Pros and Cons of Digital Distribution for PC Games

The digital distribution of PC games has really come of age in the last few years, and it now seems inevitable that disks and boxes are on their way out and downloads are the way of the future. Not everyone is happy about it, because a lot of people still expect to get a physical object when they buy a game, but a growing number of game sales are taking place through online services.

Latest Developments

Some of the most significant obstacles to digital distribution have now been overcome, so services like Steam and Direct2Drive have experienced rapid growth. The next big development could be "cloud gaming," where the game runs on a server and is streamed to the player, which is what OnLive is proposing. Console games will also be affected by online offerings like Xbox Marketplace and the PlayStation Store. It appears that game disks will suffer the same fate as music CDs, although they aren't likely to vanish completely.

Background

Several things have historically held digital distribution back for games. High-end games can involve extremely large downloads that are many gigabytes in size, so it isn't feaseable without broadband Internet, which hasn't always been as widespread as it is today. Large downloads were also troublesome before download managers became available, because there was no way pause a download or resume it after a problem like a computer crash.

Read on for the pros and cons of digital distribution.

Pros

  • Convenience - When it comes to convenience, it's hard to beat being able to buy games without leaving home. The service is available around the clock, not just during regular business hours, and you'll never have to wait in line. By downloading overnight, you can have almost any PC game on the market sitting on your hard drive the next morning.
  • Selection - The selection of games for download is remarkable, and it includes older games that you are unlikely to find in most stores.
  • Always in Stock - Retailers can run out of stock, so a trip to a store is sometimes fruitless. Download services don't have this problem, although the do have the occasional outage.
  • No Packaging - Downloads eliminate all the packaging required for conventional distribution, saving space and reducing waste.
  • Competitive Pricing - So far digital distribution services have tried not to stray too far from retail prices, especially when a game is first released, but they reduce prices quite quickly as the game ages. There are already a staggering number of fairly recent high-end games available for $20 or less online, and this trend seems likely to continue. It's a bit like the bargain bin at the game store, with a vast selection that never runs dry.
  • Access From Any Computer - Some services allow you to download and install your games on any system, and play with the same account and settings you use at home.
  • Free Backups - In the event of a harddrive failure or some other computer disaster, most digitally distributed games can be redownloaded from the service at no extra charge.

Cons

  • Long Downloads - Games get larger by leaps and bounds, and can already be tens of gigabytes in size. Depending on how fast your connection is, this can entail many hours of downloading: one GB on an average broadband connection takes about half an hour. If games get big enough to fill Blu-ray disks, hours could stretch into days.
  • No Installation Disks - Disks are very handy if you need to reinstall a game because of a technical problem, or you want to make room on your hard disk without losing the game completely. It's usually not difficult to burn your own disks of a game you've downloaded, but it is an extra step.
  • No Returns, Refunds, or Loans - PC games have always been difficult to return after purchase in any case, but it's not likely to get any easier with digital distribution, although that will be up to the companies selling the games. The practice of lending a game to a friend so they can try it out will probably also fade away.
  • No Packaging - Some people like to have shelves full of game boxes on display, and enjoy the art on game packaging as well as the manuals that traditionally come with retail games. A box is also a little nicer to unwrap as gift than, say, an access code.
  • Fewer Used Games - Digital distribution could well be the end of used games as we know them now. Some services tie all your purchases to an account, others still sell you a key that could be traded, but it's bound to make buying, selling, and handing down used games more difficult than it is now.
  • Internet Connection Required - Obviously, you can't download anything without an Internet connection, and that connection is sometimes also used to authenticate the game. It's hard to say how many digital distribution services will give you ways to play while completely offline.
  • Needs Ongoing Support - What happens when your favorite game download site goes broke and their servers go offline? There might be ways to put your game collection on disks, but it's anyone's guess how something like that would turn out.

Where It Stands

I don't expect disks and game retail franchises to disappear overnight, but digital distribution does represent a fundamental shift in how people consume games. It's a gradual change and to some extent, the two forms of game distribution can coexist. In the end, however, the selection and convenience of shopping for games online is bound to make it difficult for conventional retailers to compete.

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