123: Life After Shelf Death

Life After Shelf Death

"What happens to these games after they're removed from store shelves? Well, it used to be that they were relegated to bargain bins, online auctions and, of course, internet piracy. Any way you slice it, the developers aren't getting a cent, which gives them neither funds for a new project nor financial incentive enough to pursue one."

John Adkins takes a look at how digital distribution has breathed new life into the industry.

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I can understand that developers dont earn anything from titles rejected to life beyond the shelf, but what about the user, the one who actually playes the games, granted if you take the developers side then why bother looking at the small guy right? This irritates me somewhat as i have been like so many others penniless and in dire need of a new gaming fix, which is where the bargain bins or second user sections come in, I remember an argument that was coming about where developers were miffed that second user sales were doing quite well and they werent getting their greedy mitts on the dough (cough EA cough) but hang on, they got their revenue from selling the game once, why the hell do they need another cut of the sale...

also with this online distribution systems going on, dont get me wrong these are brilliant since i live miles from anywhere and basically see a games shop once in a blue moon, but what about if a game sucks so astronomically that i simply want to smash my own fingers with a hammer just for clicking buy, but once you realise a game sucks (usually along with everyone else) what do you do then? you cant sell it on cos its locked away in bit storage, and if you realise that the other game you really wanted to buy is about 50p out of your budget, you cant return the game or sell it on and buy a new one...

it is this that draws me to my conclusion that game shops will never die, even if it is just selling second hand games.

There are some good reason why the serious gamer in Germany (like myself) does have a need for online-based games distribution:

1) the Euro is standing really good compared to the US dollar, so that means cheap imports, but only if there is no physical shipment involved.

2) most foreign (non-german) games are translated horribly and have very bad voice-actors, not mentioning that translating something also means changing the creators' idea behind it. Still, seeing german versions of WoW and Oblivion really got me into not looking at games at retail shops, unless I know they're multilanguage. Buying the game online directly from the publisher would solve that problem. (Though the recent release of the Orange Box I bought via Steam was a german version, but that changed only gibs, luckily)

3) having the game as a download means that I can store it on my HD, and burn it to DVD only if I feel the urge. This helps saving room in my flat for game boxes and DVD boxes.

So from my point of view online distribution would not only save me money, but enables me to play the game in it's original conception. So I'm hoping that services like GameTap will be available in Germany soon

Picture this: Instead of physically going to a store, all you have to do is go to, say, GameStop.com, pay $50 through your PayPal account, and download a game - any game. Like always, GameStop earns a profit, the publisher gets a return on its investment and the developer gets what's left over ... the contemporary middleman is slowly but surely slipping into irrelevance.

Buh?

Tom Edwards:

Picture this: Instead of physically going to a store, all you have to do is go to, say, GameStop.com, pay $50 through your PayPal account, and download a game - any game. Like always, GameStop earns a profit, the publisher gets a return on its investment and the developer gets what's left over ... the contemporary middleman is slowly but surely slipping into irrelevance.

Buh?

Steam as a service is still a middleman. It takes a cut (and fairly large from what I hear)of the cost of sale in return for providing the hosting, bandwidth, and dealing with steam issues etc. Whilst the idea of a shop on the highstreet or even distrubuter of physical media via e-tail might be a thing of the past with digital distribution, it's still possible to have a thriving market place of digital download clients offering different services. From game-rental to play on demand technologies, there's still a lot of growth in the technology of digital distribution to be done.

Having lived through numerous problems with Microsoft's current DRM-ridden implementation on XBLM, I'd prefer to buy physical products. Nothing sucks more than getting your console repaired or replaced only to find out that you can longer play when you're not logged into Live either because your Internet connection or Live are down. Even worse, your family members will not be able to play anything at all because XBLM content, in addition to being tied to the console on which it was purchased, is also tied to the Gamertag which purchased it.

In addition, digital content is rarely "on sale". Publishers and content owners are jacking the prices of digital content up quite a bit, especially for add-ons and content which would have otherwise been included with the game in the first placed (EA and Rare are the biggest offenders here, since the content is on-disc but requires a paid unlock). Anybody price out EA's "cheats" or Guitar Hero tracks? They're ridiculously overpriced; unfortunately as long as a few hundred thousand clueless people continue to buy each piece of content, the publishers will continue to gouge their customers on price and features.

Unless licenses are transferable by the *end user*, are usable on more than one console, sell for reasonable prices, and are still offered "on sale", I'll be steering clear of any console which requires me to purchase digital content. I want the convenience of digital distribution with none of the detriments brought on by DRM and greedy publishers.

