Digital Distribution to Consoles: Is the Gaming World Ready?

By Bobby Miller

For the release of the “New Super Mario Bros. 2,” Nintendo is advertising that the game can be purchased as a physical game card or downloaded online via the company’s eShop. As a bonus for downloading, the player is given double the coins to use toward purchasing gifts at Club Nintendo, the company’s reward program. So, the message is clear. Nintendo really wants you to download this game. But why is the company so eager to have people download games rather than buy hardcopies of them? What does this mean for video gaming in general?

Nintendo Releases First Full-Sized Game Available for Download

“New Super Mario Bros. 2” is the first full-sized game Nintendo has ever put up for download. The company may simply want consumers to know that purchasing games through digital distribution is an option for them in the future.

However, the video game industry as a whole is pushing the idea of downloading games on the Internet rather than buying a tangible disc or game card. Although this trend is not exactly new in the world of PC gaming—which the download service Steam has helped tremendously—this generation of consoles is the first one to make a serious push toward downloadable content. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 are available with large hard drives for storing games. Even the Nintendo Wii can store a number of old or indie games—we can expect the Wii U to take this trend further for Nintendo.

Nvate Nintendo New Super Mario Bros. 2 OUYA

Retailers such as GameStop and Best Buy have had to adapt by offering games in hardcopy and downloadable form. The selection of games available for download is nothing to sneeze at—there are over 200 full-sized PlayStation 3 games available as discs and digital content from the PlayStation Store. Although the Wii and Xbox 360 usually have only smaller or older games available for download, there are still many to choose from.

Things to Think About Before Downloading: Having a Tangible Disc, Speed of Internet Connection and Storage Space of Console

The rise of digital distribution in the video game industry should not be surprising, considering how many other industries have already gone in that direction. A growing number of people are streaming TV shows and movies through the Internet rather than going to theaters, video stores, or those ancient ruins known as Blockbuster rental stores. And although legal music downloads have yet to take over, CDs are often viewed as a dying species. Even literature is turning toward digital distribution, as the rise of e-books shows. That’s simply because people enjoy the convenience and value of online shopping with instant downloads.

Despite the fact that gamers thrive on new technology, they are oddly hesitant to embrace digital distribution. While downloadable add-on content is often OK with gamers, entirely forgoing a tangible disc or game card is more troubling. According to a poll in the August 2012 issue of Nintendo Power, only about 19 percent of readers said that they would rather download a game online than buy a hardcopy of it. The Bit-Tech website reported that nearly two thirds of console gamers as a whole would rather have a game on a disc than download it online.

There are a few reasons why digital distribution isn’t taking off with traditional gamers. To begin with, full-sized games aren’t cheap. Downloading an app game for 99 cents is one thing. Downloading a $59 game is a whole other story. For that price, many gamers want a thing that they can have a hold on, something that feels more secure and more real than just a file on their console’s hard drive. This appeal cannot be replaced by a downloaded title, especially for people who consider themselves video game collectors.

Nvate Nintendo New Super Mario Bros. 2 OUYA

And the reason they’re so darn pricy is that they’re so darn big. Not just big in terms of how long the game takes to complete, but big in terms of how much is in the game. Simply put, there’s a lot more to download. While downloading a little app game doesn’t take long, downloading the 11 GB game “Fallout 3” might be a little tricky. Personally, I know that such a download may take my Internet connection half a day, if not more, to complete—especially if I need to use the Internet during that time.

And then you have to deal with keeping the data in storage. The PlayStation 3 hard drive, for example, can hold anywhere from 20 GB to 320 GB of information depending on how much you’re willing to spend. So, on the lower end of the spectrum, you can download only one game the size of “Fallout 3.” The higher end of the spectrum might be able to hold 29 games that size—a very unimpressive number considering how many games a hardcore gamer can go through in a console’s seven-year lifespan. Once that’s full, you have to start using external hard drives to back up the games, assuming the publishers are OK with you doing so. At this point, the whole “convenience” factor of downloading games isn’t looking too appealing.

