 24 hour cycle. The parents, naturally, are frustrated and say “Wait, we just set this damn thing up yesterday and already it won’t work!?” (I’m a computer technician by trade, so you may be surprised at how many people call up with “problems” that can obviously be fixed with just a little common sense, like making sure everything is plugged in correctly or that the router, PC whatever is receiving power). They may call customer service or technical support and they may get the problem resolved, depending on how good the technician is OR they could just say fuck it after a two-hour phone wait, several transfers and return the system because they think something is wrong with it and switch to a PlayStation 4. These are customers, that once switched, Microsoft would most likely never get back. Then again, the parents could always buy a hassle free device if they don’t have a fast/stable connection or don’t have the internet all together, such as the Xbox 360. As Don Mattrick, former Xbox Chief of Operations eloquently put it (he has since left MS to pursue what one could only hope a more fruitful career at Zynga):
“We have a console for gamers that don’t have the internet. It’s called the Xbox 360.” -Not a direct quote, but very close
Really? Thanks for that consumer-friendly vote of confidence, Don. This is pure corporate arrogance rearing it’s big, fat ugly head.
Or people could get a next-gen console with no need for the online bullshit such as the PlayStation 4. The above scenario I described is just one of many that could have plagued Microsoft’s next-gen console. I say could have because Microsoft did something very uncharacteristic of itself, they backpedaled on all their online requirements and DRM implementation by announcing they would be removed. A wave of enthusiasm and relief erupted over the internet, as Microsoft claims that they listened to customer feedback and removed their draconian-style DRM and online requirement policies that they repeatedly backed-up and said how fundamental they were to the Xbox One’s features and the experience itself. Well, apparently not that fundamental as all the important features were rescinded in a day. It makes me wonder how integral their online requirements and DRM policies really were to begin with. Microsoft didn’t pull a 180 on their consoles policies because of “customer feedback”, no they did it simply because of their main competitor Sony. At Sony’s E3 Press Conference Jack Tretton gleefully reinforced the current status quo with the PS4, stating that the PS4 would not require any online connection to work and not screw with the used game market. Simply put, Sony forced their hand. The Xbox faithful who were pessimistic about the next-gen Xbox’s online requirement “features”, the transition away from using physical discs as a means to play games and the always-on Kinect 2 (which is still a requirement) should now be thanking Sony. If Sony had unleashed a similar infrastructure with the PS4 by insisting upon a constantly connected console that required games to be installed from the disc and then it’s worthless, Microsoft without question would’ve stuck to their guns.
And to play devils advocate, Sony is leaving DRM up to individual publishers whether they implement onto their discs or not. With the recent failure of EA’s Online Pass, I doubt will see anything in the form of console DRM in the immediate future but a few years down the line, who knows? So why were so many people causing such an uproar over the Xbox One’s online requirements?
With many of the forums I read and the conversations I participated in regarding the Xbox One, whether it was online or in the electronics/games section of a local retailer with other consumers the reason became painfully obvious: The internet simply is not as commonplace, fast enough or stable enough to handle a game console with stringent online requirements that’s primary focus is on digitally downloaded content. Speaking personally, when I first acquired my PS3 back in 2010 I didn’t have the internet. Nearly three years passed before I had a stable enough connection to use with my PS3 so I could enjoy it’s online features. I currently have a two megabit connection, but even with that I occasionally experience lag and disconnects. While this may be a issue isolated to the Playstation Network, I’m sure there are a fair amount of Xbox 360 owners who can claim their own online problems, regardless of their connection speed. Oh, and I should also mention that for a 2 Megabit connection in my area it can cost upwards of $60-70. In a down economy were many people have suffered job loss and pay cuts, that much money can be the difference between putting food on the table for a week or two or living off ramen noodles.
