Publishers are undoubtedly going through some growing pains in our beloved industry at the moment. With the advent of digital distribution being embraced by PC gamers, it is no longer essential for a developer to have a publisher. Instead , developers can simply create their product and release it over the internet for the public to consume en masse. Steam remains the dominant digital distribution platform on PC and for better or worse; but is it a testament of things to come for the rest of us?
With the user friendly nature of console interfaces, and the ease of purchasing content from Xbox Live Marketplace and the PlayStation Store, one could easily find themselves assuming that console gamers would take to downloading their God of Wars or their Halos just as easily; but it’s an assumption that would be very wrong. At least, not without some changes first.
The physical copy always has the tendency to be released first and it takes an obscene amount of time for the game to be available on any console digital distribution service. This must be fixed. However, since the publisher usually holds the copyright to an intellectual property, it is the entity that determines when it becomes available on any third party service, excluding any certification it must go through in order to be approved by the service provider.
For a company with a lot to gain from a digital distribution future, Microsoft is dragging its feet with competitive pricing for the online copies of their most successful titles. Halo: Reach was released on Games on Demand to the tune of $80, while Halo 3 stood at $50 some four years after release. The trend is not inherent to Microsoft either, with third-party publishers getting in on the action. Activision’s Call of Duty: Black Ops for example, is currently priced at $80 and Modern Warfare 2, $70. This is NOT competitive pricing; these are pointless mark-ups. If the industry is to move forward, much like the music industry was forced to do in the end, precedents must be set that benefit the consumer.
The infrastructure of Xbox Live has to change in order to be more accommodating for future developers. As it stands, any developer that wants their game be sold through the Xbox Live Marketplace must have a publisher. It is not competitive to force a go-between upon a developer, when one of the advantages of digital distribution is that they can keep their IP and release it on their own terms; especially since Steam and similar digital download services do not enforce similar restrictions.
One fear I have is that once everything goes digital download-only for consoles, publishers will take absolute advantage of the consumer; exclusives for a console turning into monopolies and in turn mark-up the norm. Something that has to happen is a range of services from which you can choose from, regardless of your chosen system, in order to purchase content. It will take a lot of wiggling and writhing from the companies that run these services and design these consoles, since they are more concerned with controlling their content (i.e. DRM, online passes etc.) than providing value for their consumers. Competition breeds options for the consumer and the industry has to shake this stranglehold it has on its own services in order to survive.
There are other aspects involved such as taxes to digital goods, censorship boards, state of internet access and speeds in a country. As far as things the industry itself can control though, these are the main aspects. Releasing games online day-and-date with the physical release like their PC counterparts at competitive prices from a range of outlets online, will create value for the consumer, who are bound to side with the more convenient option. The option that does not require a fifteen minute drive to the store, or walk down the street in order to purchase a given item.
We consumers are naturally drawn to value and that means publishers need to start thinking about us more often, or they will lose us. Convenience does not garner an inflated price, and it is not a pattern that can be repeated in perpetuity. Sony is paying for its premium pricing system on its electronics through the nose and because it failed to adapt, it now sits on billion dollar losses.
Give us value, or I guarantee we will find value elsewhere else, and at that point, it’ll be too late.