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Digital Downloads: Worth It?
Posted on Thursday, January 24 2013 @ 12:28:47 Eastern

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.

The internet’s amazing. Ever since speeds moved into the Mbps range, our interconnectedness has given birth to the digital marketplace. Not everyone has access to the sorts of speeds, bandwidth caps, and storage space for switching to digital, but the amount of people who do is increasing all the time and businesses are eager to make their games available through digital: It’s more convenient for the consumer, more profitable for the developer, and less wasteful for the environment. What’s not to like?!
 
Actually, there’s quite a bit not to like. The most obvious thing is the lack of a physical product which is important to a lot of people. Those who don’t care if they have a game manual can still run into problems stemming from the same root. Personally I love opening a case and seeing a decent game manual. It’s not the playing of the game I want to learn; it’s the background, the characters, and the story. The GTA manuals do a fantastic job of using the style of the game to inform the player, but in the age of digital content the closest we’ll get to that is a .pdf file on the computer next to the TV. Perhaps it’s the new ‘old fashioned’ to harken back for the days where our game manuals were the only analogue factor in an otherwise digital medium but, damn it, I want my paper manuals!
 
I can live without physical mementos of the games I buy, however grudgingly, but there are still elements of the online movement we need to overcome before it can become the dominant way of buying games. A while ago sliverstorm discussed the pre-owned market and highlighted pretty effectively why publishers aren’t, to put it lightly, the biggest fans of consumers trading and buying secondhand items. It’s no surprise that having profits taken away within weeks of launch is going to grind with developers and publishers, but since sliverstorm has already covered their point of view, let’s take a look from the consumer’s perspective.

Games are expensive. Americans can expect to pay around $59.99 and I, as a Brit, usually see games around the £40-45 mark. If the customer doesn’t mind waiting for a while, then they can get almost the same game (thanks to the introduction of the online pass since publishers have cottoned on to the profit-draining potential of the secondhand market) for a hell of a lot less: In the case of many games, a secondhand copy of the title and an online pass is still cheaper than a new game.

When we look at both sides of the pre-owned game market we see that it actually provides two advantages to the gamer and can even help publishers. Because games are pricey, it’s difficult to buy them all at full price so what is an eclectic gamer to do? They’re to buy and play a game to death and then trade it in towards another brand new title, of course! They get a new game at a discounted price, their old game is no longer gathering dust on their shelves and the store gets another pre-owned item to flog at a cheaper rate (but higher profit) later on. On top of all that, most video game retailers survive thanks to secondhand profits and every day they continue to trade is another day new games are sold to the public as well.


 
Which brings us rather tidily back to online markets since pre-owned doesn’t exist in the digital realm, at least not on the scale it does in retail. So we see another reason why online is so appealing to the publisher: They pay fewer distribution costs, don’t need to worry about profits being sapped by second-handers, and don’t need to share profits with retailers; if they self-distribute as with Origin, they don’t even need to share with digital powerhouses like Steam and Microsoft.

While online is a huge plus for the publisher, the lack of a secondhand market is a massive downer for the consumer. We’re still paying high prices, but we’re getting less and we can’t trade it in later so we can pay a little less for the next release. We can’t even take it back for a refund if it was an unwanted gift or whatever other reason. It’s clear that the digital market hopes you will pay for short-sighted convenience and not worry about what happens to the 0s and 1s later on.

Publishers may not like secondhand games, but they’re a fact of the market. They, and console manufacturers, may want to make second hand games impossible to play on future consoles but with the advent of the Ouya, nVidia Shield, and Valve’s Steam Box as well as the constantly strengthening PC market, consumers have more options than ever to get their ‘proper’ gaming fix and have even more choices with internet browsers, smartphones, and tablets for casual games. Now that the next generation of consoles are right around the corner our buying power is at the highest it has been since 2004-5 when the X360 was announced and released.

Rumours recently flew that Microsoft was researching the viability of a download-only next-gen console. As soon as the news broke, X360 fans took to the Microsoft forums in droves and Microsoft quickly backed down. News is now indicating that Sony is filing patents to stop secondhand game use, though competing with these rumours are the ones that say they’re planning nothing of the sort. It’s hard to say which rumour is right since Sony has already dipped their toes into these waters with the Vita which restricts memory cards to one user ID and appears to have gotten away with it. Hopefully they saw the backlash on Microsoft and get why it happened. Either way, these incidents give a worrying insight of how these gaming titans want their business to goall they have to do is remove the physical product.
 
Let’s backtrack a bit, though. I kind of assumed that games are priced high online, didn’t I? Unfortunately, not really. Prices are always changing but at the time of writing the X360 marketplace is listing FIFA 13 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown at a wallet shrivelling £49.99 while the British Amazon website is selling the boxed products at a much more reasonable £28.99 and £24.99 respectively. But wait! That’s Amazon, home to online bargains. It’s unfair to compare an instant download service with an online mail-order one. In a way it is, fair reader, and that is why I’ve looked into store prices too. Aside from a couple of identically priced games (FIFA 13 at £49.99 and Skyrim at £29.99), even the store price is cheaper than the direct marketplace price.

Two caveats are required before I go on:
  1. The store I used for my prices was going through a sale so games were cheaper than normal.
  2. Out of the top 20 list I used, there were only six games available for download on Xbox Live.


And now to continue: The store had a sale, but if a brick and mortar store with all its overheads can afford to sell Resident Evil 6 for £28, why can’t an online store do it for £25 when it only has to worry about the bandwidth charge? Instead digital users find themselves paying £49.99 for a cloud of 1s and 0sI’m struggling to find the appeal.

The next point, that only six out of twenty games sample were available digitally, says a lot. Typically the games ready for download are the older games. FIFA 13 and Borderlands 2 are the most recent releases but much newer games like CoD Black Ops 2 and Far Cry 3 are nowhere to be seen.

Amazon is the clear leader in terms of prices, but there’s a lot more hassle and time involved with trading, returning, and even receiving goods, so really the price could be better in a store which lets you trade your old games straight away. The average price for the downloadable games sampled is £37.49; at Amazon it’s £25.12; at the store it’s £31.45.
 
The cynic in me says the higher price for downloads is due to the complete lack of competition; if an Xbox gamer wants to download a copy of FIFA 13, then he’s got one choice: £49.99 or bust. If the same gamer wants to buy a physical copy of FIFA 13, then he can choose from several mainstream retail stores, so many more websites including peer-fueled sites like eBay, plus independent retailers which do still exist in some places. And that’s another aspect of downloading that terrifies me: Will next-gen systems be the closed ecosystems they are now or will they open up to introduce the competition which drives innovation while keeping down costs as we see on PC? Tight control may be good for profits, but it’s only ever a bad thing for the consumer and now is the perfect time to make manufactures know what won’t be tolerated. After all, they need us to buy their machines before they can make us buy their games.
 
So is digital worth it? Despite everything I said above, I’d still say that it is. But not for games you’d expect to see in boxes. I’ve had some fantastic experiences thanks to  games that are only available via download: I’ve made sprawling landscapes in Minecraft; puzzled through Braid; fought the shadows in Limbo; nearly broke my controller thanks to Trials HD; and crafted my own story in The Walking Dead. These games are what make digital content what it should be and, for the bargain-basement prices each developer asked for, I’m happy to pay and not be able to trade later. You know my concerns now and none apply in quite the same way to titles like these, I only hope the content creators can see that.

The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar and image inclusion. It has been submitted for our monthly Vox Pop competition. You can find more Vox Pop articles here. ~Ed. Nick
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