Monday, August 25, 2008

Fixing Digital Downloads

Ah, the internet. In just a decade and a half or so, it has changed so much about the world. Who needs letters when you can e-send them? Who needs photo albums when you can e-share your images? Who needs a radio when you can e-stream "internet radio?"

The internet is slowly allowing us to e-do just about e-anything! Recently, the power of the internet has even allowed us to i-do i-things, because i is better than e. And one of the i-things the internet is bringing to us is i-media: music, movies, and even whole video games can i-download to computers and video game consoles. What a world we live in! Utopia is just a few clicks down the road.

At least, it could be. Leaving the e-nonsense i-aside, digital downloads present great possibilities for the future of media distribution. However, the tubes still have some speed bumps.

Foremost in my mind is this: with things like packaging and distribution largely removed from the cost, where are my savings? Retail games like Warhawk and Half-Life 2 premiered online for the same cost as a boxed copy. As digital data has much lower distribution costs, this simply means the companies make more money off their product. When you consider that the wholesale cost of a game is even lower than retail, it begs the question: Why am I paying the same amount for less? I get no printed instructions, no disc, no case, and if I should decide to remove the software from my hard drive, it is my responsibility to back it up -- if such an action is even allowed.

Meanwhile, for the same price, I can get a nice box, with easy-to-read(though not necessarily easy-to-understand) instructions that I can peruse anywhere at my leisure. I get little bonuses at my local GameStop, like soundtrack CD's and keychains. Downloads do not provide this.

The costs for these items is mere pennies, I know. It's about perceived value: I am getting a nice package when I drive to a local store. Is the nice packaging worth the drive? For me, it is. Furthermore, I can trade in games I'm not playing anymore to help offset the cost of my hobby, which is not insignificant. Downloads take that away, too: no more trade-ins. Publishers love that. It destroys an entire market. This market is all some gamers have. They simply can't afford to buy the latest and greatest at any given time. Some of us save for months to get a console, or set aside tax returns. The lack of trade-in value and discounts will greatly hurt this demographic.

The industry is already becoming rife with silly subscriptions; I won't even entertain the thought of another gamer tax. It's bad enough that I pay for Microsoft's Xbox Live Streaming Advertisement service. I can't fathom how users pay $13 a month for World of Warcraft. One must have broadband to take advantage of these features, as well. And though a broadband connection has a multitude of uses, gaming is one of the driving reasons people pay through the nose for it.

So, in order to have access to downloadable content, you need to be spending $600 a year before you even consider it. Practical internet use notwithstanding, this is a massive barrier to entry. I've already bought a $400 console. Now I need to spend another $600?

Your first year of downloadable content costs a grand before you've even purchased a game. $600 can buy 6 games here in the US!

I'm glad Xbox Live has brought me Braid. I love playing Everyday Shooter, which came care of Sony's PlayStation Network. I absolutely adore Nintendo's Virtual Console. That doesn't mean I can't look at these services objectively.

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