Many smaller publishers have already embraced digital download services, and quite a few no longer distribute their games through traditional channels. Recently, publishing power house Electronic Arts made several of their high-profile titles available on Valve's popular download service Steam, expanding on the digital offerings already available through their own store. Other major publishers are expected to follow suit, and I am certain that Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo are each working on creating online stores for full games in addition to what they already offering in terms of paid downloads. The future looks bleak for media retailers.
For (online) gaming magazines such as Hooked Gamers, these digital download services are a dream come true; publishers can make (p)review builds of their games available quickly and easily, allowing us to get our information to you faster and more efficiently than ever. But for gamers themselves, apart from that perk, I am not convinced that the switch to digital downloads is such a great idea. Let me explain.
First, the most obvious change; digital download services will mean that the DVD boxes with our games will cease to dominate our desks and living rooms. While our families will appreciate this greatly, well, call me old-fashioned but I still prefer to have some physical proof of my purchase -- and I don't mind having the DVD boxes around to show off to my visiting friends. However, I'd rather get dental surgery than spend an afternoon shopping, so I do purchase almost all of my music and games online -- for physical delivery, when it comes to the games. And unwrapping my purchases is a little like a miniature Christmas, even knowing full well what is inside. In contrast, clicking on the download button is cold and not particularly festive, to my mind.
And yet it is not the lack of being able to hold my game in my hands that worries me. A recent post on Ars Technica made me feel very uneasy about digital downloads. Author Michael Thompson (poor guy, hope he's not related to Jack, and if he is, that lunacy doesn't run in the family) writes about his experience purchasing Spore through EA's own download store. During the purchasing process he stumbled upon an option to invoke something called 'extended download service'. Intrigued, he decided to check out what this $6.95 option meant and was staggered to learn that it would allow him to re-download the game for two years, rather than the standard six months.
Six months!? What the hell are they thinking, charging extra money for being able to download (the game you have paid for) a second, third or even fiftieth time in the first place? Offering games through digital download services is by far a less expensive format than having to distribute the game to hundreds of thousands of shops across the world. Logic would dictate that digitally downloadable games would be cheaper, instead of more expensive. But they rarely are; and now they want us to pay extra if we want to own the game for longer than 6 months. Yes, one could argue that you own the game because it is on your hard-drive, but owning something also means having access to it in the future, when you upgrade your PC or (God forbid) crash your hard-drive. This is nothing short of thievery.
In this case, the culprit turns out to be the company powering the EA store, Digital River; or rather their download policies, to be specific. Most other services do not -currently- have this restriction, but who can say what other services, such as Steam, GamersGate and Stardock's Impulse will do, if they see this approach to game purchases succeed? Or worse, will they even still exist five years from now? Digital River's policies may work for other software and media which can be transferred to a storage device, but one thing that all of these services have in common is that you can download, install and play their offerings, but you can't burn the games to disk. Only a full system backup every time you purchase a new game, and an unlimited budget for hard-drive upgrades (since you can't delete any game you think you'll ever want to play again), will safeguard your games.
And there are other issues besides these. Steam used to serve as the great price-equalizer of gaming. Depending on the exchange rate, a European gamer pays up to 40% more for his game than a North American gamer does. When a publisher in the US determines that $50 is a fair price for their latest release, that game will have a Euro 50 price tag in European. This is $70 against the average Dollar/Euro exchange rate last year. On steam however, European gamers paid $50, like any US citizen would. Since December however, European gamers are asked to pay in Euro's and are charged 50 Euro, not 36.
I am certain that it is no coincidence that Valve changed this in the same month that Electronic Arts joined Steam. The tremendous power of EA nullified the equality in a single stroke. This will surely erode some of Valve's good reputation with gamers from outside of the US. Unfortunately Steam's Euro/Dollar policy is not unique, GamersGate does exactly the same thing. Stardock's Impulse, though limited, so far seems to be the only reasonable place to buy our games digitally.
My ramblings above give us an interesting peek into our future as digital gamers; we are at the mercy of a handful of large download services. Michael Thompson was not successful in getting Digital River to respond regarding their odd and -for gaming purchases- criminal policies, but one thing is obvious: the gaming community should avoid companies such as Digital River like the plague. For now, I am willing to give other services the benefit of the doubt, but I still have a nagging feeling that we do not own our games at all, they are simply being held for ransom.