Tag Archives: Digital distribution

The dark side of blocking used games

I don’t tend to buy games used unless it’s unavoidable, which I suppose makes me fairly indifferent to the fearmongering that comes along frequently regarding the eventual prohibition of playing used games on consoles. Now that this could actually happen, I’d like to draw attention to my caveat in the previous sentence: unless it’s unavoidable.

The last used game I purchased was the original Darksiders, which was a couple of years old at the time and not available new anywhere, as far as I could see. I wanted to play the game because of the good things I was hearing about its sequel, so I got a copy on eBay for around £5. I’d have happily paid £10, £15 for a new one, but that wasn’t an option.

Availability of back catalogue games is a serious issue (see also: Pirates or Preservationists?), even beyond the way that the generational march and decline in backwards compatibility cuts us off from running yesterday’s games on today’s hardware. It doesn’t happen with film, where just about any major movie from the dawn of cinema up to the current Oscar contenders is or shortly will be available to play on a shiny disc, and the same goes for music and books. I can find The Beatles, Beethoven and Jane Austen readily, even separated from them by decades or even centuries.

The next-gen consoles will likely offer all retail releases as downloadables for those who are so inclined, treating the symptom of availability, if not curing the disease that my PS4 likely still won’t play my PS3 games. Hopefully, by the time we’re looking at the next next generation, it’ll be possible to log on to each system’s respective online service and download a minor gem from 2013 that I might have missed the first time.

There’s one problem, though…

Download prices

I don’t trust the platform holders to loosen the reins on digital pricing in the way that Valve has done with Steam. They’re too beholden to keeping retail partners happy to let publishers sell a game for 75% off mere months after release. Stories already abound of digital-only games being stuck to rigid price tiers or limited in what free content they can offer, as the platform holders – Microsoft in particular, it must be said – are out to monetise everything.

Or maybe I’m wrong, and cutting the used game market out will allow for more aggressive pricing of digital games. If books, music and movies going digital has taught us anything, after all, it’s that publishers are keen to pass the benefits on to consumers, right?

The money men won’t see the value in selling games for deep discounts, for not sticking to the American model where the RRP/MSRP is not so much a suggestion as a commandment. It’s not like here where new games are routinely £10 or more under the recommended price on day one. Who actually pays £49.99 for a new Xbox 360 game?

A few exceptions due to licensing aside, every Xbox Live Arcade and PSN game released for their respective platforms is still available. They’re usually still the same price as they were on day one, which kind of proves my point, but at least the issue of long-term availability of games could be close to being solved. That said, my experiences with always-online games haven’t been good, and I can’t help but think back to the odd enforced disconnections, like when I’ve moved home and had to wait to be hooked up, when I’d suddenly find my £50-a-time ways to pass the time being unavailable when I most need them.

Hopefully this turns out to be nonsense, because a console that can’t work offline from Microsoft makes the choice of which next-gen console to buy first much easier.

Steam and the One-Console Future

One of the most surprising announcements at this E3 came from Valve, with Gabe Newell, who has been somewhat outspoken about the experience of PS3 development, confirming a PS3 version of Portal 2, previously only thought to be coming to the PC, Mac and Xbox 360. That in itself isn’t all that shocking because Valve games have turned up on the system from other developers, but it’s not hyperbole to say that his aside about Steamworks coming to Sony’s console has the potential to really shake up the industry.

Some of this is still speculation because we don’t know exactly which Steamworks features will be on the way. I’d be very surprised if cross-platform multiplayer made it, and Steam Play (buy it on the PC and automatically get the Mac version and vice versa) expanding to the PS3 version would be apocalyptically big, but even if we’re looking at the simpler things like automatic updates, community features and Steam Cloud – we know that last one’s on the way for sure – Valve is going to go a big way towards removing the barriers between gaming across distinct platforms and moving gaming away from independent walled gardens.

Originally Steam Cloud would simply copy your saves and custom settings to the ‘cloud’ so that they’d be synced between your computers, and with the release of the Steam Mac client it was expanded to doing that across operating systems, and we have to assume, given that it has no other purpose, that it’ll do the same with Steamworks PS3 games. We already have retail PC games that integrate Steamworks – big titles like Modern Warfare 2 and Just Cause 2, for example – and it’s entirely possible that future editions will sync your progress across multiple platforms. Saving your game in Call of Duty on your PC at work and picking up on your MacBook on the train home and then finding your progress reflected on your console is insane. It’s like living in the future.

I like Xbox Live a lot, but this just couldn’t happen on the Xbox 360 as it stands. It’s the kind of thing that was promised by Live Anywhere, but what little of that still exists now seems to be coming only to Windows Mobile phones. Besides the fact that I don’t and won’t own one, it’s a great system if you’re willing to lock yourself into Microsoft’s products, but Steam now works on consoles and, if the rumours of an upcoming Linux version are true, computers regardless of operating system. An open network doesn’t always work out for the best on something that should be as plug-and-play as a console – see the disaster that was the Konami ID in Metal Gear Solid 4, as well as how online functionality can still vary wildly between PS3 games – but I think Valve has demonstrated its community credentials on enough occasions to be the one to try this.

The ‘one-console future’ is inevitable if this medium ever wants to grow up, and simply facilitating interaction between platforms is the first and largest step. We’re still going to have PlayStations and Xboxes for the foreseeable future, but Steamworks and independently developed community features like Rockstar Social Club and Battlefield 1943’s Coral Sea Challenge that are showing the barest hints of cross-platform interaction are, I think, seriously showing the way things are going. The way things have to go.

I could be wrong and this could turn out to be nothing, of course. I don’t think it will, though. This has to happen so let’s get it over with.

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…