For digital content, such as digital downloads and even more so, a completely independent digital subscription game service (you pay for the content on a month-to-month basis and the h/w is leased to you, comparable to smart phone contracts) to work, the internet needs to be cheap and FAST. With Fiber Optic internet being tested in several select city markets right now, we are probably another 8-12 years before it’s as commonplace as dial-up or a low-end DSL connection is right now. I have a little background in how this market-testing works:
This story isn’t required to understand the rest of the article, but it offers my personal insight and hey, we all know how priceless that is right? (listens to crickets chirping in the background)
When TimeWarner’s Roadrunner Highspeed cable Internet service was first going live, they tested it in a few cities before going national. The benefits of being in a test market are enormous, the drawbacks are well…. none that I can think of. The beta test gave you access to the cable mode h/w for free, the cable company comes into your home and performs the mysterious task of your modem setup for free (at the time, I was very fascinated by this process since highspeed internet was in it’s infancy) and the subscription to the service was free. One of the cities was mine, and I had the foresight to sign-up for the beta test program, which of course my father had no problem with (it was all free!). I still remember the tech coming over to install the service ’til this day. The modem itself was enormous, a giant rectangular shaped box with air vents on the side for heat dissipation and had the emblem of the animated character of the Roadrunner painted on the front along with a few blinking lights. I was only 13 or 14 at the time, but I was heavily into computers since I was a social outcast at my local highschool (what computer nerd can be both master of IRC and Usenet and Captain of the Football team?).
Right now, internet access is somewhat volatile. In certain areas, the ISP offers high-speed connectivity but the plans offered have you paying extra if you go over a certain bandwith quota each month; equivalent to how you pay extra if you go over the allotted minutes or texts you have on your smart phone plan. In other areas, there’s no quota but the closest to high-speed is low-range ADSL and because it’s the only game in town you could be paying a premium for it. Or even worse, you live in the boonies and the only internet access available is dial-up. Well, at least that’s cheap. And I’m just referencing North America, other countries don’t even have access to the internet period, or if they do their government regulates how and what you have access to. Scenarios described above are a huge detriment to a game console that aspires to offer mainly digital content such as games, movies, television, music, shopping whatever. Microsoft may have had the right idea, but it’s just too soon to implement it on mass scale.
Digital Game Downloads or Physical Retail Discs? What’s my incentive to go all the way, digital?
The marketplace for Digital Game Downloads is relatively new, only being around for the past several years with the main proponent being Valve’s Steam client. Digital Downloads account for a huge portion of the multi-billion game industry, so it’s not going away. But there are ALOT of unanswered questions about concept of ownership, DRM, permanent online requirements and so forth . For nearly three decades, since the origin of Nintendo’s NES game console, the used game market was synonymous with the new game market. The used game marketplace work in unison with the new game market, even more so when a new cycle of consoles was release. Kids would take all their old, played out games and the hardware and trade it in towards the new console and games. This system is not unique to the videogame industry, but it has been their since the beginning. If you purchased a used game, you would invariably save money allowing you to put it towards a new video game purchase that you really wanted when it came out. The push for removing the physical medium from the console has started, but why? Why can’t we have both? Right now, digital downloads just do not appeal to me. AT ALL. I know I don’t speak for the masses, as many people will say their entire game collection is all digital. That’s fine, it’s their choice.
But why force upon us a digital delivery system for games that is not entirely fleshed out or fully realized yet? Why now, all of the sudden, are publishers getting all pissy about the used game market, crying over lost revenue that should be theirs. The publishers, developers and retailers like GameStop (who I will admit, benefits ridiculously from gamers who sell back their games or trade in a game that they paid out the ass for, only to have it worth virtually nothing) have all been a part of this system for years, so why now all the bitching? It’s simple really: The cost of creating, marketing and publishing triple-A titles has ballooned to the point of excess. Publishers now must sell a million units of one title just to break even, and even more to turn a profit. The current console generation has caused the cost of game development to explode. Games can now cost as much as a Hollywood movie to develop, sometimes even more so. Because of the extra graphical horsepower this current gen of platforms offer, the fact that many games often have to be multi-platform, that online multiplayer is now an incremental part of almost every new release means that more and more people are employed by development studios to create current gen titles. Graphics have become so realistic and will only be more advanced and life-life with the PS4 and Xbox One that development costs will increase more. Selling a game digitally means that they are completely circumventing all manufacturing costs: No boxes, no artwork, no inserts, and no paying to have millions of copies of a disc pressed.
