How to Succeed With Digital Distribution

How to Succeed With Digital Distribution

At this point in gaming’s history, the question is not when downloadable games will change the marketplace, but how. THQ CEO Brian Farrell’s vision of gaming’s future involves games that merge lots of downloadable content with a retail title, a vision he’ll distribute to the world with the upcoming MX vs. ATV Alive.

When it’s released on May 10, MX vs. ATV Alive will cost $40 USD, $20 less than the typical retail title. From there, the player can buy certain content–tracks, vehicles, accessories, etc.–through downloads. In fact, MX vs. ATV Alive‘s formula is not unlike the microtransaction-based free-to-play titles that are storming the social game genre.

In an interview with Forbes, Farrell stressed that gamers who pay for the boxed product shouldn’t feel like they’re being tricked into buying half a game. “Fans will soon see that the lower price does not mean a lesser product,” he said. “MX vs. ATV: Alive has an extensive selection of tracks, vehicles, game modes, gear and much more to keep gamers engaged.”

It remains to be seen whether or not gamers adopt THQ’s half retail/half downloadable hybrid, but the existence of a title like MX vs. ATV Alive is curious on its own. The microtransaction formula isn’t applied often to game sales outside of social games, so it’ll be interesting to see if core gamers adopt it–especially since most microtransactions apply to free-to-play games, not games that cost $40 up front.

THQ’s drive to experiment with downloadable game purchasing is admirable, though, and admittedly important. In his interview, Farrell makes one point that other developers would do well to latch onto if they want to see downloadable games hit the mainstream: He acknowledges that bandwidth caps and slow download speeds are still widespread issues in America and elsewhere, which makes downloading full-sized games difficult. A half-and-half game therefore gives gamers a chance to add to their experience without killing their bandwidth.

MX vs. ATV Alive also aims to help games control what they spend on their games, which is another practice the downloadable game marketplace needs to latch onto. Not every game on the App Store is 99 cents, but even the more expensive titles on the market (namely, conversions of big-name console games) are priced competitively and go on sale frequently. It’s understandably harder for an indie studio to suck in its breath and take the profit loss from a sale, but quantity and exposure still count for a lot–especially on Steam, where bundle sales are common.

Sales, bundles, and competitive pricing do happen on WiiWare, PlayStation Network and Xbox Live, but most console gamers are pretty familiar with dishing out an allotted amount of points or dollars for a downloadable game. In his interview with Forbes, Farrell stated that Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft need to start breaking the mold and help publishers work on “a business model that works for both them and us.” Taking pricing cues from the App Store and Steam would be a start. Obviously, a $10 game just can’t drop to 99 cents overnight if the industry is going to survive, but the Big Three, especially Nintendo, do need to stop treating downloadable content as an afterthought (maybe we’ll get a nice surprise from Nintendo’s Project Cafe – nee Wii 2 – at E3 2011?).

On the flipside, it’s easy to be gung-ho about downloadable games’ contributions to distribution, and we should be happy about the savings that are passed on to the gamers–but Sony’s troubles with hackers on the PlayStation Network have made people a bit wary of the digital marketplace, as personal information and possibly credit card information has gone on an undesirable trip outside Sony’s servers. So we end with the most important component of downloadable games’ long-term success: Impregnable security, peace of mind for users, and open, honest (and prompt!) dialogue from the parent company if the poop does happen to hit the paddles. Information theft is a very sad and almost unavoidable part of our online world, but clamming up in hopes of fixing the problem before it’s noticed doesn’t inspire confidence for the long-term health of digital distribution.

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 1UP.com, Slide to Play, GamePro and other publications, and is About.com’s Guide to the Nintendo DS.

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