Posted April 26, 2012 by Justin B in GO Critic Originals

Has Digital Distribution and Downloads Taken Over?



Game companies seem particularly fond of the idea behind digital distribution. To Sony, it’s a way to release full games that can’t be bought used, can’t be resold, and are locked into their proprietary format. The only real beneficial service provided to gamers by this offering is convenience. It’s easy to download a game digitally, and so what if it costs a little bit more, and I don’t get a box.

For a lot of us, physical retail is still the preferred way to buy games, but some not-so-subtle tactics by these companies are making this a less than ideal option. As a collector of games, putting the box on my shelf is half the fun, and I have quite a nice looking bookshelf reserved for games. The manuals, colorful boxes, and interesting pack-ins make collecting games a real joy. Unfortunately, the joy has been getting slowly sucked out of collecting.

The first thing they began to slack on were the manuals. A manual used to be something you would take to school and show off to your friends. It was something that had awesome art, fun facts about the game, even a notes section for you to write your own tips. I remember carrying my manual for the original Zelda game around with me when I was little. It felt like I had a little tome that was filled with anything I might want to know about the game.

Time rolled on and manuals became smaller, with less art, and eventually black and white.

Most manuals now are a two-fold pamphlet that have a control scheme on them, or worse, a website that has a PDF of the manual that you can view online. It seems to have been taken a step further even. I bought a physical copy of Lumines for my new Vita the other day, and the box was completely empty. The manual is on the game in a digital format for viewing in the system.

Now, these digital manuals are nice, but they don’t beat having a nice hard copy to look at. There are of course exceptions to these new practices, but they are becoming outliers. Games that are specifically niche and cater to small audiences still include nice physical manuals, but most larger games have already phased them out completely. Boxes have holes cut out of them, cover art is less original, and things like stickers and other knick knacks are unheard of unless you buy a collector’s edition.

Suddenly the downsides of a digital copy are diminished by the reduced amount of physical content you actually get. You get the same manual either way, and GameFaqs provides the rest of the interesting content. Now that your game is already digital, downloadable content seems like a much more appealing option as well; why not add more digital content to your digital game? Companies see fit to sell game in pieces, episodes, and seasons. All digital looked like it would revolutionize consoles, but so far it has just resulted in expensive memory cards and expensive DLC.

However, the PC market is flourishing with the digital model.

Companies like Good Old Games seem to understand that some extra content should just come with a game. I should get the overworld map without having to pay for the special edition. Steam also does well with reasonable initial pricing on games, and frequent price drops.

Some view this as a “race to the bottom” that will devalue games, but I see it as a company that has reasonable prices for games that tend to have already bloated price tags. Feature rich games that are free from DRM are changing the landscape of the industry on the PC, and consoles are lagging far behind in that respect. Yes, all my Vita games are digital, but are they all really worth forty dollars? This isn’t a race to the bottom, it’s a race to reasonable pricing.

If you’re going to release thirty dollars worth of DLC within the first month, then that should reduce the game’s initial price tag. Free to play games like Tribes: Ascend offer the piecemeal purchasing, but remove the large initial cost. This allows more people to play the game, pay for the parts they like, and walk away feeling like they got exactly the parts they wanted out of the game, and didn’t have to pay for the parts they didn’t. Hopefully these models are being closely watched by console developers and publishers, otherwise they may have a rocky road ahead of them.


Justin B

Justin B
Contributor - Justin fought valiantly in the console wars of the 90s, and came out the other side with a battle-scarred Game Boy and stacks of Nintendo Power. These days he likes to spend his evenings with a nice glass of wine and his 3DS. The rest of the time he's buried alive under schoolwork and tending his farm in Harvest Moon.