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More than any previous year, 2009 was the year that Digital Distribution truly started to establish itself. Being the service that kicked the whole thing off, Steam has naturally been leading this charge, with some fairly impressive marketing and sales designed to encourage more and more people to give DD a try. However, this year also marked other distributors and companies finally starting to come into their own. Taking a leaf out of Valve's playbook, services like Direct 2 Drive and Impulse have started adopting tactics such as snap sales and bargain bundles in order to generate hype, and in general have been starting to make a name for themselves. After all, at least for now there's still room to argue over who's number 2.

The foundations of Digital Distribution have been coming into place, with much of the dross being jettisoned as publishers and punters get to grips with the idea of buying and receiving their games online. It's been a long time coming, but companies are starting to realise that the digital distribution model is fundamentally different to brick and mortar retail. Gone (to a large extent) are the crazy concepts of install limited purchases, arbitrary region limited sales, and DRM schemes designed abuse your drivers. In their place comes the understanding that you can't stop piracy or the second-hand market (which, let's be blunt, are both the same thing and as evil as each other as far as games publishers are concerned) using traditional means. So instead a more efficient approach is turning your game into a value added service, not hindering your paying customers where the pirates don't suffer any problems, but instead giving them a reason to buy and hold onto their games by adding to and maintaining them over time.

The year was also marked by DD moving into some truly ludicrous pricing territory. Previous years have seen snap sales and dramatic price drops, but nothing to this extent. D2D, Impulse and Steam have seemingly been caught in an all out sales war, with even AAA titles less than a year old getting half price sales or more (some even going for a just a few dollars). Indie games, always a staple of Digital Distribution, have been happy to embrace snap sales as well, with titles like Zeno Clash getting heavy (but short lived) discount deals, where had they been at retail they would still be selling at full price. Traditional retail theory states that you're devaluing your products by having such massive price drops, even if they're temporary. Valve have already come out stating they don't view this to be the case.

And so we enter Space Year 2010 AD, and there's plenty to look forward to (or stare mortified at) still on the horizon. So here are a few items of interest I'm going to be looking out for when it comes to Digital Distribution in the coming year.

Games for Windows Live


In the past I've made little effort to hide my disdain for the service as it currently exists. As a community system GFWL leaves a lot to be desired when compared to Steam. Not the least of these problems being the lack of a dedicated external client to run. The fundamental problem with GFWL and its competition with Steam is that there's never really been a financial incentive to improve the service like there has been with Xbox Live.

With Microsoft entering into Digital Distribution this year, it's easy to the potential some very good things to come of this, or some very very bad things to come of it. The obvious benefit is that this might finally give them the incentive to actually develop their service and make it competitive, now that they have some actual profits riding on the outcome. For once, Steam would have a competitor not only for the digital marketplace that it's established, but also the community system.

The potential problem with this arrangement is the position that Microsoft is in. As platform owner they've got a distinct advantage in marketing their product and making it the de facto standard for digital distribution. It's a position that is ripe for abuse in any number of ways. There are other possible problems naturally, such as how the pricing is going to work out, and whether Microsoft will ever allow us to buy DLC without those insipid Microsoft Points. But having the platform owner own their own DD store automatically puts them in a position of superiority over all their competitors. Games for Windows Live being installed on every PC by default is something that could change everything about digital distribution on the PC. Given their previous record to date, I'm sceptical they could actually effect such a change, but they're certainly in a position to try, so it'll be interesting to see where this little experiment leads.

Digital Pricing


Despite still being heavily dominated by brick-and-mortar retail, Digital Distribution has been making heavy inroads not just with PC gaming but in the console sphere as well. What's interesting is how the pricing model has been shifting so completely this year. Publishers still can't afford to price differently for DD outlets compare to street retail, but there have been innovative ways of changing the relationship. Exclusive DLC (both paid and unpaid) that's not available in stores, package deals, special sales, there's a wide variety of options for anyone looking to give their product an edge in value for money.

Valve stunned pretty much everyone when they held a half-price sale on Left 4 Dead 1 this year, a game that at the time was only 6 months old. More startling was the revelation that they made more during that one weekend sale than they did during the entire release period.

