How Can Console Digital Distribution Do Better?

Games

Despite Microsoft backpedaling on policies that would’ve essentially emphasized the Xbox One’s digital market over the retail one, all of the next-gen consoles will focus on digital distribution more than ever before. I don’t think they’re going to do a very good job of it if console manufacturers keep their online stores the way they currently are.

I think Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo will try to push digital more and more if they’re smart and want to keep a greater share of profits from their games. Former Ubisoft designer Patrice Desilets (Assassin’s Creed) has even suggested that digital could save blockbuster AAA games.

“But I don’t believe the AAA blockbuster will die. Maybe the way it is distributed will change, but it won’t die,” he said at a Gamelab conference in Barcelona. “But, deep down, nobody cares about not having CDs any more. The future is digital, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Even if he’s right, I don’t think the preservation of discs was the only reason people rebelled against Microsoft’s Xbox One DRM. The other reason is because right now, people don’t trust Microsoft’s handling of digital distribution. Some suggested that Xbox One would end up being like Steam, but what proof have we seen of that? Right now, console digital distribution sucks, at least compared to how its’ done on PC.

I feel no incentive at all to buy Xbox 360 games on Games on Demand instead of at retail. The games don’t show up on the digital service until weeks after launch, they always seem to stay at prices above retail (even excluding used prices), rarely go on sale, and have no extra incentives. It’s like Microsoft just throws the games up there but doesn’t actually care about convincing people to buy them. As of this writing, Spec Ops: The Line costs $30 on Games on Demand and at retail. I bought a Steam CD key for the game on Amazon for $2.50.

Sony at least started releasing games digitally alongside retail on current generation hardware, and it aggressively encourages pre-orders on PSN with small bonuses. Nintendo also does a lot to promote full new releases as soon as you log into eShop.

They still have a ways to go if they want to catch up with Steam and other PC services though. As soon as you log into Steam you see several rows and categories of games: a hot new release, featured games, release lists, what your friends are playing, current sales, and demos, all on one screen. If you activate Big Picture mode you can reach the store with a single button press. Another digital distribution platform — iOS, let’s you access the store with one tap, and right there you already have several categories of software to look at, even on a tiny smartphone screen.

On Xbox 360 by comparison, you gotta flip past pages full of ads, music, and social stuff to get to the games, then enter “Browse Games,” then enter each section individually. From what I’ve seen of the Wii U eShop (I haven’t used it myself), Nintendo seems to be learning these lessons a bit, though on the 3DS it takes way too much scrolling just to see what the latest releases are. It’s bad enough I have to use 3rd party websites to get consistent notification of what Nintendo’s latest digital releases even are. On PS3, once you actually get into the PlayStation store it tries hard to promote featured content, but it’s all a bit disorganized.

Once again though, the biggest and hardest thing for digital consumers to swallow right now is price, and that’s also the area where manufacturers are probably most hamstrung by retailers. People put up with Steam’s DRM because of its sales (I’ve bought probably less than 10 percent of my Steam games at the full $50 or $60), and one reason Valve can do that is because retailers in the US have largely given up on PC gaming. iOS is all-digital and its prices are extremely low. Console manufacturers are probably afraid that offering such sales or chopping $20 off the digital versions of games will piss off the likes of GameStop and Wal-Mart.

That doesn’t mean though that those guys can’t make their digital stores more inviting, or find other ways to increase the value proposition of buying digitally.

PlayStation Plus and now Microsoft’s Games With Gold are very good, unique ways to keep people engaged with PlayStation Network and Xbox Live respectively. Nintendo has a pretty good loyalty program with Club Nintendo, which I’ve already used to acquire several excellent games. All three companies need to go further though.

Steam’s sales aren’t even the only reason so many PC gamers prefer it to other storefronts. Whenever another store has a better deal than Steam, many customers will still request the sale include a Steam key. They want their games on Steam because of the easy installation, automatic patching, and other features that make the service feel more valuable. Many customers also prefer to pre-order their games on Steam even though the prices are the same as retailers. Why?

One reason that console digital distribution can definitely follow is pre-order deals. Like I noted before, Sony already offers some pre-order deals like 10 percent off the price (like Steam does). Why not digital-only pre-order DLC? Usually Steam will have the same pre-order DLC as Wal-Mart. I don’t see why the consoles can’t do the same thing.

