Goodbye to game discs? Not so fast.

September 6, 2013

(Reuters/Ina Fassbender)

Digital game distribution is the sort of revolution you can see coming from a mile away. Nearly all other forms of media -- music, movies, software, books -- have already made this leap. And the convenience of being able to access your game data from multiple devices, the opportunities for multiplayers, the instant gratification and, honestly, the extra shelf space are all major benefits.

But there are some serious downsides to all-electronic game distribution. Digital rights management leads to platform lock-in. And while Internet access is becoming ubiquitous, there's still value to being able to play while you're off the grid.

This week, the NPD Group reported that the video game industry made $1.77 billion in sales for digital downloads between April and June of 2013. That's over half of the $2.28 billion in games and game-related goods the industry made in that time period. And the analysis firm said that the rise in digital spending came close to offsetting the expected industry-wide declines that come ahead of major console launches, as customers save their cash for the next big thing.

But digital rights management can make game downloads a headache. Electronic Arts and its Origin platform has been the primary whipping boy, facing high-profile authorization problems for "Dragon Age: Origins" and the SimCity always-on debacle. Both raised essentially the same point of friction: Sometimes, game companies make policies that keep people from being able to play the games they've legally bought. That makes everyone unhappy and also leaves consumers more beholden to the policies and stuck with the technical problems at any given game company.

Online gaming can also create a more fragmented experience. With digital game downloads, you have to go to a number of service providers, juggle a number of log-ins and, in some cases, pay a number of different people to get your gaming fix.

Platform lock-in isn't a new thing for the gaming world, of course, since gamers have always had to choose between the lists of titles on offer for different consoles. But as more game publishers and other companies jump on the bandwagon, things could get much worse. Plus, there's the question of what happens to all those games you buy if something happens to your distributor. I'm not expecting Valve and its 10-year-old Steam platform to go away any time soon. But if it did if would wipe out the library of games I've bought since 2003.

And there are still a lot of people who play games and don't have great Internet connections. That's more or less what prompted Microsoft's turnaround on its policies for the Xbox One, which originally required gamers to connect to the Internet at least once every 24 hours. Many gamers found that requirement untenable, including the sizable gaming community in the U.S. Armed Forces. Seventy percent of Americans have access to broadband Internet, but that still leaves a sizable chunk of people who don't. And their money is just as good as anyone else's, game companies need to remember.

None of these issues is going to halt the rise of digital distribution, particularly if major industry players such as EA and Microsoft already see it as a foregone conclusion. Nor should they: The benefits of moving digital do outweigh the downsides. But the snags we've seen so far should tell the industry exactly what they have to fix as the medium grows, before the firms run headlong into digital downloads. It's a shift that's going to take time.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung · September 6, 2013