2013 has the potential to be one of the most interesting years the video game industry has seen in quite some time. The delayed leap into the next generation that began with the release of the Wii U last year will finally conclude with the inevitable reveal of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox: Subtitle. More powerful hardware will change the way our games look and new controllers will change the way we interact with our games. However, there’s another aspect of gaming on the brink of great change that many players might not even be aware of. The shift towards digital distribution and downloading games online from the comfort of home is changing what kind of games we get and how we get them.
“Digital distribution has brought a wider scope of quality, creativity and experimentation for designers,” said Dave Lang, CEO of Chicago-based developer Iron Galaxy Studios. Lang was a keynote speaker at “Chicago’s Summer of Arcade,” an event held last September by the Chicago chapter of the International Game Developers Association. The goal was to give local aspiring game makers a space to network while teaching them how to thrive in a future of digital distribution.
As retail-published titles become bigger investments, Lang explained how increasingly savvy consumers are looking more towards new online delivery platforms like Xbox Live Arcade, Steam, and the App Store, as sources of smaller, cheaper, and potentially more interesting entertainment. “People at Wal-Mart aren’t going to spend $60 on an indie game over something like Call of Duty. With digital though, you don’t have to compete like that. You can be a little more ambitious.”
However, while the previous generation mostly saw digital distribution as a space for smaller titles not fit for physical retail, now lines between the two are already beginning to blur. PC gamers have been used to downloading full retail titles online for years but services like the Nintendo eShop and the PlayStation Network are starting to bring that luxury to console owners too. At the event, Epic Games, the studio between the Gears of War franchise, demonstrated their upcoming game Fortnite. It’s their first game powered by Unreal Engine 4, the next iteration of their popular game engine used by digital and retail titles alike. By putting big and small developers on more equal playing fields, digital distribution is helping democratize game making.
Still, even as digital distribution becomes more prominent, that doesn’t mean traditional methods of distribution will be abandoned anytime soon. “As convenient as downloadable games are, retail is still huge,” said fellow speaker Josh Tsui, CEO of another Chicago-based developer Robomodo.
“Not everyone has Internet access and there’s still value in someone picking up a cool game off a shelf," Tsui said.
While these concepts may only seem relevant to the business aspect of games, maybe we consumers aren’t giving ourselves enough credit. “We may not know about ‘discoverability engines’ and things under these headings, but when we use stuff like Netflix and these game consoles we can tell whether they are organized or not,” said David Wolinsky, freelance writer, IGDA consultant and moderator of the panel. Wolinsky said that it’s important to understand these ideas because they work on players in subconscious ways. So whether we realize or not, the increasing importance of digital distribution in gaming’s future is going to affect players and creators alike.