The more I use Steam the more I love it. Initially it had a bunch of bugs and problems, but has continually gotten better. Every time I upgrade a PC or replace a hard-drive, all I have to do is install Steam and then kick off downloading for the games I own and like to replay. The only thing better would be if it could restore saved games as easily. I also recently bought a game through gametap.com. It was pretty painless.

As long as the DRM of the content distributer is "done right" I'm hooked on digital downloads. By done right I mean when I buy a new machines I can reinstall fairly painlessly. Don't make it more of a pain to use the DRM than it is for me to get physical media.

As for bargain bin prices, Have you looked at the offerings on Steam and Gametap? I bought Vampire:Bloodlines a month ago for $10 on steam. Once I finish that I noticed a number of other games in the $10-20 price range I'd like to play.

As for reselling, Steam did implement a gifting program for the Orange Box. I already owned HL2 and gifted it to a friend. It will be interesting to see if they use it more. Personally I like to keep games I own around. I can think of a number of times I went to reinstall an old game only to find the physical media not working. CDs are more reliable than floppies. I have a bunch of bad floppies stories. But I also have a bunch of scratch CD stories. Especially for games that require me to have the CD in the drive, handling the CD a lot increases the risk of damage and no longer having access to the game. I'll take Steam knowing I just logged a 6hour Civilization binge over not being able to play at all.

One of the things you didn't mention in your article is avaliblity, which is a big issue.

Right now, you can get HD movies on Xbox Live... if you live in the US.

For Canadian's such as myself, we don't have any access to such services, and I hear that they're on a timer, too, so if you don't buy them now, you'll never get another shot.

Yeah, the same isn't true for games, you can get all of them here, but it does raise the issue of "what if I can't get the game because it's not avalible here yet?" or even worse, "what if I can't get the game because it's never gonna be released here?"

Of course, the flipside to this is that old games that weren't released locally the first time can now be downloaded instead, ala Sin and Punishment on the Virtual Console, which wasn't released outside of Japan, but can now be downloaded instead.

Speaking of Psychonauts, isn't that going to be released on XBLA soon?

For all the praise heaped on these services, until places like Steam get their act together and offer a completely painless process, people will stick to bricks and mortar stores.

I'm happy to fuddle through deleting folders, updating every extraneous driver, shutting off every other program and spending two days to download to play a game... But I don't think the casual "mom and pop" user would be.

If a game doesn't work you simply take the game back to a store and get a different one. It needs to be that easy.

The assertion that "shelf space" is no longer a concern... it's not entirely accurate.

Yes, it's true that there are no longer physical constraints on which games can be in stock. (Well, ok, there /are/ constraints on the total size of all the downloads you're hosting, but you only need to store one download per game and it's much cheaper than physical space). However, that only benefits consumers who know exactly what they want. There's still the problem of "browsing."

When retail stores are ordering in games, they focus on things that they think they can sell - that consumers have demand for. They're effectively filtering the games in the retail channel to try and bring to the user's attention (and point-of-purchase) games that the user is most likely to want to buy.

In a digital download service, where shelf space is unlimited, that filter is removed. Now you're not only having to browse through a catalog of every game that comes out, including all the bad ones, but you're having to scan past a load of old games as well, games which have been superceded by better executions of their concepts, or that have simply fallen below the one-download-a-month threshold. The "shelf" is now potentially infinitely long, and that makes matching consumers to games harder for both consumers and developers. This is exactly the same problem that indies and shareware developers have had for the past god-knows-how-long, it's just centralized into a single download service instead of being spread over the web.

This is something that the Xbox Live Arcade guys mentioned at GDC a year or two ago. They will, eventually, have to start "retiring" games, because otherwise they'll be asking people to browse through a catalog that will become too large to handle. It's exacerbated by the fact that textual search isn't so easy on a platform with no guaranteed keyboard - browse, not search, is all XBLA had the last time I looked.

The solution - not something I've seen from either XBLA or Steam so far, but I don't know whether other services are doing it - is to get more information about what the user wants to play, and give them quick access to a view of games based on that information. The data could come from a user's purchase history - that wouldn't be enough on its own - or from actually asking them, "what are you into?" Asking all new signups to list their 5 favorite games, or at least game genres, could be enough to start providing personalised recommendations. And it's something that could be implemented within the Xbox's UI. Even if the recommendations aren't games the user actually /wants/, they're likely to provide good starting points for browsing.

In the department stores of the future, everyone will need a personal shopper. :)

Hands up all those who went out and bought Psychonauts on the strength of the Zero Punctuation review?

