Monday, October 19, 2009

The Potential Future of Digital Distribution



Recently at UC Berkeley's PLAY conference, Peter Moore, Kai Huang and Neil Young (not the singer, he's an iPhone game developer) discussed the future of digital distribution and it's place in gaming. They pretty much came to the consensus that retail boxed games will be a thing of the past in the next five to ten years. While I agree that digital distribution is inevitable, I don't agree with their time frame.

I have on several occasions downloaded titles that could just as easily have been purchased at retail. My most recent purchase was Battlefield: Bad Company. I chose the digital distribution route due to the fact it was convenient, and not having a boxed copy wasn't a must for me. That pretty much sums up how I see downloadable games at this point in time, convenience. It's nice to be able to download something on a whim at 2:00 in the morning, but with a game like Forza 3, I want the collector's edition in a retail box. I genuinely believe there are many like me at this point and were not going away anytime soon.

The average age of gamers at this point in time, depending on which outlet's research you believe, is somewhere between 25-30 years old. We have been buying retail copies of software forever, and are the largest demographic in gaming. There will be a small minority that is willing to forgo a case and manual, but an overwhelming majority that will not in my opinion. It will take the younger generation, who will have grown up with downloadable entertainment be it music, movies or games, to become adults spending their own money to fully embrace this as the primary option.

Ten years from now I will be 41 years old. I would predict at that time, I will still be a gamer. It's a platform for entertainment I grew up with as many in my age group did, and just like movies and television for our elders their enjoyment doesn't just go away. I would also like to be able to take a trip to a retailer, to pick up a title in a box, and have the satisfaction of opening it as I would assume many others still will. Digital distribution could potentially alienate a large chunk of the market.

Another thing to keep in mind in the equation is the retailers. They aren't going to want to give up the revenue that the physical media generates anytime soon. Microsoft for example with their Games on Demand service, really only offers older titles. That decision was primarily to combat the large market of used titles, and not to piss off big box retailers by cutting into big software titles sales. As easily as music is and has been available via iTunes and the like, CD's have not gone away. Yes CD sales are lower than they used to be fifteen years ago, but they still remain on retailer shelves as a viable option for consumption. In fact CD's are still preferable for many consumers.

Due to the size of the average major game release, digital distribution is still a relatively new option when compared to music. Also with bandwidth capping by many ISP's, this step to a fully digital solution to software purchasing is not practical. Comcast for instance has instituted a 250GB monthly cap. Between surfing the web, streaming Netflix and Hulu, and even downloading a few albums a month, adding what could potentially amount to 8-15GB per game in the near future, you could hit that cap with ease.

I just don't think between the infrastructure that is available at this point in time, alongside the desire for physical media by consumers like myself, drive trays aren't going the way of the Dodo anytime soon.

I apologize if this is a bit of incoherent babble, but it's almost 4am and I think I'm going to hit the sack now.

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