3 discrepancies of the digital distribution debate


In February, Electronic Arts COO Peter Moore said in a keynote conversation at the Digital Entertainment World conference that digital distribution revenue will overtake physical sales in two years. His comments earned merit when it was announced that “Destiny” sold one in five copies via digital channels. The 20 percent mark is the highest digital sales figure posted to date for a Gen 4 game. Yet any article or video posted in support of digital distribution instantly meets counter arguments and even vitriol. To understand why gamers are divided on this complicated issue, let’s break down the arguments.

Adoption & Internet Access

Argument: Digital gaming is unfair for those who don’t have internet access or fast internet speeds.

This argument has been diminishing in value with Internet access increasing worldwide, especially in the United States. As of Feburary 2014, Pew Research reported only 13 percent of Americans don’t use the internet and only two percent don’t have access. In Great Britain, 83 percent of households had Internet access in 2013. Extreme Tech pointed out that, for gamers, the issue is not lack of internet access but lack of speed. For example, with the average downlink bandwidth of 8.33Mbps, it would take the average user 11 and half hours to download a title like NBA 2K14 at its 41.8GB size. Lethargic downloads counteract the convenience of digital downloads.

Furthermore as players store games on their console hard drives, space becomes an issue. Take the PS4 and Xbox One, which are both loaded with a 500GB hard drive. The consoles’ typical game sizes run between 30GB and 50GB respectively, so a gamer can only download about 12 games before maxing out the space. This number is satisfactory to some and ridiculous to others, as many only play two to three titles at a time, so a carousel of 12 wouldn’t be an issue. Boosting hard drive space on Gen 4 consoles is possible even though external storage is not supported. 2TB drives are affordable and can be installed with a screwdriver. Others scoff at the idea of not having the physical entity of the game in hand and call external drives unnecessary purchases. After all, the ability to sell digital games is nonexistent as of now. This leads to the issue of used games.

Verdict: Minor concerns aside, the technology for a digital gaming world is there. Slow download speeds are evolving and there are workarounds for limited hard drive space.

The Future Of Used Games

Argument: Used games are a part of the gaming industry just like other used media industries (music, movies, cars).

Many gamers scream sacrilege at the idea of tossing used games; others refuse to buy games at full price and wait for the prices to drop below the usual $60 starting price. It seems strange that this $60 mark has been consistent for years, whereas other tech items drop in price through the years. Many attribute this to retailers like Gamestop pressuring publishers to keep game prices high if they want coveted shelf space.

A 2013 study by researchers at NYU and the University of Toronto looked into the potential of eliminating used games and found that if game publishers dropped game prices 33 percent (from $60 to $40) they could expect a 19 percent increase in profit. PS4 and Xbox One both offer digital downloads at physical disc prices despite both consoles claiming to be digital-friendly before release. In the UK, digital prices are actually higher than physical discs. Used games will continue until these prices change or the industry landscape changes. Supporters of used games claim that ownership of a CD differs to an owned download. Gamers who purchase games digitally only own the “game license” and not the game itself. This means the publisher or developer could pull the game at anytime. Conversely, developers can release patches to fix bugs or unveil new features that would automatically update on a digital copy.

Verdict: The fact that a boxed game from a retailer costs the same as a digital version is ludicrous given the extra costs associated with retail. Until this changes, there will never be enough digital adoption to eliminate used games.

Empowering The Indie Developers

Argument: PC digital distribution empowers independent developers and creates a more equal marketplace. Console gaming should see this same trend.

More than six million users log onto Steam to access a digital game catalog exceeding 3,700 games. The service has been criticized for having too many games, thus taking exposure away from indie developers. However with games ranging from Free To Play to full price, Steam has changed the PC gaming market forever: it was announced in August that 92 percent of PC game sales in 2013 were via digital distribution.

The digital popularity certainly propelled independent developers, but major publishers are getting in on the action as well. EA’s Origin offers digital deluxe versions of games like Dragon Age: Inquisition to incentivize downloads. Just last week, Ubisoft titles like Assassin’s Creed and Watch Dogs appeared on Origin. This shows growing competition between the platforms which should excite consumers. Regardless, the uptick in digital distribution and the availability of crowd funding platforms have given indie developers momentum for the future.

Verdict: There are too many unanswered questions to conclude whether the console gaming market will follow that of the PC market.



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