First launched in 2003 along with Half-Life 2, Valve Software’s Steam was the vanguard of digital distribution. Although initially plagued by software bugs, instability, and connectivity problems, it withstood the test of time. New electronic games are released through Steam almost daily. It currently holds a majority share of the digital distribution market, with over 54 million registered accounts. By comparison, Electronic Arts’ digital distribution software, Origin, is installed by 9.4 million users.
Benefits of Distributing Through the Internet
The biggest advantage of any Internet distribution model is that it allows for bypassing the publisher and enables the developer to profit from their game infinitely. This is especially true for Steam, which, on top of high budget games, also releases games made by independent developers. Another benefit is that patches and other updates can be downloaded and installed instantly, without having to look for specific versions on the Internet.
Publishers are Here to Stay
At the same time, digital distribution platforms do not eliminate publishers. Game development budgets are constantly increasing. In most cases, it is no longer sufficient to have a good idea and rudimentary programming skills to achieve success. Publishers front money for the development of new video games, allowing the developers to focus on development. The system is not perfect. A side effect of the rising development costs and the introduction of digital distribution is the emergence of what’s best described a gap.
The Gap Between Big Budgets and Indie Games
It manifests as the gradual disappearance of medium size developer studios. Ever increasing costs and budgets increase the pressure on developers to deliver blockbuster new video games and reduce the likelihood of publishers funding video games that have riskier concepts or are not guaranteed to sell. At the same time, independent developers usually don’t have the amount of money necessary to develop the size of their video games. This gap has been filled in recent years by Kickstarter: a crowd funding platform that allows smaller developer studios to secure funding for their games from fans. The most widely publicized successes are games such as Wasteland 2, Project Eternity or Torment: Tides of Numenera, all funded before the deadline hit, reaching a budget several times bigger than their original sun. The success of video game Kickstarters is in part due to the availability of digital distribution, which allows to lower marketing and publishing cost.
The Dark Side of Digital Distribution
Of course, distributing old and new video games via the Internet isn’t the perfect solution. These clients double as a form of sophisticated digital rights management, as most titles cannot be played without Steam running in the background. Another program is the reliance on downloading, especially for titles distributed exclusively through digital means. This effectively denies access to video games to some gamers. Finally, in the unlikely event that any of the digital distribution platform operators goes under, the games may become unavailable.
However, the benefits of digital distribution seem to outweigh the drawbacks. As broadband Internet become more and more accessible throughout the world, the position of digital distribution will only solidify itself. This raises the question: what will happen to selling games in retail? It still remains a sizable part of video game sales, but one can’t help but wonder what will happen once Steam and other platforms start to dominate the retail market.