I have to say that I have a kind of bi-polar love affair with the concept of digital distribution media.
I think that we may have gotten off on the wrong foot, particularly where computer games are concerned. My first introduction to Steam was having bought a second hand copy of Half-Life 2 from E-Bay and being told (in a rather officious tone by my computer) words to the effect of "You didn't buy this in a shop, so F**K OFF!". As sombody who had been buying second hand games for the best part of 20 years, this came as a bit of a surprise. On the other hand, (having paid full-price for Half-Life 2) it was nice to be able to download the game several years later on a new computer having lost my original discs. In this respect, the move to "instantly available media" would appear to be the way forward. However, this experience does illustrate what, in my opinion, is the problem with digital distribution and how it's purpose is viewed very differently by consumers & manufacturers.
I'm a consumer. Therefore I look at digital distribution & want to know what it'll do for me. The answer is it will allow me instant access to the products I choose. A shopping experience that fits in neatly with our modern, digital age. On this front (although there's a part of me that's doesn't really want to admit it) Steam are actually ahead of the curve. We are able to browse their catalogue and, in some cases (particularly if you catch them in a sale) pick up some excellent games for very reasonable prices. Quite often at a substantial discount from the high street price.
Other media have been incredibly slow to catch on to this. Record companies spend an incredible amount of time bemoaning how the digital revolution has cost them massive revenue through internet piracy. Yet I have never once looked for an album I want to buy on any of the major online retailers and found that it would be cheaper to download the album than to have a CD mailed to me (only last week I ordered Massive Attack's Heligoland from PLAY.COM which I would have preferred to have downloaded but which would have cost me £6.99 as opposed to the £4.19 in cost me to order the CD (this was a small price difference, but I have seen examples of the CD price being £2.99 and the download price being £11.99). This I can only put down to poor administration between the online retailers & the record companies as it is inconcieveable that the overheads for producing & shipping a CD are cheaper than making it available to download. The commercial cost of this is that many people, who due to the expectation of instantly available media (that is rightly present as a result of the technology), would simply close the PLAY.COM window, open GOOGLE and type "heligoland torrent". The same is true of films availble from the PSN store that cost more than I would pay if I were to order them online or even walk to my local supermarket and purchase the Blu-Ray. Compared to this poor practice, Steam has come up smelling of roses.
I suspect that game manufacturers look at the online revolution very differently. They look at the technology & see a system of marketing & monitoring. A way of ensuring that they are are able to observe their customers in a way that alternates between a scientist observing a lab-rat and a teacher watching a group of naughty children. The extent of this is growing as more developers are no longer happy just to sell their games to their customers, but want to make sure that they do not have the audacity to buy them second-hand. Not that this attitude is limited to PC games, the PSN has become a tool for essentially selling a "game base" to the customer, then selling additional content (that some might say should have been included in the original purchase price) at a ridiculous cost (an obvious example is L.A Noire, where the cost of the game plus all the additional cases that are available as DLC would add up to substantially more than any sane person would ever spend on a single game). In this sense, I think that the developers have chosen to use the technology as a stick rather than a carrot. If they want their customers to buy the original game rather than a second-hand copy, why not offer ALL DLC as free to anyone who has purchased & registered it.
In summary, it appears to me that what is needed is for all those involved in distributing digital media to take a fresh look at what this technological advance can offer, to take a step back and throw away the defensive preconceptions about how to "turn a quick buck" from their customers and look at the advantages in both profit & innovation that could arise from falling in line with the digital age rather than fighting it or trying to work out how to take advantage of it. With the news that EA (a company that, in recent years, has not proved itself to be above a degree of commercial shittery) introducing Origin (their own Steam-a-like engine), now is the time to take stock and think about which road the games industry wants to take. read