Editorial: Digital Killed the Retail Star

As the trains winged me north towards my ancestral Scotland, while Bloc Party provided the soundtrack to a seven-hour journey which I only make two to three times a year these days, I’d hoped that I would have had a wee bit more inspiration for my first editorial for TGR.

As the fields went speeding by, I remembered a conversation we had last week on my podcast. I should state that, when it comes to my podcasting, or my writing for that matter, I always try to let things flow as organically as possible. This can often prove to be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you can find yourself taking wonderful journeys you hadn’t even considered taking, ones that lead to revelation and enlightenment. On the other hand, what you’re often left with is an incoherent mess.

On the last podcast, we’d been discussing the general movement Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo seem to be making towards hosting their own digital distribution platforms, namely Xbox Live Arcade, the PlayStation Network, and the WiiWare and DSi Shops respectively. We’ve reached a point where Microsoft are happy to sell you discounted full retail tiles like Mass Effect and Sega Rally, all from the comfort of your sofa, and where Sony are preparing the PSP for an era where boxed product will be doomed to a historical footnote.

From a business perspective, this all makes perfect sense. The mighty triumvirate will see profits comes from three sources. Firstly, when they are the only people selling games for their platform, they can dictate prices as they see fit, and that will be that. Secondly, the removal of the middle man from the equation means that there’ll be profit going into the bank accounts of our console overlords that otherwise would have gone to Amazon, GameStop, and so on. Finally, with a single distribution platform for each console, the concept of preowned games will become obsolete. Hell, we don’t even get to let our friends borrow games in a market without physical boxes on shelves; if you want to play it, you’re going to have to buy it, Mister.

So, I understand it all from a convenience perspective. In an open market, a single online store can be beautiful thing. You only need to look at the superb iPhone App Store for an example of that. Apple’s ubiquitous, unique platform has simultaneously given power to both the developer and the gamer; it’s easy as pie for the basement programmer to present their game to a vast audience, while the market-driven pricing ensures that hundreds of the store’s library of titles are cheaper than a can of pop.

But one of the fellow podcasters, a delightfully blunt fellow, made a rather important point as we recorded that podcast: as long as you have the relevant console in working order, the physical game you have on the shelf will always work. Simply put, you are reliant on precisely no-one except yourself to load your musty-smelling copy of Elite and kill six months of the lives of your offspring on a yellowing, previously mothballed-in-the-attic Commodore 64. In contrast, all the amazing titles we’re able to purchase so easily on PSN and XBLA are generally riddled with digital rights management, better known as DRM. For the moment, this isn’t a problem. Most titles require you to log into Live or PSN, authenticating that your product is all above board, and in the blink of an eye you’re playing the game.

What happens when digital games like Braid get left in the darkness?

What if, and I’m talking very hypothetically, Sony went bust tomorrow? What happens to all those authentication servers that allow you to dance merrily through the picturesque fields of Flower, or bend time in the artistic landscape of Braid? When the server disappears, so does your ability to play the game, and you have zero control over it. Sure, the executives from the big three are presently wiping their derrieres with $20 bills, so there’s no chance this scenario is going to play out any time soon, right? Maybe so, but either way, the consumer will have no say in the matter.

The train stopped for a minute at a small backwater village station that’s approximately in the middle of nowhere, but we would soon be on our way again, speeding towards our destination. Gaming, or maybe more accurately how we game, is on a journey of its own at the moment. It’s fine to let yourself be distracted by the beautiful things going on as we speed ever onwards, but we shouldn’t forget to stop and consider where the final destination may be (even if it is Scotland – Ed).

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