Playing a video game on a console used to invariably mean going to the store and browsing over a selection of CDs and/or cartridges. Then you’d pay the nice man or woman behind the counter, go home, plug the game in, and play.
That’s all changed dramatically over the past half-decade. People can still buy games that have been pressed onto a shiny disc, and many still do. But we can also download games, and stream them directly to our PCs and consoles. In fact, THQ CEO Brian Farrell believes that in a short time, all of us will be gaming in the sky (sorry, no diamonds).
Early in September, San Jose held the Cloud Gaming USA conference, where Farrell shared his vision for the future: A gaming marketplace where the cloud will be the primary go-to depot for games, while retail buckles and dies.
“No physical goods cost for game makers,” Farrell said. “No inventory, no markdowns, and all the money spent by the consumer would go to the developer or publisher.”
Moreover, Farrell believes that games that are permanently tethered to the online world are in a position to receive superior user support.
“Our games are always on and our players are always connected….We have the opportunity to interact with players in new ways that can be reactive to their desires, play habits, and buying habits,” he said. “The box, ship and done model are transitioning to: observe, measure, and modify.”
Indeed, games that are permanently connected present a great opportunity for developers to modify content according to user feedback. This, in turn, offers an environment where players are encouraged to keep playing, as they get to experience a constant stream of new content, and (if they’re lucky), watch their suggestions come to life.
But the “new” play model that cloud gaming presents offers a very different experience from the “retro” way of gaming, which, as Farrell himself puts it, is “box, ship, and done.” Neither experience is “wrong,” nor is the old way set to blink out of existence in any measurable time frame. If cloud gaming can give us a constant, ongoing adventure, we might think of a physical game as a storybook: A solid, contained tale that has a definite beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes, that’s all we want out of a game.
The current industry shift makes game distribution a bit complicated, however. While people definitely still want self-contained games, developing games that are destined for retail is becoming more expensive. Moreover, few people regulate themselves to one type of game: They might opt for a connected game one day, then slide back into something more traditional the next day. Problem is, developing a retail game is too expensive to take a risk like, “If we make this game, maybe people will feel like playing it sometime.”
Gamers seemingly aren’t interested in a compromise either. THQ’s own MX vs. ATV Alive, which required players to buy a lower-priced disc ($39.99 USD) and download a wide selection of digital content, didn’t sell as well as Farrell had hoped.
“[U]nlike free to play, $39.99 just wasn’t low enough to drive a big enough install base to push the level of DLC we had initially hoped for,” Farrell said.
But this, in turn, presents another problem with Farrell’s vision for a retail-free future. If a user opts in to a game that’s parked in the cloud and is supposed to add new content as it goes on, what happens if the game doesn’t make enough money to keep existing? What if another company absorbs it and makes unpopular changes? What about all the money the player has poured into the game at that point? At the very least, a retail game is a physical thing you can put your money into, play, and be done with. If you’re feeling nostalgic–and let’s face it, we game players have a thing for nostalgia–you can play it again and predict where everything will be in a way that makes it simple to go through the game from a different angle.
Cloud gaming, retail, downloads. It’s impossible to say which service will reign as king over the next console generation, but it’s likely we’re going to get a much clearer picture of where each service will stand in terms of relevance. Maybe all three will share equal space, as each is capable of offering a unique playing experience. Or maybe some countries will adopt one distribution method over the others (this is not an unlikely scenario, as North American internet service providers are slow and expensive when compared to the services that Europe and Asia enjoy). Either way, we shouldn’t assume that the cloud will easily sweep the “older” methods of distribution under the rug. As one commenter points out in GamePolitics.com’s write-up of Farrell’s remarks, “[Cloud gaming] just another way to go. When TVs came out, movie theaters were terrified they were going to go out of business but they survived in their own category.”