I've got a lazy bone or two, but I go to the gym three days a week. I park in the outskirts of lots to avoid shopping carriages and idiots who ding your doors. And I'll take a flight of stairs instead of an elevator or escalator when I can. So why am I so averse to getting up to change a game disk in my console when I want to play a different game? I don't have to get up to change the TV channel anymore. Maybe training your cat to swap disks for you is the solution. Or perhaps DLC is the answer.
Downloadable games from XBOX Live or the Playstation Network reside on your console's hard drive. When you want to play them, you select it from your dashboard and play away. No disks to juggle and no cases to store on a shelf. With the XBOX 360's option to upload a game to the hard drive, you'd think you could avoid having to insert the disk any time you wanted to play that game. But no… due to piracy concerns, the disk must be inserted, lest you rent a pile of games, upload them, and wind up with a complete library without having purchased anything.
You do have to admit that keeping disks is a bit of a hassle. They take up space. They can become dirty or scratched, preventing them from playing correctly. They can be lost or stolen. And they require you to get up from the couch when you want to play something different. Okay, that last one is a bit of a stretch. Unless you have trained cats.
But there are advantages to having physical media as well, such as the ability to trade, borrow, sell or buy used copies of games. Right now I'm borrowing a friend's copy of Fallout 3, since I want to play all the DLC, but traded in my copy about a year ago. (However, my friend had to buy this used copy of Fallout 3 after his kids knocked over his XBOX while playing it, causing his original new disk to become damaged beyond repair!) So right there in a single example, I've pointed out some pros and cons to physical media.
With this latest generation of consoles, and on the PC as well, there is an increasing amount of content that can be purchased via direct download. Not just the "small" arcade games, but full games once sold at retail, such as Microsoft's "Games on Demand" program. The PSP Go has eschewed the physical media altogether for download-only software. And look at the iPhone, Blackberry, Android and other handheld devices… everything is downloadable only.
There are many good reasons to embrace this new model of distribution. First: It's convenient. Want a game at 2AM on a holiday? Sure, no problem. You won't find many retailers open at that hour. Plus, you get instant gratification without the need to travel to a retail store. Second, you often have the security of knowing it can't be lost. Even if you delete the game from your device, you can re-download it at no cost, since you own a license to that game.
But there are detriments as well. Digital rights policies can be restrictive, causing annoyances if you replace your console. Downloaded software isn't portable, meaning you can't bring it to a friend's house to play on his machine. And once you purchase it, there is no way to return, trade-in, or sell your games. On top of that, the pricing schemes of DLC often provides no benefit over a physical copy of the same software, despite the fact that there is no physical medium to produce, ship and sell with a middleman's profit.
However, I'm going to make a prediction: The next generation of gaming systems will be downloadable content only, or will heavily favor DLC over physical media. We're already seeing that trend begin with many new games offering DLC expansions and bonus content, DLC-only arcade games, and downloadable re-releases of classic or best selling games. Who's going to benefit from this new age of distribution? Will it be the gamers or the developers? I think gamers will see some benefits (see my points above), but the real winners will be the console makers and developers. The losers will be the traditional retail outlets.
Face it, Microsoft, Sony, et al want to make as much profit as they can. When 100% of the sales of software are funneled through them, they make the maximum amount of money. Right now, every game that is traded in and resold as used, lent to a friend, or rented is lost sale for them. The console maker doesn't get their cut of the new game sale, and the software developers don't make profit from those units to help fund future projects. So it's only natural that the developers and the console makers want every person to play the game to have paid them for it.
That doesn't necessarily mean the end for consumers. Unless you are a pirate, you are already paying for every game you play. Wouldn't you rather see your money go towards the people who make your games (and hardware) to help fund the future of gaming instead of lining the pockets of those who have no influence on the games you play at all? On the other hand, consumers don't want to be ripped off when forced to buy downloadable content.
