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// article by Jeff

In A.D. 2010, war was beginning. No, I'm not referring to the war in Iraq. That thing's been going on for years already. I'm talking about the video game distribution war that plagues us every day! For decades now, going to the local department store (or more recently, a store devoted solely to gaming) and picking up the latest hip video game was the primary method of getting all that rich, warm, delicious gaming goodness inside of you. Nowadays, things are much different. If you have a current-generation console and an internet connection, you technically never have to leave your fuzzy den to play a variety of games. Downloadable titles and additional content are falling front and center, and it has me wondering whether or not physical gaming will eventually dissipate in favour of digital distribution. Here, I will try to evaluate each form of distribution and then don my clairvoyant cap and foresee the future.

PHYSICAL DISTRIBUTION

I, alongside many other gamers, find simple pleasure in being able to place my hands over a video game. When I was a young strapping boy, the thrill of having a new NES or Game Boy was nifty, not just because I was able to experience a new gameplay adventure, but because the love of possession was neat. Ah, those gray plastic cartridges... the crisp instruction booklets... that's what gaming was all about in my day. And this is a trait that I still attest to: I love being able to boast my large collection of games. I love the rows and stacks of games that line my shelves to capacity. I like being able to read instruction booklets in the bathroom. Er... wait...

So what are the advantages of the physical distribution model? Well, first and foremost, you actually have a product to show for your hard-earned spent dollars. You can wave it around in the air, you can admire it on a shelf, and you can make a giant pile of game cartridges and roll around in it naked. Plus you get a fine-smelling instruction booklet to read over and refer to when you are getting your buttocks fragged. But it's not just HAVING it that matters. You can take that copy of the game which you purchased and bring it to a friend's house and play. It's far simpler to put a Madden game into your backpack than it is to stuff an Xbox in there.

If you're planning to release a game on a physical medium, such as a DVD or Blu-Ray disc, you have much more freedom of space. Downloadable titles are smaller affairs, but with all that delectable space, think of the amazing high-budget supersagas you can concoct. The imagination is indeed a wild mistress, and as such, the vast possibilities can only be fully realized with lots of space. It's easy to mark every detail on the forehead of every single orcs, demon, and brazen soldier that ever graces your television screen if the programming space to do so is readily available. Such is not the case with downloadable titles: they're small, and the graphics cannot try to compare with those outputted by a heavy-duty dedicated engine that can only be stuffed onto physical media. In other words, if you want your game to look practically cinematic, you need all the help you can get.

As well, consoles can and do fail. Oftentimes they fail far earlier in their own lifespans than the games do. And when you see the red rings and blue screens of death haunting you, the games stored on that console are lost. If you are a tech geek, you probably have 20 hard drives already connected to save your buns, but to the casual gamer such as I, my games will be subject to a digital black hole. I don't want to lose my demo of Go! Sudoku anytime soon! However, you can bask in the glory that is re-downloadability, of course. Somebody must have realized that bad things happen to good consoles. So perhaps not all of your games are, in fact, "lost". But if I had the game initially on disc, then I wouldn't really have a problem. Discs fail, but if you are actually careful with them (and ensure that your little brother doesn't plant his sticky peanut-butter hands all over them), the discs should last quite a long time. Keep them fresh, people.

Unfortunately, with physical media comes a price. A much higher price, to be more precise. Downloadable titles often (though not always, as is the case with PSP games on the PlayStation Network) are far cheaper and thus more appealing to the poor gamer. Sometimes games are even as low as 99 cents (or free!!), offering quite a prolific bang for one's buck. New games for current consoles may be $50 or higher, lest they be the coveted budget title. This high price reduces the probable number of games the average person will buy in a year. But this high cost also means more money for the developer and/or publisher, leading to their financial well-being and the opportunity to develop more products for us, the starving public who can't get enough of warzones and catgirls. But with physical media in hand, you can always offset future costs by selling or trading your games in for store credit, something you clearly can't do with a downloaded title.


DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION

Not being much of an online gamer as a whole, I only really entered the digital arena last year when a "must-have" game was only available via download for me. Yes, I'm referring to Mega Man 9 -- and yes, I waited a whole year before I bought it, only because I didn't want to use my credit card online and I was waiting for those damn PlayStation Network cards (which arrived a short while after I finally caved). And ever since, I really haven't purchased too many games online, focusing mainly on demos and snagging physical copies of all the latest NIS America releases instead. But occasionally, I have partaken on a few others -- yes, including Mega Man 10 -- but really never getting into that groove.

However, just because I'm a stubborn mule does not mean that the entire gaming community should be diverged from purchasing games online. In fact, the Internet is an excellent forum for getting a product out there, provided it's marketed well. The downloadable option helps the lowly fellow in his basement get his brilliant gaming idea out into the public eye, something in which most publishers are not particularly interested. Whereas big players such as Electronic Arts, Konami, Capcom, and the like wouldn't be too intrigued by the miniscule projects of individuals or even extremely small developers, the WiiWare, PlayStation Network, and Xbox Live Arcade (and Xbox Live Indie Games) series are integral to their survival. It's a win-win for everybody: a low cost to develop these games, a low cost to publish them digitally (no need for manufacturing fees and the like) and a low cost to the consumer -- a high motivating factor for many! This also allows for independent developers to gain some exposure and, perhaps, some credibility in the market, and furthermore, it allows for fresh ideas to wedge their way through, beyond the limited visionary scope of large R&D teams looking to make games for the masses. That's hip, and it's quite the snappy distribution model.

