Does Digital Distribution Suck?

Does Digital Distribution Suck?

Oh, the happy medium. It just keeps evading humanity and all its endeavors. At Game Developers Conference (GDC) earlier this month, Trip Hawkins, the CEO of Digital Chocolate and founder of EA, ranted a little about the industry’s inability to meet in the middle on game licensing and distribution. Nintendo’s introduction of developer licenses was hardly ideal, Hawkins says, but on the flip side, we have Apple shoveling too much content onto the App Store.

“A few months ago the local newspaper here had a story about what an incredible job Apple was doing, and isn’t Apple amazing – they generate a billion dollars in revenue for developers,” Hawkins said. “They do such a great job for developers! And that’s not all, Apple customers are happy because they have 250,000 applications to choose from, isn’t that incredible?”

“C’mon. If you’re a self respecting journalist, how can you go to sleep without bothering to do the math? You take a billion dollars, you divide it by a quarter million you get… $4000 dollars each. Do you see the problem with that? That doesn’t even pay for a really good Fussball table!”

“So we have these platforms where there’s too much supply, and then everybody wonders why there’s a discovery problem but they can’t leverage that because there’s no curation. How is anyone supposed to find out what’s good? How are they supposed to find it? How is anybody supposed to be able to scale?”

As for Nintendo?

“We used to have a free and open games business, and then Nintendo came along and introduced a thing called a license agreement,” Hawkins said. “There’s a whole lot of companies these days that have basically copied that model. (…) It might be okay if the markets are really growing. There are, for example, a lot of Android devices being sold, but how about revenue on the platform, how much is that growing? Not very much.”

“Some of these platforms are actually shrinking in terms of customer activity and revenue, and that’s really concerning. So if we’re gonna get involved in a community ourselves and chose a platform, these platforms have a tremendous responsibility to grow their market fast enough to justify our support.”

The immediate response that could be leveled at Hawkins is, “You’re kind of all over the place, here.” The App Store is indeed pretty notorious for taking all comers. This means any studio can peddle a game online, but a lot of capable projects are subsequently buried under a mound of trash. So some measure of regulation is necessary, but Hawkins claims it was a dark day when Nintendo introduced licensing fees and shut out developers who aren’t capable of paying up.

What’s the alternative? The Atari 2600 allowed for pretty much everyone to bring their vision to the market, and that all ended in a big mushroom cloud as far as home consoles were concerned–for a while. Nintendo’s licensing requirements for third-party NES games were indeed strict (and, at times, questionable), but they allowed the home console market a chance to stagger back onto its feet.

But Hawkins might be calling for a compromise, as one community member named Steve Peterson pointed out.

“[I]t’s great that Apple allows anyone to develop for a minimal cost,” Peterson wrote. “What’s not great is their store, which has no curation, untrustworthy user reviews, and nearly nonexistent tools for finding apps. Developers are free to put any old tag they want on their games, which is why if you look in the RPG category (for instance) 95% of what you find are social games that bear no resemblance to what we call an RPG on a console or a PC. The only thing worse than iTunes is the Android Market.”

Peterson suggests that Apple take a few lessons from Amazon’s interface: Reviewable user ratings, careful genre slotting, and game suggestions based on the user’s past purchases.

It’s trickier to offer up suggestions on what Nintendo could do to improve its own licensing issues. The company has mellowed out considerably since it used to lord over its 8-bit empire. In fact, its regulations might be a bit too loose. Despite Nintendo’s licensing laws of yesteryear, plenty of bad games found their way onto the NES. But the era of the Wii is the first instance of Nintendo garnering severe criticism for allowing one of its consoles to turn into a shovelware magnet.

As for Mario’s digital career, it’s already been established that Nintendo’s downloadable games market needs some work. Hopefully, we’ll see some action in that direction come the Nintendo 3DS and the Wii’s successor. That, combined with an effort by Apple to straighten up the App Store won’t fix every problem that’s currently dogging game distribution, but it’ll make us all happier–including Trip, we presume.

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About Nadia Oxford
Nadia is a freelance writer living in Toronto. She played her first game at four, decided games were awesome, and has maintained her position since. She writes for, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.


  1. Well, we could all take a lesson from Steam, they seem to be doing great. Their selection rocks, and they don’t mind selling independent titles, after they’ve proven themselves.
    I think that’s the biggie, don’t let everyone in (i.e. XBL’s indie page, App Store) but let them be reviewed by a committee. Sure it brings costs up a bit, but I filters out the junk.

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