Posted Fri, Dec 05, 2008 by Ralsu
In the November 20th edition of Loading..., Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle lauded the virtues of the digital distribution of games. Ethec made valid points about the convenience of acquiring MMOGs via download: no disc swapping, no DRM hassles, no trips to the retailer, and no inventory shortfalls. His is a compelling argument, but I'd beg to differ from his assertion that a 100% digital download service is the best possible outcome for gamers. While Ethec conceded some of the pitfalls of digital distribution, he didn't really address F2P games in his column. That's where I come in. But first a quick story about a subscription game.
Ralsu nearly had a heart attack downloading Warhammer Online.
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It was a dark night, and I was alone in my house. I was already a little spooked because my wife and daughter were out later than planned with the girl scout troop, and the police had reported a cougar wandering the area near our home. (Yes, we have wild animals roaming the outskirts of our town from time to time. Shut up and just let me finish.) The wind was howling outside, causing the branches of trees adjacent to our house to scrape up against the siding in a jarring cacophony. Skrrrrch! Skrrrrch!
My email with the directions to download the Warhammer Online beta was the newest message in my inbox. Mythic had recently packaged it into a 9.3GB torrent for (supposedly) faster downloads. I clicked the button to start the download and ventured to the kitchen for a refreshing beverage. Said beverage in hand, I slammed the refrigerator slightly too loud and was ready to go see how long my wait would be. I started at my reflection in the bay window as I passed the threshold from the kitchen into the living room. I chuckled to myself and turned off the kitchen light.
I did a hop that would not be described as masculine by the average observer. I laughed again at my foolishness and headed back to the cozy comfort of my beloved computer chair. As soon as I entered the room, I saw it and dropped my drink to the carpet. The once-tasty fruit punch in my mouth soured as the cool liquid soaked into the carpet and looked like blood. My hand flew to my mouth as I tried to suppress a scream.
The download was going at 33 KB/s over my DSL connection and the estimated completion time was 108 hours away!
Comparing Apples to Apples
That WAR download ended up taking 93.5 hours, and I rarely saw download speeds above 110KB/s until the final hour, when they reached 350KB/s. At almost ten hours per GB, I was not feeling cozy with the idea of digital distribution at the end of those four days. Even so, I hear a reader somewhere protesting, Well, most F2P games aren't over a couple of GBs! That protest is absolutely correct, but the size of games will only continue to rise, especially as games with micro transactions try to deliver as much content as the archaic subscription-based games.
The challenges F2P games that support themselves with optional micro transactions face in contrast to the ones subscription-based games encounter is a topic for a different day, but let's review a favorite tune I keep replaying: F2P games have a very short window of opportunity to impress a player. The benefit of a game being free to download immediately disappears the moment the download takes so long that the gamer who was casually considering giving it a try says screw it and plays something else.
Because of the short time in which a F2P games must make a good first impression, digital download (almost exclusively the way developers distribute F2P games) limits the options of developers. Think of it as a glass ceiling for designing games.
Though they briefly enjoyed renewed popularity two years ago, Ralsu always found jellies made his feet sweat.
Jellies Came Back. Why Can't the Box?
The few readers who had faith that I am not insane are now excused. You know better. Sorry to disappoint.
Admittedly, even after positing that the lack of retail boxes restricts the growth of the F2P industry (in case you didn't infer it, I implied it), I recognize that box sales are not a viable solution. Still, the box has some very real benefits.
Every time I go to the local Megalomart, I stop in the pathetic, unloved pc games aisle to peruse the wares. You know the one, where the crappy Myst wannabes in their jewel cases clutter the shelves with actual boxes? On each trip, I pick up that box for Age of Conan or some other big name title, staring at the images and bullet points on the back until my daughter pulls me away so she can play the display model Nintendo DS.
A box sitting on the shelf automatically gives a game advertising that a F2P game does not get. Many consumers use ad blocking tools in their browsers and never see the ads for games that display on the internet. Short of sporting some dark sunglasses like the guy in this video, I don't know of any ad blocker for that shiny box sitting on the Megalomart shelf.
The Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything
Since 42 doesn't solve the problem of how F2P games can shoehorn their way into the market in the same way other games with retail boxes does, I guess it's up to me to fix this mess. Unless of course Beijing Perfect World has already beaten me to it. The makers of Perfect World International, this savvy company is not willing to let its 2.2GB download deter would-be clients. They offer a service that allows gamers to receive a copy of the DVD while PWI only charges for the shipping of that product.
This could work very well in retail stores, too. It works even better for the gamer who does not like to use his credit card to make purchases on the web. Imagine a display box for Ralsu's Awesome F2P Game sitting in your local GameHalt. You take the display box to the counter, just as you would in many such stores. The cashier takes your cash and hands you the DVD from the glass case behind him. Sure, the price might need to inflate a bit to cover the shipping and third party fees, but gamers could get that instant gratification of a box in hand while skipping the lengthy download and the wait for postal service. Perhaps the cost could even be defrayed by the inclusion of a redemption code that grants a few item mall coins. That might also encourage shoppers to pick up some virtual items.
Combining Beijing Perfect World's maverick marketing approach with an idea similar to the one I espouse above could allow gamers to get a fun title for $5-10 and increase the market reach of the games themselves. In the end, digital distribution is a decent option most of the time, but I'm not ready for the industry to give up on box sales yet. How about you? Tell me your take in our forums.The Top Ten