I've blogged about the "broken" economy of DLC before. When it is cheaper to buy a retail disk version of a game than to download the very same software, something is wrong. When a 4 year old Live Arcade game costs the same today as it did 4 years ago, something is wrong. An example I've used in the past was Forza Motorsport 2. You could buy the Platinum edition for about $20 which included all the DLC that was released for the game. Or you could spend about $23 just to download the same DLC content, plus still need to own the original game!
What about the retailers? Gamestop is the 800 pound gorilla of video game sellers, and they would be hit doubly hard if all games went download-only. Not only would they have no physical games to sell anymore, but they would lose a large chunk of their profit in the sale of used games. Though there is no love lost with me if they lost the used game market, since they rip off gamers by paying peanuts for used games then turn around and sell them for near-new price. I think the only way a company like Gamestop would survive is if they could sell download codes for games, much like the MS Points or Live subscription cards they already sell, or if they became a portal for downloadable content.
There are a lot of variables when considering a change from one distribution method to another. Who ultimately benefits from a migration to download-only software remains to be seen clearly. Consumers don't seem to mind iPhone, Blackberry or Android phones where the only way to get software is via DLC. And we all know the huge success the MP3 format has had in music downloads. But can this same level of consumer satisfaction be realized in the gaming console market?
I, personally, would embrace and endorse download-only games for my consoles only if the following were to be true:
· Reduced prices – since there are no disks or packaging to manufacture, there is no physical product to ship or warehouse, and there are no distributers or retailers to take a cut of the profit, the price of a downloadable game should be lower than what we pay now for the traditional product.
· Price reductions over time – retail prices of games drop over time as they age. People don't still pay $60 for COD4 today when Modern Warfare 2 is sold for that price. So there is no reason old DLC games should be the same price they were the day they premiered. DLC needs to drop in price at the same rate disk-based games do. Without price reductions, budget gamers would never be able to buy games.
· Promotional pricing – It's not uncommon to find retailers selling brand new games for 10% off or more. To encourage sales, the DLC should have promotional pricing, such as offering 10% off a brand new game if you purchase it the first week of release.
· Returns – Sometimes mistakes happen and you purchase DLC you don't really want. There should be a grace period of a few hours or even day or two to allow you to delete the DLC and garner a full refund.
· Rentals – Not everyone wants to spend $60 on a new game, or even $20-40 on an older game. Gamers should be allowed to rent the use of a game for a specific period of time for a small dollar amount. After which time, the game no longer works unless additional play time is purchased.
· Giftability – Not everyone who buys games buy it for themselves. Sometimes the buyer doesn't even own the device necessary to purchase or play the software. Provisions need to be made to allow anyone to purchase the software and give it to anyone else.
· Phony money – Microsoft is the biggest culprit here. Carnivals used the scam of making you buy 5 tickets at a time, but the ride cost 3 tickets to go on. Inevitably, some tickets would go unused and the carnival made more money off you than they should have. Microsoft Points are no different. DLC should be purchased with the legal tender used in the country the buyer is located in. Or, the buyer should be allowed to buy exactly the number of points they need.
· Trade-In value – Many gamers never play a game again once they finish it. Unlike an MP3 which may be listened to for years to come. Gamers should be allowed to delete a game from their library and gain a credit towards additional purchases. There is no "used" game being sold to someone else which would bypass profit for the console or developer. But goodwill would be fostered towards gamers, and encourage them to purchase additional titles. Many gamers rely on the money they get on trades to fund new game purchases.
I'm not against the DLC-only future which seems so inevitable. But I'm not sure I'm ready for it either. Developers and console makers need to tread carefully, without cramming this new distribution method down our throats. Instead, I'm hoping the steps taken in this migration to DLC-only benefit both the consumer and the companies. After all, MP3's did not bring the end of the music industry like the record labels feared. You can still go out and buy a CD today. And I don't mind the DLC-only format on my iPhone, so I am encouraged that life could be just as easy on future gaming systems.
Here's to not having to get up from the couch in the future. Well… unless you need to go pee, or out in the sun once in a while.