The inevitabilty of digital downloads

When you buy a game on an optical disk you are getting millions of microscopic areas on the disk that reflect light differently and so represent the ones and zeros of the digital world. These ones and zeros can also be represented with sound and sent down a telephone line. This is the wonder of digital downloads. Let’s look at some of the advantages:

  • Instant distribution of your game to every country in the world.
  • No need to manufacture, handle or stock tons of plastic and carboard.
  • Bigger profit margin by cutting out all the middlemen.
  • You can instantly meet demand, no matter how big.
  • No returns from retail.
  • Ability to patch bugs on an already sold game.
  • Perfect for episodic content.
  • Perfect for user generated content.

So it is absolutly brilliant. Why aren’t we doing it more?

  • Inertia. The normal resistance to change.
  • The platform holders outdated business model doesn’t allow for it.
  • Some customers like to have plastic and carboard.
  • Piracy. The big cancer that can destroy our industry.
  • It is still a bit cumbersome at current interweb speeds.

But the writing is on the wall. Music and video downloads in the UK will reach £163 million this year, a 45.5% increase on last year. Admittedly this is in a £4 billion market. But it is inevitable that the value of downloads will be greater than the value of optical disks within a very few years. The same will happen with games, the advantages are so great and, when they have got used to it for music, the customers will demand it.

There is a very highly successful game developer called Valve. They are responsible for one of the greatest ever games, Half Life. And now The Orange Box compilation. In 2002 they launched a digital game download service for PCs called Steam and made it available to the whole industry, I tried to get Codemasters to adopt it. This has evolved now to include social networking. And it does everything in the advantages list above. Steam is one of the biggest and most important things to have ever happened in gaming. If Microsoft and Google had any sense they would be outbidding each other to pay $billions to buy Steam now. It will generate far more revenue than Facebook ever will.

Well are you all geared up for online distribution of your games, or do you just love the sight of all that plastic and carboard in your warehouse? 


  1. You forget that you can’t resell your old games with Steam, unless you’re willing to divulge your user details to the potential buyer.

    Here’s a loaded word you just used: “‘Some’ customers like to have plastic and cardboard.” I’d like to change this to “many” because it remains to be the sentiment of the greater majority.

    Nothing beats having a hard copy of your game, especially when your hard disk crashes, and/or you need to do a low-level format because of a virus attack.

    What if I make hard copies?

    If you do decide to make copies of your digitally-downloaded game, you’ll discover (the hard way) that DDR measures are such a pain to use. All this effort at DDR is actually hurting the sales because instead of going through all the trouble, consumers would opt for the cheaper, less-hassle pirated copies.

    Besides, the durability of DVD-Rs could never be compared to the original manufactured disks, which could last for decades when well taken care of. DVD-Rs, after all, are a business, so manufacturers see to it that your disks won’t last forever.

    Can you tell me honestly that a DVD you copied could last as long as my original 4-disk set of Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within? The old CDs I copied a couple of years ago are already acting up, and I take care of them through great, anal lengths.

    Digital downloads may be a new approach to distribution, but retail will always be the majority, make no mistake.

    I do want my plastic and cardboard.

  2. Digital downloading will become the standard way to get all media content–I would concur that it is inevitable. But change will be very slow at first, because of the problems Mike mentioned. The big box stores and the used game shops will do everything in their power to stop it.

    However, once we reach a tipping point of public opinion, a monumental shift will happen fairly quickly, as businesses either adapt to the changing landscape or fold their games division.

    This will happen not only through games, but in terms of movies and television too. And because of convergence it’s probably going to happen through one entertainment hub that provides television, games, and internet access. We’re already moving that way.

  3. Hmm. I still beg to differ. They said newspapers will die, but only game magazines did–and many are still very much alive.

    Apples and oranges.

  4. Thanks for your input gentlemen.
    It is interesting that Apple is now going to let 3rd parties develop for iPhone and iPod. I reckon that this will be content that is 100% bought by download.

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