The value of being able to adapt your price point cannot be overstated. Independent developers not releasing in-store, such as ACE Team (Zeno Clash) and Runic games (Torchlight) have been happy to capitalise on this, releasing games at full price and then offering free updates to keep the game community engaged, and sales to keep purchases coming in WELL past the point they would have been receiving any significant revenue from a high street store.

The future of this kind of approach remains unclear however. Whilst DD should be flexible in its pricing, such massive, hype generating discounts have the potential of causing problems for full price releases later on, with people waiting for the inevitable sale. This hasn't been evidenced to date, and Valve clearly think that's not the case, but realistically it's going to take a few more years before we see any kind of effect on release title sales. It's an issue well worth keeping an eye on.

Steam and Valve


Being the flagship of Digital Distribution on the PC, we've seen some interesting additions, and controversies, surrounding Steam this year. More commercial releases are being sold in store directly tied TO Steam, to the extent that you can effectively throw away the disc when it's been registered. Achievements, Steam cloud, community features, all of these things are seeing more integration as Steam becomes less of a store and more its own platform. It's safe to say that Steam is well on the way to becoming the Xbox Live of the PC (assuming Microsoft doesn't have other plans).

On the flipside to this is the griping that's come along with it, in particular renewed calls for Steam to be split from Valve, from industry figures such as Brad Wardell (Stardock) and Randy Pitchford (Gearbox entertainment). To go slightly more personal for a second, whilst I can understand their points, Randy Pitchford is still talking idiocy for any number of reasons, and I can't characterise Wardell's statements as anything other than pure hypocrisy considering that Stardock owns its own competing distribution channel with Impulse. Even so, with notable industry figures starting to push for this, are Valve and Steam coming under pressure to part ways?

In truth, it's unlikely (if not outright unfeasible) for Steam to somehow be split from Valve as a corporate entity. It's also unlikely that any real pressure is going to mount to do so unless Valve start making crass moves to undermine their competitors and more independent developers (something which Pitchford accused Valve of doing, only to receive responses from several independent developers refuting this). I foresee more griping in the future, but for the time being, the case still isn't strong enough for having Valve and Steam become separate entities.

OnLive


The idea of playing a game remotely without needing anything beyond the controls and a fast connection is starting to get more traction. There's definitely an appeal in being able to access an entire game collection with just a net connection and a screen.

There's not much to say about this one. There's only one question, will this work? Is it the right time to try for a service where you play full commercial titles over the internet? It's an idea to keep an eye on, largely because of its potential to change everything about the games industry as it currently stands.

The unfortunate reality is that this is likely still an idea before its time. Whilst we have broadband speeds capable of sending data within hundreds of milliseconds, the proposed idea is fully real-time streaming of images up to 720p, all with an input lag that would not hamper gameplay. Leaving aside the inherent gameplay problems with this, broadband connections aren't really tailored for a continuous and consistent downstream of that magnitude, a problem amplified greatly when you consider the serious bandwidth caps you'll be running against to even give it a try.

So complete bust? Not necessarily, there's still the potential for other OnLive services to make some headway with the architecture they've created (streaming movies, videoconferencing, different styles of games that aren't as dependant on reaction or heavy usage of bandwidth). It's a service that could potentially survive long enough until the idea of streaming modern commercial games is viable. Assuming that they don't overplay their hand, we likely won't be seeing significant adoption of OnLive in the coming year, but you may be hearing more about it in the years to come.

So that was 2009, heading into the new decade. We still don't have our flying cars, our houses do not have sensor operated smart doors, and our fridges do not greet us in the morning. We do however seem to be pulling almost all our information, interactions and entertainment to us through a vast world spanning aether of radio signals and and electrons. Captain Kirk never had access to Wikipedia on the go, so I'm happy to see that if nothing else we've one upped Star Trek.

See you in 2010.

