I just built a new computer two weeks ago. It's been a long time coming—my old rig was about five years old, with a bottomed out video card I had to pick up to replace a broken one when I was low on cash. Ordered all my parts from Newegg, and a buddy and I were just finishing up the cable management when he turns to me and asks, "Hey, don't you have a disc drive?"
I'd forgotten to buy one.
And after a moment's panic, I realized I didn't need one. I could install Windows from a flash drive, and all the PC games I own are nice and cozy in my Steam library. Music and movies? Stored in my Amazon cloud. I have zero need for a physical media device.
It's a beautiful revolution, and while I think a physical product still holds allure for many—collector's editions and custom packaging can provide a huge draw—the vast majority of games are right at home on a digital platform. For me, three key features have brought me prostrate before the non-corporeal altar:
Indie titles. The latest stable of triple-A titles has got me down, I'll be honest. I'm happy to jump on the latest Bioware game, and I plan on throwing years of my lifespan into Skyrim, but the games that the biggest demographic loses their shit for—the shooters—only grab me for a little while. I'll play through the campaigns of your latest Call of Duty, your Halo 4 (and 5, 6, 7, etc.), but I sure as hell won't be hopping online to play the same dry maps with the same assholes over and over. To me, it's a drag.
Unfortunately, publishers latch onto these titles guaranteed to pull in the fat stacks. If there's a money train (and there seems to be), the best way to land a seat is to copy the guy that just cashed in with the income of a third-world country. I understand this is a business, which is why I'm so damn grateful that digital distribution provides an alternative.
Without the pressure to match the overhead poured into creating millions of copies of a physical product, indie, low-budget titles have a chance to breathe. Games like Super Meat Boy or Cthulu Saves the World can show up on the front page of Steam without the backing of a big publisher. These supremely creative, weird as hell games actually get to see the light of day. Goddamn right.
Availability. I bought KOTOR on PC back when it was first released. Four discs of solid gold gameplay that could barely function on the ancient hardware I was running with. My game would crash before the final fight with Malak—over and over, despite my litany of constructive verbal abuse—and eventually I just gave up. I upgraded a few years later, excitedly popped in the first disc to install the game and start fresh, only to discover my discs were jacked. This was upsetting.
Lo and behold, a cursory glance toward Steam reveals the same game for $10 ($2.50 later, during a sale) in a format that will never get scratched, never get lost, and always be accessible to retrieve again. This is Mecca. We have gems like Beyond Good & Evil, the full Hitman series, and Freedom Force all available at a single click. And do we have to wait? Nope — well, only as long as it takes you to download the files.
This ease of access is mimicked across media, and offers an unequaled opportunity for our generation to experience the whole of pop culture. Not just the present, but the past as well. And as a fervent disciple of all things pop culture (Klosterman, anyone?), this is huge to me.
Community. All I really need to mention here is The Humble Indie Bundle. Does it not arouse the sex organs of your various genders?! Small developers band together to offer their hard work, their passion, and you get to choose how much to pay. That is a huge amount of trust to place in the gaming community, and both times the effort has produced some pretty impressive returns, pulling in big names like Notch (of Minecraft) and Garry Newman (of Garry's Mod) to join the fun. It gives my heart a boner.
Now, apart from all the benefits, there are some developments with digital distribution that have been kind of a drag. Everyone's been up in arms about EA's Origin platform lately, and I can understand the outrage: we don't want to have to create a new account to play each new game. But this isn't anything new.
Look at print. Devices like the Nook and Kindle (attached to Barnes & Noble and Amazon, respectively) offer different options for digital reading. Unfortunately, not all publishers choose to make their titles available on both platforms (or at all), making deals with one or the other. Hell, J.K. Rowling, instead of releasing to any big markets, is making the Harry Potter series (a veritable herd of cash cows with another, secondary herd of various cash animals) available exclusively in digital format through her own new source: Pottermore.
If you're down on digital distribution—whether for this or a myriad of other possible reasons—that's cool. Physical copies of games are still readily available, and probably won't be going away anytime soon. You can still build a collection, if that's what you're into. But check back in soon. Digital Distribution is relatively new, in the scheme of things, and is bound to change. It could get worse, sure, but I have high hopes.
I mean, I have to. I don't want to take my rig apart and put in a goddamn disc drive.
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