While the means by which console gamers access digital content has come leaps and bounds in the last seven years, it’s still leagues behind the ease of access PC users have to digital downloads. And so it begs the question: how will the coming generation of consoles approach the tentative issue of on-demand digital content.
Steam has, since its inception, become one of the go-to places for buying ‘on-demand’ PC software. The handful of Steam Sales a year have become the virtual equivalent of survivors scrabbling for tins of beans at a petrol station, baskets filling with full-games at the price of a smartphone app. It’s not pretty – and some maybe argue such stark price cuts devalue a games long term worth – but it’s commercial and financial success is hard to fault.
And while services like Steam and Good Old Games exist as third-party platforms, they’re still giving PC users a day one access to a stream of content that grows on a daily basis. But with the next generation of consoles both sporting off-the-shelf PC components, will these ‘closed box PCs’ start to offer a similar digital service?
A shift in tactics
In recent months we’ve seen the first, and most significant, drive from Microsoft to sell the immediacy and convenience of their digital content. Xbox Live’ Arcade division has become as synonymous with the platform as the multiplayer features that drive it, but the presence of its ‘on-demand’ content has gone largely unnoticed.
And it’s not like we never knew it was there – but there’s something about paying full-price for a game that’s over two or three years old that somehow gets stuck in the craw. Do you want to pay £40 for a copy of Disney’s Bolt? When you can just go out and buy it in person for a fiver? Thankfully, this lopsided take on pricing has started to creep down of late, and Microsoft’s Xbox Live Sale has shown that ‘flash sales’ – and a more competitive approach to game sales – is clearly the way ahead.
If Microsoft can learn a thing or two from Steam, then they’d be just as wise to pick up a few tips from the direction Sony has taken with its PlayStation Plus service. Beginning life as nothing more than a few discounts and some forgettable PS Mini’s, Sony has turned their premium service into a treasure trove of content. Admittedly, the free games you can download only remain for the life of your subscription, but if you’re a Vita owner (come on, one of you has got to be?) then you’ll practically never have to buy a game for it again. If PS Plus makes a successful transition onto the PS4, it could be the perfect platform for Sony to present its digital content in the right manner.
It’s also prudent to see these price changes on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live in context. Both platforms may well be approaching the end of their reigns at the top of the console hardware food-chain, but both sport hundreds of titles across a myriad of genres. With such a significant library of media, Microsoft and Sony can afford to significantly discount such titles without fear of undercutting their own regular price structure.
Digital vs physical
The bigger question, however, is how will Microsoft and Sony approach the digital release of new titles. Microsoft’s new approach to DRM, and its registration system for players using used titles, seems to be at odds with a possible ease-of-access mantra for digital downloads for new titles. A digital download is a one-time sale, while a physical copy can, potentially, be resold ad infinitum, which in turn would generate supplementary income for Microsoft via said registration fees. Microsoft has essentially turned the pre-owned sale of its Xbox One titles into another potential cash cow.
Say, for example, BioShock Infinite was available for a direct-to-console download on the day of release (such as was the case for PC users). What percentage of users would’ve chosen to download a digital copy, rather than purchase a physical one? Having a physical copy appeals to some, but being able to cut out midnight waits in the cold or issues with delivery services could be a real game changer for how console users consume their content in the future.
A Steam-powered future?
Valve’s much rumoured, and much hyped, Steam Box remains the perpetually chaos factor in this regard. For a platform the world knows next to nothing about, Valve has created a potential generation-breaker. Yes, a ‘closed box’ console would remove the ever-evolving power of an upgradeable rig, but Valve could create a system that could match the PS4 and Microsoft’s console in terms of raw processing power.
Mix this with a download-only delivery platform that’s easy and affordable, and Sony and Microsoft has real reason to sweat. Removing the overheads of producing and shipping physical media – and the cast-iron reputation Steam has built as a delivery service – and you have a beast that could turn the console market on its head. Of course, all these elements are only speculation, but the potential access to content offered by the Steam Box is an exciting one.
The success of software like Steam, or EA’s Origin service, has had an undeniable effect on the on-demand services of the big three console manufacturers, with much of their respective on-demand titles becoming less expensive and much easier to find. And while Steam remains the realm of the overclockers, its success and its reputation speak for itself.
While Sony has been rather quiet on the issue of DRM and the PS4, the future of ‘on-demand’ content on next-gen consoles remains a starkly unclear one. While offering a digital version would allow Microsoft and Sony to directly control the pricing of their content, the dual presence of physical discs means there will always be a competitive element that undermines the whole process. The rise of digital mediums and the lingering presence of a physical one has led some manufactures to devise alternative means to generate income in medium that is ultimately there to make money.
For the now, the possibility of an all-digital future isn’t quite the assured reality we were all expecting.