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Quickload, Steam, GFWL, OnLive, feature,

AlabasterSlim Says:
January 1st 2010 @ 3:57 pm EST

OnLive reminds me a lot of The Phantom. I'm sure we all remember how well that worked out

What really surprises me is that the gaming public at large is still willing to drink this kool-aid. You'd think there would be a fair amount of skepticism at this point. Once burned, twice shy right? If something seems too good to be true, it usually is.

AlabasterSlim Says:
January 1st 2010 @ 4:03 pm EST

With Microsoft entering into Digital Distribution this year, it's easy to the potential some very good things to come of this, or some very very bad things to come of it. The obvious benefit is that this might finally give them the incentive to actually develop their service and make it competitive, now that they have some actual profits riding on the outcome. For once, Steam would have a competitor not only for the digital marketplace that it's established, but also the community system.


Every now and then Microsoft comes out with some press release about how they support the PC as a gaming platform and they're renewing their commitment to it or whatever, and spout some rhetoric about how it's the largest platform. It'll all bullshit though, since they're primary goal is still the Xbox. If they were actually interested in the PC as a platform they wouldn't continue to create Xbox exclusives or even timed exclusives.

subedii Says:
January 1st 2010 @ 4:37 pm EST

In truth, I don't think it's all that likely MS is going to go anywhere with their digital distribution either. But the potential is there, if only because now there's an actual way to make money from it. They're primarily interested in the 360, but I think they'd become interested in the PC again if they could see ways of making it profitable.

The problem is that Microsoft's always been MASSIVELY short-sighted when it comes to GFWL, and they're not actually willing to invest what it would take to get anywhere with it. So they keep taking half measures like a new DD store that only has a few piffly titles, no advertising, and no killer exclusives. Microsoft pushed for Halo 2 purely so it could be a Vista exclusive, they could have pushed the same for Halo 3 and their DD service. It wouldn't have made much money but it would be a start.

There are loads of other problems with GFWL, but the first and biggest is that they want it to be a success but aren't willing to put the time and resources into that. Microsoft took a huge loss entering the console market for the first time, but it was necessary to make any headway against entrenched competition. Now that they're trying to do the same on the PC I guess they just don't understand it's a similar problem, or don't think it would give them a return on investment.

As for OnLive, really it's a question of whether they can survive long enough, because they really are dependant on technology that simply doesn't exist yet. Someday there may be the kinds of speeds and connections to make it a viable service. It's just that day isn't today.

AlabasterSlim Says:
January 1st 2010 @ 5:29 pm EST

The biggest failure of GFWL is that you can't use it unless you're in game. It's a useless system on it's own. Although the implementation in DiRT 2 is well done if I want to play a race with friends I need to use Steam to set that up.

They're relying on people using other systems which is just nutty to me.

Anyone else remeber when Live was supposed to sync
with cell phones and MSN messenger? Whatever happened to that?

subedii Says:
January 1st 2010 @ 7:37 pm EST

No idea, although I've got a theory as to why they never released a stand alone client for GFWL.

By this stage they already know it's a necessary feature, they just aren't willing to put one out. Heck, they've even put out a dedicated client just for GFWL marketplace but that's all it does. They've had plenty of opportunity to release an external client, they just don't want to.

The problem is GFWL is tied to XBL, which leads to all sorts of issues whenever you try to run your account on both the 360 and the PC at the same time, it'll just disconnect you from one of them. Two users aren't allowed on the same account at the same time, and if you release a dedicated client, then the person's going to be logged into GFWL all the time, as long as the computer's running.

Microsoft either can't or won't address that problem to allow users to be logged into their account from both the PC and the 360 at the same time, even though you'd THINK that should be a standard feature of their service. GFWL users have access to what's effectively "Gold" class features without payment where on the 360 you're stuck on Silver unless you pay. You've also got the issue that you could effectively have two people gaming and using Live features off of the same account, which MS doesn't want.

The solutions to these problems are simple, but probably more complex to actually implement. So it's better to not release a client at all, and that way the problem's pretty much glossed over because very few people are going to try running GFWL (they have to be in-game) at the same time they're doing something on XBL.

Either that or I'm just wrong and Microsoft are being hilariously obtuse and thick-headed about the whole thing. Which wouldn't be much of a stretch either.

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