Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Getting Digital Distribution to be taken seriously

PC gaming has changed, just like war.  Developers have had to grow and adapt to the changing environment.  Some do better, some don't do so well.  However, there's still quite a bit that needs to be fixed.  If this is going to be the future, there's a lot that needs to be done.

Part of what brought Digital Distribution to the forefront of PC gaming was the ever persistent issue of piracy.  CD keys could be cracked, discs could be duplicated, and the customizable nature of the personal computer allowed the most enterprising computer users to modify their games to do all sorts of illegitimate acts.  From a publisher standpoint, sending a game to the end user over the internet was a brilliant idea.  It kept the cost of overhead much lower than pressing discs, it kept the users in contact with the developer, and it helped the developer identify hackers in the online realms.

And it works, brilliantly. However, it's not without its flaws.  If you don't have a credit card, most digital retailers won't let you buy from them.  Prepaid cards for most digital distribution sites are all but nonexistent.  Internet in rural areas can be spotty, slow, or very expensive.  If someone has an issue with a game they bought, getting support is difficult, if not impossible.  As such, a lot of people are reticent about joining in the digital revolution.

What can developers do about this?  Actually, quite a bit.  Digital Distributors can start by making the authentication process as painless as possible.  Steam is one platform that's doing this right.  Once a game is authenticated online, the game can be played offline as much as the user wants.  Valve just doesn't care.  Not treating legitimate users like criminals is a common topic for me.  I'll stop flogging that dead horse.  The other thing Steam does right is making it easy to get the games its users own on other computers.  Once a user logs in, they can download any and all games attached to the profile.  The download speeds are reasonably fast, and make it possible to get everything they own within a rather short amount of time.

Blizzard does something similar with their account management page.  All Blizz titles have downloadable packages that render discs obsolete.  They're available at any time, they actually use P2P to speed up the download process, and provide patch updates quickly and easily.  It's another example of keeping it easy to use and accessible for the consumer.

There are several examples of distributors that aren't making it easy for the end user.  My regular punching bag, Electronic Arts, is a perennial offender in this category.  Playing an EA game can have serious repercussions for the performance of the user.  User Reviews of Spore on amazon detailed how SecuROM would block certain hardware and software operations.  Whether or not they are valid, however, is another story.  Ars Techina touched on the legal weight of User reviews and whether or not they would be considered valid in a court of law.  Even so, EA treats their customers like thieves when the user wants to activate an installation outside the three installation limit.  It's a pervasive issue. This experience is but one of hundreds.

Companies that offer games online need to keep games available for their users, and have long-term plans.  Blizz is a great example of this, like I said above, same with Steam.  The biggest complaint that I have personally heard about digital purchases is the ephemeral nature of technology.  "What if, five years down the road, the company goes under?"  "What if all those games I spent my hard earned money on disappear?"  These are just a few of the major complaints out there.

It's a valid concern.  Direct2Drive folded last year.  I had a friend in high school that bought a shipload of games from them.  He spent tons of money through that site.  Granted, GameSpy sold off the business to GameFly, the majority of the content is no longer available.  The videos and strategy guides are long gone.  Most of the older games are all but nonexistent.  Companies that create digital distribution platforms need to have long term plans about keeping their products available for consumers.

Finally, Digital Distribution platforms really need to rethink their sales policies.  There is nothing more infuriating than shelling out $60 for a game that totally sucks.  That game is yours, amigo!  You can't bum it off on another sucker, you can't transfer it, it's yours forever!

Now, this is a pretty serious issue to me. I can take any of my xbox 360 games, give it to a friend, and they can play it.  I cannot do that with the way digital distribution currently works.  Having a background in computer science, I cannot fathom how ridiculous this is. Perhaps this is my naivete showing, but adding a game to a profile must involve adding an item to a database or something along those lines.  Why can't someone who wants to remove that item do so?  Why not make that product key freely available again?  Why does it have to be so hard?

Now, the first digital distributor that makes the transfer of games possible will make a fortune.  People who can buy and sell "used" digital games will love the concept.  Furthermore, it would increase the chances that someone who has been holding out on digital PC games would start looking at them.  I'm not talking about moving mountains, here.  This is simply being excellent to each other.  All 80's movie references aside, This could definitely work.  If Steam implemented something like this, Gabe Newell would have a microsoft-sized share of the pc gaming market.  The only thing he'd have to worry about by then is the government moving to break up his monopoly.

I think I've ranted enough on this topic.  What do you think digital distributors should do to improve?  Sound off in the comments below!

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