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Digital Download Saga: Why it Will Initially Fail
Posted on Monday, May 4 2009 @ 10:22:43 PST

In the month of May, the game Patapon 2 will be released for the Sonly PSP. This is a game that will be very critical in shaping the future of gaming, even if it doesn’t know it. It’s not due to some innovative gameplay mechanic or a new game design either. It is actually due to its distribution, which will in turn be a forerunner for the probable future of video games. That is digital distribution.

Digital distribution is the selling of full games through downloads, similar to add-ons and arcade games on X-box live, the Wii virtual console, and the PSN, for example. The difference is that they are fully fledged games, such as a full version of Halo or Bioshock, a complete series of Elder Scrolls and Final Fantasy, or even a fully updated roster for Madden and NHL. Digital downloads will give access to full, current-gen games to be downloaded for a fee at your own home. No longer will hard copies be the norm of attaining video games, when everything is downloadable, sales and distribution will be all done on the net, and it will happen.

This is the future of gaming, no doubt about it. And it is a natural progression as well. You have the current trend of game add-ons and full, retro games online already available, as well as custom new games that have been created by small, independent companies. Hell, the upcoming version of the PSP will feature only digital downloadable games, eliminating the use of Hard USB disks for the future.

But sadly, I feel it will fail now, at first, at least. It is not because I love hard copies of games, which I do because owning a hard copy of a game is so ingrained in my psyche it’s almost impossible to not enjoy these hard copies. But I feel like we may be jumping the gun in making Patapon 2 the first ever digital download title for the PSP, for a couple of reasons.

First and foremost, Patapon 2 is a very niche game. Not to detract from the game at all, but it’s not a blockbuster like Final Fantasy or Madden. It’s a great title for a limited audience, namely the hardcore gamer crowd and those who know a good game from a bad one. But for the average consumer, Patapon 2 will be a very hard sale for what is not familiar, especially since its quirky design and very unorthodox gameplay mechanics make it look exotic.

Another aspect that might lead to this failure is the fact that this is being done with little fanfare. Retailers like Gamestop and GameCrazy are promoting the game for the PSP, but the fact that it is a downloadable game is not being mentioned, nor is part of the official press kit for retailers. Granted, some employers will be mentioning the game to the interested parties, but learning that the game is fully downloadable might detract from that.

This is actually similar to Grand Theft Auto, The Lost and the Damned for the 360. When it came out, both as a digital download and a hard copy, there was some confusion by consumers who thought it was a stand-alone game in retail stores, and squandered $20.00 without having a copy of GTA IV. It was a good experiment by Microsoft, but without letting people know of the digital download or that you needed the GTA IV game to play Lost and the Damned probably made the hard copy of the disk less desirable in stores, and maybe detracted from sales overall of the add-on.

One final piece that makes a digital copy of Patapon 2 a bad idea in terms of sales and profitability is the fact that it’s on the Sony PSP. The system has a turbulent history, with three incarnations and a fourth one ready to be released. The sales of the system though are not as solid, paling in comparison of the Nintendo DS. Over $50 million PSP systems have been sold worldwide, compared to $96 million DS systems, a margin of nearly 2-1. Respectable sales for a handheld to be sure, but the switch to digital downloads only might again confuse many consumers who are not kept abreast to the changes in the video game market, and again this might deter people from purchasing a PSP and other PSP games.

For digital downloads to work, retailers and game companies need to work together to actually educate people in the downloadable features of games. Many parents and gamers don’t know about Microsoft Point cards, for example. Telling them what the cards do will probably alleviate the confusion somewhat, and may even grant parents and casual gamers the curiosity to look at digital downloads in a new way, and research it themselves. Hardcore gamers know this is coming, and perhaps preparation is in order for us, but we also need to prepare everyone in the process.

So Patapon 2 will be a great experiment, but it will not speed up the process of digital downloadable games. But it will also not deter the ongoing change from hard copies to digital downloads. While I personally feel that a mixture of both hard and digital copies is what will ultimately be successful (and I’ll save that for another article.) the future of gaming is coming hard and fast, and we are able to see the bits and pieces of it manifesting today.

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