As well, the online networks allow for gamers to re-experience (or experience for the first time) classic games that might be a tad more difficult to play nowadays. Take the Wii's Virtual Console (currently ailing from lack of new releases, but still surviving). Not everybody has their own fully-functional NES deck. Heck, more people have decks that require a week's worth of blowing and tinkering to get any visuals out of it. But with the Virtual Console and a mere 500 Wii Points fee (about 5 dollars worth), you can replay a classic game from yesteryear and remind yourself (or learn) what the fuss was all about. You know you want to see what the fuss about Milon's Secret Castle about. And the Virtual Console offers other systems for equally reasonable prices, comparable or at a much better rate than what it would cost to buy the original game (plus maybe a new console). Same goes for the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live Arcade. Now awesome titles such as Perfect Dark, Crash Bandicoot, and Banjo-Kazooie are all available for play on modern consoles -- no need to seek them out in dusty classic gaming shops. And now you can even get that Mario Calculator you've been dreaming of. Thanks, DSiWare. Thanks...a bunch.

It's also nice to be able to pick up these games from the comfort of your living room, provided you have a credit card handy. Of course, if you are fearful that your credit card information will be stolen and used to purchase hundreds of "Boy Meets World" DVDs online, you'll have to leave the house temporarily to pick up a special card with a pre-allotted amount on it. But once you're all prepared to make that purchase, it's nothing but ginger ale, fuzzy slippers, and a young lady fanning you. Okay, only the first two.

Digital downloads aren't all well and good, though. I've noticed more and more in recent years that remakes are becoming the trend. While I don't mind a few retro remakes here and there, it's now becoming the norm to revive games with merely updated graphics and passing them off as awesome. It started out innocently enough: Mega Man 9 was announced (and only made possible through this new distribution model) to be rendered in the same 8-bit style that made the original games so darn popular. And that was fair enough: retro gaming is cool. But then all these franchises hopped on the bandwagon in quick succession: CastleVania had a "Rebirth", as did Gradius and Contra. Bionic Commando is never going to die, apparently. Sonic the Hedgehog 4 tried to relight that old flame, Blaster Master blasted off up again, and heck, even Adventure Island was brought back from the dead (something I never thought I'd see). And these are not the last to come out: I know Bonk's big head will bashing into television sets again soon, and Rocket Knight Adventures isn't too far away either. I guess there's something to be said about bringing back what was once cool, but at the same time, originality is being cached a bit too often in favour of nostalgia trips to the past. I guess this is true not only of downloadable media but of gaming as a whole, but I've personally noticed it more via this model.

And, perhaps even worse, is the fact that many of the games available were actually simple Flash games first and were later modified and sold through popular online outlets. I bought Flow on the PlayStation Network earlier this year. Then I found out that it was actually once a Flash game I could have played for free. Well, there's almost 10 bucks I'll never get back.

Lastly, online games have to be smaller in size. It's just a simple fact. I would never waste my valuable Internet bandwidth on a 50-gigabyte game. That's just ridiculous, and I'd have very little bandwidth left afterward to use for important things like checking my e-mail and poking people on Facebook. But because of this limitation (which, I hear, is more prominent on WiiWare than anywhere else), developers are limited as to how much they can cram into a game. This results in a more simplistic experience, free from the depth of high-budget affairs. This is why most download-only games will not gain the critical acclaim of those with lots of space and complexity. Who will ever rank Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 lower than Noby Noby Boy from the PlayStation Network? Nobody, that's who. Then again, as Flow indicates, "Life could be simple..." And perhaps the best ideas are the most fundamental ones. Who knows?


Having examined the pros and cons of physical vs. digital distribution, I have left one question unanswered: which will prevail in the future? The answer depends on how far ahead we are looking into the future. If I attempt to take a snapshot of five or even ten years down the road, I can easily predict that very little will have changed. I do not foresee any major changes in the way we use the Internet, so the bandwidth caps that plague us monthly will likely remain (though subject to perhaps an increase to maybe 100GB per month per household). Downloadable games may get a tad bigger, but they will NOT reach the sizes of full-fledged disc-based games. And, as technology improves, we may very well be able to store more on physical media, resulting in even larger games that could never be realistically offered for download. Therefore, physical and digital distribution will both have their place in the gaming industry.

But fifty years down the road is a much different story. Because the air outside will be so polluted, nobody will be able to leave their biodomes and must resort ONLY to digital downloads. By the year 2060, Internet speeds should definitely improve, and therefore we may be able to indeed snag 50+GB games as easily as downloading a 100MB file is today. We already have particularly large hard drives now, so by that point, the amount of data capable of being stored within a small space will be mind-boggling. Furthermore, because this will likely be the third or fourth "digital generation", knowing how to code may very well be as commonplace as texting is today. Everybody will be able to create their own unique games and offer them via the Internet, making it less of an information resource and more of a global place of interpersonal commerce! Considering how many ideas currently go untapped, it will be quite a gaming haven when everyone gets the opportunity to let loose.

Either way, we can all agree that wonderful games shall continue to flutter into the market one way or another, providing amusement for all types of gamers. And I also believe that the wildest gaming concepts have yet to be born; all we need is one brilliant mind to set it free. Could it be yours?


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