I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one. With the resurgence of the 2nd hand market through video/game exchange shops or through online retail, this could become a recurring trend, like when the iTune internet charts decided to account for old songs as well as new ones. Just as well considering the amount of crap on the market these days!

FunkyJ:
For all the praise heaped on these services, until places like Steam get their act together and offer a completely painless process, people will stick to bricks and mortar stores.

I'm happy to fuddle through deleting folders, updating every extraneous driver, shutting off every other program and spending two days to download to play a game... But I don't think the casual "mom and pop" user would be.

If a game doesn't work you simply take the game back to a store and get a different one. It needs to be that easy.

What is painful about Steam? I have had to do those same things for boxed games. Or do you mean the return policy is painful? If you want painless you need to jump ship and go to console gaming. PC gaming with the huge variety of hardware will always have some pains. But I've had less pain getting older games to run when I get them through a digital distribution source (patched up to the latest version) than finding a 5year old install disk and downloading who knows how many patches.

A hand slowly goes up in the back of the room, "I dloaded it from Steam last week," he admits and then continues, "Yahtzee got me wondering about this title, I love it."

First of all great piece.

and now to the pointless talking,well I for one love trying all sorts of games in hopes of not missing a great game cause of "Huge Hype over Better looking version of the same game" that fills our boring life but I'm guilty of overlooking Psychonauts as well.

I downloaded it a while back(hmmm..."illegally" sue me) and was meaning to get it to but like the homework in high school I never did untill Yahtzee made me hurt myself with a pen and made me play it and I ofcourse loved it.

So I'm really glad theres a way for good games to actually make enough money for their makers to make more good games:D with some luck we'll have more than 3.

I guess all we can do we is wave our tiny e-fists at morons who follow the newst hype and complain on messege boards:P

Digital shelves may be infinitely large, but, as Amazon has demonstrated, it is a trivial thing to provide a unique section of the shelf to each shopper, rather than settling for the shelf that'll please as many as possible.

Superpig:
In the department stores of the future, everyone will need a personal shopper. :)

I don't think that's quite as insurmountable a problem as you think it is. Amazon has had this "problem" for years now, and they seem to be doing pretty well at it, particularly as you build a profile and they start to become more and more a "personal shopper". And many e-commerce sites have figured out the problem of how to emulate the UI of a "shelf of games"; why can't Steam/XBLA/Wii Shop?

I don't mean to imply that it's insurmountable - Amazon is certainly a reasonable example of such an implementation, though I must admit that I almost never buy something based on its recommendations. I was more just observing that unlimited shelf space has its share of problems just as much as limited shelf space does, and that anyone running such a service needs to make sure they've considered those problems.

A distributor/retailer's job is not just to "get games to the players," but to get /your/ game to the player who will actually /buy/ it, and that's a harder job than simply dumping an alphabetized catalog in front of people. It's another axis on which digital distribution services compete - effectiveness of navigation/presentation, on top of the more obvious things like catalog size and bandwidth.

The biggest problem that I have with digital distribution is the lack of a hard copy. While I realize that in many cases I could simply download the game and burn it to a dvd/cd or whatever. But, there is something about being able to put the game box on my shelf if as nothing more than decoration. Also, I like being able to reinstall a game relatively quickly by using a set of cds rather than having to wait hours for it to download over my internet connection. I would be willing to wait a few days after ordering a game for it to arrive in the mail and have all subsequent installs take little time rather than have all installs take hours.

Case and point the Orange Box. I purchased the Orange Box at Game Stop because I wanted... well... an orange box. If Steam sent you a copy of the game in the mail after you purchased it online I would of done that instead.

While I like the concept of digital distribution, I've had quite a few annoyances with Steam. Not being able to use Steam offline, for example....or having to wait for 5-10 minutes for a steam update when all I wanted is to play a bit of Peggle.
GRRRR!

god damnit it ate my post and I had 2 paragraphs written out...

To summarize my commit, digi distro prices are to high you don't get anythign but the game itself try that on ebay or what not and you lose 40% of the price before you can blink try selling ti enw with out a case and what not you lose as much, much like the music indutry retail prices are artificiality boosted and sells are hurt from them and in the end profits as well.

I also dislike the locks on content and annoying baby sitting programs that come with digi distro games all this leads to why would alot of people want to buy a game and only the game itself online for 10% over the store price, in order for digi distro to flourish its going to have to revlutionalize its pricing schemes getthe orange box down to 25-30$ and you will see a doubling of profit, high prices lead to slow sells slow sells slow profits, to buy a game online at retail price with more anti consumer protections along with download times and such why would most people want to buy a game like this?

Price V cost, the digi distro is going to have to halve tis prices and share the profit with the devs its the only way for ti to survive.

