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Digital Distribution and the Publisher/Retailer Hypocrisy

Used games are the scourge of the video game industry. They are the reason that games don't sell well, they are the reason why studios close and they also kill kittens, probably. This is the general industry stance on the topic of used games. Lamented by prominent figures like Cliff Bleszinski as the cause of excessive DLC, micro transactions and all manner of anti-consumer practices, it's clear that many figures in the industry would prefer that they disappear overnight.

As much as I disagree that used games negatively impact the game industry, there are plenty of others who feel differently. It's clear from Microsoft's previous Xbox One policies that they would much prefer a future of digital distribution, a future in which the used game market is replaced by one that offers a far more permanent purchase. This transition, however, will be almost impossible, at least in the current state of the console market.

Right now, there are very few tangible benefits to buying console games digitally, and a wide variety of major drawbacks. Outside of the minor convenience of not having to leave the home, games on PlayStation Network and Xbox Live are frequently far more expensive; Bioshock Infinite for example costs more than double the price I would pay at my local CEX, and are not resalable, offering the consumer no recourse after a bad purchase. Not to mention the fact that the sheer quantity of bandwidth required to download even a small current generation game is often unjustifiable to anyone with limited Internet usage, given the total absence of other benefits that downloaded games offer.

Over the course of the past generation, both of the major console manufacturers have demonstrated that their online services are vastly inferior to purchasing a physical copy in a store, so it's hardly surprising that people revolted so heavily against a next generation console dependent of monopolistic digital distribution. Microsoft and Sony have done nothing to show us why such a future would be beneficial to the consumer, and it was certainly refreshing to see people calling Microsoft out for their arrogance.

In order to succeed then, console digital distribution simply needs to start providing some benefits to gamers. A simple cursory glance at Steam, iTunes or any other successful digital service proves beyond doubt that once you start providing some genuine advantages, people are more than willing to give up physical ownership of their purchases. The simplest way to provide these advantages is in pricing: make digital copies of games notably cheaper than physical copies.

Speaking from an anecdotal standpoint, price is easily the most important consideration for me when deciding how to purchase a new game, and I'm happy to disregard the positives of owning a physical copy if the price is right. One of my most recent digital purchases was The Walking Dead, costing £12 on the PSN. Although there was a physical version available, it cost over double the price of the digital version, and all of the benefits of physical ownership were forgotten almost immediately.

For a more widespread example of this phenomenon, we need look no further than Steam.

Despite offering a vast array of benefits and conveniences, it remains more notable for its infamous "Summer Sale" than anything else. In this case, it's clear that consumers prize value for money over almost anything else.

This is where the current generation of consoles have gone wrong on digital distribution, and where the next generation also looks set to fail. Microsoft expected, and most likely still does expect, everyone to embrace digital distribution because "it's the future," without telling us why it's a good idea. Ask yourself: What are the benefits of buying a new game on PSN or Xbox Live? If the answer to that was "You'll save £20 on every new purchase," then I'm sure we would all welcome this fabled digital future. Right now, the answer is "There are none."

If used games truly are having the negative impact that publishers claim, this method would surely benefit them, in the long run. Of course, some people will always enjoy owning a physical copy, the continued sales of CDs and the resurgence of vinyl prove this, but given the choice between a £20 digital copy and a £40 physical copy, most would choose the former.

Another benefit of such a system would be that it doesn't restrict the consumer's choice, as Xbox One's DRM policies would have. Consumers get to choose between the different versions. They get to choose whether they value physical ownership over value. Such a system would be extremely consumer friendly, giving potential customers more choice, not less.

Of course, you'll make less money from every individual sale, but the developers, publishers and service providers will benefit directly from every sale, something that cannot be said for used games, and it will cut the oh-so-evil retailers like Gamestop out of the loop entirely.

The standard defence for a publisher's lack of willingness to undercut retailers is that "They can't risk upsetting retailers." Wait, you mean the same retailers that studios like Quantic Dream and People Can Fly rally against? The same retailers that are apparently killing the game industry? Why would you worry about upsetting them, if they're the great evil of the industry you try to portray them as? You should be doing everything you can to compete with them and put them out of business, if that's the case. Unless, of course, used games aren't as bad as you say.

What's happening right now is that publishers are trying to have it both ways. They enjoy the benefits of retail: the flashy displays, the pre-order bonuses and access to a wider audience, but cry foul and throw their toys out of the pram when the negatives of that same system start to creep in.

That isn't how business works, guys. If you're going to embrace a business model, you enjoy the benefits and face the drawbacks, or you change and adapt to one that is more favourable. If you want to continue enjoying the positives of high street retailers, you'll have to deal with the fact that people are going to want to trade them in, or abandon the practice altogether and work on making digital distribution as good as it needs to be to take over.

Microsoft attempted to have their cake and eat it too, and the market reacted appropriately. It's nice to see them back down for once, but their push for a digital future is surely just beginning, a future that they themselves are the only ones preventing. In many ways, I agree that digital is the future, as it appears to be for the music, film and PC gaming industries, but not with the current mindset of publishers and console manufacturers.

Stop trying to make us embrace a service that does nothing for us, stop trying to make us feel sorry for you when you don't have the stones to cut ties with the retailers that you claim are ruining your industry and start showing us why digital distribution deserves to be the future.

SilentHeaven109 | 21st July, 2013

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