CD Changers: The Rise of Digital Distribution

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It is not remotely surprising that this sort of thing is occurring, and that developers are getting behind it.  After all, the rise of digital distribution was always inevitable, right?  There is nothing tangible about a video game, and the tangibility of the distribution process, to this point, has always seemed a little forced.  We figured it out a long time ago with other intangible deliveries.  When is the last time you got film developed or tied a message to a raven?  Even money is becoming obsolete.  These days, we just kind of assume we have a certain amount of money and everyone plays along, like schoolyard children imagining ghost-runners on first and second.  We live in a world where transactions are essentially made with play money.  I feel a little ridiculous when I have to carry that play money to Best Buy to purchase ideas. It no longer seems worthwhile for me to gas up my car to carry out these transactions.  At this point, I should be able to conduct them without pants.

Realistically, video games are just collections of ideas that get translated into experiences.  They have no physical form until we prescribe one to them, and lately, there is less and less need for this sort of prescription.  Still, somehow or another, developers have to deliver games to players.  Before the internets came to town, this was a difficult proposition.  Developers could not throw data at us, so they put data onto things they could throw, like discs and cartridges.  In doing so, they were able to apply new adjectives to their games, like “fragile,” “flammable,” and “expensive.”  As players, we have been fighting against these vessels since we started gaming.  We just failed to notice until our options were made clear.

They really had it wrong when I started gaming.  Like many generation Y’ers, I got my start playing cartridge-based games on the NES.  I did not know it at the time, but putting games on cartridges was about as constructive as writing novels on bread.  Back then, we literally had physical confrontations with our games.  Our cartridges were like stubborn little children who refused to put on their shoes until we took off our belts.  If we owned our games for more than a couple of weeks, they simply refused to start, so we found ourselves huffing and puffing on them like hungry wolves who never learned to break windows.  The process was enormously frustrating, although it did prove to be good practice for the many breathalyzers we would take in our early 20’s.  Later, our parents made us stop, because our daily NES-alyzers were spreading little droplets of saliva that would dry up inside the cartridges and ruin the games.  Yet, somehow, they still encouraged us to blow that same spit all over our birthday cakes each year.  (I wished for antibiotics!)

As time went on, games got bigger, and they, themselves, began to struggle with their body issues.  Final Fantasy 8 was too big to fit on one disc, so the teacher had to line up three more discs for him to sit on.  “Four ISO’s!!” the other games would yell, led by 3Xtreme, the coolest, most Xtreme game in class.  “Hey X, do you want to go to the sock hop with me?” said Mary Kate & Ashley’s Magical Mystery Mall.  “Sure, I’ll pick you up on my rollerblades, bike, and skateboard” (thus fulfilling all 3 requisites of Xtreme!).  Meanwhile, in the real world, stretching games across four discs meant quadrupling the chances that we would lose or destroy one of the discs.  Thankfully, CD’s were not nearly as destructible as cartridges, as they could only be damaged if we set them face down upon anything.  Still, this was the tradeoff for creating bigger games.  Particularly for Xbox 360 games, it is a tradeoff that is still considered to this day. Change the format or stretch the format.  Those are the options.  As anyone who has ever gained a little weight will tell you, there is always a pretty long stretch period before the decision to buy new clothes.

Digital distribution alleviates all of those problems and more, and it only introduces a few problems of its own.  I will not discuss all of these problems, because I have no interest in presenting balanced arguments, but I will mention a couple.  Some people will complain that digital distribution is conducive to increasingly bolstered DRM systems, but complaining that DRM is too intrusive is like complaining that rape whistles are too loud.  Can we just move on to a serious complaint?

Here’s one.  Disintermediation is unavoidable as long as digital distribution continues to gain momentum.  Steam is a dreamland right now, because we can purchase most games in one, convenient location, but eventually, each game will have a single, designated storefront on which it is available.  The only reason we can buy Call of Duty at Best Buy is because Activision does not own stores.  However, they do own servers, and they certainly do not need help selling Diablo III online.   Thus, in the coming years, as digital distribution becomes the only way to buy games, and developers realize that vertical integration is the only way to keep the lights on, we will have to register for Steam, Xbox Live, PSN, Origin, Uplay, Battle.net, Actimerch, TakeTwoWay, THQ&A, Vietkonami, MegaSega, CapComet, SquareDance, and whatever other portals publishers create to keep their profits to themselves.

That is precisely why items like this can raise $9 million so quickly.  The Indie arena is the only foreseeable bazaar where multiple developers will come together to do business with us.  Putting this bazaar in the living room only increases its validity and viability.  The increasing ease of Indie distribution has already challenged the creative standards of game development and tilted the competitive landscape toward smaller studios.  Final Fantasy XVII might only be available on SquareDance, but if competition continues to increase, maybe we will be less interested in Final Fantasy anyway.  We have already seen what independent developers can do when given the opportunity to trade with us.  Imagine the types of games we will get when everyone else realizes they exist.

Even aside from the developmental advantages, the original premise of digital distribution just makes good sense.  It is too efficient to be disregarded.  It is the difference between passing notes in class and just being allowed to talk to each other.  It is the difference between getting your face stepped on at the midnight launch of Popular Shooter 3, and not having someone step on your face.  As hardcore gamers, we have been reaping the benefits of distributional progress for years, but everyone is not on board yet.  We have already cursed the format, stretched the format, and changed the format time and time again.  It is almost time to forget the format altogether.

Thomas Shamburger
Thomas is one of the original creators of "What's Jump?" As a lifelong gamer, writer, and comedian, his goal is to provide readers with humorous, entertaining, and thought-provoking perspectives on current gaming news and culture. His early career successes in the business world helped to pave the way for the site's launch in 2012. As the Editor in Chief of "What's Jump?" he combines his passions for gaming, writing, entrepreneurship, and comedy.
Thomas Shamburger
Thomas Shamburger

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