In theory, this sounds like it would be great for the consumer. If the publisher is cutting out all manufacturing costs, then they can pass the savings on to me! Right…? Right ?! I will use Naughty Dog’s latest hit, “The Last of Us” as a prime example of why the current digital download system is flawed. I pre-ordered this title a couple months back because well, it’s a PS3 exclusive and ND has yet to release a bad PS3 game. I felt secure with my pre-order, unlike another title I pre-ordered this year which turned out to be a total shit bomb. In theory, the convenience of purchasing a digital game download is that you should have access to it instantly. You don’t have to leave the comfort of your own home, you can sit on your couch with a bag of doritos, wearing your stained wife-beater and hopefully non-stained boxers and be able to play your game within minutes. Unfortunately, with the issues I mentioned above with our current internet infrastructure, this method of purchasing and downloading a game keep you from any instantaneous self-gratification. Current gen games can be anywhere from 8-25 gigabytes in size, meaning that unless you have a T1 or fiber-optic connection your wife-beater is going to turn orange from using it as a dorito napkin during the long wait while your console downloads your game. This is counter-intuitive and is nothing but inconvenient, unless you plan ahead and start the download before you go to work etc. It is by far quicker to drive to the nearest video game outlet and purchase the retail, physical copy. So far, this nullifies the first reason why digital game downloads should be better. Let’s indulge logic into reason number 2.
As previously mentioned, when a publisher sells a digital download via Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network, said publisher forgoes any cost they would normally endure for a retail copy of the same title. So why then, when I logged into the PlayStation Store was “The Last of Us” still $59.99? The same, EXACT price as it’s physical retail counterpart. Did I miss something? Does the digital version include some additional content missing from the retail disc? Do Joel (from TLoU) or Ellie perform a big dance routine to Justin Bieber song a la “Glee” with clickers as their backup dancers? Seriously, what the fuck am I missing here? Digital Game Downloads, ESPECIALLY DAY 1 RELEASES SHOULD COST NOWHERE NEAR AS MUCH AS THE RETAIL COPIES. A digital release of a brand new game should be at least 25% cheaper, if not more. Where is my incentive to purchase the digital download, as it will probably take 6-12 hours on my 2 megabit connection to even acquire the entire game and I still have to pay the same $60 price-tag!? For that amount, I might as well walk across the street to the local GameStop and buy the physical copy. Not only do I have the game in hand, but If anything ever happens to my PS3 I won’t have to worry about redownloading the whole fucking thing for another 6-12 hours and have an unlimited license to install, uninstall and reinstall the game as many times as I wish. Also, I can take the game to a friends house to show off and they may like it so much they’ll go out and buy their own copy. Restricting game content to one unit destroys the power of word of mouth advertising, which is the best kind of advertising since it’s free and done completely by the customer. Which brings me to reason three….
Side Note: The retail, physical disc copy of “The Last of Us” does not need to be installed and only takes up approximately 50-70 MB of hard drive space. For a guy with limited HD space, that’s a blessing. But for someone who relies on digital downloads, I hope you have a nice fat 250-500 GB HD otherwise plan to be doing alot of deleting and reloading of your games whenever you feel like playing another couple games.
You break it, you buy it! You download it, you can own it until something happens then you can download it 8 more times and only for as long as we have it on our server and even then if we break it, you still buy it…..what?
….Concept of ownership. When you buy a physical retail game, just like with any other product you purchase at a store and take home with you, it’s yours. You own it. You can use it as you see fit and do whatever the hell you want with it as long as you aren’t breaking the license agreement that comes with the game. You can uninstall and reinstall the game as many times as you want (if the game requires some type of mandatory installation), you can loan the game to a friend for them to try it before they buy it, you can resell it if the game doesn’t live up to your expectations. With Digital Game Downloads, all of the above is about as clear as the fine print before you click ACCEPT on a EULA (End User License Agreement) for a Sony PS3 firmware update or software installation on PC. When you purchase a digital game download, you should have an unlimited number of times to redownload the game. After all, if I own a disc of a game I can play it anytime I want; just insert the disc and go. With digital game downloads, however, you are completely at the mercy of the publisher and in some ways, the storefront. They can limit the number of times you download and install the game, or even worse, make you pay for an additional number of activations or licenses if you’ve had to use all yours up. I believe with games purchased via the PlayStation Store, you are limited to Five downloads per title, but I am not sure. I do believe at one point it used to be a larger number but for whatever reason Sony felt inclined to lower it. Ridiculous. I paid for the damn thing, I spent the ridiculous amount of time to download it, why should I not be able to download it again if necessary as many times as I need? Even more concerning is the fact that my purchase may not always be available. Maybe the server that hosts the download goes down, maybe after 5, 8 or 10 years who is to say Sony will no longer feel obligated to host the download anymore? And even more disconcerting are the gamers who have ISP’s that strong-arm bandwith quota’s onto them. Now that 15-20 GB game will not only carry it’s original cost, but the added price of going over the monthly quota. Yikes.
