Mar 172011

As any modern video gamer with a connection to the internet (which, I guess, would be just about all of them) can tell you, digital distribution is here to stay. A great deal of them would even say that it is inevitably the way of the future. But should it be? Today we’ll explore that in another installment of our award-winning series 64 Bits Good, 8 Bits Better.

Note: This post refers solely to pure digital distribution of games and game-modifying material; physically distributed games can still suffer from things such as digital rights management, which I’m not overlooking, but’s a post for another day.

The benefits of digital distribution [DD] are pretty apparent: easy access to games, demos, add-ons, patches and the like. Your disc can’t break or scratch because there’s no disc to break (also good for the environment.) Forgot to bring the game with you? You might be able to re-download it elsewhere. Stuff your computer to the gills with whatever your relevant gaming interest is and you might not even need to get up to change out whatever’s in the drive. When you take all these into consideration, it’s no wonder DD has become such a widely-adopted medium. It makes one wonder how we ever got along with floppy disks, cartridges and CDs.

But we did get by, and quite handily as a matter of fact, for more than two decades before DD achieved mainstream popularity. I’m not talking about shareware in the mid-90s that you could download and then activate fully for $10 or $15. I’m talking about what we see now: downloadable full-priced games (at least up to $40, which is the most I’ve seen but wouldn’t be surprised to find higher costs out there) and downloadable add-ons that in their totality can meet or exceed the cost of a $50 store-bought game. The gaming industry and we as gamers got by without these we had to. The quality of games had to be more robust as a result. In the days before you could patch games, they had to actually work as intended; you couldn’t afford to ship something that had critical, game-breaking (and sometimes system-breaking) bugs just knowing that you would push out a patch on release day. Mind you, some games did still release that way, but they were far fewer than what we see today. One can claim that the complexity of today’s games demand bugs and that may be true, but it’s also apparent that the ability to patch games is a de facto standard and crutch of the modern developer.

DD can also rob you of value in many cases. There have been multiple cases of companies who shipped a game  with extra content already included on the disc and just waiting to be activated with the purchase or application of a special code. This obviously would not have flown in the days where you couldn’t download a 50KB file that magically unlocks megabytes of gameplay. I totally disagree with this practice, myself; thankfully, I have yet to be burned by it. Likewise, it is not at all unusual now for companies to create a portion of the game during development and simply omit it from the final game, with the intention of putting it out as downloadable content [DLC] afterwards. To my way of thinking, if you make it in the course of developing the game, it should go with the game; only items created after the game’s development cycle go in an add-on or the sequel. That’s not to say I haven’t bought DLC that might have been made during a game’s development. I own all the expansion DLCs for Fallout 3, for instance, and there’s every possibility that one of them was completed during the game’s original development cycle. DLC can add a lot of value to games, but it’s also easily abused to squeeze a little more out of the consumer. True, games are certainly underpriced considering the nature of inflation, but if you’re going to set a price for games, set a price and be done with it, don’t try to surreptitiously eke out more from people.

However, despite these statements, my biggest problem with DD comes not from add-ons or decreased game-testing quality; it’s the matter of control. If you purchase a DD game, then it’s an automatic given that you have internet access; and companies can not only require you to keep that access, but they can use it against your games. Take this, one of many examples where Steam users’ entire accounts have been disabled over a single failed payment on the purchase of a new game. Let that sink in for a moment: an account full of legitimately purchased games (in this case, $500 worth, but I’ve seen up to $1000 claimed) can be disabled, cutting off access to all of those games, if you try to purchase a single new game and, say, a problem with PayPal causes a payment to reject. And it’s a common occurrence. Try a Google search for disabled steam account to see how common. Clearly it’s not enough of a headache to stop people from using Steam, but that doesn’t make it right.

In this well-publicized case, a user who made the disparaging remark of “Have you sold your souls to the EA devil?” on a Bioware forum got reported by someone. Bioware, acting under Electronic Arts’ terms of service, banned his forum/social account. This not only cut him off from DLC purchased legitimately in the past (which can, in turn, prevent games like the original Dragon Age from even playing), but it prevented him from installing and playing a brand new purchased copy of Dragon Age II.

In the interests of disclosure and avoiding sensationalism, this matter did ultimately get resolved according to EA and the person’s account has been reinstated, but just the ability to disable access to existing games over a forum infraction is control at some of its worst, and EA’s terms, which indicate they can rescind your license to play their games at any time for any reason are not unheard of elsewhere. Could you imagine if iTunes required you to log in every day before you could listen to music and they could use that connection time to revoke your right to listen to songs? That would be considered crazy behavior, and those songs cost only 99 cents, not upwards of $50. If Amazon could suddenly take books off of your Kindle, without a refund, just because, what do you think the reaction would be? (Hint: not good, even when the book’s cost is refunded.)

In addition, DD games are typically not transferrable. DLC that I buy on my 360 is tied to that console and my gamer ID; anyone can play it on that console or I can redownload it and play it elsewhere (as long as I’m online), but nothing more–and that’s pretty lenient terms in the industry. I often loan games to our friends Steve and Steph when they would otherwise be gathering dust on a shelf and this works out well. That won’t happen with digital games.

Part of non-transferrability is that you can’t re-sell DD games, either. That part doesn’t affect me because I don’t get rid of any games, ever, even terrible ones like Stretch Panic or games I’ll never play again like Final Fantasy XI Online, but there’s an entire used game industry out there for those who would like to get something back monetarily from their game purchases, as well as people who try to do it on the side. Your ability (I won’t go so far as to call it a right) to trade or sell them is annihilated. Don’t expect this to change, because eliminating used game sales is something that game developers have wanted to do for decades. Disabling basic features (such as online play) that can only be activated with new copies, but can be purchased for additional costs if your copy of a game is used, is one such method that makes their desire to see this through clear.

Finally, remember that any game which requires connection to a company for verification has a limited lifespan. It’s unlikely that Steam, a multi-billion-dollar company, is going away anytime soon. But if it did, so might your games. If you have to be authenticated on an Electronic Arts server to play a game, and that server gets disconnected, then your game isn’t playable; this is one way of ensuring you buy the next game they want sell instead of suffering a Starcraft-ism where one game gets played for a decade or more. It’s already done on a regular basis to discontinue the servers that support online play, rendering the most popular features of many games obsolete. I can pop in my cartridge of River City Ransom and do some team-up brawling any time, but you won’t be able to play Team Fortress 2 forever.

To be fair, DD isn’t evil–it’s a method of delivery and the restrictions and actions taken around it by companies are what can be unpalatable. For an example of how DD can be done well, check out GOG (Good Old Games), a site offering over 240 past games for download at a reasonable price without DRM or other arbitrary restrictions, and often with extras such as maps and soundtracks thrown in. Would that kind of treatment work for new games? Possibly not — certainly the lack of protection would make it easier to pirate games, but history has proven that anyone who really wants to pirate games is going to do so. Heck, I did it back in the day with Fast Hack’em on my Commodore, and that was before the internet told anyone how to get anything they wanted for free. But GOG shows that if you treat your customers with respect, you’ll get respect, and it shows that DD doesn’t have to stand for Draconian Downloading.

Make no bones, digital distribution isn’t going anywhere, but it doesn’t have to remain as it is right now. It likely will remain as it is or even get worse until gamers say otherwise, however. Until that day, I’ll continue to weigh up each transaction to determine if I’m really getting what I want to pay for–and I recommend that as consumers you do the same.

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