The Good and the Bad of Downloadable Games

Given that downloadable games are The Future of the Games Industry™ and all that, I find it quite funny how this summer has brilliantly illustrated both why it’s so great and the huge challenges that digital distribution will have to overcome if it’s to meet my prediction of being the preferred standard within the next two console generations – accept it and embrace it and you’ll be much happier.

On one hand, Microsoft’s apparently annual Summer of Arcade has delivered one of the highest concentrations of great downloadable games that I can remember, not to mention a solid contender for the best downloadable yet. I’ll get to them in a moment, because the enthusiasm is tempered by the complete dropping of the ball that has been its attempt at taking a big leap forward and digitally distributing full retail games, Games on Demand. This is undoubtedly testing the water for where things go with the next Xbox – personally, my money’s on a middle ground where all games are available both on disc and on demand – but so much has been piled against it that it’s impossible to see it being a success on any level.

Funny how it’s always Microsoft that can enthral and infuriate at the same time, isn’t it?

The fundamentals, bar one big one, are just fine for Games on Demand, with Microsoft even taking a step in the right direction by letting us pay for the games using actual money. It all works as it should, technically speaking, and on a fast connection you can be playing Oblivion or Call of Duty 2 in an hour. The problem, quite obviously, is that they want £19.99 for all those games; they’re £14.99 and £12.71 respectively from Game at the moment. I’m not desperate enough to play four-year-old games that I can’t wait a couple of days for them to be delivered.

The problem, I have to suspect, is that there’s some pressure from retailers not to make downloadable games too competitive on price. And by ‘pressure’, I mean ‘don’t make your downloads cheaper than us or we won’t stock your stuff’. Consoles are traditionally kept affordable because retailers accept poor margins on hardware in exchange for high markups on software and accessories, and without that opportunity to make some money back they’re not going to be happy. Why else do you think the PSP Go, which gives you no reason to visit a retail store once you’ve bought it, is selling for such a ridiculous price? It wasn’t all Sony’s idea, that’s for sure.

Who knows? Maybe we’re just not ready yet, technically or psychologically. There’s been a clear but slow ramping up in what constitutes a downloadable game that has already taken us from Geometry Wars to Shadow Complex, so maybe that’s how it’s going to happen. Even the most anti-downloads gamer thinks nothing of downloading the ‘little’ games, and before you know it you’re downloading Fallout 4 and Gran Turismo 6…