Braid. Angry Birds. Limbo. What does each of these titles share in common?
Seeing as many recent ‘underdog’ hits of late have been downloads, it would be understandable to believe that there may be something more to this ‘digital distribution’ malarkey which has been hovering around as of late. One company which seems more than eager to jump on the bandwagon is one of my own personal, not-at-all-being-sarcastic-here, favourites Electronic Arts; with the release of Origin it seems to be pile-driving headfirst into the unknown, tempted by lucrative promises of cutting development costs, dodgy licensing laws and a lack of second-hand sales. What it doesn’t seem to understand however, is that if digital distribution is ever going to hold with a more serious gaming market it needs to be fully willing to utilize its potential, using its trimmed development cycle to undercut the costs of retail distribution. On top of this, it also needs to provide a service which is far more streamlined and convenient for the end user, instead of something nearer to a clunky, unintuitive time-sucker.
Only seem interested in the facets of digital distribution which suit them however, as opposed to those which suit everybody; of course, I’m not saying here that EA (and many other companies willing to dabble) can’t succeed in this ever-growing market, they just need to learn to surf with the tide rather than against it, even if it does mean hitting a few metaphorical rocks along the way.
Take the release of forever F2P Team Fortress 2 for instance, skeptics, such as myself, may call Valve out on it as a subtle ruse to promote downloads of its digital distribution service Steam and hence increase sales - this makes sense seeing as Steam is essentially a big shop window display which every user willingly installs on their hard drive. A big shop window display with the word ‘SALE’ crudely sprayed on with neon paint.
To analogize: If the game industry were a supermarket, Steam would be the little kiosk set up by the till, filled up with bags of sweets, chips and chewing gum, items largely marketed as impulse purchases. EA, of course, would be the regional manager of the store, greedily snatching purchases from people as they leave whilst nonchalantly claiming that they had only purchased the license for that can of beans, and must purchase a further ‘microwave pass’ if they wish to heat them up before consumption.
All in the name of subsidizing losses through shoplifting of course.
Steams business model isn’t a bad thing by any means however, a lot of these impulse, ‘on-sale’ purchases tend to be of games which come from smaller, or entirely independent developers, companies which don’t have the sea of resources to necessarily promote themselves and mass produce physical copies of the games they make. Small franchises who in your local Gamestop are quickly pushed aside to make room for the latest AAA title, or Shovelware aimed entirely at parents looking to keep their little darlings occupied for an hour or two for as cheaply as possible.
Or, if you are anything like me, Shovelware aimed at complete suckers for awful puns.
The benefit of digital distribution is that it brags an unlimited amount of space to showcase itself; once a game is put into the store it can remain there indefinitely at no extra cost to the company running the show. No longer can the homogenous, big-budget titles gain attention through the raw out-muscling of smaller, older competitions shelf-space, and with front pages having a far faster turnaround time than the average store display, the time for these games taking advantage of brightly lit arrows pointing to themselves is beginning to wane. Digital distribution is finally taking AAA titles big guns away and asking them to play nice.
Of course, the secondary effect of this revolution has a positive effect on gamers. By cutting out the middle man, development costs are reduced and budding developers are encouraged to try their hands at the market. Inevitably, some of what comes out will still be complete and utter trite (as is the sad way of the world), however, when shameless self promotion and/or heavy advertising budgets can no longer be relied on, these developers are forced to work that much harder in order to stand out, a sad and beautiful thing which has been lacking in many larger titles of late.
Another great thing about digital distribution is that the internet which comes bundled with it; I think that almost every gamer can recall a time where they bought a game, usually because the cover looked cool, brought it home and were unpleasantly shocked by the contents within. Compulsive purchases are easier in this age because reviews, content videos and demos are only a few clicks of the mouse and a smattering of keys away: This is the age of the informed impulse buyer, and it’s through this word of mouth titles which truly deserve the top spots through innovation finally stand a decent chance of getting them.
And that is what I think is really bugging EA about the flyaway success of the Steam service; the way in which they have reacted has been akin to a small child loudly berating their peer for falling over and scraping their knee , only to deliberately do the same thing themselves out of jealousy for attention.
Because that’s all it stems down to in the end: Attention. EA have no interest in giving back to the gaming community, aiding budding developers or innovation. All EA seem to care about is being the largest and loudest, look-at-me presence in the market.
And I can’t shake the strange feeling that they’ll do whatever it takes, even if it means taking themselves down in the process.