For all these unanswered questions about concept of ownership and retaining ownership, I offer a cheap and invaluable solution: Allow the purchaser to buy a license of physical transference. Essentially, for a minor additional cost along side the Digital Game purchase, you are also allowed a license for that game to transfer/copy the content to a physical storage medium such as a USB Flash drive, an external hard drive or even a recordable blu-ray disc. This provides the individual with a hard copy backup, in case anything goes awry with the principle digital version already installed. It’s an extremely easy solution and offers peace of mind to those with a large collection of digital-only games. If something like this were to come to fruition, I would be purchasing digital titles left and right. You now can retain ownership and even share it with friends. While some publishers may argue this could open the door to piracy, I saw at this point it really doesn’t matter. Piracy for movies, music and videogames will always exist but it’s such a small fraction of the gaming community. Any publisher saying that DRM is implemented to avert piracy is just using that claim as a smokescreen. PC games up until 2007 didn’t have consistent DRM built into the game
Indie Games and back-catalog re-releases: The real reason digital offers exciting new opportunities where they once didn’t exist
With all the technical issues leaving many unanswered questions, the reason digital still has potential when the ISPs can catch up is because independent game developers now have an avenue of distribution that was never available to them. I will admit for all my skepticism over the future of this technology and unwavering love of the tangible, game developers who once never had a way to get their labor of love into peoples homes can do so now with the channels of digital distribution offered by Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo and 3rd-party publishers. Better yet, these typically small game studios reap most of the profit from their digital sales and the games are typically reasonably priced. Most games that come out of smaller, independent-based developers usually cost at the very most $25 but almost always less. And even more pleasantly surprising is that the myriad of indie-based digital game releases are besting some of the bigger budget, triple A games in quality and even in sales. Also exciting is the re-release of back catalog titles that are out of print for the new consoles as digital exclusive releases. I purchased a copy of Okami HD last fall for $19.99. The game was a reasonable download, clocking in around 2 GB and looks beautiful remastered in HD. The title was released for the PS2 and Wii to critical acclaim but never connected with a core audience, making the game a rare find and expensive to purchase the physical copy. As with many popular Playstation 1 games, especially the RPGS, they are very difficult to find and collectors will often sell them for a premium price because the physical copy is a rarity. This is where digital games can really excel. I would easily pay $15-$25 for a digital copy of some hard to find PSX games (ie: Kings Field, Tales of Destiny, Vagrant Story, Einhander, Elemental Gearbolt, Shadow Tower…. to name a few) and Sony has a HUGE catalog of unreleased digital content. They could easily make a killing by re-releasing many of those rare games as digital releases, maybe even remastered in HD. And with the arrival of the PS4, Sony has declared open season on independent game studios, courting many of them to their next console. One of the big new features of the PlayStation 4 is the capability of game developers to self-publish their own independent titles. This is a huge deal for these small studios, as now they have a direct, easy form of distribution that will instantly reach millions of gamers worldwide via the PlayStation Network.
I really hope retail copies of games will be around forever, but I guess this is just an oldschool gamer being unrealistic. Someday, when I’m talking to my sister or half-brothers kids (my family and extended family all consist of gamers) about what it was like to be a gamer in my late 20’s, I will describe the excitement I had every time I walked into a retail game shop and looked around at the literally hundreds of games for sale. The whole process of walking around, looking at various titles trying to figure out “Should I buy this awesome new game that just came out or use the money and buy two decent used games instead?”….Then the joy of getting home and tearing off the shrink wrap off a new purchase and opening the case to inhale that “new game smell”. (for those who like to take their time and linger and browse through a game shops inventory, enjoying it as an experience on the whole, you’ll know to what I’m referring to!) The whole experience of buying a new game may soon be rendered obsolete by the transition to digital, but for the foreseeable future retail video game stores and used games are still an integral part of the gaming ecosystem.