Personally, I doubt the video game industry will go all-digital anytime in the foreseeable future. Video games are a common holiday gift and according to USA Today, 46 percent of gaming software sales occurs during the fourth quarter of the year. And let’s face it—giving someone a card for a downloadable game just doesn’t produce the same feeling as giving them a game to open right there on the spot. This is especially the case when shopping for children. Also, waiting for a game to be playable after a long, slow download just doesn’t have the same feeling as going to a store the day a game is released. Some games even have midnight release parties for them, which can attract many hardcore gamers.

What If I Need to Transfer Digital Games Between Consoles?

Finally, there’s the issue of security. When you buy a disc, it’s there to keep forever, assuming you take care of it. But what if something happens to that console you downloaded all sorts of games onto? Well, after you buy a replacement console, you can expect to jump through some hoops due to licensing issues. You have to make it clear that you have paid for the games already. For instance, Microsoft’s website contains an Xbox 360 Digital Rights Management section where you can transfer rights to a different Xbox 360 unit if necessary. However, such processes can be a huge burden. Plus, there is no guarantee that they will be accessible years down the road, something troubling to those of us who love revisiting old games.

With so many hoops to jump through, it’s important to read all the fine print so that you know when you can recover a lost game. According to Nintendo, if say, your downloaded copy of the “New Super Mario Bros. 2” is downloaded to a 3DS that were to stop working, you may be able to recover the game. Kevin Anderson of Nintendo’s customer service program made it clear that the system that the game was downloaded on would need to be fixed. “Our technicians can preserve your Nintendo eShop account as long as you have us repair your system,” he said. “In that case, you would be able to re-download any purchased content for free on that same system. However, if your original system doesn’t work, it’s not possible to transfer your eShop account to [a] new Nintendo 3DS.” In other words, if your 3DS is destroyed, you can kiss your downloaded games good-bye. Every company can have stipulations like these, and they’re important to keep in mind before spending your money.

All these concerns don’t make downloading a game look simple and convenient. So, much as Blu-ray Discs, DVDs and physical books still have huge markets, I believe the same will be true of video gaming for many years.

Will There Be Used, Digital Distribution Games?

But I can definitely see why video game companies are trying to push digital downloads. For one thing, it must be cheaper to distribute a game via download than to box up a million copies and send them around the world. After all, a downloaded game tends to cost every bit as much as the hardcopy version—something that troubles many gamers.

Nvate Nintendo New Super Mario Bros. 2 OUYA

More importantly, there is currently no way to sell used games that were purchased via digital distribution. Buying a used game doesn’t help out a video game company’s bottom line, so the industry would eagerly jump onto anything to curtail used sales.

But whether or not this benefit will last is questionable. According to the GameSpot website, Paul Raines, CEO of GameStop, has commented that the company is looking into reselling used digital content. The technology is, after all, emerging in Europe. While video game publishers may not like this, video gamers might be more willing to cozy up to digital distribution if they can sell the games they’re finished with. GameStop made $2.62 billion in revenue from secondhand game sales in 2011, accounting for 27.4 percent of its total revenues, as the GameSpot website also notes. Clearly, gamers are into buying and selling used games.

The OUYA: Free-To-Play, Downloadable Games Console

It is also worth noting that an experimental console known as the OUYA hopes to rely entirely on free-to-play, downloadable titles. According to the September 2012 issue of Game Informer, the console has raised over $5 million on Kickstarter. The Android-based console will be inexpensive at $99 and allow gamers to download games in episodic chunks rather than expensive wholes. It is set to be released in March 2013. Issues such as piracy and distribution costs may yield issues for the system, but the people behind OUYA firmly believes that consoles need to embrace digital distribution in order to survive in this market.

Nvate Nintendo New Super Mario Bros. 2 OUYA

Ultimately, whether or not digital distribution will take off for traditional games depends on the gamers. While companies can try different tactics to drive us toward digital content, we’re the ones who decide where our money will go. Factors such as increased security for downloaded content, faster Internet connections, and more storage space can certainly help things along as well. But I think it’s safe to say that, for at least another decade, most full-sized console games will be available digitally and physically, so each gamer can decide which route they want to take.

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