Last year, the hoopla surrounding Microsoft’s ‘always-on’ requirement for the Xbox One led many in the industry to debate for and against digitalization. Some argued that a digital future is the way to go, quoting examples of Valve’s successful Steam service, while others argued why retail will live on. I can’t deny that there are some solid arguments coming from both sides, but it seems that the industry is also doing a fantastic job at pushing console owners away from embracing a digital future. As someone who is both a console and a PC gamer, I feel that companies like Microsoft and Sony are light years away from replicating Valve’s success.
My biggest concern is that companies keep proving time and time again that they’re just not ready for a digital future irrespective of how much they want one. Sometimes, my experience of using digital storefronts and downloading games can only be described as being downright abysmal. As much as I love my consoles, I can’t say that I’m terribly excited about all the recurring issues people face when buying, downloading, and playing digital games on their machines. The internet is littered with well-known errors, unresolved bugs, and issues stemming from service downtimes. The industry seems to be constantly repeating the the ‘shoot-first-question-later’ mantra. It has somehow become acceptable to introduce something completely broken with the intention of fixing it later. This kind of an attitude doesn’t make anyone want to try something new.
Then, there’s the price debate. Microsoft and Sony have yet to offer a single plausible explanation for the ridiculous price tags attached to their digital games. I can’t possibly justify buying a $60 game online if I can buy the same thing in a pretty little box with a glossy manual. The satisfaction I get when adding yet another box to my collection is unbeatable. Nevertheless, the point isn’t a box or a manual, rather the fact that digital games neither have physical storage or distribution costs associated with them, nor do they have to be sold through intermediaries who would retain a profit. Until and unless I am offered a reasonable price for them, there’s no way I’ll be purchasing any online game for my consoles. I understand that there are costs associated with hosting and storing these games on internet servers, but any sane person can tell that these costs are significantly lower than costs associated with physical discs. According to Sony’s Fergal Gara, one of the reasons why Sony isn’t offering lower prices online is because they don’t want to spoil the retail business. But then we have industry professionals like Cliffy B. vehemently supporting digitalization, implying that a disc-based market is nearing its end. It looks like the industry itself might be a little confused about which direction it wants to take.
Many would argue that PC games are also pricey when released. My counter-argument is that it doesn’t take long for them to drop down in price either, and significantly, too. Not long ago, I found one of my all-time favorite games, LA Noire, on Steam for a few measly bucks but I haven’t seen the game being offered for the same price anywhere else for consoles. Apparently, competitively pricing digital games is on Microsoft’s agenda, but this is something that should have been done before, not after concerns were raised. My point is simply that if these companies wish for console owners to embrace a digital future, they have to make it attractive enough for them to do so.
It goes without saying that if companies want to promote digital purchases, they have to ensure that the developers are on board as well. Any digital content offered online must be on par with its disc-based counterpart. An inferior quality will result in dissatisfaction among buyers and will create unnecessary mistrust. I quote the example of Rockstar’s title Grand Theft Auto V, the digital version of which suffered from a number of problems including texture issues and abrupt pop-ins. Eurogamer offered an in-depth comparison of the PSN and Blu-ray versions of the game, and noted that people were better off buying a disc. The internet was also flooded with complaints from gamers who weren’t even able to install the game.
Dropping a bomb on people and not giving them a choice when introducing something, like an always-on requirement, is a pretty daft move. And if it hasn’t already, the industry needs to learn a lesson from Microsoft’s PR disaster pronto. It doesn’t take a qualified psychologist to figure out that people need time and space to adjust to something similar. Digital future probably is the way to go, and I’m not against the idea despite the fact that I prefer only some degree of digitalization instead of an all-digital future. But the video games industry cannot and should not expect console owners to embrace something that they haven’t quite figured out themselves yet.