Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Distribution > Content?

Gamasutra reported today on the comments by game business analyst Mitch Lasky that distribution power is more valuable than developing good game content.

I think content matters more than that, but even so it's nice to see the value of a smart distribution model getting the attention it deserves.

I've been saying for years that id's success -- and the enormous kick-start their success gave to all PC gaming -- was due in large part to how the game design and distribution model for Wolfenstein 3D (not DOOM, which simply reused this model) were deeply intertwined. The game was built as a collection of levels with a boss fight at the end... and only the first collection was essentially free. Once you'd played the initial shareware levels, then discovered that there were two more collections of levels, each more over-the-top than the last, paying for "the rest of the game" seemed absolutely justifiable.

It was brilliant then, and it's still brilliant. All that remains to be seen is which developers and publishers will embrace it in its new "episodic content" form to work with the new broadband-enabled digital distribution portals coming into being, and reap the rewards thereby.

Some will naturally believe that retail sales of physical boxes have some special power that allows them to resist the allure of digital distribution. I think this misses what may be by seeing only what currently is. (The danger of straight-line projections, etc.)

Retail currently has two advantages over the ones and zeros of online distribution: one, it lets potential customers look at the game art and review blurbs on a physical box when deciding whether to buy a game, and two, it's still more comfortable than online shopping to older customers who buy games for their kids or grandchildren.

The second advantage is going to resolve itself with the passage of time.

The first advantage is one that digital distributors can counter in multiple ways, and some of those ways are unique to digital distribution. The obvious is to release each game with its own Web site full of glossy promotional content, and publishers are already doing that. I expect they'll become even more sophisticated at it over time.

Less obvious but perhaps ultimately more important will be the shift to design games for online distribution from the very start, allowing them to be designed to provide a small part of the game that can be downloaded and test-driven for free... which brings us back to the Wolf3D fusion of game design and distribution.

So who's going to control this brave new world of digital distribution of games?

I would be very surprised if the larger publishers like EA weren't already building their own portals. Their deal with Steam shows they're willing to test whether the retail channel retains its value.

In fact, I think it's a process that's already in progress across the computer game industry. Valve's Steam is just an easy-to-see example of the new "e-tailers" that are emerging as product accumulators. Sony Online Entertainment has been turning itself into precisely the same kind of one-stop-shop for MMORPGs for the past several years, either buying online games outright or making publishing/distribution deals with developers (through their "Platform Publishing" program) and making all the games available through their "Station Pass" system. CD Projekt recently introduced their portal. Even can be seen as an important player in this emerging business environment of product accumulators -- the choice of as the target soapbox for opponents of EA's DRM protection of Spore suggests something of its growing importance as a game source.

The visible scramble by each of the big three console makers to provide their own online game distribution portals is another important thread in this pattern.

Within the next year or two I expect to see announcements from EA, Vivendi/Activision, and Infogrames/Atari of their own online distribution networks to try to compete with Valve. If their stables of games (and whoever else they can get to sign up) can be made large enough without becoming shovelware, that's probably going to be a successful line of business for the next decade or so at least, especially for those which value-add most effectively.

Whether all these will eventually shake down to just two or three big players, I can't guess yet.

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