December 9, 2009
Steam and Digital Distribution
Since the early days of gaming when we wanted a new game or title we would hop in the car and head down to the local store to purchase it. When companies published a new title they would release a physical copy of the product for consumers to buy at their local retailers. In combination with increasing amounts of piracy and mainstream broadband service the way we get games may soon be changing. Publishing giants like Valve and EA have begun to shy away from physical releases and start pushing their content through online delivery services known respectively as Valves Steam Client and EA digital Download service.
Steam is the largest and most well known of the digital distribution clients. It has a catalogue of over 780 games it also has friends, chatting, groups ,etc. Steam provides many benefits to both developers and clients. For the developers it helps deter piracy as the consumer has to purchase a digital copy of a game and does not have the physical media. It also helps provide much larger profits. The average $50 dollar game sold at a retail store brings in a gross profit of about $8 where as a game sold on steam for the same price brings in about $35 dollars. There are many factors that go into this. Printing the game, shipping the game, paying the retailer to hold it on their shelves, etc. If games were to move entirely to digital distribution it is entirely possible that we would see a small price drop in the average price of a game. Personally I think $35 dollars is a fair price for any new title or perhaps $45 depending on the development costs. To the consumer there are many benefits, first and foremost being able to access their game instantly and there is no need to worry about physical theft, key stealing or broken disks. Once you buy the game you can download it any time on any computer with no limitations. Furthermore for games that have SDK’s you can still download custom content and editors and modify the game. With digital network everyone has to have an account and their games are tied to that account. This allows Valve to monitor their content so for those of you who have been plagued by cheaters/hackers valve can easily ban their account and their game within a matter of seconds. People are a lot less likely to cheat if they are in risk of loosing their entire game library.
While there are many advantages to digitally distributed software there are some disadvantages. First and foremost in our book is the fact that the developer has complete control of your software. You do not own a physical copy of that software so if you loose your account/password and cannot recover it you are out your entire game library. In addition to that, like the Xbox 360, is they can prevent users mods and force you to pay for content otherwise known as DLC. While steam does offer some paid DLC they also have a lot of free DLC. At the moment this is not an issue but we can forsee in the future if games go entirely digital that companies may try to prevent free user content and only allow theirs. Another issue, although not as significant, there is no collectible content. Personally I like collecting the physical box and art work. One big issue, with EA digital store, is they only allow you download your title 3 times and you are only allowed to download it for a year. If you wish to be able to download it after that you have to pay a fee of 6 dollars for another 5 years. You are not allowed to make a physical backup of your software either. EA has had a history of making bad business decisions this is definatly one of them. The good news is that you can download a lot of EA titles from Steam without incurring this problem or having to suffer DRM/Securerom issues. Another killer is that some content is region specific. If you move out of the country some games that you have purchased will no longer be playable because those titles are not allowed to be sold in those countries. Finally we have bandwidth and download speed. Games like Stranglehold and Crysis are in excess of 13gb of raw data. Downloading 13gb over a DSL 5d/1u connection could and does take hours and for those who have slower connections it could litteraly take all day.
In conclusion we do think digital distribution is a great idea. It provides both the consumer and the developer many economic benefits. There are a few things however we would like to see in the future. First, once you purchase a game you should be able to download it anywhere. If you bought it, it should be yours to install and play where you desire. If you have the misfortune of having to pickup and move out of the country or if your military and want to play a game while your deployed you should be able to access your library. There should be the option to purchase artwork and physical media. I think it’s realistic to charge $35 dollars for a digital copy of a game but perhaps offer a physical copy for $5 extra plus shipping for those who wish to collect those items. Another big one is unlimited downloads there is no ethical reason why I should only be able to download 3 times. Personally I build at least one computer a year so I could realistically burn through those 3 downloads in one year or less and I play my games more then once. Finally allowing users to create their own content and encouraging it. One of the things that really keep games like Half-Life, Diablo II and Starcraft around for years after they were released is free user created content.