The Evolution of Digital Distribution Systems in Gaming

Digital distribution is everywhere; applications such as iTunes provide the ability for digital products such as MP3s, movies and computer software to be delivered to audiences over the Internet instead of using physical media such as CDs, DVDs or Blu Ray. They provides easy and direct sales to a global market. With iTunes and the App Store ‘Apple’ may be the company that comes to mind when digital distribution is discussed but it shouldn’t be forgotten that plenty of video game consumers have been using these systems for years and recent announcement at this years Game Developer Conference 2009 have really shown that there are plenty more exciting developments to come.

Over the past 5 years gaming has seen a massive rise in digital distribution systems; many customers have been more then willing to make the switch from obtaining a physical copy of computer game software from a ‘bricks and mortar’ shop to downloading it through through distribution systems such as Steam, Impulse, Xbox Live Arcade and PSN. Some of the advantages distribution systems have over their convention counterpart include:

  • Instant user feedback
  • Anti-cheating Systems for online games
  • Auto patching
  • Downloading purchased-content from any location

For myself the big draw was (and still is!) the last bullet point. The idea that once I bought a game I could download it as many times as I wanted; even if I buy my product from a ‘real’ shop, the first thing I do is enter the serial code into a system as a backup, just in case it gets lost/snapped/broken.

Since I started using such systems when Steam first launched in 2003 there have always been two questions for me. The first is is how long will be before we no longer need to download the game? When can we stop buying into the expensive CPUs,GPUs and PPUs that games require and let all the processing be done server side? A recent announcement this week and ongoing work by Valve suggest it might be closer then we think.

The second was how digital distribution systems could move into different markets. In the UK most gamers will have broadband connections and a 7th generation console(or PC) since we are constantly after that new game and are a easy target for publishers; but what about markets that don’t buy into the latest consoles and games? Brazil has a massive gaming market, but one quite different from the situation in the UK with older consoles such as the Master System still seeing re-releases as late as 2006. Another exciting announcement at GDC 2009 saw a console designed exactly for such markets, pushing digital distribution as its method of obtaining games sales.

Moving into the Cloud

LiveOne

This week at the Game Developer Conference 2009 it was announced that LiveOne is a game distribution system that promises to take the load away from your computer and onto the cloud; allowing resource hungry games to play on modest hardware.The LiveOne developers maintain that the main bottleneck is bandwidth, with lower bandwidth users simply being met with a smaller screen resolution. This is really exciting news for gamers; does it mean it mean that digital distribution and cloud computing will kill the console/PC spec war, will we no longer go through generation after generation of video game consoles?

Steam Cloud

Although it would seem that Valve don’t think we are ready for such a radical shift they are still moving in a similar direction with their product ‘Steam Cloud’. Although Steam Cloud still delivers the game to the end user via a full download the idea is that variable data such as save games and settings are stored in the cloud meaning users can log on from any terminal with the game installed and carry on from where they left off.

Expanding the Market

Tectoy announced they would be attempting to push digital distribution into ‘The Next Billion’ Market by creating a console that will sell and distribute games through 3G or Edge networks using a virtual currency not unlike Microsoft or Wii Points. The seems to be no shortage of publishers wanting their games on the system; and a quick scan of the games that will be available (Crash Nitro Kart, Quake, Sonic Adventure to name a few) would make it seem that these publishers are egar to bring their old games to new markets; with digital distribution being the ideal means to do so. I find it fascinating that the company have decided that a decided to enter these markets via the digital distribution route.

Where next?

It is no secret that there is a huge amount of money in games and this is the driving force behind these incredible innovations. As always though the technology will filter down and hopefully we will see the technology in other areas. Could application processing in the cloud mean we see an end to the PC CPU/GPU spec wars forcing PC manufacturers to focus their initiative in others areas? Will it mean that high-end programs will be able to run on your mobile phone with a small client purchase simply being made over 3G/Wimax etc? I’m sure there are plenty of exciting discussions to be had at future CETIS Cloud Computing and Institutions Working Group meetings!