Sometimes Steam will bundle a pre-order with a free copy of an older game: A Red-Faction Guerrilla pre-order guaranteed an immediate free copy of the original Red Faction, Modern Warfare 3 pre-orders guaranteed immediate free copies of Call of Duty 4, and so-on. Of course this heavily relies on how much classic content is available on these stores, and the PS4 and especially Xbox One are starting from zero with their software libraries.

Microsoft could’ve done this had they allowed digital pre-orders of Games on Demand games — perhaps bundled older 360 games or original Xbox games with pre-orders. Why not bundle a digital pre-order of Max Payne 3 with a copy of the original Max Payne (which is on Xbox Live)? If retailers were smart they’d be doing this with download codes or used copies of the older games.

Sony might have a bit more leeway with this kind of strategy since they’ll probably be able to get PS1 and PS2 Classics working on the PS4 through software emulation. They could give you a free copy of an older PS1 Final Fantasy when you pre-order Final Fantasy XV on PSN, or a copy of the original Metal Gear Solid when you pre-order Metal Gear Solid V. Nintendo has at least as much ability to do this with their Virtual Console library — give anyone who digitally pre-orders Super Mario 3D World a copy of Super Mario World.

An obvious digital pre-order bonus is pre-loading — allowing customers to start downloading the game a week before the actual street date so the game is ready to play immediately upon that date. It also reduces stress on the store’s own servers by spreading out pre-order downloads over the course of a week instead of forcing everyone who pre-ordered to download on the same day. European PSN already does this but I don’t know why Sony doesn’t do it in any other region. I would be shocked if Sony and Microsoft didn’t do this on PS4 and Xbox One. Games are already requiring downloads in the dozens of gigabytes, which takes days on some internet connections. Since the initial PS4 unveiling Sony’s been all about reducing download times as much as possible, and pre-loading would be an ideal method.

Why not start doing digital special editions? Steam offers many special editions with soundtracks, special feature videos, and even digital art books. Every game you buy on Good Old Games comes with similar content along with things like guide eBooks and wallpapers. That kind of content could be made available and viewable on a console. When Sony started releasing all PSP games digitally, people quickly called out games like the original Persona that were the same price at retail and on PSN, but came with extras at retail. That kind of lopsided value proposition needs to stop.

Another cool thing Steam does is four-packs — buying a bundle of four digital copies of a game for the price of three, then gifting them to three of your friends so you can play co-op together. This is of course ideal for games with four-player co-op. Dungeons & Dragons Chronicles of Mystara has this on Steam, why not PSN, XBL, and eShop too? Dragon’s Crown should have a four-pack on PSN. Super Smash Bros. should definitely have a four-pack when it comes out on Wii U and 3DS eShop.

Something I’m kind of frustrated I don’t see on console is unique digital bundles. If I look up “Total War” on Steam I can get a bundle of every Total War game available on the store at a moderate discount. There are entire series of games available on XBL, PSN, and Virtual Console that should be bundled similarly.

What I don’t like about the old Mega Man games being re-released on Virtual Console is that I already own a collection of the original eight games on PS2 which is more valuable. There should be a VC bundle for those games. There should be PSN and XBL bundles for all three BioShock games for instance. There should be a $60 Gears of War trilogy pack on Games on Demand. Why isn’t there a digital Resident Evil anthology on PSN? This wouldn’t require the expenses of setting up a similar collection for retail. The only bundles I see on PSN are exact copies of the ones available at retail, showing just how much the manufacturers are still under retail control.

Every digital console storefront needs to let retailers sell codes for digital versions of games, and let those retailers sell their own prices. Sure retail still get’s a cut, but it cut’s out used sales and it exposes customers to the digital stores. When Amazon has one of its digital PC game sales, why can’t they also sell digital copies of PlayStation, Xbox, 3DS, and Wii U games?

One last, general thing that needs to be done is for manufacturers to give third party publishers more power in terms of how they sell their digital games. Nintendo is already letting indies set their own prices and sales, and Sony is planning to follow suit. They need to do the same with big third parties so they can do digital sales and promotions whenever they want.

Whatever manufacturers and publishers do, they’re probably still going to be under the thumb of retail for a while. The standoff will probably last at least until digital console game sales start to catch up with retail. I think when one of the manufacturers finally decides to release a machine without a disc drive, you’ll really see things start to change. At that point, the manufacturer will be under the upmost pressure to drive digital sales.

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