I don’t like getting into personal anecdotes, so I’ll make this part quick. I was a strong supporter of digital distribution when it started popping up as a legitimate method of buying games. I was a Steam apologist when it was new and buggy, and I used Sam and Max as staunch proof that episodic content could work.
Digital Distribution has so many strengths that seems hard to argue against it. Quick access to games as soon as you want them, with no trips to the store and less physical hardware to strain. Plus, its digital nature should theoretically reduce prices and put more money into the right pockets. This last part is not happening, as theory is not becoming reality.
As easy as it is to make digital games cheaper, the technology can also be used to nickel and dime us. I find myself realizing that my past defense was based on an idealized situation, and that the current reality about digital distribution looks a lot grimmer from the consumer standpoint.
First, the ideal world. Steam has led the way in regards to an effective digital platform. It offers frequent sales on games, preorder discounts, the ability to download and play anywhere, and lots of free community features. Customers are allowed to make physical backups, and free mods are now being featured and hosted. Valve understands that the easiest way to convince people that they don’t need a hard copy is to screw them over as little as possible.
Sam and Max is another situation that is all too ideal. Whether you play on Gametap, buy in the store, or download it straight from Telltale, each season of Sam and Max can be purchased for less than the price of most new games and are just as long.
In the other realms of digital distribution, the situation is not so rosy. Microsoft is arguably the worst perpetrator. Since the arrival of the Xbox 360, the company has had one pervasive thought running through their minds: How can we use Xbox Live to charge people as many times as we can? The 360 is still a gaming console, and an all in one media center, but also an avenue for them to sell you stuff.
The 360 menus are constantly abuzz with advertisements. Themes, picture packs and more are available for purchase, and the recently released New Xbox Experience only makes it worse. It floods the screen with ads and links to Marketplace items at startup, instead of taking you to your personal settings. The new avatar feature takes Nintendo’s Mii concept and monetizes it. If the clothing options are limited now, you can be damn sure it is because they plan on charging you for different colored hats and fancy shirts in the future. Many of us yearned for more options for our Miis, and Microsoft will make us regret that wish.
I do not want to blame Microsoft alone. Nintendo has occasionally decided to charge a premium price on import and infamous Virtual Console releases, and all the cosmetic junk offered in 360 games sometimes finds its way to the PS3, which plans to take avatar micropayments to the highest level with its Home avatars, which do not even have the ability to change the color of their clothes without a purchase.
Of course, charging money for non game items is one factor. Charging for game related content is another trend that has been apparent for quite some time. Whether it is pricey but worthless cosmetic changes, or Namco and EA charging for content already burned to the disc, gamers have been told to cough up for (or just plain ignore) micro-transactional trinkets that they should have had access to all along.
The DLC offerings may also get bigger and more necessary. For example, some folks have been concered about the nature of Tomb Raider Underworld. It is being clocked in at no longer than eight hours max, it ends abruptly, and Eidos has promised 6 hours worth of new content in future level packs. Is this the case of a game split in two? It is nothing more than speculation, but it does seem strange. Then you hear people at Epic suggest that fresh retail copies of a game could contain a one time-use code that allows you to download the game’s ending, leaving used and rental copies in the cold. Going digital gives publishers and console makers a great deal of power over what they choose to give us. So what if the disc is half full? You can get the rest four months from now for more than the price of a rental, while spokespeople clamor on about how the original release was a fair deal, and that this is all the result of the higher costs of gaming. Suddenly it doesn’t seem impossible that DLC could be used to quietly raise costs, regardless of whether such a move is justified. Just look at how easy it is for mobile carriers to make voodoo excuses for the cost of text messaging.
Prices could also stay frozen. EA released Burnout Paradise on the Playstation Network as a way to encourage gamers to not buy used games, by offering it as a convenient, cheaper download, which will likely further drop in price over time to keep up with the retail version. But in a digital only sales environment, what would stop a game from coming out at $60 and staying there? One possible answer is that “people will not buy it, and publishers will be forced to lower the price,” but gamers like to talk about voting with their wallets more than they actually do it. The only thing the boycott against Spore proved is that the community’s best efforts wouldn’t stop a AAA title from posting a loss. Avoiding bad deals would eventually drive you out of the hobby.
Something has to give here. It is easy to understand that costs are rising, but it is still difficult to accept some of the decisions being made with digital downloads when they appear to be attempts at money grubbing. Content creators could show a sign of faith and be more transparent about their actions, but that requires honesty in the business world. As for gamers, I often wonder why I try to defend my hobby against generalizations and attacks from the mainstream media when the commenters on 1up or kotaku indicate that most of us work for minimum wage and can’t afford ten dollar Live Arcade games. The amount of cheapskates out there are sickening, and I wait for these folks to give me reason to tell the uninformed that gamers are in fact normal young adults with good incomes and a reasonable perspective on money and the value of entertainment.
For now, perhaps just saying no might work. We can’t stop hijinks from the likes of Namco (since the Japanese will justify their DLC prices), but we can have the strength to tell Capcom that as cool as it is to play as Protoman in Mega Man 9, we aren’t going to let them dangle it in our faces for $2 a month after release because our fanboy urges demand it. Squash today’s little ideas and the future may not be filled with big ones.
Downloadable games can lower costs, offer a wider variety of titles, and even slow down piracy. They cannot do any of these things if they are instead used to further disrespect consumers. Shunning micropayments and the like will be far harder for an industry of this size than it was for, say, the webcomic community, but it may be the only way to cause real discussion about what we should expect from games in the future.