Bongo Bill:
Speaking of Psychonauts, isn't that going to be released on XBLA soon?

What's the game's size? Might be too big.

Superpig:
The assertion that "shelf space" is no longer a concern... it's not entirely accurate.

Yes, it's true that there are no longer physical constraints on which games can be in stock. (Well, ok, there /are/ constraints on the total size of all the downloads you're hosting, but you only need to store one download per game and it's much cheaper than physical space). However, that only benefits consumers who know exactly what they want. There's still the problem of "browsing."

When retail stores are ordering in games, they focus on things that they think they can sell - that consumers have demand for. They're effectively filtering the games in the retail channel to try and bring to the user's attention (and point-of-purchase) games that the user is most likely to want to buy.

In a digital download service, where shelf space is unlimited, that filter is removed. Now you're not only having to browse through a catalog of every game that comes out, including all the bad ones, but you're having to scan past a load of old games as well, games which have been superceded by better executions of their concepts, or that have simply fallen below the one-download-a-month threshold. The "shelf" is now potentially infinitely long, and that makes matching consumers to games harder for both consumers and developers. This is exactly the same problem that indies and shareware developers have had for the past god-knows-how-long, it's just centralized into a single download service instead of being spread over the web.

Most of which could be partially solved with filters based on release dates and how long it's been available, if it's the last game from a franchise, if it got recommended or been part of X's Choice for a given month, etc.

This is something that the Xbox Live Arcade guys mentioned at GDC a year or two ago. They will, eventually, have to start "retiring" games, because otherwise they'll be asking people to browse through a catalog that will become too large to handle. It's exacerbated by the fact that textual search isn't so easy on a platform with no guaranteed keyboard - browse, not search, is all XBLA had the last time I looked.

Yeah, that's quite bad. One can still browse the games catalogue on the PC, but can't buy the games, and still has to go through the console's service to do so.

burnit999:
The biggest problem that I have with digital distribution is the lack of a hard copy. While I realize that in many cases I could simply download the game and burn it to a dvd/cd or whatever. But, there is something about being able to put the game box on my shelf if as nothing more than decoration. Also, I like being able to reinstall a game relatively quickly by using a set of cds rather than having to wait hours for it to download over my internet connection. I would be willing to wait a few days after ordering a game for it to arrive in the mail and have all subsequent installs take little time rather than have all installs take hours.

Case and point the Orange Box. I purchased the Orange Box at Game Stop because I wanted... well... an orange box. If Steam sent you a copy of the game in the mail after you purchased it online I would of done that instead.

I agree. Owning the thing physically still speaks to people. Downloading games is cool, but I like to have the option to order a burnt DVD as well with the game on it.

----

What surprises me the most is how the publishers don't implant their own physical stores. From a publisher's point of view, it's only advantages. The publisher fixes almost all the prices, has more control on the sales, directly gets the numbers, and undercuts global retailers, which means more money because there's no sharing deal.

Unless I missed them, I still don't understand why even big ones like EA or Ubisoft never decided to grow a retail branch of their own.

The only big disadvantage is stocks. But an intelligent market probing system and a good sales management could largely prevent significant stocking, by making sure there's a demand and trying to know what the consumers want, notably by using preorders and looking at their numbers. Probing the buzz and hype are good indicators, and would tell the retailer how many copes it would have to press and sell.

The other advantage would be that such shops would possess the most extensive catalogs of their respective publishing house, and it would be possible to find one or two copies of a game from their catalogue you couldn't find in your "supermarket".

Bongo Bill:
Speaking of Psychonauts, isn't that going to be released on XBLA soon?

Already is

These games should be free online. If not, no one is going to care because they didn't buy them the first time.

This article talks about how great digital distribution is for the game companies... but nothing about how it benefits the consumer. The game industry has a giant woody for digital distribution because they can cut out the middle man, keep the profits, and deny the customer the ability to resell the game and recoup some of their money if it's a stinker. It's win/win... if you're a game publisher.

As a paying customer I just don't see the benefit. Buying a game is not a hassle. If I own the disc I can keep it in my collection, lend it to friends, or sell it back. I can do none of these things with a digital copy. If my hard drive fails my collection goes poof, and even if the digital distribution company is still around there's no guarantee they'll allow me to re-download it for free, but they'll happily allow me to pay for a new copy. Many digital services exist now which all engage in shockingly unfair, anti-consumer practices.

The bottom line is, where's the benefit? To play old games that weren't very good in the first place? That's what specialty stores exist for. That's a niche market anyhow. Digital distribution is a scam and the industry is fooling itself if it thinks customers won't notice.

 

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